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Monday, 18 November 2013

AntiX 13.2 - More Modern But Still Some Quirks

Blimey, it's been a long time since I reviewed antiX already and it's about time to give it a second look. The overall judgement may have been a bit harsh last time around and I'm going to see whether we can write a more positive piece this time. Some of the issues raised seems were valid though as the distribution has changed a bit since then. Enough of that, let's hop right in.

To make it clear right from the start, I really, really liked antiX where it worked. It's come some way since 11 and while that release wasn't exactly bad, just having a few too many problems for my taste, 13.2 features a lot of improvements and overall feels more modern.
I had actually been running 13.1 for quite a while in VMwarePlayer where it performed extremely nicely - solid and fast, very responsive, as you would expect from a light distribution with minimal window managers, not much fluff, and tweaked to run on older machines using as little resources as possible. It is of course built on the venerable Debian 'Wheezy' release branch, giving stability and access to a huge range of packages in repositories and out there, mostly proprietary packages on the web. 13.2 is just a maintenance update and does not change the current line much but a few packages have been swapped out.

I am trying the new release on my trusty old Acer Aspire 5551, with Radeon HD 4250 Graphics, AMD Phenom II X3, 4 Gb Ram, a 256 Gb SSD upgrade, Broadcom 43225 wifi and the usual optical drive, Super Multi DL if you will. It's got a good keyboard that has seen me through years of typing btw.
antiX is actually based on Debian as well as Mepis, which itself is derived from Debian. You will see why this is important as antiX inherits a number of things from that distribution, not always for the better. It is available for 386 and x64 architectures and both downloads are still under a 700 Mb CD size, just how I like it. There should be no need to waste more bandwidth to get started. For this review I opted for the 64-bit release. antiX-13.2_x64-full 'Luddite' came out 4 November 2013 with a custom 3.7.10 kernel. Those with an earlier release can just update according to instructions in the news section of the main page.

As antiX comes as an installable live CD I booted into live mode first to take it for a spin. The distribution provides manifold useful options in the Grub boot menu, like booting with 'Root Persistence', 'Static Persistence' or 'Home Persistence', cutting out its main purpose as to run live from CD or from USB stick with persistency settings. There's also an entry to boot from hard drive or for a command line install. It took a fair while to boot into the desktop, still bearable but not as fast as say Crunchbang or Puppy. Once that routine has passed we're dropped into a quite attractively styled IceWM desktop that reminds me of another light distribution from overall style, theme and icon placement. This is where antiX really shines. Despite its small size we get several smaller window managers to choose from, and tiny scripts let us toggle features like use of the rox-filer and the conky system monitor on and off. SpaceFM is a great addition. IceWM is the default but Fluxbox and JWM are also installed and ready to choose at the login screen and Fluxbox is definitely my preferred choice here as it looks very sleek and elegant and got some cool semi-transparency going on. Wireless worked as well as brcm80211 firmware is now evidently included. antiX features its own custom Control Center and there are several ways to connect in the Network section. Wicd would have been my first choice but moaned it could not connect to dbus, a common issue with Wicd, and that the daemon had exited while the GUI was still scanning for networks. Rutilt threw hands up with a frequency scanning error. In the end I picked Ceni and this one actually worked and seconds later I was looking at some bookmarked sites with Iceweasel. The browser also comes with the Startpage and lxquick privacy enhancing search engines pre-installed.


The annoying issue with the mouse cursor getting frozen or 'sticky' on the desktop or in applications that was identified in antiX 11 and in Mepis 11 is still around, and despite playing around with the mouse settings. Strange enough it's much better in Fluxbox but returns as soon as a GUI app like Iceweasel is opened and the cursor moves over it. Even the scrolling menu bug where the menu gets detached while under the mouse cursor and starts to float up and down the screen reared its ugly head again in IceWM. JWM also suffered from 'stickiness' which led to no less than seven control panels opening. I narrowed this down to the touchpad as it wasn't present in the virtual setting and all cursor related issues disappeared once a USB mouse was in use.


Perhaps antiX is just unlucky and it's my hardware, but then all other distributions except Mepis played nicely on it.  So to be sure I tried this release of antiX also on a DELL Latitude E4300 with intel wireless and graphics. This one has been great with all Linux distributions I've tried so far and just worked without needing additional drivers or packages installed and DELL has a reputation for its hardware working well. Unfortunately, antiX dumped me at a black screen every time and this was also a no go. I'm hopeful it will perform better on desktops and that it may be better on hardware from certain specialist vendors that sell laptops preinstalled.

Next up was an install to hard drive from within the live session. The distribution uses the graphical Mepis installer that can be launched from the desktop when in live mode and has been slightly adapted just to reflect the fact that you're running antiX. I'm not going to walk through the entire install routine, those interested can take a look at the earlier review. What I particularly liked was that we get to set up which sources our system will be using, whether to get its packages from Stable, Testing or Unstable (Sid). Sid made a lot more sense to me since I am already staying on Stable on another partition so I picked that. It's a nice little installer except for the fact that you can only choose the home directory to be under root or, if picking another partition, have this one wiped, i.e. formatted. This should probably be made clearer, especially to people new to Linux. Even older hands need to pay attention here as it is something one would not expect as it's sane default in many distributions not to wipe anything unless explicitly told so and confirmed again. The install started well - and then stopped at 78% and antiX basically crashed. Perhaps I shouldn't have tried to start an application from the menu but I thought the whole point of live mode installers is that we can keep working while it's doing the deed. It took with it all screenshots I had taken up to this point.

There's probably a good reason why we can jump straight into command line install from the Grub menu and this is it - it's just more reliable. Pick that, let it boot, log in as root with password root and there we are. The installer can be started with cli-installer and this will come up with the requirements for minimum installation for three different options: 2.8 Gb for a full install, 1.5 Gb for a base install, 0.7 Gb for a core install of antiX. The last two options only need 48 Mb of ram, the full install apparently requires only 64 Mb of Ram. Quite decent for those old computers you may still have lying around, I'm sure Pentium III would run very happily with this as they would have already come with more memory back then. We then get to set root and home partitions and in the next step the system will be copied to the disk. Again, this is extremely basic as an installer and I'm getting the idea the distribution is more intended to be run from USB stick or even CD.


Once we've made it to the desktop there's everything to like about it if you like minimal window managers instead of full blown environments and you like Debian as a base. There's a lot of attention to detail evident and it's definitely a labor of love. All three environments have a clean and breezy feel to them and care has been taken to have a consistent feel across them, with JWM and IceWM being the most similar. In the home folder is a list of which packages are installed by default and how to turn antiX into a fully libre compliant Debian installation. A couple of wallpapers are included and these can be set to randomly change at timed intervals in all window managers, just as every menu has been given a shortcut to take screenshots. Special keys on my keyboard however did not work. There's a function to update menus in each and a subsection for terminal applications.
The terminal of choice here is rox-terminal. Of particular note is a cli organizer, the moc music player and the cdw console cd burning tool. Alpine is included for mail and also console style clients for chat (irssi), the elinks browser, rtorrent and the newsbeuter feed reader. The entire selection of applications is very thoughtful and in line with the philosophy of other minimal distributions like Puppy Linux it packs a lot in, only that this distribution can be properly updated from huge repositories.

Plenty of graphical applications are included, too, most notably the entire LibreOffice suite and Iceweasel. Tools like luckyBackup, Grsync and Bleachbit. A system-wide adblocker that writes to the hosts file, Gparted to work with partitions, Gdebi to install local packages, a tool to change source repositories and the Synaptic package manager. Adobe Flash is already installed. Geany for editing and programming and a pdf viewer. Clip-it can be started to keep a history of copied text. Leafpad as another editor and File-roller for extracting and archiving. The Games section comes with a few native choices, not too many, and Dosbox for those old style DOS games or even applications. In Internet we find Claws for email, Dillo as another graphical browser that is much more economical than Iceweasel but does not support frames, Flash plugin or Javascript (for many that's a good thing), Pidgin for integrated messaging, a graphical firewall that can be set in user space and a utility to connect and disconnect network shares, Transmission, gFTP and a couple of tools to work with dial-up and USB modems. Overall a really viable assortment directed at people who need a bit more than what Puppy offers.


Under desktop settings we can switch Conky and Rox-panel on/off or let Rox or SpaceFM manage the desktop and display icons which also changes the wallpaper to whatever was set for that environment. This is an approach to the desktop I haven't seen anywhere else and allows to mix and match. Personally I feel this top panel a waste of space as it doesn't seem to do much but antiX is one of the last bastions that still include parts of the ROX desktop. antiX offers an environment with many little custom tools and plenty of scripts behind the scenes all nicely pieced together and optimized for low resources.


Conclusion

The developer must think I've got it in for him but this is really not the case. I'm sorry that such a nice distribution doesn't seem to work for me that well but I know from comments last time around that plenty of people have had a different experience and it works well for them. So, let me conclude by saying that while antiX 13.2 has its quirks it all depends on your hardware. Just try it out for yourself.
From my particular experience it seems to be running better in a virtual machine than on real hardware. I would recommend for antiX to wean itself off all remaining Mepis influence like the installer, build straight on Debian and only use kernels from the various Debian branches, depending on which channel you go with, or the Liquorix kernel. After all Crunchbang 'Waldorf' has been running on the same laptop with 0 issues for more than a year.

8 comments:

  1. hi..Im college student, thanks for sharing :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Interesting review. I too have a Dell E4300 with Intel hardware and graphics and encountered no such problems as you experienced with the 13.2 release (or earlier releases for that matter). Crunchbang Waldorf is indeed a nice release. Too bad it doesn't come with all the nice tools and scripts that antiX has.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Have you tried any Liquorix kernels or Debian kernels rather than what's included in antiX by default? There are A LOT of ways of getting around issues. Equally curious for me, antiX is one of the few distributions (MEPIS is another) where, for my hardware, I rarely run into issues.

    Try Debian kernels, Liquorix kernels, as well as the antiX GNU and antiX SMP kernels; there are now 64 bit kernels too. There was also a bug in the first 3.7.10 antiX kernel that has since been patched; check the forums and consider downloading it and trying again. That may change your results too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Brian, thanks for your feedback and suggestions. I find it a bit puzzling too but my hardware does not seem to like MEPIS. Haven't had these issues with any other distribution.
      And yes, the Debian and Liquorix kernels are working fine, that's why I suggested going with them in the conclusion, although I suspect they will need to be recompiled to add support for some antiX features like zRam support and live mode file systems. Anyway, the touchpad issue is easily worked around using a mouse. All in all I rather enjoyed this release.

      Delete
  4. I have been using AntiX for a couple of months now, and have gotten NONE of the problems you have. My JUNKBOX is constructed from parts of several computers; Dell GX110 motherboard, Pentium III Coppermine @ 996 Mhz (from a dead motherboard), 512 Mb memory, Pioneer DVD DBD-114LG, Sony floppy drive, Ralink RT5370 wireless doogle, Philips 107S (which only runs @ 85Mhz), Logitech Optical mouse, and Dell Quietkey keyboard. All put together in an erector set frame case.

    And yes, there is equipment that gets confused with AntiX. It's not the operating system. It's the hardware.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think that's it, it will do better on older hardware and there better on desktops. I will probably install it on one of my towers soon to replace an ageing OS and am almost certain it will do better, just alone because of course those like your box do not have touchpads ;-). Fact remains though that no other distro exhibited these problems.

      Delete
  5. Nice review. I'm considering Antix for my old eee netbook. I quite like the jwm + SpaceFM combination. It kinda feels like 'Puppy done right'.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. That's a good characterization.

      Delete

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