Thursday, 30 December 2010

Two Non-buntu Alternatives for your Netbook - Part 1: Fluxflux-sl

Chances are several of you, or somebody close to you, got a new netbook over the festive period, and now you are faced with the agonising question what to put on it to make it usable. Chances are the version of Windows that it came with does not really do it for you.

I've dug out two lesser known distributions that are for once not based on Ubuntu or using its repositories, and have nothing to do with Nokia, Intel or Google either. Independent is
what we want.


It appears Fluxflux was once based on PCLinuxOS but has since become a small Slackware-based live distribution. Actually, on closer investigation it turned out to be based on Slax as evidenced in the cheat codes and is put together using the same modular system. One of the two developers, Quax, also seems to be quite active on the Slax forums. The latest stable version at the time of writing is 2010.2, dated from July 2010, which is recent enough to come with the long term supported kernel 2.6.32 and 3.2.1, Firefox 3.6.8 and Thunderbird 3.1.1.
Fluxflux comes with Openbox and fbpanel as your default environment (not Fluxbox, although this might seem implied in the name) and is therefore light on resource usage which is making it well suited for netbooks. Wbar located at the top of the screen provides additional shortcuts to often used aplications.The default version is in German localization but dig a little deeper and there is an en_US version in the download section under snapshots.

Alternatively, if you're not averse to a bit of playing around, one could unpack the rather heavy base module and add/remove language and localization settings, and then replace the modules openoffice-split-base-de, mozilla-firefox-de and mozilla-thunderbird-de with your preferred language. This is Slax after all, and with tgz2lzm any Slackware package is quickly converted to a module. The tool deb2lzm increases your choice even more, and the inclusion of pkgtool allows to install any package in native Slackware format.

Fluxflux weighs in a 690MB download and runs as a live system that can be quickly installed to hard drive if desired with a custom script.  A handy shortcut is placed on the desktop and the script launches Gparted to prepare the hard drive for the install. Be sure to read the detailed Readme for the persistency settings and tips for installation to USB or hard disk. Fluxflux install Grub at the end of the procedure, and it is important to review settings and adjust if necessary, the Readme will help with the required boot entry. Windows users have it even easier with InA (Installation Assistant) which is available for donload from this page, and which besides FAT and FAT32 is also supposedly able to install to unencrypted NTFS partitions. This attention to detail carries through and may make at least trying this small distribution out a pleasant surprise for everybody looking for a change from the usual suspects.

The boot menu offers a choice between standard or EeePC-version. While the first is thought for use on ordinary desktops, notebooks, laptops and other netbooks, the EeePC entry has been specially adapted to make use of the features of these. There's even a script to control fans on Celeron based EeePC's.

The Fluxflux system tools menu
At this size and a small window manager there is ample space for applications, and this distribution is chock full of them, far too many to list, but they all make sense and underline the purpose of this distribution, mobile use and being light on resources.

There is an application for viewing and recording from DVB-T-dongles, a web cam application and of course Mplayer, Xmms and Xine. In addition to Abiword is included. Geeqie, Gtkam and Evince and the Gimp handle all your graphics and document display needs, Rox-filer complements Pcmanfm and Gnome Commander for navigating the file system, and a choice between Xfburn, Gnomebaker as well as Simple Burn. Firefox has the Adblock Plus, pdfdownload, downloadhelper and FireFTP extensions pre installed.

However, where Fluxflux really shines is the included utilities to make managing your system easier. For a start, this version of Slax comes with the graphical package management tool Gslapt and because Fluxflux provides its own repositories this can pull and install updated modules from there, so no need to fret about an outdated Firefox. If you don't want to roll your own module, you don't have to. Or of course, as already described, you can just install a Slackware package. The inclusion of graphical GNU Privacy Assistant makes generating a key easy in the interface.
Then we have a myriad of tools to change anything from keyboard layout to system time and language or configure NTFS access, monitor your hard drive health with GSmartControl or clone the modified system with a custom tool called FluxClone. Another tool allows setting up and later mounting encrypted directories. Then there's a script for setting up your webcam to display in Flash within your browser.
Ndiswrapper is present for adding those Windows only wireless drivers and Wicd manages connections. More attention has been paid to include tools for setting up DSL modems with Roaring Penguin PPPoE client, and what looks like a custom tool for Bluetooth (transfer to/from mobile/PDA) which also handles UMTS and USB connections to these devices.
Even more small custom tools allow to configure login manager settings, adjust battery warning level or change Xorg settings with Xorgmaker by Martin Ultima (remember Ultima Linux, another Slackware derivative?).

In conclusion, this is one small system that packs quite a punch, if your definition of small is 'fits on one CD'. It offers good performance and at the same time provides a comfortable environment with all the little tools it has to offer, particularly if you have some of the supported hardware it is mainly aimed at, the EeePC. A good choice of programs means that you will find a suitable tool for almost any scenario, and due to the flexibility and the combination of modules and Slackware packages that can be used is almost infinitely extensible. Debian packages can also be converted. The more I look into Slax and based off distributions the more I am surprised that this way of operating has not become more popular.
The system is also, perhaps except the initial installation, quite user friendly to beginners due to all the small helpers included, and Gslapt can keep it up to date without the need for this segment of users to build their own modules. Before you decide you can try Fluxflux in live mode and test if it recognizes the relevant hardware, or just use as a rescue system in dual boot with Windows or from portable media. This is not unique to Fluxflux, but you may like the increasingly popular and performant combination of Openbox, some Xfce tools and a panel like tint2 or fbpanel, the pre-loaded software and the overall character and flexibility of this distribution.

Support is available through the forums. There is also another project of the name Lin2go sharing the same web space which appears very similar and is also based on Slax for mobile use. It appears to concentrate more on booting and running under DOS but I did not investigate this further.

 Download it here.

Part 2: ArchOne

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