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Review of PC-BSD 10.1

I've been a fan of PC-BSD for a long time, because it takes the pain out of installing FreeBSD on a desktop computer, but it's been rapidly gaining features of its own that enhance the Unix desktop. I installed PC-BSD 10.1 and gave it a test-drive, and it's going to stay installed for a long time (and will be good company for my FreeBSD/FreeNAS storage server and my FreeBSD VPS. Yes, I'm a fan.)

The executive summary is: insert the disc, press OK a few times, and find yourself at a comfortable Unix desktop running a pretty well-configured KDE4. There's more to it than that, of course. PC-BSD's installer keeps getting better, though I have yet to successfully run it from a USB key; I am forced to burn a DVD every single time, and at 4GB, it's a pretty hefty download. It doesn't have a lot of options, the way some Linux installers do: if you want to dual boot or resize partitions or anything like that, you're probably out of luck. But once you've pressed your final OK, it's about 15 minutes' unattended work (go pour yourself a coffee) and you are sitting at the log-in screen.

I'd installed 10.0 earlier, but uninstalled it when I saw the newly rebuilt virtual console system wouldn't work with my Intel video card; that's now been fixed and the consoles look great. There's also been a lot of improvement to the Lumina desktop and the AppCafe software installer. In both cases, I'm impressed with the usability of the systems which are, in the FreeBSD tradition, methodically thought-out, simple, and useful.

Lumina is lightweight and in terms of package size and featureset, compares favorably with LXDE. You get multiple desktops, an app menu with links to applications, files, and servers; a run dialogue called lumina-search that appears with Alt-F2, the new Insight file manager, multiple desktops: that's it, but it's also all I've ever asked for in a graphical desktop, and I've used it without feeling I'm missing much. The window management is handled in the background by fluxbox much the way LXDE relies on openbox; I'm hardpressed to see much of a difference.

PC-BSD defaults to an up-to-date KDE4 desktop upon installation. It's neither better or worse than other KDE4 desktops provided by openSUSE or Kubuntu. I'm not hugely enamored of its Activities and widget-laded Plasma Active desktop though, so I haven't been using it. Also included are dozens of other desktops, from Mate to Windowmaker to IceWM to Ratpoison to Afterstep to beyond, but neither Gnome3 nor Cinnamon seem to be available in the repositories.

PC-BSD has put some time into a custom wireless network configurator that sits in your system tray and allows you to view and choose from existing wireless networks. Happily it beats competitors like network-manager by applying its configuration the underlying FreeBSD system settings, so once you've used it to select a wireless network, you no longer need to have it running even if on your next boot you go straight to a virtual console (network-manager runs in user space and only connects your network if it's running in the GUI). They've also built a graphical system for mounting external drives from the GUI. Click on it and you can see how much space is available on the device, and unmount it with a click. These two apps appear in the system tray of any desktop you've chosen to run if it provides a system tray.

I'm also hugely impressed with PC-BSD's system configuration tool. OpenSUSE's equivalent (YaST) is one of the reasons I prefer that distro over the Ubuntus, but PC-BSD's tool now rivals or surpasses it, offering easy access to system level configuration, from adding users to installing printers and beyond. What I really like is that it notices which desktop you are running, and integrates that desktop's configuration system into the menus, which is hugely useful and does away with the mental bifurcation necessary elsewhere to remember what gets configured where. In PC-BSD it all gets configured using the same system. From it you can handle printers and scanners, add users, edit the login manager for remote or automatic login, reconfigure your X11 display, and more (like manage the ZFS filesystem; see below).

As for packages, I'm thrilled. PC-BSD's PBI (push-button installer) package format and AppCafe system provide a pretty, graphical package catalog for anything in that format. PBI packages install differently and carry all required libraries with them, allowing users to install non-system software for their personal use, allowing easy software installation into jails (via the Warden, a graphical manager for FreeBSD jails), and generally painless installation of software. It also monitors and helps install system updates: look for the update icon to change color in your system tray. Ages ago I packaged SLRN for them (helped, anyway) using the EasyPBI software that also comes provided and allows you to contribute something to the repository. I found it there, as well as lots of other things including a lot of software I wasn't aware of. That said, it's FreeBSD underneath and the entire port collection is available to you even if no PBI has been built. I installed gkrellm with a simple "pkg install gkrellm2" command, and if you want to build a port from scratch using "configure, make, install," you can do that too. In this regard I find the FreeBSD port collection vastly superior to most Linux distros and smaller only than Debian's catalog. I have yet to need a favorite app that I haven't found available for FreeBSD.

A couple other notes: neither PC-BSD nor FreeBSD have integrated systemd, so the system runs on classic init scripts and boots more slowly and methodically than Linux distros running systemd (I don't care though); it also boasts conservative choices like inetd (vs xinetd), and so on. On the other hand, it relies on Pulseaudio for sound and (I believe), HAL for hardware abstraction. More interestingly, the latest PC-BSD now defaults to the ZFS filesystem, not UFS. I'm still not well-enough versed in how to take advantage of ZFS to understand its advantages, but I do know the custom LifePreserver backup application makes use of it to provide, for example, access to deleted files or previous versions of existing files. The world desperately needs a good ZFS book for all of us FreeNAS and FreeBSD users trying to wrap our heads around the new functionality (Michael Lewis has just written and published it!) FreeNAS recommends 8GB of RAM to run ZFS correctly; this desktop only has 1GB but I haven't noticed any slowness in the system. From the system config you can manage ZFS datasets such as taking a snapshot or cloning a dataset to make a backup. These all leverage the utility of the ZFS filesystem but I'm still figuring out how it all works.

Not much else to say. There's room for improvement in the virtual consoles but because the console code is undergoing rapid development currently, I expect to see that happen. The Lumina-search function could get a bit more responsive, and a better set of default fonts could be installed; I'm also not a huge fan of the default log-in and background graphics (that's usually the first thing a user customizes to his/her liking anyway). But those are trivialities, and other than that, I don't have much to criticize. Rather, I'm grateful this install left me in front of a well-integrated Unix desktop with small, useful utilities that make it easy for me to get to work. This install is going to stay on my system for the indefinite future!


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