Slackware is old. No really, it’s OLD! If you’re used to the likes of Ubuntu or any of the other modern GNU/Linux systems, setting up Slackware would seem like you’re back in the early 90s.
Some will argue that Ubuntu and the rest that try to make life easier for desktop users don’t give that fine-grained control over the way you set up your system. Why should a distro try to make choices on your behalf? By configuring your system from the bottom up, you’d ultimately learn the internals.
Does it help? Yes, it does. Immensely! Does everyone have the time and inclination? NO!
Whatever said and done, the majority of those who use computers want to get on with their work—most don’t have the time to peek into the innards of an OS. So, if you belong to this category, you’re probably better off without Slackware.
However, Slackware 13 has one surprise in its bag—the desktop somehow looks pretty modern, and works out-of-the-box. Yes, KDE4 has finally infected the conservative Slackware developer(s). Pat Volkerding writes in the release notes, “I’m using it on all my own machines (including an Intel Atom with compositing enabled), and I’ve really fallen in love with it once I got used to it. The tools are integrated better with the desktop, Qt4 seems to be a faster and more stable platform, and nearly everything that was available for KDE3 has been ported to KDE4 and works great.”
Now, Pat doesn’t put anything inside Slackware unless and until he’s completely satisfied with the piece of code. He’ll still make you use LiLo instead of Grub, by default! So, all this praise coming from him could only mean how impressive KDE4 is and what lies ahead in the coming years.
Installation and configuration
I think the first Slackware version I had tried was 9.1—that was in 2003. As far as I can remember, things pretty much look the same, even today. It’s the same old ncurses-based wizard that’s fool-proof and stable.
Anyway, for the uninitiated, I’ll try to walk you through the Slackware path. After booting the CD, you’re prompted on whether you wish to use a US English keymap (for your keyboard) or not. We Indians do, so simply hit Enter. This brings you to the login screen.
Log in as the root, and type
setup to start the installation. Note that if you need to configure your partitions, the installer won’t offer you anything. So, do your partitioning tid-bits using the
cfdisk utility and then proceed with
This will bring you to an ncurses-based menu. Read what the Help option offers if you like, or jump straight to the addswap option. Follow the instructions from there on, and you should be up and running.
A few things I noticed:
- Now that the kernel version is upped to 2.6.29, Slackware offers ext4 as the default filesystem. Of course, other choices like ext3, XFS, JFS, etc, are still available.
- It’s better if you choose the recommended package installation sections. Although this will install everything available in the DVD, it won’t bug you with all those prompts.
- The package installation on my C2D 1.6GHz HP 550 laptop with 1GB of RAM took only 15 minutes. Considering that the total install size is more than 4 GB, that’s pretty fast.
General configuration and desktop
Slackware still boots you to init level 3—that is the command line interface with networking enabled. You need to start X with either
startx or by launching the display manager—for example, kdm. This setting is nice if I were to run a server on it, but I’d rather have the desktop show up by default. So, it’s time to open
/etc/inittab and set the default runlevel to 4—yes, it’s not 5, like other distros.
You’ll also need to set up a normal user account, manually. Unfortunately, that was not a part of the installer’s job. Anyway, run the following command to create one:
useradd -m slacky
Replace slacky with whatever user name you prefer.
Logging into the KDE4 desktop made me realise that Slackware has finally bought into the idea of desktop effects—KWin effects work out-of-the-box if your VGA supports 3D. It could also be because Slackware has a strict policy of not customising the defaults offered by upstream software projects and here KDE offers desktop effects by default.
Apart from that, the desktop is plain—with only a panel at the bottom, and no extra icons (nor Folder View) on the desktop. Although Slackware has the Intel Wi-Fi drivers for my wireless Ethernet card, it offers no NetworkManager for seamless wireless access point switching. In fact, you’d need to edit files manually or use command line tools like
iwconfig to set up the network.
For a while, I searched online to find a Slackware NetworkManager package, but unfortunately, none of the third-party Slackware software repos (like linuxpackages.net or slacky.eu) had any software available for version 13 as I write this. Hopefully, things would have changed by the time you install it.
/extras/ section of the DVD has a GTK tool called Wicd, which is a drop-in replacement for NetworkManager. While we’re on the subject of GTK tools, they all look ugly due to the absence of the gtk-qt theme engines.
Firing up Wicd gave me a permission-denied error message. The good thing is that the error message also gave a tip on how to fix it. And while we’re on the subject of error messages, here’re a couple more:
- KMix doesn’t load because the user doesn’t have rights to the sound device.
- Clicking on an unmounted volume in Dolphin displays error messages.
So, I fired up Konsole to fix things. Adding your user name against the following group names in
/etc/group fixes the aforementioned issues:
- audio – this fixes the sound issue.
- video – although video worked, I still added my user name here for the heck of it.
- cdrom – looked like this solved the CD/DVD mounting issue—though I’m not sure.
- plugdev – this was to enable the user to mount other volumes (which probably includes optical discs as well; so maybe adding the user name to the cdrom group wasn’t required).
- netdev – well, this fixed the issue with Wicd permissions.
After saving the file with the changes, and a reboot, Wicd and KMix started as soon as I logged in to KDE, and now I could also mount volumes (hard disk partitions and media devices) using Dolphin. What a relief!
Apps and tools
Finally, coming to productivity and entertainment applications, there’re a lot—more than what I needed, at least. And because I went for a full installation, I had more choices for each category of tasks than I’d consider healthy. Anyway, various audio and video file formats worked just fine—even in default KDE apps like JuK and Dragon Player. Yes, there’s Amarok and MPlayer (as well as Xine UI) for power users—I missed SMPlayer though. Only thing you’d have to do manually is get the Flash Player from Adobe, Gnash, or elsewhere.
Talk about an office productivity suite and this is where Slackware is a BIG let down. It only offers KOffice version 2, instead of OpenOffice.org 3. I’d like to report here that I never really had issues with the earlier versions of KOffice. But ever since version 2 is out, I find its font rendering capabilities absolutely pathetic—the characters/alphabets look ‘fat’ with a reddish tinge on black fonts.
Anyway, the good thing is that the accompanying LFY CD has OpenOffice.org 3.1, and you can install it by following this guide.
It works like a charm, but the OOo application icons in the menu and run dialogue boxes will be missing. And since UK and US dictionaries don’t get installed—you can make use of the OOo Extension Manager (utility located under the Tools menu) to find and install them.
Thankfully, the version of Firefox is 3.5, and I also have Ktorrent, Kget and other assorted Internet apps that I require. The GIMP is also available; however, DigiKam is missing.
Well, that basically completes my requirement factors. If you care about programming languages, server-type software, games et al, updated versions of most are available when you go for the default installation. There’s even the XFCE desktop for those who like GTKish stuff—sorry, no GNOME here.
As for bugs, the only one I came across was that sometimes, after logging in, pressing Alt+F2 launched the XFCE run dialogue instead of KRunner. A re-login solved this issue. I have no clue why this happens, but it’s pretty annoying.
At the end of the day…
I think Slackware scores because of its stability and a lower dependency on memory compared to the rest of the distros. However, it requires plenty of manual configurations before one can be productive. If you can get along fine with that, I guess you won’t have much to worry about.