Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

BSD Revisited: PC-BSD 1.4 RC

Eric’s response to my PCLinuxOS review was enough encouragement to take another step in getting reacquainted with BSD. The following remark promised me a whole new BSD experience:

So far this *BSD distro has done an unbelievable job in delivering a product that both the newbie and casual computer users can immediately use. It needs to come bundled with a Ports Manager but it works very well for many in the Windows2Linux/BSD crowd. (to the author of this article? if you review this distro – pay attention to what happens when you drag a file, right-click on files, menu organization – ie, normal PC operations).

PC-BSD is based on FreeBSD 6.2 but promises a more enduser-friendly experience. It was bought by iXsystems in October 2006. If you want to know more about the how and why of this acquisition I can encourage to read the interview of Dru Lavigne with Kris Moore and Matt Olander about it. One of the key selling points is the PBI system, that should make it easier for Windows and Mac users to install new software, not a small hurdle for many novice users to Linux or *BSD.

The PBI system
What is the PBI system? FreeBSD has it’s own ports and packages system to install, manage and remove software, but it takes some getting used to. Linux users will find a similar system in Gentoo and it’s derivatives. PBI’s are self-extracting and self-installing packages that install the software you want. They contain all the dependencies that are needed to run the program and in this way they reduce some serious headaches.
We have similar initiatives in the realm of Linux. There is Klik, Autopackage and the soon to be CNR warehouse. The PBI website is the place to be to download your package. There are various categories and a limited range of software. But, it’s a good start. I do hope it will fare better than Klik and Autopackage, which remained fringe tools at best.

First things first: Installing PC-BSD
I downloaded the 1.4 RC iso files from the website. This is a test candidate, so it could be that some of the problems I encountered resulted from it. The first problem I ran into is that it wouldn’t install on a spare 15 Gb harddrive I had lying around. I used it to install Ubuntu Ultimate Gamer 1.4 recently, but the installer wouldn’t format the drive and/or create a new filesystem. No problem, VMware is always close by and a fresh install on a newly created virtual box went without a glitch. This in itself is a great achievement, since I had my share of problems of trying that with FreeBSD 5.x.

While installing PC-BSD you won’t have to rely on a text-based wizard, but you will see a very nice graphical frontend.

PC-BSD-03 FreeBSD is working on achieving the same and only recently came up with a technology preview. Sorry guys, but PC-BSD is way ahead of you here. First you select the proper language and keyboard layout, then you agree with the license. In the third step you choose whether to go for a fresh install or an upgrade. Step number four involves setting up the root and first user accounts. The fifth step is usually the most challenging: setting up the partitions (and slices under FreeBSD). The text-based mode under FreeBSD has the ‘automatic’ option and that saves you the trouble of trying to find out what to do. PC-BSD simplified this even further.

I didn’t go for a dual-boot install, so I can’t comment on how easy or difficult this is. I can imagine however that the designations of drives and partitions, which are way different than under Windows and/or Linux, would provide a hurdle. But, it’s something you have to learn anyway when trying out *BSD and not complicated once you get the hang of it.

In step number six you can select some optional components like Firefox, extra KDE packages and the FreeBSD ports package. From then on it is go. It took me about 45 minutes to reboot into the new system. This is slow compared to for instance Ubuntu, but not extremely slow.


First impressions
PC-BSD-11 Rebooting into PC-BSD is a pleasure in itself. The desktop has a solid and business-like impression. Yes, it’s completely graphical from the beginning, so no commandline to begin with. It’s completely KDE and it is one of less cluttered setups of the KDE desktop. There is a Konquerer shortcut to the PBI website, but there is enough to get started with. Amarok for your music experience, K3b to burn some disks, KOffice and as your workspace. Konquerer and Firefox to surf the net etc. etc. The packages are not bleeding edge (2.1 for for instance), but sufficiently up to date.


Going for the new stuff: experiencing PBI
The second order of business was to try out the new PBI system. I went to the website and got some packages I wanted. For one, I always want Abiword on my systems. It’s a small, lean and fast wordprocessor and by having it on all my boxes I won’t have to worry about document portability. I also wanted Thunderbird, Wine, GIMP and Acrobat Reader. There is one drawback to the PBI system: it makes for rather large packages. The PBI for Thunderbird is 38 MiB, while the Linux package is 11 Mb. Abiword needs 12,1 MiB, against 5 Mb for the Windows version and 3.6 Mb for the Autopackage version.

Once you finished downloading the PBI package it extracts automatically and gives you a graphical wizard with some basic questions. The packages then have their own place in the menutree. For now it is too bad that the location of the new software in the menutree is not consistent. Abiword and GIMP could be found under a new entry for PBI packages, Wine had it’s own entry and Acrobat Reader found it’s way in the Office section. But… Abiword and GIMP wouldn’t start up. I guess there are still unsolved dependencies, but since there are no warnings or error messages it is hard to tell.


What next?
The next step is to use PC-BSD for a while and see whether it indeed makes for a more Windows-like experience. Which is what I will do in the coming weeks. As far as first impressions go, this one was good. When you use FreeBSD (or the other BSD’s) as point of reference, PC-BSD is an enormous step forward in terms of ease of install and software management. Personally I would not like to see an increase in PBI packages, but to see the development of an easy to use graphical front-end for the ports system. It can be done. Gentoo did for portage and Ports Authority did it for the Mac OSX. In my opinion that will unlock the more than 13.000 packages in the ports system for casual users in a better way than the PBI system ever can.

Update: I decided to give PC-BSD a real try as the default desktop at home. Feel free to follow along in PC-BSD: the first 30 days.


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16 thoughts on “BSD Revisited: PC-BSD 1.4 RC

  1. Hi Jan,

    Thanks very much for your perspective! We realize that some of the PBI’s are outdated and are asking PBI submitters to update as soon as possible. Eventually, we also hope to have a ‘make pbi’ target for FreeBSD ports, so that we can just let loose our PBI Build Server to create fresh PBI’s from the massive ports collection.

    We’re also evaluating several front-end applications to FreeBSD ports, to see if maybe we should adopt and incorporate one of them into PC-BSD!

    Keep up your excellent blog 😉


  2. I don’t think it would be a good idea to create a port front-end. The PBI system is much better and it is clearly a competitive advantage over linux distros that only have a package manager to offer. If you offer a port frontend, people are not going to create PBIs anymore and PC-BSD will be yet another distro with nothing special.

  3. Jan Stedehouder on said:

    Hi Matt,

    We have to thank you and the team for providing PC-BSD. It shows what can be done when a dedicated group sits down and starts thinking about what it means to be userfriendly for the enduser. In an earlier article I encouraged the Linux crowd to try out *BSD and study it, even if only to pay hommage to the soil that feeds the roots of Linux. But now I also think that it would be a good idea for some distro builders that focus on the enduser to take a good look at PC-BSD.

    I look forward to the time I will spend on PC-BSD in the coming weeks.

    All the best,


  4. By way of update: For the next 30 days I will give PC-BSD a complete spin, trying to get my work done and solving the issues and problems I meet. Feel free to follow along via the category: PC-BSD: The first 30 days.

  5. pbi is a nice thing in my country. here in indonesia internet is something very expensive. tools like apt-get means nothing.
    if possible please make something like pbi more mature

  6. You could also give DesktopBSD a spin. They have a graphical front-end for the ports system. I would greatly appreciate a review of it, to see it’s a good choice for an OS.

  7. @ Hans
    I am working my way through the various versions of BSD and DesktopBSD is on the list. From the looks of it I will be busy writing about BSD for the coming time.

  8. rick said:

    “The PBI system is much better and it is clearly a competitive advantage over linux distros that only have a package manager to offer.”

    No, Package Manager is a great thing. PBI is not a good choice. Duplicate librairies for example and also if you want using ports then you should not use PBI because a mix between them “breaks” the system… So you must choose: use PBI or use Ports.

    Really a front-end for the Ports is the good choice. As DesktopBSD

  9. @HAL:

    Here at work we run systems that have software installed via PBI and the FreeBSD ports collection with no problem. While it is true that duplicate libs may end up existing on the disk, the upside is freedom from dependency conflicts.

    We’re working on ways to more closely integrate the PC-BSD PBI system with FreeBSD ports.

    I think that once we work through a few issues, this will definitely be one of the best software management systems that I know of.


  10. PC-BSD is rock solid just like DesktopBSD 1.6 🙂

  11. The only thing which keeps me from using this interesting OS is, that I dont know how to install my WLAN.
    I am no geek.

  12. There is a GUI interface to configuring the wireless LAN now.

  13. Dear Jared, I am rather talking about configuring the driver. When in spring I had my last try neither my Marvell Yukon 88E8038 PCI-E nor Atheros AR5007EG -network card was recognized. So I was stranded, because I couldn’t even connect to the WWW to look for help.
    NB: I am not lamenting but try to describe the difficulties of a non-geek who supports the idea of Open Software.

  14. I found that if I wanted to dual boot PC-BSD, I needed to make the Linux distro the main one and then chain link the PC-BSD. It works find when you do that or at least it did with PC-BSD 1.3.

    I have a couple of minor gripes about PC-BSD but essentially I find it as user-friendly and usable as the Linux distros and just about as easy to keep up. The forums are great and the people really try hard to help anyone get a solution for the problems. Great bunch of people.

  15. Matt,

    The issue is that there is a problem with machines that have *both* the Yukon Ethernet and Atheros wireless. It causes misconfiguration in the pcibridge. Some folks in freebad land are looking at this, but no resolution as of now.

  16. I was using the previous version kof PC-BSD on my old computer and it worked very well. I loved it.

    In September I got a new Core 2 Duo Intel computer and have not been able to use PC-BSD at all. My new computer uses the ATTANSIC L1 Gigabit ethernet adapter (now called the Atheros L1 Gigabit ethernet adapter and PC-BSD does not have a driver that will connect with it. I commented on this on the PC-BSD forum as did a couple of others and was essentially told that PC-BSD was not going to include the driver for this ethernet adapter. The result was that I am now still using Linux. In fact some of the Linux distros don’t include it either but the newer releases of the Linux kernel do have the driver included.

    Any thoughts on a way to get around this problem with PC-BSD? I liked it but I also like my new computer and if I have to have one or the other then it is sayonara PC-BSD.

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