Review: Frugalware 0.5 (Siwenna)

[ Tuesday, 17 October 2006, wiezyr ]


Frugalware is an independent GNU/Linux distribution similar to Slackware, aiming at simplicity, speed and multimedia support. It features a wide software repository, managed by Pacman from Archlinux, which resolves dependencies and makes system updates easy. I’m going to walk you through the process of installing and configuring the latest version (0.5) of this outstanding OS.

Author: wiezyr, Translation: michuk

Development

Frugalware development is divided into two branches – current and stable. In current, the packages are updated regularly, as the new versions of programs appear. There are new updates available almost every day. In this way, the current branch is quite similar to Debian Unstable. The stable line is updated every half year and it takes a form of a new distribution release, with a custom code name ( currently “Siwenna”). This release cycle is very similar to the Ubuntu approach. Two architectures are supported: i686 and x86_64. The packages in Frugalware are fresh, quite stable and very close to the originals (custom patches are rare).

Frugalware with KDE, just after the installation
Pic.1 Frugalware with KDE, just after the installation

Installation

The installation process is a standard one. It should not be problematic for an intermediate user. You need to understand the partitioning process and know what a boot manager (e.g. GRUB) is for. The latter is required only if we want to have multiple OS-s installed on one computer.

So, after inserting the Frugalware installation DVD, I was welcomed by a GRUB screen which allowed me to choose some non-standard installation options. If you don’t know what to set here, just proceed to the next step. However, if your installation fails for some reason, you may be interested in setting some boot options (this is especially viable for laptop users). Anyway, pressing “enter” or waiting a few seconds will trigger the actual installation process (which should be OK in most cases).

The Frugalware installer, which is curses-based (that means it’s not as fancy as Fedora’s anaconda or YaST by openSUSE) welcomes us with a screen on which you can select the installation language. There are 13 languages supported currently. The next screen is to choose the keymap. Then, the installer performs some automatic hardware detection, it checks the installation CD validity. One question it asks here is whether you need software RAID, which is probably not very useful for regular desktops so I said “no, thanks”. I haven’t prepared a clean partition for Linux before, so I had to do this now. The installer gives a choice of a partitioning tool you would like to use: fdisk, cfdisk and parted are supported, but the last one didn’t seem to work in my case (choosing it had no effect). So, I created two partitions using cfdisk and decided to format them with the ext3 file system (another option was reiserfs).

Service editor in Frugalware
Pic.2 Service editor in Frugalware

After partitioning, it’s time to select the packages to install. There are two options: standard, where we can choose between predefined package groups, and advanced, where we can also select single packages. When we’re all set, the installer checks for package dependencies, displays the list of packages to install, provides their size before and after unzipping and then, tests the integrity of the packages and checks for possible conflicts, which can take really a lot of time, up to 15 minutes! After testing our patience, the installer finally starts doing its main job — installing the packages on the hard drive.

When the packages are installed, we need to choose the preferred locaton of the boot manager — GRUB. In most cases it will be the MBR sector (which is the default option) and this is what I chose as well. After installing GRUB, the module dependencies are checked and updated. Then, we need to make one more important decision — provide a root password and the password for a regular user (the user which you will be using to log into the system every day). Then, additional setup takes place… I entered the computer name (anything is fine here, like darth_vader, the_matrix or some_other_cute_name) and configured the network (by choosing the external network interface, ppp0 in my case). If you have only one network card (which is usually the case), just select the default option here. The remaining tasks are: choosing the system clock type (local or UTC), time zone, mouse settings and basic settings of the X server (screen resolution, number of colors, preferable display manager, etc).

Finally, the installation process is over — it’s time to eject the CD and reboot your computer.

First steps — system configuration

If you have chosen to install a desktop environment (as I did), you should see a display manager when the first boot-up process is over. I entered my login name and password (the one I have set up during the installation) and saw a nice KDE theme (see the screenshot above) within seconds. The interface was in Polish since this is my mother tongue and this is the language I selected during the installation. The desktop was quite ready to use by then. It just needed some polishing.

Package manager -- pacman
Pic.3 Pacman — system upgrade

Networking

One of the things I had to do manually is to configure the network connection. I use a Speedtouch ADSL modem, popular in Poland and some other Europe countries like France. The network configuration was easy since the instructions for Slackware worked for Frugalware as well. After a quick setup, I realized that I had a fully functional network connection. Great!

Sound

Frugalware handles multimedia pretty well. It plays both music and video without problems out of the box. One thing needs mentioning: by default, the sound is muted (weird but true), so I needed to use the mixer available in KDE (kmix) to turn the sound on. The alternative would be to use a console based mixer like alsamixer. In case of KMix, make sure that the Master and PCM controllers are on, in alsamixer, just press “m” key on both values to get the sound back. The multimedia capabilities rely on codecs. If you haven’t selected the codecs packages during the installation, you need to do this now in order to get the support for most of the popular multimedia formats. Just type pacman -S codecs in the command line and the Frugalware package manager will download them from the repository and install them for you in a few seconds.

Web browsing

The same concerns other missing programs, e.g. the Firefox plugins for Flash or Java. In my case they were installed automatically, but you can as well omit them first and install later from the repositories. Browsing the Internet is a hassle. Most of the multimedia content is displayed using the external applications, like Totem (in case of GNOME) or Kaffeine (for KDE).

OpenGL — 3D-graphics acceleration

What else can I do, I thought? Well, the 3D acceleration was missing, so I decided to install the proprietary NVidia drivers for that. It’s as easy as typing pacman -S nvidia in the console. The Frugalware installer downloads the appropriate drivers and automatically sets them up in the X.org configuration (the free driver: nv has been replaced by the proprietary one: nvidia, which supports 3D). The only thing I needed to do it to turn the acceleration on. This is done by adding this line:

Option "RenderAccel" "True"

in section Device of the /etc/X11/xorg.conf file and restarting the X server.

System services

At the end I took a look at the services that are turned on by default. We can manage them easily in the command line using the service [service_name action] syntax. There is however a Frugalware-specific graphical tool for that, too, called Frugalware Runlevel Editor (FRE). FRE presents the available services in a clear way and allows to enable/disable the selected ones as needed.

The whole adjusting and polishing took me not more than half an hour. By that time, I had a great, fully functional desktop environment for my every-day use. Not bad, Frugalware. Not bad at all.

Package manager -- pacman
Pic.4 FPM – a frontend for pacman

Pacman — the package manager

The distribution uses pacman as the package manager. This is a tool created by Judd Vinet for the Archlinux project. It relies on tar.bz2 packages. Frugalware packages use the .fpm extension to differentiate them from regular tarballs. Pacman is a very easy-to-use tool for both installing single packages and upgrading the whole operating system. It handles the dependencies pretty well and does a good job at making sure that the system is clean and consistent. System upgrade is as trivial as typing: pacman -Su. This is all you need to keep you updated! Pacman has also other handy options which are helpful in every day use, concerning installing, removing and searching for a package. The detailed description of pacman options can be accessed by typing man 8 pacman (user manual).

Together with the package pacman-tools comes a nice tool called repoman. Its job is to make the installation of proprietary software and other tools that did not make it into the main repositories easier. Here is the basic usage:

  • repoman update — updates the programs tree,
  • repoman search — shows the list of programs you can install using repoman,
  • repoman merge skype — installs the selected program.

I have installed Realplayer, Skype, Google Earth, Acrobat Reader and Opera in my Frugalware system this way.

Package manager -- pacman
Pic.5 FPM – a frontend for pacman

If you hate the console and cannot even think of using it for installing software, don’t panic. There is a graphical frontend to pacman called Frugalware Package Manager (FPM). There are a few more alternative frontends as well, but this one looks the most reliable. That doesn’t mean FPM is ideal. It’s a tool still in development and using it can be a pain sometimes. The most annoying problems are: freezing, very poor responsiveness and minimal set of options when compared to pacman. Displaying all the packages of some selected group (like networking) can take even a few minutes! And the program is unusable while waiting for the packages to show up. The optimistic thing is that if you are patient enough, FPM usually does its job. If you like to experiment, you can test other graphical interfaces for pacman as well, but I believe that right now, the easiest and the fastest one is the console interface. It also offers the best functionality. So, in my opinion, there is no good reason to use the alternatives.

Summary

Frugalware is not as good for the newcomers as openSUSE or Mandriva since there are not so many graphical wizards and tools included. On the other hand, the system is fast and simple, offers a great package manager, large software repository and decent multimedia support, so it may be a good option for intermediate and advanced users. What I missed the most is a local community (not existent, yet) of the distribution and a bit more well-thought packages (e.g. more modular approach to packaging KDE and other large apps). All in all, Frugalware is a very nice distro and it may be a good choice for a power user’s desktop.

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About the Author

Wiesław Rybiński

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