A while ago I received an invitation to view a video presentation giving 10 good reasons to review VectorLinux, and it's true that I cannot recall to have read a review of it in years. This venerable distribution has been around for a long time but has also garnered some controversy around offering a paid for Deluxe version, introducing a paid for members club, and has been accused of not making source code freely available and thereby infringing on the GPL. It seems the club did not take off as I cannot find any mention of it anymore on the web site.
All that aside, VectorLinux 5.0.1 was my distribution of choice when returning to Linux in 2005, and a nice experience it was. Basically what I had been looking for was something like Mandrake Linux back in the late 90's but based on Slackware, and Vector did just fit the bill.
It had and probably still has a very enthusiastic, helpful and polite community, and the forums were a great resource. I still remember the names and the fact that all these people are still actively involved as you can see in the credits during installation speaks volumes.
Eventually I messed it up by mixing with Slackware repositories of which several versions were listed in the package manager. I put it down to my own inexperience and moved on, but it shows that under the user friendly veneer there were some pitfalls and it wasn't exactly a distro for newbies as there were several rough edges.
I tried 5.1 when it came out and it refused to boot with a kernel panic. Most releases since then I have tried did not like my graphics cards it seems, all ATI, and usually left me with a blank screen upon reboot after the installation, regardless whether I tried autoconfigure or chose my resolution and monitor in the configuration steps that followed the install to hard drive. 5.8 was an exception and I actually kept it just to play Doom 3 because it was the only distribution that installed the proprietary drivers without fuss from the original binary.
So much for my history with Vector, just so you know a little about my background with this distribution. I have been told it has changed a lot since, and the last full release, discounting updates with a newer KDE and newer kernel, was 6.0 in February 2009, certainly a while ago. Vector acquired a graphical installer some time around that version, and then the team set out on a rewrite and an attempt to move into the 64-bit world which seems to have been more work than anticipated. Well, nobody ever achieved anything without a vision and sticking to it, and finally 7.0 seems nearly upon us. I downloaded both the live and the standard images of RC2 which was released 21 June 2011 with a 2.6.38 kernel, still 32-bit only, and put them to the test. A handy CD sized 700 MB.
Vector was one of the first to offer several editions from very early on, a light edition with Icewm, a SOHO edition with KDE, a Deluxe version with optional Gnome on CD2, a standard version with Xfce and a live CD with Xfce and sometimes KDE. How's that for choice? There's even a Light live. In between they also released a KDE 4 edition and KDE 'Classic' for all the lovers of the 3.x series that updated the 6.0 release to tide their users over. Naturally, both the standard images available at the moment are using Xfce, and unlike Slackware in its latest incarnation 4.8.0, with some bits from 4.8.1.
So what’s it like? Here is a screenshot:
For a start, I found the live CD an exact duplicate of the installable image as far as looks and application choice goes. It comes with an installer and a live to USB installer which makes the standard edition almost redundant in my view. There even is a remastering tool called vmklive. In both the graphical installer launches Gparted in the beginning for manual partitioning of your hard drive. All the ext file systems are supported, as is fat16 and fat32, xfs, reiserfs and jfs.
In the live edition you get to create a user, set password and root password and off it goes to copy the system. It has an older feel to it and probably descends from earlier live installers when the standard edition was still using ncurses. Perhaps unsurprisingly this copying was somewhat faster than the proper install later which took a good 20 mins. At the end you are asked if you want to install Lilo and given a choice of partitions, and after a reboot you’re straight in your new VectorLinux desktop. I noticed it even kept my screenshots done in the live session, so these advances made in other distributions have arrived in Vector too. An important difference is that when installing the standard version you get Grub2 as boot loader, this may actually influence the decision on what edition to go for.
Screenshot: The Grub2 boot screen
Looks-wise we’re in for a smooth ride as well. Both editions are using the Faenza-Cupertino icon theme, with Faenza, Faenza-Dark and Tango also available, and a style called Fn-Closure, using Alphacube-color for window borders with glowing buttons. There are plenty more to choose from as always with Xfce, among them several nice ones using the Murrine engine.
Unfortunately the Vector guys do not seem to have discovered the Faenza-Xfce sub-icon-theme as I call it that covers several missing icons in the settings panel. As such it feels a bit incomplete. That is complemented with a slimmed down Xfce panel at the top set to transparent and cairo-dock at the bottom providing a Mac-like panel experience and the bouncy effects and transition animations many people have come to love, incl. a smooth weather applet.
The wallpaper collection is vast and includes many oldies that have been in VectorLinux releases as long as I can think. That does not mean they’re bad, in fact it gives a sense of heritage and continuity, but some seem to serve no other purpose than to emblazon and show off that VectorLinux logo. A little less branding would be nice.
A full install on xfs formatted partition landed me with 3.51 GB, interestingly installing from live CD to ext4 only resulted in 3.26 GB. Vector has always been known for being light and fast and that’s always been their selling point together with the advantages of the Slackware base, or as they put it, speed, performance, stability. This hasn’t changed, but there are several competitors that achieve just the same.
This release like the previous ones comes with all the multimedia codecs you can shake a stick at. Again, this is something Vector did very early on when there were not many user friendly and ready from the get go distributions around. You get the Adobe Flash plugin, Quicktime, Realplayer, DivX capability and all the rest via the gecko-mediplayer plugin in Firefox, and Java is installed too.
Application choice is an interesting one, mostly tried and tested software that was already in previous releases. Wicd can handle network management. Firefox and Opera are both included for browsing and interestingly SeaMonkey, the successor to the Netscape and Mozilla suites, has been dropped.
VectorLinux does not subscribe to the one application per category philosophy, but is trying to strike a balance between small and featureful. Opera is also offered as your mail reader as there’s no standalone client present. In the Graphics section we get F-spot, Inkscape the Gimp, Scribus and Shotwell. Exaile, Gmplayer, Mplayer, UMPlayer (a QT application which features integration with Youtube and Shoutcast) and Xine complete the multimedia section. Spoilt for choice there. There are a Thesaurus, Geany for writing code, Xchat, Pidgin and a couple of the usual suspects of a typical Xfce desktop like Leafpad as small editor of choice, and of course Xfburn. Abiword, Gnumeric and the light ePDFviewer look after your office needs, and when you’re done Grsync provides a graphical interface for backing it all up.
Not bad, and Gslapt as usual provides binary package management from the repositories. You could build this yourself, and my own Xfce desktops are fairly similar in terms of applications, but here you get it all in one neat package if it appeals to you.
I think where VectorLinux is falling down is the Vasm configuration utility. It is not that friendly, perhaps it was in 2005 but not these days any more, and without a face lift looks seriously old and dated. Furthermore, there isn’t actually that much to configure with it. It feels more like a series of scripts held together by a common but basic graphical interface, and I don’t think it has evolved at all in functionality since when I first encountered it.
The big news for the upcoming release though has got to be the fact that one can now use the ArchLinux Build system (ABS), albeit it seems at present from the command line only. This gives us access to thousands of packages in ABS, no doubt a major reason for Vector which was frequently criticised for comparatively small repositories. I don’t think that was quite justified though as you were able to use the to this release correlating Slackware packages. Plus, there used to be a tool called Vpackager which allowed more inexperienced users to compile packages from source via Gui, and in addition to install packages from Cruxports4slack. This tool seems to have been dropped in favor of the ABS system.
VectorLinux has undergone quite a few changes, and that is not just moving the thick bottom panel in Xfce to the top and slimming it down. Bear in mind that this is a release candidate and package versions may still change, but it feels that after nearly three years of development 7.0 is pretty solid in its foundation as well as in the choice of applications and a full release is probably just around the corner.
It certainly is a slick package, keeping mostly with the old favorites in terms of software. Unfortunately it does not feel nearly as user and certainly not as newbie friendly as it is slated to be, and tools like the Control Center are either not there any more or have regressed. It feels a bit like the developers are jumping about trying new things, not leaving users to settle in and get comfortable with the tools they introduced in the previous version.
Ok, it’s been well over two years, but what was the rationale not to include Vpackager any longer that allowed everyone to compile a package from source? You can take a look on Distro Watch to see what I mean. And this at a time when another Slackware derivative has added their own Gui for source based installation.
VectorLinux is as much a business in my eyes as it is a distribution, and the founder (Vector) has built his company around it. That might be enough reason for some people not to use it. On the other hand, many computer repair shops seem to put this distribution on clients’ hard drives to replace an aging XP, and a commercial version with paid technical support may just be what plenty of not overly technical people want, and some smaller enterprises probably as well.
Additional pre-paid support can be purchased. It is often lamented that take-up of Linux is slow because people don’t know where to go for support, and not everybody likes to trawl internet forums or even knows about this method of problem solving. IT managers like to be able to call somebody when things go wrong. In this sense Vector is just following Redhat’s lead. It’s up to you to decide whether to give this little distro a try, and of course the standard versions are free to download and use.