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Linux too vanilla? Try this

First INQpressions PC-BSD 1.3: Basic, simple, does the job
Tue May 15 2007, 12:51

Product PC-BSD 1.3
System requirements Pentium or higher (686), 256MB RAM, 4GB HD, Network & sound cards
Price free

I'VE BEEN TRYING to reinstall my old laptop recently. It's a battered old Thinkpad i1200 series from about 2001. It was a basic, economy-model machine: no Ethernet, no floppy, no serial, no infra-red, single Type 3 Cardbus slot; don't even ask about wireless or Bluetooth. One screen hinge is broken and I've fitted more than the official maximum amount of RAM (there's a 256MB SO-DIMM in its single slot, which only officially takes a 128, for a total of 320M), which works fine but /really/ confuses the BIOS. The hard disk whines nastily, too. Despite this, though, it's a real workhorse: it's very reliable and has never let me down. In the past it's run Windows ME (which it came with), Windows 2000 and XP - the latter sluggishly but solidly.

Since it was pensioned off a couple of years back, it's been running Ubuntu 6.06. This didn't install without a bit of a struggle, though - the kernel hangs on boot unless I pass the "irqpoll" switch. I don't know exactly what that does, but searching for info suggests that it saps performance somewhat.

Alas, no kernel newer than 2.6.15 will run on it, regardless of combinations of irqpoll and noapic and nolapic and disabling ACPI and so on. Xandros 4 came closest: it booted, but after more than four hours it hadn't got as far as the installer. Ubuntu 6.10 and 7.04 won't start, nor will SUSE, Fedora, Mandriva or Slackware (in the form of Zenwalk) or Debian (in the form of Knoppix). They all seem to hang at the point of polling USB.

While flailing around, I even tried the demo CD of Serenity's eComStation, a third-party update of OS/2 Warp. It booted happily but with no sound and no networking - so not an awful lot of use.

So, getting increasingly desperate, I thought I'd give PC-BSD a whirl. This is a distro of FreeBSD tweaked for an easy desktop install.

I've tried FreeBSD before but found it a real trial to get it installed and working. This was on a server, with no graphics or sound or anything, but still, I had to use boot floppies and manually configure the network card, and once it was finally running, there was no simple way to update the thing with the latest fixes.

But PC-BSD is a /very /different beast.

It went on first time, no hesitation. Even booting from the install CD, it found the Cardbus slot, found my old Xircom RealPort Ethernet card, connected and went online - which is a damn sight more than Ubuntu could do until I'd apt-getted it into submission. It cheerfully ran the setup program in 1024x768, the native resolution of the LCD. Sound, PCMCIA, USB, networking - everything just works. It knows it's on a laptop and displays a battery meter in the taskbar tray - but that's about it. No processor-throttling or anything: it's flat out, all the time. I had to manually tell it to blank the screen when idle.

I was straight online after a very easy, graphical install. One reboot and it was ready to go, with only 2GB of my 20GB disk used - and that's with browser, email, chat, media players, some games and basic productivity apps all pre-installed. It updated itself with some half a dozen fixpacks until it's now at v1.3.6 or so - only one of which required a reboot. It now sports KDE 3.5.5. I don't like KDE much - I used to, but I think it's horribly bloated these days: complex, slow, fiddly, ugly and a bit flaky. Bits of it keep on passing out - but that may be normal for KDE.

However, it does the job, and it's instantly familiar if you've been around the Linux block once or twice.

Aside from KDE, everything is quite responsive and it was dead easy to add Firefox, Flash, Java, OpenOffice, Skype and suchlike from their online package-download site, a link to which is handily left on the desktop. No fiddling about with repositories or restricted components - you download what you want then double-click it. Bosh.

There's a basic but fairly complete suite of admin tools, all integrated into the KDE control centre.

With no additional mucking around, I was able to get online from in bed then watch a DivX movie off a USB key. The only thing it didn't do is mount the USB key for me - I had to go to a terminal, SU to root, make my own mountpoint, inspect the kernel messages for the device name and then mount it myself by hand. That's a bit 1997 for my tastes, but I can cope.

Other luxuries which it doesn't offer but which one might expect in a modern Linux are suspend/resume, power management and maybe support for the onboard Winmodem - but I don't actually /need/ any of them.

I'm really quite impressed.

I can't honestly think of a reason to recommend this to anyone over Linux, unless you've got both a powerful aversion to Windows /and /some weird hardware glitch that means you can't install a modern Linux - but it works and works well. Friends of mine who are the sort of Unix beardie who lives at the command line and sneers at graphical desktops tell me that BSD feels more like an integrated whole than Linux: apparently, they say, you can tell that everything came from a single team and one source, rather than Linux's "three thousand unrelated bits of code flying in close formation". Me, I wouldn't know; all I care about is that commands like /dmesg/ and /top/ and /fdisk /do what I expect, which is more than they do on Solaris, say.

For something which is a real minority player, bearing the same sort of relationship to Linux as Linux does to Windows - a way-out, off-beat option for those who prefer to eschew the mainstream - PC-BSD works really well.

If you're comfy in a kaftan and sandals, you'll like this... In fact, it might all just be too easy. ?

Bar Wenches' Verdict


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