Upon reading responses to my previous post, I decided to put some of the community’s suggestions to the test and examine some of the other options out there. Of the suggestions given, I primarily focused my attention on Debian (Lenny), Damn Small Linux and the wattOS beta. All the distros had relative advantages and disadvantages, and this provided me with an opportunity to look at some distros I otherwise might not have.
The first distro I took a serious look at was Debian (Lenny). It seemed like the “safest” route, which should theoretically allow me to build what I need from the ground up. I didn’t bother with a Live CD, I just pulled down an installer .iso and went from there. The installer was pretty straightforward, and I only encountered one major issue. Actually, this issue was more “show-stopper” than “major.” Due to the nature of what I’m doing, I need to have wireless network access on these laptops (Gateway model 450ROG), which happen to use Intel Centrino(TM) mobile technology (specifically, the Intel Pro Wireless 2100 card). So I hit the network portion of the install, and the installer comes back with, “you need a non-Free driver. If you have this particular Intel driver on removable media, insert it now.”
I locate a USB drive and the drivers, and download and extract them as per the instructions, then insert the USB drive into the laptop, tell it to continue, and… nothing. I don’t know if the computer isn’t seeing the drive or if it isn’t seeing the driver or if it’s just having a hissy fit because the driver wasn’t personally sanctified by Richard M. Stallman. What I do know is that the installer crapped out on me. Fine. I’ll just exercise my Google-fu and see what I can find out. And lo, I discover that Debian had removed that removed that driver from the standard package in a previous bug fix (what the bug actually was, I couldn’t figure out, beyond, “I don’t think we need this any more.” Gee, thanks.)
So I’m faced with a couple of choices: I can continue to fight with this (meaning I’d probably have to compile a new kernel with the Intel driver and then build from there), or I can move on to another distro and see if I can accomplish the same basic thing with less work. As luck would have it, I had another damn small distro ready to test.
First and foremost, Damn Small Linux is fast. It is exactly what it claims to be: thin, lightweight and efficient. The interface is intuitive enough for what I need, and it makes the laptop absolutely sing. It’s not as pretty as the Gnome or LXDE environments (it uses JWM), but it certainly does what I need it to. My hopes for DSL were quite high indeed.
Then Intel once again reared its ugly head. I was less surprised at DSL’s lack of compatibility than I was with Debian’s, but it was annoying nevertheless. What was surprising to me was that the only workaround they had available for this card was ndiswrapper, and it would require a bit of legwork on my end to get it to work. I was hoping for a simple fix, but alas, it was not to be. And this was particularly annoying because DSL was so ideal in so many other ways.
So now I was faced with the question: dare I trust the project to a distro that’s still in beta?
Right off the bat, wattOS had one major advantage over the other 2 distros I’d tried: it recognized the wireless card with no problems. Actually, it behaved very much like many of the other Ubuntu distros and derivatives I’d tried. The install process was easy, familiar and painless. And I must admit, there’s something comforting about the familiar, even when you’re trying something new.
For those not familar with wattOS, the best way for me to describe it is as a “thin”, laptop-optimized version of Ubuntu which (contrary to what Distrowatch reports) uses LXDE as its default desktop environment (Distrowatch says it defaults to Openbox). By default, it includes Firefox, AbiWord, Gimp, Pidgin and a handful of others. Noticeably missing are OpenOffice.org and Thunderbird.
WattOS is still in beta, and it shows. The login screen offers the opportunity to select a session (by hitting F1), including LXDE, XFCE, openbox, ion3, icewm, wmaker and blackbox. (I do find it curious that fluxbox didn’t make the cut, since it’s one of the thinnest of the thin). Unfortunately, of the listed WMs, LXDE is the only one that actually got installed. Attempts to switch WMs failed, because the distro didn’t actually include them. Installing the environments remedied this problem, but in my mind, that’s a fundamental shortcoming, and one I hope is resolved when they come out of beta. It’s also still fairly thin on management tools. While Synaptic Package Manager was included, the Gnome Update Manager was not. That, however, was nothing apt-get couldn’t solve for me, and amazingly, it works just fine in LXDE.
So where do we stand?
As things stand right now, I’m still not sold on any one distro/desktop combination. Damn Small Linux (with JWM) is the runaway performance winner, but the lack of support for my wireless card makes it problematic. Debian looks like it will be a fair amount of headache for a small gain: there are other thin distros out there that offer what Debian does, including APT, so my incentive to go that route is greatly diminished.
I love Mint’s management tools. In many ways, I consider it an improved Ubuntu. But I also really like what wattOS is doing. They’re clearly not there yet, but they’ve shown me enough that I definitely want to spend more time with it, seeing if I can turn the beta version into what I need. For the time being, I’m going to experiment with some of the less-common environments on wattOS and see how well that works.