By Jack M. Germain
Feb 1, 2016 2:52 PM PT
Zenwalk is a Linux distro that seems to be in a state of flux.
I took a gamble with the Zenwalk 8.0 beta edition, released last month, after several colleagues raved about its improvements. Chalk that up to potentially bad advice.
It’s not that Zenwalk is a bad distro. It is an uncooperative and strange experience. With all the options available, a lot can be said about not having to struggle with an OS version that is problematic.
I had not bothered with Zenwalk Linux since reviewing it about a year ago. The announcement for the upcoming version 8 release prompted some interesting good vibes. All that was holding up the next full release seemed to be the availability of the next stable release of Slackware.
Zenwalk is based on Slackware Linux and runs the Xfce desktop environment and a focused collection of applications. The current versions use the Chromium browser, which doubles as an image gallery viewer and very fast PDF viewer.
Zenwalk 8 Beta Desktop View
The beta release is available for the 64-bit x86 architecture exclusively. This release is fully backward compatible with Slackware and focuses on developer Jean-Philippe Guillemin’s view that desktops have to be able to be synced with smartphones, making the Web browser the most important application.
I should have tempered my high expectations. The Zenwalk website redirects visitors to the forum page. If you look hard enough, you can make your way to the download link for the nonbeta ISO files. You have to look even harder to locate the Zenwalk 8 beta ISO.
My experience with the beta release was very disappointing. It was not easy or much fun installing. Part of that is due to its Slackware roots. Perhaps a bigger part is the distro’s continuing disjointed state of affairs.
Zenwalk can be installed only on a local drive, supporting only 64-bit hardware platforms. I gave up trying to install it to a virtual machine.
Not having a live-session ISO makes trying to test Zenwalk’s suitability and compatibility with a user’s hardware a worthless endeavor. This gives Linux in general a bad name to potential users who know little about the good Linux distros.
The ISO image features a minimal boot loader designed primarily for adding extra kernel parameters. The user must press the enter key to boot the installer or the F2 key for a detailed list of boot options.
Tough to Install
The simplified text-mode installer was not simple at all. The distribution’s text-mode installer is somewhat intimidating. It has none of the modern installation tools that help automate the process.
I had to select a keyboard map and manually partition the disk before the installation would continue. Even installing the bootloader was problematic. Once the installation completed, a maze of setup chores just bogged down and worsened the experience some more.
In addition, after installation, it is a must to select a language, set up the root (system administrator) password and create a new user. Why make things so difficult?
A workaround should have been installing Zenwalk from a USB drive. The dd command is simple:
Zenwalk-8.0beta.iso dd if= of=/dev/bs=1MSDx
That process, however, turned out to be just as unfriendly as everything else.
Needs a Better Way
I found few changes in my first and second impressions since my initial look at Zenwalk Linux. The website is just as sketchy and unimpressive now as it was then.
Zenwalk 8 beta remains more of an individual flight of fancy than a serious Linux OS. Creator Guillemin built the Linux OS as a sort of customized computing tool so he could stop repeating the same modifications on systems after each new installation.
That is all well and good for experienced users, but it does little to give everyday users a Linux distro that is easy to install and set up.
Lightweight distros powered by the Xfce desktop are common among Linux distros. Zenwalk is a fork of Slackware Linux and was previously branded “Minislack.” It is fully compatible with official Slackware packages.
Zenwalk is preloaded with some solid Linux apps, but the choice of applications is very limited in an effort to keep the inventory slimmed down. This is not enough to make a good everyday Linux OS.
Zenwalk has a panel bar on the upper part of the screen and a bottom dock that serves as an application launcher.
The Xfce interface works as expected. It has no unique tweaks or integrations that make Zenwalk stand apart from other Xfce-based distros.
The Zenwalk 8.0 beta announcement hypes the fast boot speed and performance sharpened by providing one application per task. Yes, Zenwalk is fast to boot and has quick responsiveness.
However, I can’t stop asking myself, “Is that all there is?” I want something that makes Zenwalk my everyday OS. If I were looking for a replacement for my current Linux systems, I would have to keep looking.
I am willing to chalk up the unfriendly nature of the Zenwalk 8 beta to its transitional state awaiting the final release. But if Zenwalk 8 stumbles with the same difficulties present in the beta release, the distro will continue to miss its mark.
My impression last year was praise for the philosophy behind Zenwalk but disappointment with its ho-hum desktop environment. I am holding out hope that what comes next changes my first and second impressions.
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