This UK based distribution has attracted a lot of attention lately. After listening to both Fab’s glowing review on the Linux Outlaws podcast and the one at the Linux Install Podcast I decided to give this new distribution a try. CrunchBang 8.10.01 is based on Ubuntu Intrepid, uses the lightweight window manager Openbox and has GTK+ applications. Right now it is only available in a 32 bit version. However, corenominal (Philip Newborough, the developer) has asked users in the forums if they would like a 64 bit version. For the Asus EEE owners there is also a custom version known as CrunchEee for your platform.

Similar to Linux Mint (here is the Evil part), CrunchBang has a lot of the proprietary stuff included out of the box. Flash 10, MP3 support, encrypted DVD playback and even Skype has been added to the distribution. According to their site, with the exception of a few packages, CrunchBang is built entirely from the Ubuntu repositories. Because of this, you can use apt-get, aptitude or Synpatic to install your Ubuntu Intrepid packages on CrunchBang. The aim of CrunchBang is to provide a easy to use, lightweight, fast distribution of Linux.

I tested out two different systems with CrunchBang. I have a Dell Intel Q6600 quad core system with 6 gigabytes and a 4 year old Dell Inspiron 1150 notebook that has only a single gigabyte. In both cases, CrunchBang was a champ when it came to hardware detection. The Restricted Driver Manager saw the Broadcomm wireless chipset in my notebook, pulled down the firmware and used fwcutter to get the adapter working. I had the same positive experience using my desktop system. My old Samsung ML-1430 laser printer was detected and printed without a fuss.

Dark Background and Theme

As you can see from the screenshots, the look of CrunchBang is very spartan. There is no color whatsoever on the desktop. No icons on the desktop, either. Just a pure black desktop with the CrunchBang logo written in a severely simple font. The distro screams “We don’t like clutter!”. For those who can’t stand this look CrunchBang has included a few colorful macro photo backgrounds that look pretty nice. If the dark theme doesn’t work for you there are also well over 100 themes available in the OpenBox Configuration Manager.

Conky System Monitor

One of the great things I like about this distribution is that they have included Conky. Based on Torsmo, Conky is an awesome system monitor for your desktop. Among other things, it can monitor CPU & RAM utilization, processes running, hard disk space usage, network upload/download activity, wireless signal strength and your notebook’s battery life. It is also a great tool for low RAM systems. If your system slows down you can quickly see if it is due to the OS having to use swap memory. There are even weather and SSL email Python scripts available for Conky. I tried Conky Email out with my Google Mail account and it worked like a charm. It would tell me on the desktop whenever I had mail. Other tools are available to do these things, like Google Desktop Gadgets, Screenlets, or SuperKaramba, but I prefer to use Conky because it’s text takes up less desktop real estate than using graphical widgets.

My first gripe with the distribution is that they didn’t use a more featured conky.rc file. Perhaps it is because of their tribute to minimalism, but they could have added more monitoring features to the default setup. Something that would wow the user during their first impression of the distribution.

If you want to make changes to the conky.rc file like I did it is in the OpenBox menu at Preferences > Conky Config. There are also some nice tricked out conky.rc files available on the CrunchBang forums. I was happy with a modification I did to the conky.rc file that omns had posted. I always forget the key bindings and wanted to add that to the conky.rc file he created. It really impresses me how many tweaks you can do using Conky. A quick note about the symbols you see in the System, HD and Network sections of the Conky configuration I am using. Those symbols to the left are actually fonts. My conky.rc is using StyleBats, Webdings and PizzaDude fonts. These don’t come with Crunchbang so you need to pull down the fonts if you want to use a conky.rc file with them. You can get the fonts by downloading the Conkycolors Tar file and extracting the .fonts directory to your /home/username directory.

OpenBox Window Manager

I dig the way you open up programs up in OpenBox. Right click anywhere on the desktop and you get the menu stucture. Your at the menu faster than in Ubuntu where you have to go to the top of the screen with the mouse pointer to get at it. In CrunchBang you add programs to the menu by editing a XML file. You will find this file in the menu by going to Preferences > OpenBox Config. Adding new menus, programs or seperators is pretty easy in my book. Just like in Ubuntu’s menu, CrunchBang has links in their menu to your documents, downloads, images, music and videos folders for your convenience. They also have links to the CrunchBang About, Forums and Wiki pages under Help in the menu structure. Compositing effects are also available in OpenBox. Just go to Preferences > Compositing to get at them. It’s no Compiz, but there are some nice transparency effects you can add to the desktop.

On the bottom panel they have included a desktop pager, system tray, task bar (window list) and a digital clock. There are about a dozen additional plugins available if you think the panel needs some more stuff. If you don’t like the icons in Thunar file manager, CrunchBang has three different icon themes to pick from; Tango (default), GNOME and Rodent (interesting).

666 Megabytes : The Mark of the Beast

This may have been done to outdo the fine folks at Satanic Ubuntu. The ISO file size of CrunchBang weighs in at 666 megabytes. I wonder how much trouble it took in package selection to get the distribution to this size. I think it will be hard to maintain as CrunchBang’s packages are upgraded with new features (causing larger file sizes). Do you dare refuse serving Satan or bounce Totem cause they grew a couple of megabytes in their latest version? Tough call. Will be interesting to see how this plays out over time. Here is a list of some of the software that Crunchbang ships with:

  • Linux Kernel 2.6.27
  • Firefox 3.0.4
  • Gwibber 0.7 (Microblogging client that can be used with Twitter and Identica among others)
  • Abiword 2.6.4 (Open Office is not included in this distribution)
  • Gnumeric 1.8.3
  • Totem 2.24.3 (VLC is now a QT4 application)
  • Rythmbox 0.11.6
  • Kino 1.3.0
  • PiTiVi 0.11.1
  • Cheese 2.24.1
  • Audacity 1.3.5 beta
  • Inkspace 0.46
  • GIMP 2.6
  • Thunar 0.9.0
  • Skype 2.0

Installation

Being based on Ubuntu, CrunchBang uses the tried and true 7 step Ubiquity installer. I found this to work without a hitch. I let the installer configure my GRUB bootloader and it found my Windows Vista, Ubuntu 8.10, Mint 6 and the CrunchBang partitions just fine. As with the initial bootup from live CD, the hard disk installation was snappy as could be. Although I didn’t have a stopwatch out, I would say it had a good 25 percent faster bootup time than Intrepid. One word of caution. You should watch out for the loud techno pulse sound that plays with the login screen. It’s loud enough to knock you back in your seat.

Stability

This is, as I would expect given it’s Ubuntu base, a solid distribution. It has run without lockups during the past week I have tested it. In fact, I’ve only had two tiny problems running it. First, when I used the shift and number keys on my standard QWERTY keyboard I would not get the symbols I wanted. A shift and number 2 would not produce the expected @ sign. Needless to say, email was going to be out of the question until I got this problem fixed. A trip to the forums revealed that the problem was because the live CD ships using a UK keyboard layout. All I needed to do to fix the problem was type in “settxkbmap us” at the terminal. This gave my system a US based layout and my keyboard then worked as it should. I also discovered at the forums that you should add this to Openbox’s autostart file so that the correct keyboard layout is set when you login.

Secondly, the other small problem I had was with the Restricted Driver Manager. If I clicked the Help button I got an error telling me it could not find the help file with the URL it was using. This was a tiny problem, since, as I mentioned above, the manager still worked and I got a wireless connection. I just thought I would note this small glitch I ran into with the Help button. I have to find out what (if they have one yet) Crunchbang uses for a bug reporting system.

Conclusion

If your looking for a lightweight Ubuntu you should consider this distribution. The minimal configuration is great if you have an older machine you would like to revive. And unlike other mini distributions, it comes shipped with a ton of software so chances are you won’t have to go searching for too many packages once installed. With the GIMP, Inkscape, PiTiVi, Kino, recordMyDesktop and Audacity they already have a lot of tools for creative types. If you find anything missing you can find it quickly using the large Ubuntu repositories. What I like most about this distribution is that it showcases the combination of Conky and OpenBox, two projects that look really good together.

More Obligatory Screenshots

2 Responses to “CrunchBang Linux Review : Dark, Evil, and it has the Mark of The Beast”

  1. fstephens says:

    I agree Conky is great. It can be a chore to configure just right, but once done is very nice.
    I am using it on my own rescue & recovery live CD. I find it very useful to watch system resources, especially on low spec systems.

  2. Phosita says:

    Thanks for the review! I was actually wondering if it could replace my mint installation on my laptop. Needless to say I’ll definitely give it a try :)
    Btw, I had a blast configuring my conky.rc a while ago to get it just right. Even so, you’re version really won me over. Could you paste your modifications to omns’ version here? Or simply provide us with a link to your .rc?

    Thanks again!

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