The problem with GUIs is that you have nine fingers going to waste.

FreeSBIE 1.1 - a non-review

Date/Time Permalink: 03/26/06 06:32:22 am
Category: Reviews

For our third tour of the FOSS world beyond the Linux borders, we will explore BSD, using FreeSBIE. At least, we'll try. The experience has been slightly lop-sided - a kind of "We've secretly replaced this Linux geek's regular operating system with Folger's Crystals - let's see how long it takes him to crack up!"

I'm calling this a non-review because I cannot, quite, take credit for having run this distribution all the way. You see, FreeSBIE blew a big raspberry at both my currently functioning computers, not caring for their video hardware setups at all. And somehow, absolutely no provision was made for fixing this. You can run all the xorg configuration utilities you want, here, it won't do you a damn bit of good when the whole thing is read-only. Waitaminute, let me digress:

(While we're saying "read-only": what, exactly, is the purpose of making all your shell scripts read-only? Because I found all these cool toys in /usr/share/examples, only to discover that they were all files with permissions set to 444-read. Which I can't change because the file system is read-only. So all I could do with the shell scripts is READ THE DAMN THINGS! Thanks for the free tour of the Bash language!)

OK, where was I? Ah, yes, I got a desktop by running "xorgcfg", which starts up a TWM desktop in 640x480 to run it's little x-configurator program (which does no good to reset X, since it CAN'T WRITE THE CHANGES!). So I just iconify the useless xorgcfg, pop open an xterm in TWM and type "xfce4-panel". There. Desktop, menus, panel. I can run Firefox, Gimp, Emacs, etc. I'm kind of at home. In keeping with my policy of always *trying* running a distro while reviewing it, my next task was to mount writable media. At least here, the instructions in /Docs/Manual/article.html in the root directory bookmarked in Firefox were some help. I got a USB up. It was the only thing (all my media, removable and otherwise, is in ext2) I could mount. See, you can have it two ways: you can either mount a vfat system on a DOS directory from your USB drive in read/write, or you can mount_ext2fs all of your Linux directories in read-only. I am clueless to report how I mounted an ext2 file system in read/write - I just tried it again for an hour and couldn't find the same magic spell. It doesn't help that there appear to be one hundred separate mount programs and a thousand directories to mount to. It also doesn't help that the manual (bookmarked in Firefox) doesn't tell you how, or if you try it the way it says (/scripts/mount_ext2fs rw), you fail because, DU-UH, they're already mounted. umount -a gives you errors. Trying to remount anything gives you errors. It complains about a read error in fstab. Perhaps that has something to do with /etc/fstab being a blank file. And so on...

In case you haven't figured it out by now: My overall impression is that BSD simply rocks. This distro, however...I'm not going to criticize it too heavily, because I'm green as grass with BSD and have no idea if an experienced BSD user would have better luck. But it seems kind of botched up in places. The GNU stuff is there, but everything works subtly different.

Anyway, that's why it's a non-review. The screenshots of Fluxbox and Xfce in the manual look beautiful. But I can't experience them, I can only sit in the lobby of the restaurant and read the menu. It's also a non-review, because it's written under the mental duress of one who has boldly plunged beyond his comfort zone to drive himself into the unknown. Solaris Tuesday, GNU/Hurd yesterday, BSD today, and if you think that's weird, just wait til you see what I'm reviewing tomorrow!

If you get to a usable BSD distro and you've used Linux a lot, you will feel about 75% at home. GNU all over the place. BSD, like the best flavors of Linux, has a rich console environment. Emacs, vim, lynx, Python 2.3.4, man, info, Bash, /usr/games, gcc...all the goodies are here. The console's so natural to me, I almost don't care if I get a GUI going or not! And an innovation that I've not seen anywhere else: the console has it's own screensaver! Yes, leave a terminal untouched (such as when you scamper off to the internet to grovel for help on getting X running) and you'll come back to find the cute 'lil Beastie bouncing around. And the console mouse is an actual mouse-pointer with an arrow, and it works. If they can do this, why don't they just ditch X altogether and come up with their own graphics system? Once you've got a full mouse-service and graphic images, all you need is some VGA and you're there! I'm sure we'd all be at least interested. I'd at least be interested in configuring something less complicated than X, which would be easy to come up with since Chinese algebra translated into Swahili while flying the Space Shuttle blindfolded with one leg tied behind your back would be less complicated than X.

Now, the single distinguishing characteristic of this distro is that it's loaded to the gills with 'leet anarchist tools. Wanna rip something? Cloak your identity from the fuzz? Go wardriving? FreeSBIE is your friend! Penetration-test your website? Crack-test your passwords? A virtual smorgasbord of options await. This distro is worth it just for the educational value. Count me as one who is mostly ignorant of the web-cracking, file-encrypting, security-oriented side of geekdom - but when I'm done reading all the manuals and playing with all the toys in this baby, I should be up to speed.

Other categories of tools are present, but not accented. The basic stuff you'd expect on 90% of the FOSS distros - with each category containing at least one but not more than four apps. With the exception of *games*...the text-mode amusements in /usr/games are *it*, no GUI games at all. I take it games aren't a big part of BSD? Not even tetris? Whimper...

Notwithstanding the aforementioned bugs with the distro, my impression is mostly a favorable one. As I understand it, hardware detection in BSD is still a developing science, so I shouldn't be too tough on it. I would definitely give it poor marks for the lack of forethought, however. One must do more than simply get a system working on your own machine, then scribble it into an iso file, to make a usable live distro. Like hosting some key configuration files in RAM.

The question remains: If you find yourself, as I am, stuck in a 640x480 TWM make-shift GUI, how do you cope? Simple: let's say you want XEmacs. You pick it off the xfce4-panel menu (which you changed to align vertically for space reasons) and TWM hands it to your mouse to place. Click to place it, but it's three times as big as the window. The "resize" box on a TWM title-bar requires you to drag the mouse *past* the edge you want to shrink, which is impossible if the edge is off the screen. So ALT-right-click and move the window so the top part is offscreen, and then, since the "resize" box is now off the screen, you'll have to left-click to desktop and pick "resize" off the TWM menu and resize the part of the window you can see. Now you can ALT-right-click to drag the window back down, placing it's left-up corner in the left-up screen corner, and then use the "resize" box one more time to drag the window out full screen. Enjoy XEmacs!

And people complain about the Gimp's interface...

Boy oh boy, wait til you see what I'm reviewing tomorrow...

UPDATE: Since writing this review and getting my nerve back, I've loaded up FreeSBIE and run it more successfully. The key to this seems to be to log out and log back in as root; while FreeSBIE will answer "root" when you type whoami from the default login, this is not actually the case. You have to specify root as *root*-root and then you're free to alter what you wish. Specifically, I fixed my /etc/X11/XF86config file's default resolution. *Pop*, X started! This does not change the fact that this one-line fix would better have been done right the first time, before the CD was burned. As for the desktop, both Fluxbox and XFCE4 are very, very nice, but they didn't strike me with awe. Especially since I vomit by reflex at beholding attempts to emulate a Windows desktop - NEWS FLASH: Microsoft sucks at aesthetics, too!

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