Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

PC-BSD Day 20: Alternative desktops

KDE is the default desktop for PC-BSD. It is possible to install GNOME, but I ran into a few problems with that (no keyboard input possible and no window borders). One of the finer things about Linux and *BSD is that you can choose whatever desktop you’d like to work with (or even forget about a graphical work environment altogether).

But first: back to encryption

One other program that I stumbled upon was KGPG. However, when I installed it via pkg_add I got tons of dependency errors and left it at that. Strange enough it popped up during reboot and nested itself in the taskpanel. KGPG asked me if I wanted a secret key and gave some instructions on file encryption/decryption. I will give it try over the coming days.

Default alternatives

PC-BSD installs two alternative desktops by default: Fluxbox and TWM. What can be said about them? They are quite ‘ barren’ and not particularly interesting. No doubt they do well on less powerful desktops, but there are other graphical environments that can do a better job at that.

Getting new desktops

I made a shortlist of alternative desktops that I wanted to see on my PC-BSD box. The Enlightenment project is making some interesting progress. Xfce has become a very good and light desktop environment. And finally, there is Blackbox. Maybe I expect too much and am I plain lazy, but I like see a simple install that leads to a fully functional desktop. Ubuntu Linux has some great metapackages. You are an easy $sudo apt-get install kubuntu-desktop away from a complete KDE desktop. For Xfce you just use the xubuntu-desktop metapackage.

First, I installed Xfce with #pkg_add -r xfce which left me gasping for some air. Man, this was so 70s and completely unlike the Xfce desktop I know. A brief search through the ports collection revelead I had installed the wrong version. I should have used #pkg_add -r xfce4 to get the latest incarnation. Sad to say this install didn’t finish without error messages. Xfce4 required xterm-229 and xterm-228 was installed. When I finally logged in to the new desktop the friendly mouse was there. There was a brief flicker of hope when the desktop icons flashed by. But that was it. Once those icons were gone there was nothing. No menu, no icons, no quick access buttons. Just a blank screen.

Trying to get Enlightenment was stonewalled by a third digit dependency. The install of Blackbox finished without any errors, but the desktop needed some serious configurations to get access to all the applications.

No, this wasn’t one of the nicer experiments with PC-BSD. One could argue that it is enough to support one graphical environment well when you are focusing on end-users. KDE is a very powerful desktop environment. Still, it would have been nice to get an alternative desktop that actually worked.

The FreeBSD handbook again

The amount of information in the FreeBSD handbook still amazes me. It ranges from the mundane to the -for me at least- exotic. Chapter 8 deals with configuring the kernel, why it is important to learn to master this skill and then explains step-by-step how to do it. Chapter 12 explains the booting process. At least now I know where the term ‘boot strap’ comes from. The chapter 14 till 19 contain extensive information about increasing the security of your system. Just going over these chapters and learning to master the skills is an adventure in itself.

It reminded me about my early days with Linux. I bought a second-hand book on Unix (with a Slackware CD) and learned more about Linux from that book than from some other books that actually dealt with Linux. One advice for Linux users that want to acquire a solid skillset: download the FreeBSD handbook and start reading.

Note: this article was written based on PC-BSD 1.4 RC1. On September 24 the final version of 1.4 was released. From day 22 and onward I will use that final version.


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3 thoughts on “PC-BSD Day 20: Alternative desktops

  1. Galactic Dominator on said:

    I haven’t followed your whole series here, but in regards to the dependency issues you’re experiencing I have some advice. First, you’ll wish to upgrade your ports tree(usually using portsnap) then use portupgrade to upgrade a port so the “third digit” won’t trouble you any more. Of course, you can always use portdowngrade to reduce your version level. Obviously, there’s more to it, but those things will solve the overwhelming majority of your issues.

  2. That’s good advice, though I wonder if it would have helped in this case since I used pkg_add. As far as I understand it -but please correct if I am wrong- that should give me access to a collection of applications that is not a fast moving target. I will repeat this exercise on a fresh install with the 1.4 final release then use the ports instead of the packages. Should be interesting 😉

  3. Galactic Dominator on said:

    Your correct, pkg’s and PCBSD don’t always play well together since the pkg -RELEASE isn’t always sync’d with PCBSD, so in that case your probably better off with ports. A person would want to use some judgement here. If you going to with a very large app say open office, try packages first. for the smaller one it’s easier to use port anyway IMO.

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