CentOS 5 as a Desktop System

[ Monday, 23 April 2007, riklaunim ]



CentOS is an enterprise class GNU/Linux distribution based on the publicly available source packages of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Just like RHEL or Debian stable, CentOS focuses on stability and security, sacrificing the “latest and greatest” packages. Is CentOS 5 really that stable? And does it fit on the average Joe’s desktop? This is what I’m gonna find out.

Installation

CentOS just like RHEL and Fedora uses Anaconda as system installer, so the installation process is an easy and intuitive one. The only problem can be the amount of RAM that we possess, since the graphical installer needs at least 512 MB (text mode is less resource hungry and 128 MB RAM will be enough for it). CentOS is delivered as one DVD or six CDs (all of which are required for installation to be successful). An installation guide is available if you encounter any problems during the procedure.

CentOS installer
Pic 1. CentOS installer

Package selection
Pic 2. If you prefer KDE, it’s a good idea to deselect GNOME in the detailed view

Text-based installer
Pic 3. Text-based installation is very similar to the GUI one

System performance

The first system boot-up takes a while, since there are multiple services turned on by default, sometimes not really relevant ones. I would expect a first-run wizard to appear where I could set up the regular user account and localization details. In my case however, I just saw a blank screen with a login prompt. Not that I am terrified by the terminal screen, it was just a little surprise :) . I logged in as root and (do not ever do that at home!) typed startx in order to trigger the X Window System. GNOME 2.16 appeared without questions in a short while.

The whole system used 52MB RAM in the text mode. After starting GNOME, the usage increased to 110MB RAM. I started tweaking here and there. I turned off unnecessary services like cups, cron, cpufreq or bluetooth devices and the memory usage dropped to relatively 40 and 97MB. After killing the upgrade daemon and the energy-saving GNOME applet, the memory consumption decreased by another 4MB. In a nutshell — CentOS can be as fast and efficient as any other distribution. You just need to know what you’re doing when disabling and switching on unwanted functionality. Just as a comparison: Gentoo installation that I used to create this review uses 21MB RAM in text-mode and 57MB RAM with crippled KDE running. Regardless of the memory consumption, the applications used to start up fast enough, with a usual exception for OpenOffice.org which needed some 15 seconds to show up.

Desktop stability

For testing purposes I used the default GNOME desktop. Except for the environment itself, CentOS comes with (already mentioned) OpenOffice.org package (with national translation and dictionary) Gimp, Mozilla Firefox, Evolution and a few more applications, nothing extraordinary or worth mentioning. During my testing I have not encountered any problems with the default applications. All worked as it should. However, I stepped upon a few glitches — Firefox is installed without any plugins (neither Flash nor Java or multimedia) and the whole system, just like Fedora, comes with no restricted or non-free drivers and codecs. This makes it a bit problematic to be used by a newcomer (compared to distributions like Ubuntu Feisty Fawn or SimplyMEPIS) since the user has to install all the missing functionality on his/her own.

CentOS in action
Pic 4. CentOS in action

More glitches…

Ten days after the official release, there was some 220MB of software updates and patches for the default installation. They mainly concerned the OpenOffice package and the kernel. This is not friendly for a user with poor Internet access. Another issue is the installation CDs layout. The default installation requires all 6 CDs, even though only a few packages (connected with the localization) are fetched from the last 3 CDs. The packages could be laid out in a bit more reasonable fashion.

Problems with multimedia
Pic 5. Totem can’t play restricted media. In the background the dumbest file manager ever.

CentOS as a desktop OS

Compared to CentOS 4, the new version is significantly better for a desktop OS. More up-to-date versions of applications and desktop environments and way more polished default desktop cause that playing with CentOS 5 was a pleasant experience. Things just work so the feeling that I was working with not-so-bleeding-edge software wasn’t very disturbing (and I say that as a Gentoo/Arch user with creeping-edge software installed on my usual desktop). As far as the non-free codecs support is concerned, as well as Java or Flash, there are unofficial repositories for RHEL/CentOS (although not all packages are available for version 5, yet). There is even a Polish project called Jazz-Linux aimed at creating a CentOS-based desktop ready distribution. Currently they only have a few packages prepared, but they are planing to support latest KDE and unrestricted multimedia in the near future.

Why not Fedora?

RHEL is based on Fedora. It uses stable packages based on old Fedora releases and tests the new solutions on the current versions of Fedora. The just-released packages and latest ideas and solutions cause that Fedora is not always a stable OS. RHEL/CentOS are based on well-tested packages, thus the distribution is much more stable and the packages do not change so often. A nice point is also that, contrary to Debian stable, in RHEL/CentOS, new features and packages are a sometimes added to the stable release (think of this as of service-packs). This policy makes the distro get older a little bit slower, leaving the support period very long.

Summary

CentOS 5 is a stable system which can be user either as a server OS or as a desktop system for a normal user. The latter requires a few modifications in the default installation (like the performance fixes mentioned in the article), but after the tweaking is done, it works great and is worth recommending.

About the Author

Piotr Maliński

Programmer, journalist. Creator of the CMS, Linux and PHP libraries. Arch Linux/Gentoo user. Creator of a GNU/Linux distribution based on Gentoo: Plusiaczek Live CD.

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