Vector Linux SOHO 5.9 Deluxe -- Not Just For The Office
Last year I wrote a review of Vector Linux 5.8 Standard for O'Reilly in January. Five months later I decided a new review was in order for Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO because the two weren't based on the same code and the changes were great enough to make the SOHO release seem like an entirely different version from Standard. This past March I reviewed Vector Linux 5.9 Standard and once again I find the changes in the SOHO release warrant a separate review.
For those not familiar with Vector Linux it's a decade old distribution based on Slackware that provides many of the user friendly tools and features offered by the largest and most popular distributions. I've often compared the Standard edition to Xubuntu with it's relatively lightweight Xfce default desktop while the SOHO (Small Office, Home Office) edition is comparable to Kubuntu, with a fully integrated KDE desktop. That hasn't changed. In addition Vector Linux SOHO 5.9 remains a 32-bit operating system. The 64-bit version of Standard is still in beta an no plans for a 64-bit SOHO edition have been announced, a fact which may limit interest somewhat even though the 32-bit release runs perfectly well on most 64-bit systems.
The change that will probably raise the most eyebrows is that SOHO is no longer available for free download. You can purchase the two CD set of the Deluxe version from the Vector Linux CD Store for US$24.99 or download it from MadTux for $19.99. The single CD basic version is only available from MadTux at $14.99. I should point out that all the packages which make up SOHO Deluxe (with the sole exception of themes and artwork) are in the Vector Linux repositories and it is certainly possible to start with the free Standard version, do all the package upgrades and add all the missing packages to roll your own SOHO. There are also no license restrictions and there is no EULA as is found on most paid distros. You can buy once and install as many times as you like and on as many machines as you like. What you are paying for is the convenience of receiving the isos or discs, the tight integration of the KDE environment into Vector Linux, and, of course, you are supporting the distro. This review is based on the two isos available for paid download. In the interest of full disclosure I'll also report that Vector Linux founder Robert Lange gave me access to the isos at no cost for review about two weeks before the official release date so I've been running 5.9 SOHO for almost six weeks. Providing me with a copy is no guarantee of a good review as the folks at Freespire found out last year.
Thanks to some hardware issues I once again found myself testing Vector Linux 5.9 SOHO on my five and a half year old Toshiba Satellite 1805-S204 (1 GHz Celeron processor, 512MB RAM). As I reported in my review of 5.8 SOHO last year other KDE-based distros range from sluggish to impossibly slow on this old machine. I had always assumed this is because KDE consumes more memory than GNOME or Xfce and because it always needs the dcopserver running in the background. Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO proved me wrong and showed me that KDE can be built for speed. 5.9 continues to perform well on this system. If it's reasonably fast on this old notebook it will fly on an up-to-date system.
Vector Linux 5.9 SOHO is the most polished release to date, 5.9 Standard included. Most of the issues I raised in my January review have been addressed and I've only found a couple of truly minor bugs to report. Installation and configuration is still significantly more challenging than Ubuntu orMandriva, for example, but the end result is likely to have fewer bugs and superior performance. I've read past reviews by other reviewers describing Vector Linux as "better Slackware than Slackware" or "what Slackware should be" and I always felt that was a bit of a stretch. With this release it isn't. You get all the reliability and stability of Slackware, better performance than vanilla Slack (at least on my hardware) and the features and most of the conveniences users of distributions touted as user friendly have come to expect. Vector Linux still has some shortcomings but I have yet to find a distribution that doesn't.
Installation and Configuration
There are two supported installation methods: a conventional installation booted from CD-ROM and a hosted, scripted installation booted from another Linux distribution already running on the system. While I've only done a conventional installation with VL 5.9 SOHO the scripts provided for Standard worked well and have not been changed for SOHO. They allow for installation from an .iso image on a mounted filesystem or from a CD-ROM drive that isn't bootable. Directions and all the tools needed for a hosted installation from DOS or Windows are also provided. Installation across a network and automated installations, such as Red Hat's kickstart, are not supported, a fact which is unfortunate for an "Office" edition.
The base installation only uses the first CD or iso. The second disc contains additional software packages which can be added after the system is up and running correctly. Vector Linux still uses a text-based installer similar to Slackware which is fine as far as I am concerned. A graphical installer is still promised for Vector Linux 6. You need at least 3.6GB for a reasonably complete installation of the base system. Adding a large selection of software from the second CD can easily push that number past the 6GB mark. That number does not include space for a home directory or swap.
The installer and the documentation are in English, period. No other languages are supported despite continued progress in other areas of internationalization and localization.
Disk partitioning is handled by cfdisk in all editions of VL 5.9. ext3, reiserfs, jfs, xfs, and ext2 are all supported. A list of common mount points is provided but the ability to define a non-standard mount point for a partition is still lacking. Vector Linux uses lilo for the bootloader. The option to pass custom parameters to the kernel is offered and the installer includes a good explanation of how to set the hibernation resume partition to the swap partition for TuxOnIce.
Hardware detection has been an issue in previous versions of Vector Linux. The one area that still doesn't work quite as it should for me is X configuration. If I allow vxconf to probe my video card and display it suffers from the same issue as all previous 5.x releases of VL. When I booted up to the GUI I was once again left with a small display in the middle of my screen surrounded by lots of black space. No amount of fiddling with X configuration in vasm (the GUI configuration tool) can make it work the way it should. It turns out the Monitor section of the /etc/X11/xorg.conf file doesn't have proper horizontal and vertical refresh rates set and you are warned about this possibility by the installer. In addition, some options required by my laptop screen aren't set. One other option available, to use a default vesa configuration, results in a blank screen on my laptop. An additional option introduced in Vector Linux 5.9 Standard was to select a default fbdev configuration. I hadn't tried that before writing my January review and it turns out that does, in fact, work properly on my system. So while the automated X configuration still leaves something to be desired it turns out that with some trial and error I can correctly configure X without manually editing the /etc/X11/xorg.conf file, something which wasn't true on Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO.
In addition the installer doesn't setup the system to load the kernel modules needed to fully support my laptop at boot. I had to manually add:
modprobe toshibato my /etc/rc.d/rc.modules file to partially correct this. The toshiba_acpi module isn't even included in the Vector Linux kernel. (It is included in Slackware 12.x.) On a desktop system this wouldn't be an issue, of course, but I suspect at least some other laptop users, not just those of us with Toshiba machines, will need to do some tweaking by hand to get their laptops to be 100% functional under Vector Linux and a custom kernel compilation is not out of the question.
One unique option in the Vector Linux installer which was introduced in Vector Linux 5.9 Standard is the ability to chose between HAL and VL-Hot for managing removable media. HAL, used by most distributions, continually polls the hardware and can have a performance impact on slower machines. VL-Hot is triggered by udev events and offers faster performance, a definite benefit when running a KDE desktop on old hardware like mine.
Free Software Foundation purists will likely continue to be unhappy with Vector Linux as updated proprietary NVidia and ATI drivers are included. However, they are no longer installed automatically. You can select them during installation if you need them. The madwifi driver for my Atheros chipset based wireless card was installed automatically.
The installer allows the user to include or exclude large blocks of software, development packages, kernel sources, and even X, but does not allow for individual package selection within these groups. A number of optional packages are then offered which can be individually selected. For example, KDE is included in the X group but the lightweight Fluxbox window manager is an option. Two browsers, Konqueror and Seamonkey, are installed by default, with Firefox, Opera, and Dillo offered as options. OpenOffice is installed by default and Scribus, a desktop publisher, is an installer option. GIMP, which was left out of the Vector Linux 5.9 Standard iso, is included again in SOHO.
Printing and wireless networking aren't handled by the installer and have to be configured after the system boots up for the first time. Expect to go into vasm or vasmCC to choose what services to start at boot as well. Once the installation is complete and you do reboot you get to choose from a number of attractive, well designed custom Vector Linux themes for KDE. The option to use none of the above and run kpersonalizer instead is also offered.
Changes Since Vector Linux 5.9 Standard and Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO
Many applications have been updated since Vector Linux 5.9 Stardard was released and pretty much everything has been upgraded since Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO. In my January review of 5.9 Standard I lamented the inclusion of some bleeding edge versions of common applications, a number of which were broken to one degree or another. The Vector Linux developers have backed away from that approach and have gone almost exclusively with stable releases in SOHO. For example, VL did not follow the lead of Fedora 9 or some smaller distros by offering KDE 4.x as the default desktop. They wisely went with the very reliable and proven KDE 3.5.9 instead. Firefox 3 was still in the release candidate stage at the time SOHO 5.9 was finalized so version 18.104.22.168 is included. Other applications include OpenOffice 2.4.0, GIMP 2.4.6, and Seamonkey 1.1.9. Koffice 1.6.3 and KDEwebdev 3.5.9 (including Quanta Plus) are now on the second disc or iso.
vasmCC, a new fully graphical Control Center, was introduced as an alternative front end to vasm, the Vector Linux system configuration tool, in Vector Linux 5.9 Standard and it is also included in SOHO. VLThemeSet is a new Vector Linux exclusive utility which does precisely what you'd expect from it's name. vburn, a new lightweight mostly graphical CD burning utility developed for the forthcoming Vector Linux Light is also included as an option in SOHO for those who want something simpler that k3b.
Multimedia applications including Amarok, Xine, and MPlayer have all been updated. Canada has no equivalent to the DMCA so all the libraries and Win32 codecs are installed by default. Vector Linux is ready to play your mp3 files and DVDs. People in the United States will need to remove some packages after installation, particularly libdvdcss and codecs-win32, in order to comply with the law.
Under the hood Vector Linux 5.9 SOHO uses a 22.214.171.124 kernel, an incremental upgrade from 5.9 Standard. An upgraded 126.96.36.199 kernel is currently in testing.
One of the most interesting new tools introduced in Vector Linux 5.9 Standard is vpackager, a remarkably easy to use graphical tool to build packages from source. I suspect a lot of relatively new Linux users who looked at compiling software as a daunting task will be surprised at just how easy it can be with vpackager. In addition an experienced user can edit the build script that backends vpackager, in effect allowing just as much control over the compilation process as is available at the command line. In addition to building packages from a compressed source tarball the new version included with VL 5.9 SOHO, vpackager 1.0.11, also works as a graphical front end for CruxPorts4Slack, functionality that wasn't ready when Standard was released. vpackager checks the repositories for both the Crux distribution and a library of ports contributed for Vector Linux. This is one of the innovative tools unique to Vector Linux that sets it apart from other distributions.
Running Vector Linux 5.9 SOHO
I continue to be impressed with what the Vector Linux developers have accomplished with SOHO. There is surprisingly little difference in performance between Vector Linux 5.9 Standard and SOHO despite the KDE desktop. Under heavy load conditions the extra memory consumed by KDE does make a difference. Still, in terms of speed, VL 5.9 SOHO leaves Kubuntu, Fedora, Mandriva, and SuSe in the dust, much as 5.8 did. Even vanilla Slackware didn't perform quite as well. I still haven't found another recent KDE release that moves so smoothly and swiftly on my hardware.
As I've noted in past reviews the Vector Linux installer doesn't leave you with a stripped down system to build on the way Ubuntu does. It takes the approach used by larger distributions (i.e.: Fedora, Suse, Mandriva) and gives you a system with a fairly comprehensive set of applications immediately available after installation and configuration. Once you get past installation and configuration Vector Linux is as good as any other distribution in terms of a user friendly, well thought out desktop while offering the stability, reliability, and performance you'd expect from Slackware.
I've only run into two relatively minor bugs with Vector Linux 5.9 SOHO. The ethernet chipset for the built in network port on my venerable laptop uses the eepro100 driver. After using 5.9 SOHO for about a week I booted up the system and found I had no network connectivity. It turned out that the boot process was no longer recognizing my NIC at all. I solved this by manually editing the /etc/rc.d/modules.rc file and uncommenting the line that forces loading of the eepro100 driver. Once I did that I had no further problems. Other users reported in the Vector Linux forum that blacklisting the eepro100 driver worked equally well as the e100 driver is also acceptable for this chipset. It is also likely that upgrading to the newer kernel currently in testing would resolve this issue but I haven't tried that just yet.
The second issue, the one holdover from Vector Linux 5.9 Standard, is that the patches repository isn't enabled by default and, as you'd expect, this is where security patches for software included in VL live. This can be easily corrected gslapt, the graphical package manager by clicking on Edit->Preferences and then clicking on the Sources tab. The other alternative is to edit the /etc/slapt-get/slapt-getrc file.
I've seen a grand total of one other bug reported in the Vector Linux forum: ALSA configuration in vasmcc (the Vector Linux Control Center) or vasm doesn't launch as it should. A patch to correct this issue has been promised. It does run correctly from the command line. Compared to most major distributions Vector Linux 5.9 SOHO is remarkably bug free.
The Vector Linux 5.9 repositories continue to grow and improve. Unfortunately there is still a rather large backlog of packages in the testing repository that haven't made it to extra just yet. Users may need to enable this repository to find applications they want and then disable it again before doing a system upgrade. The number of packaged applications for Vector Linux still falls far short of what is available for distributions like Debian, Mandriva, Ubuntu, or Fedora.
The Second Disc
The second CD or iso supplied with Vector Linux 5.9 SOHO contains two broad categories of software. First, it contains everything included on the Multimedia Bonus Disc for Vector Linux 5.9 Standard that isn't already included on the first disc. It also includes SOHO Extras, a large variety of packages from the Vector Linux repository, including development tools, games, and server applications.
If you execute install.sh from the root directory of the CD-ROM you'll be prompted for your system root password. Once the password is entered a fully graphical installer is launched. The heading on the window that opens read "VL Multimedia Bonus Disc" but the installer does handle all of the software on the disc, not just the multimedia apps.
The installer presents you with four options. The first is to install everything. This is by far the simplest method but there is a huge amount of rather diverse software and I don't think many people will need or want all that is offered. The second option is "Expert Install (Choose individual packages)." This option is probably the best for most people and really doesn't require much expertise. An Expert Install opens the graphical package manager, gslapt, which is quite similar to Synaptic on a Debian or Ubuntu system. You can check off the packages you want to add to your system and gslapt will automatically add any required dependencies to the installation.
The third option, Overwrite Mode, is really designed for people who tested beta or release candidates of the included software to make sure that all the files from previous installations are replaced. Most users can safely ignore this option. The fourth option is Uninstall, which does precisely what you'd expect.
I should also note that the Multimedia Bonus Disc is also available as a free download for those who purchase the single iso from MadTux or who are running VL Standard. The downloadable version doesn't include the SOHO Extras, so you won't get software like Emacs or the Apache web server. Those would still have to be installed from the repository using either gslapt or slapt-get at the command line. I personally recommend the two disc or two iso set for anyone who decides to purchase SOHO as you really do get a whole lot more software in a very convenient package that doesn't require high speed access.
Anyone who has run previous versions of Vector Linux and who just installed the first disc will wonder where all the games have gone. Yes, they are on the second disc, and there is quite a variety to choose from.
Security Concerns and Package Management
As I have already mentioned Vector Linux uses Slackware Apt for package management, offering the choice of slapt-get at the command line or the graphical gslapt. For straightforward installation of software these tools work extremely well and handle dependency checking flawlessly.
Upgrades are another matter. A command line system upgrade done with the commands:
slapt-get --update slapt-get --upgradehas worked perfectly well in Vector Linux since late 2006. Repository management by the Vector Linux team is as good as any other distribution I've tried and I haven't run into the sort of snags some of the big distributions have had from time to time.
Unfortunately the Vector Linux developers don't seem to trust users who prefer to work within the GUI to judge whether or not a full upgrade is a good idea. If you go to click on the "Mark All Upgrades" button in gslapt you'll see a "Disabled by VL" notice. Disabling that feature is a disastrously bad choice because it makes keeping a system secure difficult for a Linux newcomer or anyone else who isn't terribly comfortable at the command line. There is now no automated method within the GUI to determine what patches are out there and install them. One Vector Linux user called this "nannyism at its worst" and I must say I wholeheartedly agree. Indeed, this issue more than any other prevents me from recommending Vector Linux to Linux newcomers. A command line upgrade on a cleanly installed system reveals that most of the new packages, ranging from seamonkey to xine-lib to openssl, are patches for known security vulnerabilities.
One major improvement in the area of security was launched on the same day SOHO 5.9 was released. The new Vector Linux website has an area on the right-hand side of the screen called "News" where all security vulnerabilities and patches are announced. It's also available as an RSS feed. Previously there wasn't one single place Vector Linux users could go to get a definitive list of security issues. While I'd prefer to see security separated from other package news this new functionality is a huge step in the right direction and it eliminates one of my biggest complaints about past versions of VL.
The one significant deficiency in Slackware Apt is that it doesn't do any dependency checking when you remove software. If you try to uninstall something that another application depends on with gslapt or slapt-get it will happily do so with no warning to the user and cause the expected breakage.
Internationalization and Localization
Support for languages other than English is one area where Vector Linux has slowly but steadily been improving over the past couple of years. KDE i18n files and aspell dictionaries for all available languages are included but have to be installed once the system is up and running in English. Bidirectional support for languages written right-to-left such as Arabic and Hebrew is also included. What is still lacking are graphical configuration tools to allow a newcomer to change language, locale, and keyboard settings for the system default, individual users, or on a session by session bases. Language packs for Mozilla Firefox, Thunderbird, and Sunbird are all in the repository. Surprisingly Seamonkey language packs aren't included even though that browser is installed by default. Open Office internationalization packages and dictionaries are also still missing.
A wide variety of fonts for languages that use non-Latin character sets are now in the repository. The more exotic ones are no longer installed by default as they were in 5.9 Standard. This is probably a good idea as I can't imagine that a large percentage of Vector Linux users can read or would use Syriac or Ethiopic glyphs, for example.
If your goal is a truly localized system, not just a system running in English with support for other languages, you still need to do significant work to make it happen. The default display manager is a rebuilt, trimmed down version of kdm. As previously noted language and/or locale switching at login is not supported, nor is there any graphical tool to change these settings, either in vasm or stand-alone. If you want to change the default language or locale you have to do it at the command line and/or by editing appropriate configuration files.
Stepping Into The Server Room
As previously mentioned the second disc offers many of the software packages needed to set up common server tasks using Vector Linux 5.9 SOHO. In addition Vector LInux now does sell paid commercial support but the offerings, to this point, remain very limited. A new Server Solutions Disc is now in development and, if coupled with some stronger support offerings, may allow Vector Linux to compete in small and medium sized business server space.
There is no doubt in my mind that Vector Linux 5.9 SOHO Deluxe is the most polished release of Vector Linux to date. There are very few bugs and the ones that do exist are minor and relatively easy to correct. The look and feel of the distro is professional and attractive by default. Installation and configuration continues to improve and on many systems should be straightforward and painless. For newcomers to Linux and those not comfortable in a text-based environment the installation process is still a bit more challenging than some of the more popular, larger distributions. Those with some laptops or some unusual hardware may still have to get under the hood and tweak things a bit more than on some other distributions. Once everything is installed and configured Vector Linux SOHO, for the most part, is very well thought out and easy to use.
Vector Linux offers a number of utilities and applications which are both innovative and unique to this distribution. VL-Hot allows for detection of removable media without constant polling. Vpackager simplifies the task of building custom packages to an extent which is simply not seen in any other distribution. vlsmbmount makes finding and mounting Windows filesystems a snap. The list goes on and on.
The other extremely strong point in favor of any of the Vector Linux flavors, not just SOHO, is performance. Slackware based distributions tend to be good performers to begin with and the Vector Linux developers have streamlined and tweaked everything to get the most from a system.
Internationalization is much improved but is still somewhat incomplete. Localization still isn't up to par with more popular distributions. Automation of security patches and upgrades is not easy for the newcomer due to a conscious choice made by the Vector Linux developers and that is the one compelling reason I still can't recommend Vector Linux for those just starting with Linux. That's truly a shame because in so many other areas VL is intuitive and well thought and is no harder to use than distributions who tout themselves as user and newcomer friendly.
Despite the SOHO (Small Office, Home Office) name Vector Linux SOHO is clearly aimed at the home user as well with a large variety of multimedia applications and games on the second disc.
Vector Linux 5.9 SOHO isn't free as in free of cost but the price is modest and there are no restrictions on use. It is probably worth the price of admission for those who know and like Vector Linux already and for anyone who is looking for a Linux distribution that is optimized for performance and who doesn't mind an occasional foray to the command line. Despite the caveats I've raised Vector Linux remains one of my favorite distributions for the desktop. SOHO is the flavor of Vector Linux that has the most to offer in terms of ready to go software for those who like KDE for their desktop environment.
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