XFCE 4.4 DesktopZenwalk is a Slackware based distribution that is aimed at giving it’s users a fast, stable, and to easy to use machine. It has been ranked 18th on Distrowatch for the past 6 months. Zenwalk 5.2 was released this month so I decided to give it a try on my Dell Inspiron 1150 system. This notebook is few years old so it is a good machine for an agile distribution like Zenwalk. The 1150 has a Pentium 4 2.4 Ghz Celeron processor with 1 Gigabyte of RAM. It runs pretty well under Ubuntu provided I don’t turn Compiz on. Being that Zenwalk is based on Slackware and uses XFCE window manager I was hoping it would run faster. Their site claims Zenwalk has very low system requirements. Their manual states that it will run on a Pentium II with 128 MB of memory and 2 GB in hard disk space. By the way, the manual is very well done. It is something you could give to someone who has never used Linux before. They go through the basics like how to burn and ISO in Linux and Windows. Screenshots and complete explainations of the whole install process are also included.

Installation

Zenwalk has 4 different editions: Standard, Core, Live, and Server. I chose the Standard Edition since I wanted to do a hard disk install on my machine. I did not realize this until later, but even with the Live Edition you can still use it to do a hard disk install. The Core Edition is a minimalist install with no X components. Server is, as you might expect, optimized for running a server.

Zenwalk has a nice looking framebuffered installer. After choosing your keyboard map type, you can use Cfdisk manually set up your boot and swap partitions. If you can devote an entire hard disk over 3GB in size Zenwalk has an automatic installation too. For file systems choices you can format your partitions in ext2, ext3, reiserfs, and xfs. Cfdisk is not as pretty as, say Gparted, but it does get the job done and is not difficult to use.

Once you get your drives set up Zenwalk asks you what you want your fstab to look like. The fstab file controls what partitions are mounted and where they are placed in the directory structure. I chose to add both my Ubuntu ext3 and Windows XP NTFS partitions. I had NTFS read/write support out of the box with Zenwalk using ntfs-3g. After I finished setting up fstab the installer started putting packages on the hard drive. I like how they list each package name with a description as it is being installed. I don’t believe in hiding useful system info for the sake of aesthetics.

Just like Slackware itself, Zenwalk uses LILO for the boot loader. If you want it will automatically setup your LILO configuration during the install. I am more used to and prefer GRUB, so I elected to skip this step and configure the bootloader myself later on. To configure GRUB, you use the menu.lst file in the /boot/grub directory. Basically, you need to edit the file and tell GRUB where the kernel and init.rd image is. One thing slightly different I found with Zenwalk is that the init.rd image is called initrd.splash, not initrd.img. I am used to running Ubuntu as my primary system, so I was perplexed when I could not find the .img file anywhere. A trip to the forums and I figured out it was just a difference of names.

After setting up your hardware clock the installer asks you what services you want to run on startup. The default choices are ALSA, Avahi, CUPS, Inetd, Pcmcia, and Syslog. I left these choices as is and added the selection Wicd Wifi manager since I have a wireless card in my notebook. You can change your startup services later on if you need to by going to the Zenpanel. Zenpanel is the place to go to configure the system post-install. Adding modules, users, packages, services, video configuration, and network settings is all done from this control panel. You can get there by going to System menu on a right click. Once I finished choosing my startup services the install CD ejected and I was told to reboot my system using Ctrl-Alt-Delete.

GRUB succesfully found my kernel and after boot up I was shown the GNU license and asked to accept an Adobe and an Intel wireless card license. This is one problem I got into with the installer. I accidently chose not to accept the Adobe license (licenses bore me and I was careless), insuring that Flash would not work out of the box. The installer has no go back key in it, so if you make mistakes, there is no going back and fixing them. I did not know of a way of accepting the license post install so I just re-ran the installer.

First Impressions

Zenwalk uses the latest release of XFCE version 4.4.2 for it’s desktop. I found the simple blue wave theme to be pleasing to the eye. The Tango icons are really sharp looking even when they are made to look big. A bottom XFCE panel provides easy access to browsing (Iceweasel), email (Icedove), multimedia (gMplayer), shell (Terminal), file management (Thunar), system configuration (XFCE Settings Manager), and volume settings (XFCE Mixer). You can autohide this panel if you find it gets in the way by going to Settings>Panel Manager.

Hardware Detection

Videoconfig, the Zenwalk Xorg configuration tool, managed to detect my 82852/855GM integrated graphics card and setup xorg.conf to use the Intel driver. I had a 1024×768x24 resolution screen working right out of the box. I turned on the compositor in XFCE and got some nice effects. No, I couldn’t paint my screen with fire using Compiz, but I got some nice transparent windows and shadowing effects. One side note on using the compositor. I also tried their live CD out on my old Compaq P3 Deskpro with 256 Megs of RAM. Everytime I had the compositor running X would crash if I opened up a terminal window. Some older graphics chipsets don’t play well with the compositor and my card was one of them. Once I turned off compositing the system worked flawlessly and was actually pretty fast for an older machine.

I had no issues with sound or Ethernet networking. Both were working on start up with no problems. The Synaptics touchpad was also detected, it’s driver loaded using xorg.conf, but I had some problems with it. I would get a random clicking action even though I had not touched either buttons. I dug around for a fix for it in the forums. By changing Option MaxTapTime to 0 in /etc/X11/xorg.conf, I was able to shut down the buggy tap to click function of my touchpad. Now it works fine and I really don’t care about not having that feature. I had no problem with USB autodetection. I plugged in my 4 GB PQI Flash drive and it automounted and showed as an icon on the desktop. I also plugged in my Fuji Finepix A700 camera to see if I could pull files from it. Although gtkam did not have a driver for that specific camera (it does for many others), I was able to see and pull down my JPEG pictures using Thunar file manager.

My Dell Wireless 1350 Mini-PCI card was the biggest problem I had with the system. This card works out of the box in Ubuntu, Mint, and even little Puppy Linux, but with Zenwalk I ran into a little trouble. The last couple lines of dmesg revealed that that the firmware could not be found:

b43-phy0 ERROR: Firmware file “b43/ucode5.fw” not found or load failed.

b43-phy0 ERROR: You must go to http://linuxwireless.org/en/users/Drivers/b43#devicefirmware and download the latest firmware (version 4).

So I went to linuxwireless.org and grabbed the latest firmware using these directions for fwcutter . After doing this, I got a number of wireless signals when I fired up Wicd, Zenwalk’s Wireless Manager. Zenwalk also has a nice GUI frontend to Ndiswrapper if you want to use the Windows drivers for your card to get wireless working. In my case I chose to use fwcutter instead. The linuxwiress directions for fwcutter vary depending on what kernel you are using. Zenwalk uses the Linux kernel 2.6.25 so I just followed this part of their page:

Follow these instructions if you are using the b43 driver from linux-2.6.25 or compat-wireless-2.6, or from any current GIT tree.

Use version 011 of b43-fwcutter.
Download, extract the b43-fwcutter tarball and build it:

wget http://bu3sch.de/b43/fwcutter/b43-fwcutter-011.tar.bz2

tar xjf b43-fwcutter-011.tar.bz2

cd b43-fwcutter-011

make

cd ..

Use version 4.150.10.5 of Broadcom’s proprietary driver.
Download and extract the firmware from this driver tarball:

export FIRMWARE_INSTALL_DIR="/lib/firmware"

wget http://mirror2.openwrt.org/sources/broadcom-wl-4.150.10.5.tar.bz2

tar xjf broadcom-wl-4.150.10.5.tar.bz2

cd broadcom-wl-4.150.10.5/driver

sudo ../../b43-fwcutter-011/b43-fwcutter -w "$FIRMWARE_INSTALL_DIR" wl_apsta_mimo.o

Note that you must adjust the FIRMWARE_INSTALL_DIR path to your distribution. The standard place where firmware is installed to is /lib/firmware. However some distributions put firmware in a different place.

Software

Zenwalk has the philosophy of “one application per task”, a good part of the reason the install CD is only 505 Megabytes. For your office applications you have an excellent word processor (Abiword 2.6.3), spreadsheet (Gnumeric 1.8.3), calendar (Orage 2.4.2), graphics manipulation (Zen Gimp 2.4 ), Email client (Icedove 2.0.0.14), Web browser Iceweasel (2.0.0.14), and an IM client (Pidgin 2.4.2). While there is no Open Office here (you can add yourself with Netpkg), the applications included are probably sufficient for most desktop users. The Zenwalk Companion wiki page at their site is good guide to what software can be added to your system. I know it goes against the “one app per task” rule, but I really wish they had chose to include a second command line based editor on the install CD. They have opted to go with Vim which I understand is an awesome tool if you code for a living, but I can’t code my way out of a paper bag, so something simple like Nano works better for me. If X breaks and all a new user has is a terminal prompt he will have an easier time editing configuration files with Nano. Personally, I need a cheat sheet to get anything done in Vim. I don’t think they should drop Vim, I know Zenwalk is used by alot of coders, just consider adding Nano, Gedit, or the like. Just my two cents.

If you need to add applications Zenwalk makes it real easy with their package managment system. That is where Zenwalk shines. You are running a Slackware based distribution, but like using apt-get in Debian, you don’t have to worry about managing dependencies to install software on your machine. A huge range of packages can be added to your system using Netpkg. Just go to System>Netpkg to get there. I like how Netpkg gives you a nice display of package description along with telling you what dependencies are installed or missing. They also have useful New, Installed, Upgrades, and Downgrades filters to sort your repositories.

File Management

Zenwalk uses Thunar for it’s file manager. With the Tango icons it is a sharp looking on the desktop. You have a lot of features available with a right click. Zooming in and out to make icons bigger is great for people with vision problems. You can also search a folder, turn on Samba browsing, create an archive, and open up Brasero to burn files to CD. Zenwalk has an interesting tool called Catfish for file searches. It’s a GUI front end where you have the choice to use find, locate, or slocate to search files. You can also select to search specifically for documents, images, music, or videos by clicking one of the four icons in the program.

Multimedia

I fired up youtube to see if I had Flash working out of the box. Flash worked in the Iceweasel browser with no problems. I also had Mp3 playback working out of the box too. I popped in an encrypted DVD movie to see if Mplayer would work with what Hollywood puts out. No luck. Mplayer would not even open, let alone, show me any errors messages. You need to grab two packages using Netpkg to get this working. The files are libdvdcss and libdvdread. Zenwalk does not include them on the CD because of copyright issues. Some distributions like Mint include these codecs out of the box, but I can appreciate Zenwalk’s stance by not doing this. If you are not concerned about the legal issues getting the files is not big deal. They can be found in the Zenwalk repositories using Netpkg. The legal issues are also the reason why Zenwalk ships with Iceweasel and Icedove rather than Firefox and Thunderbird.

According to this Wikipedia article, “The Mozilla foundation requested that the Mozilla standards for use of the Firefox trademark be complied with by the Debian Project when it redistributed the software. The Debian Project then rebranded the Mozilla Firefox program, and other software released by Mozilla, so that Debian could continue to distribute the software with modifications permitted, without being bound by the use of trademark requirements that the Mozilla Foundation had required.”

Conclusion

I’ve been running with Zenwalk for about a week and am really liking it. I have tried both the Standard and Live versions and they each have impressed me. The Live version has a CD ISO remastering tool so you can make someone your very own custom version of Zenwalk. Hardware detection and configuation was very good with this distribution, the wireless and touchpad issues only being a minor problem. Configuring the system using Zenpanel is a breeze. I like the use of compositing in XFCE. It is used sensibily, rather than turning your desktop into a toy. The thing that most impressed me was the package management. Netpkg is what makes a Slackware based system useable for the masses. Managing dependencies yourself has it’s merits, like understanding your system better, but as more and more software is released for Linux doing this yourself is too time consuming for most people.

XFCE 4.4 DesktopIceweasel2 Web browser.ZenPanel tools to manage services, users, and add remove modulesThunarBraseroTransmission Bittorrent Client and GRsyncBackupZenPanel - The control panel for ZenwalkGood selection of office apps. Gnumeric and AbiwordXFCE has compositingNetpkg Zenwalk packagingHardware info and Ndiswrapper toolWicd WiFi Network ManagerMplayer playing the Open Sourced Movie Big Buck Bunny

14 Responses to “Zenwalk 5.2 on a Dell Inspiron 1150 Review”

  1. davemc says:

    This review sparks the curiosity somewhat, but it only gives a very brief glimpse into the now iconic world of Zenwalk. This distro is much, much more than just some run of the mill XFCE based Linux offering, and this review really does not do much to delve into what makes Zenwalk, Zenwalk. I will have to give it a spin on Virtualbox soon.

  2. Dusty Bridges says:

    This distro still has no dial up option? eh???
    Why can’t reviewers and distros include this little tidbit? Then I and others won’t need bother with them.
    I use a common serial modem, a lot support it but some don’t.

  3. Mustafa Kabak says:

    Thanks for the review. Did you try any OpenGL accelerated applications on Zenwalk?

    I am looking for a distro with both functional 3d acceleration AND video for my 855GM notebook. I didn’t have luck with some of the mainstream distributions. Maybe you can recommend another distro?

  4. joe ferrare says:

    I’m with you about nano. When I’m getting ready to install or upgrade Zenwalk I put a tgz of nano on my home partition or a usb stick so I can install it first thing if X breaks or something.

    Otherwise, Zenwalk is a great little distro. I use it on my 1.6Ghz Pentium laptop and it’s perfect. I use Slackware on my desktop machine, but Zenwalk is just up and running a lot faster for the laptop. In the past I’ve installed pretty much every desktop environment and window manager available on Netpkg, and a few that I compiled using Slackbuilds. Now I usually just install Fluxbox and rox-filer and a couple of other key bits. It’s a 12.1 inch laptop, so Fluxbox gives me a bit more screen real estate to work with, and I’m addicted to rox. Even Thunar, as nice as it is, seems slow and unwieldy by comparison.

    Nice report.

  5. C>Lemon says:

    Zenwalk is a great distro, my favourite for my old (read: only) computer. Just a few things to say:

    -A lot has been made of the absence of a CLI editor other than vim. As far as I know, the light-and-handy mcedit is present, along with the incorruptible mc (Midnight Commander) which have saved my install more than once! Am I wrong? Check the repos if you don’t believe me (http://packages.zenwalk.org/?p=mc-4.6.1_20070309-i486-2.tgz&zversion=current).

    -joe ferrare has the right idea. If you’re using a laptop or other computer where memory/power are an issue, Fluxbox or ice WM is definitely the way to go. I’m not a big fan of ROX-Filer, but I do have it and I’m testing other lightweight file managers at the moment, because Thunar can be a bit much at times.

    -It’s a great distro for beginners, contrary to what some other reviewers (http://www.raiden.net/?cat=2&aid=398) might say. The support page is there for a reason, you know! How can you learn if you don’t have to thinK?

  6. David says:

    You are right C>Lemon, sorry I was unaware of mcedit. I had used Midnight Commander along time ago and forgot about the text editor. For an old school text based file manager I have been using emelFM2, but MC works too. The simple commands of ALT + number key shown at the bottom of the mcedit screen are easy enough so anyone can use it.

  7. Modem Lover says:

    @Dusty Bridges:

    WHAT? Doesn`t it have dial-up networking capability?

    If so, then Zenwalk is an incredibly stupid distro, because 50% of the Humankind connect their PCs to the Internet by means of a DIAL-UP MODEM.

    Nuff said!!!

  8. Stefan says:

    Nice, thanks for the review. It’s not easy finding a fresh Zenwalk review these days.

  9. tsuren says:

    just for your info. zenwalk do have dial up networking capability. it is perhaps not so obvious, but there is. pppoe-setup and then pppoe-start will connect you to the net.

  10. Deleted says:

    Dial up ?!? People still use dial up?!? I’d have to drive for hours to get remote enough so that DSL wasn’t available. Maybe this is why it was left out of both the well composed review and the distro itself.

  11. ?..? says:

    hey, reason enough for dial-up users to switch to DSL. Dial up is so stupid when it’s cheaper for DSL (or slightly more)

  12. jamy says:

    Thank you!! I can connect wireless lan by the method introducing by you.
    My ubuntu8.10 embarrassed me…..

  13. David says:

    jamy:

    I am glad that I helped get your wireless working with fwcutter. The main reason I blog about this stuff is to help people with Linux by documenting my own experiences. Hopefully, it saves others time and effort with their computers. And maybe, just maybe, I will have switched a few Windows users over to Linux with the posts I write.

  14. Nic says:

    I use a DSL modem, it’s also a usb modem and it’s recognized in linux as a dialup modem.

Leave a Reply