Friday, August 8, 2008

First Impressions: PC-BSD

To make sure that I was getting a solid look at the whole Unix like community and not just Linux I decided to install PC-BSD on my test machine and give it a spin. I chose PC-BSD because it seems like the best distribution to use as an introduction to BSD. The website touts simplicity for the end user and an easy to use graphical install.

Windows users will feel right at home using PC-BSD. After all it took far more work then it should have and a risky maneuver to get it to dual boot with Linux. It was clunky and slow within the desktop. And it assumed that the end user on the machine was a complete idiot to the point that on typing a sudo command A message came up before the password prompt that basically suggested that I should be briefed by my sysadmin before sudoing. Not to mention the fact that even though only one user was set up aside from root it was not an admin account by default.

The installation was simple enough. I have to give it credit for being the fastest and most painless install I've seen that wasn't a mini-distro. I didn't test the partitioning system for fear of destruction so I had made a partition earlier in gparted. Per the official install guide I did not install the boot loader as the guide suggested that doing so would over write my MBR and therefore grub. Installation all said and done I jumped into the menu.lst of grub and added the appropriate entry. A quick restart and I was to be on my way.

Except not. It wouldn't boot. At all. After hours of manipulating the grub entry and scouring the web looking for help I decided it was time to attempt another installation. I wiped the partition and tried it again. This time at the prompt I installed the boot loader. I consider this to be a somewhat risky maneuver as it could have left me without grub on my MBR, leading to much pain and suffering later trying to get it back. I read several forum posts where this had happened just that way to users trying to dual boot Linux and PC-BSD.

Well as luck would have it it worked. I was finally able to boot into my new OS. Upon boot I was eventually greeted with the familiar desktop of KDE 3.5.9. I chose a slightly older version of PC-BSD as the new one, version 7, comes with KDE 4.1. I don't know what it is about the new 4.x series of KDE but I have managed to crash it dozens of times doing such benign things as opening the file manager so I have utterly rejected using it.

The first problem I noted with this OS was that it used KDE. This in itself is not a problem except that KDE is not my preferred desktop. I'll generally use XFCE and in some cases Gnome. Lo and behold according to the official PC-BSD documentation a substantial amount of Gnome based software is unsupported in PC-BSD and may not run at all.

I consider this to be a serious drawback because it has taken away an element of freedom in what I want to run on my system.

Another obvious play to Window's users is the installation method preferred by PC-BSD. It's called PBI. You download a PBI file and then run it as an executable. It then automatically installs the software for you. If your coming to PC-BSD from Windows this should be great. I guess. As a Linux user I don't really understand the point in making it take longer to install a program I want to use. If I want to install emacs for instance, I'll have to find it online in the PC-BSD directory, wait for it to download, and then run the file. In Linux I would just pop open a virtual terminal and run sudo apt-get install emacs and then go back to whatever I was doing while I waited for it to finish. There is nothing streamlined about having to monitor the download progress of an app and then find and execute it's file to get it going.

Of course the OS does allow for the more traditional means of installation. You can use packages and ports to install instead. Installing from packages seemed like a bit much as well under these circumstances as there is no included package manager. While many advanced users will feel perfectly at home without one it's something that I generally like to have and I know many others do too. For instance when I first set up a new computer I'll open up synaptic select everything I know I'm going to need or want and then let it go for a few hours. Initial installs on some of the computers I've worked on have required over 1,200 packages. I wouldn't want to do that without the help of a package manager and I certainly wouldn't want to do that with PBIs.

The ports system was far more friendly then either of the other two. You download the ports directory and are then given a nice organized place to browse and install applications using the make install clean command from the terminal. The only real problem I found here was that it was rather slow and again lacked an easy way to organize the ports that you wanted to install or that had already been installed.

A lot of the complaints regarding installation methods may seem absurd to the advanced user but for someone who wants more power but still lacks some of the more technical skills these faults are devastating. There is no clear middle ground in this OS between the novice and the expert.

Having installed a few packages to get things rolling I took it for a spin. I installed the first apps I install on any OS I'm going to tinker with. Emacs and Nethack. The former being my preferred editor for extensive configuration work and the latter being the way I take breaks when I get to the point of preparing to use my machine as a projectile for my home made catapult.

I started tinkering around. Nethack came around quickly. Be it due to how utterly foreign parts of the system seemed compared to the Linux I've come to know and love or because of how utterly inept of a system PC-BSD seems to be, I never finished configuring the system. It was driving me insane.

Final call?

The guys over at the PC-BSD development team don't seem to know who they're targeting with this distro. The complications that came from attempting a dual-boot and the lack of effective documentation would make any Window's user think two or three times before risking there system to giving it a try. More advanced users who know that they can make it work will be left wondering why they bothered, My opinion? If you want BSD go for FreeBSD and skip the bull shit. You'll thank yourself.

No comments: