Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

DesktopBSD day 30 – The Verdict

On November 1st I started with this series about DesktopBSD and we are now six weeks later. Six weeks in which I played, wrestled and worked with DesktopBSD almost every day. If there was only one conclusion I was allowed to draw it would be this: after a while I kind of forgot I was working with a FreeBSD-based operating system. Yes, there have been quirks. Yes, there were problems with my hardware but I seem to be one of the few to have those problems, which indicates it can’t be blamed on DesktopBSD. Yes, it took some more time to install new software. But the overall conclusion has to be that I could do everything I needed to do on a day to day basis. Let’s review DesktopBSD with twenty-twenty hindsight.

What is DeskopBSD about?

DesktopBSD started as idea in the heads of two students who were working with FreeBSD every day. The key question could be described as: “What does it take to create a userfriendly open source desktop based on FreeBSD?” The first release of DesktopBSD reached 1.0 status in March 2006 and the team is now working towards the 1.6 version. Their goals is:

DesktopBSD’s main goal is to provide a desktop operating system that’s easy to use, but still has all the functionality and power of BSD. In the long term, DesktopBSD wants to build an operating system that meets most requirements desktop users have, like easy installation of software, configuring power management on mobile devices or sharing an internet connection.

The foundation: FreeBSD

DesktopBSD uses the FreeBSD 6.2-STABLE operating system as it’s foundation. This means that it is completely compatible with FreeBSD and provides maximum access to the packages and ports collection. DesktopBSD adds a graphical installer, a live desktop, the DesktopBSD tools and a pre-configured KDE desktop in order to achieve it’s goal of being more userfriendly.

The live desktop

The DesktopBSD cd provides -when booting from it- the option to either install the operating system or boot into a live desktop. This was one of the first charming features, since it usually takes quite some time to boot a live desktop. I don’t always want to take that route when I know I want to install the operating system. After selecting the live option, DesktopBSD probes the system and tries to configure X. My nVidia N6200 graphics card was detected and the live desktop was booted in a 1280 x 1024 resolution, which is quite good.

From here the desktop is a great showcase. The KDE desktop looks sharp and the system is extremely responsive. The default applications are well-chosen. You can’t fault the decision to select Firefox, Thunderbird and Pidgin as these are well-known applications available for multiple platforms. With Amarok, VLC, K3b and Noatun there is a good basic set of multimedia applications. The only thing liking is a good Office suite. However, the final release for 1.6 will be on dvd and that will include OpenOffice.org.

Easy to install

The graphical installer is the next tool to make a friendly open source desktop. As Peter Hofer said in our interview:

The installation routine is very easy to use and thus probably the most important feature for most desktop users. They don´t want to know about blocks and cylinders, mounts points of network services. Most users just want to get their systems up and running and the DesktopBSD installer does just that. The graphical installer gives the new users a first taste of a fully featured and easy to use FreeBSD system. We believe that once they have experienced this, it makes them more willing to learn to work with it and get to know FreeBSD.

The installer starts with probing your system in order to determine the proper resolution for the wizard. It suggest a resolution and then asks you for your keyboard layout. The next three steps gather necessary information like whether it is a new installation or an upgrade/recovery, which hard disk you wish to use and whether you need a bootloader or not.

Disk partitioning is again taken care off by selecting the disk and adding partitions and slices. The option “Use entire disk” is the easiest to use of course. There is no option to customize a suggested layout and changing the layout is less friendly than I would have liked.

DesktopBSD now commences by installing itself on your hard drive. After reboot you can add additional language support, the files of which are on the second ISO, as part of the Initital Setup Wizard. You can provide a new name for your system. The next step requires you to set a system password and add a user. This step is broken down in smaller steps, each taken care of in popup windows.

With this the installation routine is almost finished. There is just the matter of allowing your system to report back to bsdstats and to read the introduction to DesktopBSD. It’s only a few screens and for new users highly recommended.

However, this doesn’t complete a full installation. In order to get a complete and working FreeBSD-based desktop you do need the ports collection. Clicking on the icon “Software” launches the Package Manager. The Package Manager is a graphical frontend that takes care of various tasks. When you run it for the first time it explains that it needs the ports collection and requests your permission to download it (portsnap). This takes quite some time. Once this is done, it then tells you it needs to do a check for possible vulnerabilities on the installed packages (portaudit).

The KDE desktop

Playing with DesktopBSD meant another month playing with the KDE desktop as well (after working with PC-BSD the month prior to this series). DesktopBSD delivers a clean and well-looking KDE desktop. It is delivering quality here. Some might be able to find fault with the default icon set, which is more than reminiscent of the Mac OS X and Microsoft Vista icon sets (thanks to the NuoveXT set), but overall it has an air of style, of stability. The desktop could have been somewhat cleaner, but having the various shortcuts to the network, to the documentation, the home folder, the systems menu and to software management at hand is actually a good thing for novice users. Having two menu entries called “Settings” is a bit confusing though.

I have fooled around a few days with the options to change the look and feel of the KDE desktop and liked the flexibility those options provided me. As a software glutton I installed quite a large collection of applications. The GNOME desktop doesn’t allow me half the flexibility to edit the menupanel in order to get some structure as the KDE desktop does.

This didn’t stop me from installing a GNOME desktop on DesktopBSD, of course. Using the Package Manager I was not only succesful in installing GNOME, but it was fuly functional as well. I couldn’t get a working GNOME desktop during the PC-BSD series, but under DesktopBSD it worked out-of-the-box. Yes, it looked horrible but changing the GNOME theme is a matter of downloading the right package.

Still, I used the KDE desktop most of the time and enjoyed it.

The DesktopBSD tools

The fourth additional to your basic FreeBSD-based operating system consists of the DesktopBSD tools. The Package Manager takes care of software management and is a graphical frontend to both the packages and the ports collection. This is one of the places where you can see the DesktopBSD team made the effort to look at the system from an end-user perspective. You are provided with quite a lot of explanation and feedback in the windows that you are using. In a few clear and concise lines you get the proper instructions.

The default settings of Package Manager only allow packages to be installed and not ports. In some cases this results in failed installations. The more experienced user will check Freshports and find out why it couldn’t be installed. Package Manager could use a bit of polish here and provide somewhat more feedback. The settings could be changed in order to select the port when no package is available or when the port is more recent, but that usually results in even lengthier installations. Despite a few quirks here and there I have found Package Manager to be a great tool for software management. There were only a few instances I needed to use the command line #pkg_add -r to get what I wanted. Those few instances do point to one problem I prefer to see ironed out. Sometimes the package manager shows you a more recent package is available, but won’t install it. This appears to be related to the ftp server from DesktopBSD being not completely in sync with the FreeBSD servers.

DesktopBSD also created some smaller tools that you hardly notice when they are there, but which you would miss once they are gone. For instance, it is very useful for a laptop user to see what the status of your battery life is. You wouldn’t want your laptop to go down without a warning. Same thing for providing information about the network you are attached to. It’s one of the things I enable on any Windows desktop I have to work with. I want to see a network icon in my taskbar. Double-clicking the network icon in the panel launches the network manager. Through the network manager you can set up your local network, your wireless connections and your DSL connection.

Two other tools are meant to make life easy for external drives and sticks: Hardware Notifications and Tray Mounter/ Mount Control. The first tool simply reports whether new hardware is attached or detached. The second tool makes it possible to mount or unmount partitions and devices. With Mount Control it becomes a matter of clicking on the right partition entry. When it isn’t mounted it will get mounted and vice versa. It’s so simple you almost forget to appreciate it, but it is much simpler and easier to use than similar tools under Windows and Linux.

Adding, removing and locking users isn’t something most of us do every day. Still, it is nice to have a graphical tool at hand that does the job. With Settings (2) -> Security & Privacy -> User Management you can launch the DesktopBSD specific tool. With a few clicks new users are added. Permissions have been kept simple with only three groups: system administrator, extended device access and user.

The DesktopBSD tools collection might not appear earth-shakingly innovative, but it contains the tools to simplify some key areas of software and systems management. The Package Manager is the most visible tool, but the smaller applets in the panel make day-to-day working with the system easy. They make the difference between a powerful, solid platform and an easy to use open source desktop.

Expanding and working with the system

One of the first things I tested out were the multimedia abilities of DesktopBSD. MP3-files were no problem for Amarok and my collection of AVI-files were handled by VLC. The only problems were with flash-based websites, but that is a known problem with various solutions.

During the month I tried out a collection of applications. I couldn’t test gaming under DesktopBSD due to my hardware problems. I looked a bit deeper into various personal information managers and project management programs. At one point I realized I wasn’t writing about DesktopBSD proper anymore as it had become “simply” the platform for other experiments. DesktopBSD gives a complete access to the 17.000+ software collection for FreeBSD and thus gives a complete freedom to do with your system whatever you like.

Conclusions

This series was started with defining the key requirements for any open source desktop that wants to be a serious contender on the market for end-users, both at home and in organizations. I will repeat them here:

1. the open source desktop needs to a recognizable and easily understandable graphical work environment;
2. the open source desktop should have a complete set of graphical tools for systems- and software management that can be used intuitively;
3. the open source desktop should support multimedia activities and peripheral devices without too much hassle, even if this can only be achieved by a pragmatic approach towards non-free software components;
4. the users of the open source desktop should have access to business-grade professional support if that is desired;
5. maintaining and developing the open source desktop should not be dependent on a single person or a relatively small group of developers and maintainers;
6. migration to the open source desktop will require re-training of end users and some level of real time support during the process. This means that good and accessible documentation should be at hand as well as easy access to end user support;
7. the open source desktop should have a solid track record for quality, stability and solid progress over the last few years.

DesktopBSD easily meets requirements 1, 2, 3 and 7. I know that work has commenced on providing a DesktopBSD handbook that no doubt complements the excellent FreeBSD handbook. When looking at the feedback provided on-screen, the team is really making an effort to provide the user with the information he/she needs at the time of actually using a specific function.

Both the team and the community are quite small. Support for novice users leans heavily on a small group of very active people. At this stage this isn’t such a bad thing, but it will get complicated if and when a new group of novice users without prior experience in BSD starts to use DesktopBSD.

Though -at the time of writing- DesktopBSD is still working towards it’s final version of 1.6, I can only conclude that this is a stable and mature operating system that really lowers the threshold to get started with FreeBSD on the desktop. I am still in doubt whether DesktopBSD has progressed far enough to be accessible for end-users with Windows-only experience right now. Linux users should have little or no problems getting off with DesktopBSD and do whatever they used to do with their Linux desktop. I can only encourage them to do so, as it would expand the user base of DesktopBSD and provide the team with more feedback and assistance to make the final leap. The strong focus on stability for the operating system, the development and maturity of the current set of DesktopBSD tools and the clear and concise on-screen information are solid building blocks for a future DesktopBSD release that will be easy to use for people with Windows-only experience.

Shortcuts to the 30 days with DesktopBSD series

DesktopBSD Day 1 – Getting started (part 1)
DesktopBSD Day 1 – Getting started (part 2)
DesktopBSD Day 2 – First impressions
DesktopBSD Day 3 – Getting started with software management
DesktopBSD Day 4 – Software management snags
DesktopBSD Day 5 – Extending the system
DesktopBSD Day 6 – the live desktop
DesktopBSD Day 7 – Fooling around
DesktopBSD Day 8 – What’s the community like?
DesktopBSD day 9 – Fine tuning the desktop
DesktopBSD day 10 – Customizing the desktop
DesktopBSD Day 11 – Where to go from here?
DesktopBSD day 12 – What are the DesktopBSD Tools?
DesktopBSD day 13 – Installing on a real hard drive
DesktopBSD day 14 – Emulation and virtualization
DesktopBSD day 15 – Getting the GNOME desktop
DesktopBSD day 16 – Setting up my personal information managers
DesktopBSD day 17 – Flock and Freshports
DesktopBSD day 18 – Exploring Kontact
DesktopBSD day 19 – Evolution
DesktopBSD day 20 – Planning and Project Management (I)
DesktopBSD day 21 – Planning and Project Management (II)
DesktopBSD day 22 – Setback
DesktopBSD day 23 – Accessing Network Shares
DesktopBSD day 24 – Removing software
DesktopBSD day 25 – ee, the commandline editor
DesktopBSD day 26 – Printing
DesktopBSD day 27 – Getting spiritual, sort of
DesktopBSD day 28 – Going back and forth
DesktopBSD day 29 – Comparisons

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3 thoughts on “DesktopBSD day 30 – The Verdict

  1. Pingback: Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make. | F!XMBR

  2. One problem I had was getting the java runtime to install because I was using the 64 bit version and it would not work with the 32 bit version. I do not have this problem with Mandriva though so not sure why it is in issue with desktopbsd. I will probably try this again when they finally release it though.

  3. Pingback: DesktopBSD - day 30 - the verdict | FreeBSD - the unknown Giant

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