Monday, 9 January 2012

antiX M11 in Review - Sadly Not So Great

As most readers will already know antiX is a light weight distribution based on Debian GNU/Linux and SimplyMEPIS, or just Mepis if you prefer, which is itself based on Debian. antiX sports a custom IceWM as default window manager and environment with tools from the ROX desktop. It is supposed to mainly be used on older machines and as a consequence there is no x86_64 edition, only two 32-bit optimized for i486 and i686 processor instructions.

As it closely follows the development of Mepis, a distribution based around the KDE desktop which I have reviewed earlier on this blog, the current version antiX M11 was already released in May 2011. You can go to the home page here. Every release also has a code name besides the numerical, and this one is called 'Jayaben Desai'. As these are highly political names it has created some controversy in the past on both sides of the argument, but we'll focus on the technical aspects and the available support and documentation, in line with other distributions.

antiX is both a word play on antiques, alluding tongue-in-cheek to the older machines it is mainly supposed to be used on in order to keep perfectly good old hardware running, and short for the developer who goes by the nickname anti on various forums (or fora for the ones educated in Latin amongst you). Anyhow, let's proceed. I tested the antiX-M11-686.iso, but you can get a full list of download mirrors and links here, and in a nice change from some other distributions torrents are available as well. Not that you need them because the download speed was excellent, but you may prefer them if only for the automatic checksumming.
The image is distributed as an installable live CD and is a handy 680 MB in size, so it should fit on any standard CD unless you've still got one of the old ones limited to 650 MB.

Unfortunately I can tell you straight away that this amalgamation of Debian Testing and MEPIS 11 did not fare that well. If you're pressed for time you can stop right here and continue your search, it's not as if there's a shortage of lightweight and minimal distributions.
If you're still with me, I installed antiX into a virtual machine with VMware Player, primarily to test memory usage, ran it quite extensively in live mode from CD and USB stick, and did a proper bare metal install on my Acer Aspire 5551 laptop. This release is using a by now old 2.6.36 kernel and xorg-server 1.9.5, all a bit behind even back in May when the image was first issued.

Live Session

Nothing remarkable here, the system booted into a full desktop with IceWM, although Fluxbox is also available for an even lighter choice. There's some ingenious blending here with elements of the ROX desktop, you get the ROX filer which I personally find rather old UNIX geek style and not exactly newbie-friendly, and the ROX panel which, when activated, provides quick access to applications.
That's the major point, a custom IceWM that offers quite a unique and productive working environment with access to many tools to old hands and people comfortable with antiX who know the system already. It seems obvious that this is not actually geared towards the linux n00b but more towards the intermediate user.


If you're happy with what you've seen you might want to install it. The system is using a slightly modified Mepis installer which I find one of the best around. It is a simple graphical installer, straight to the point, avoiding confusing the average user but still flexible and powerful enough. I actually prefer it to some of the better known installers in bigger distributions.

First though you're made to accept the terms and conditions and Mepis copyright or the adventure ends here. My disclaimer from when reviewing Mepis still stands, but on the other side many of the RPM based distributions make you sign off on their terms as well. It always leaves a bit of a bad taste of the corporate world though.

Installer: First screen - T&C's
In step 2 you choose your disk for installation and modify partitions.

Screen 2
And that's it already, or so it seems. The installer is well-behaved and asks for confirmation before you commit to whatever set up you've chosen.

Screen 3
The installer the proceeds to copy the files over (Screen 4). As this is a live system dump it is not a real installation in that sense, that's why the term copying in case you're wondering.

Screen 4
In the full, real install it took only around a minute to copy the files over, mighty impressive, and around 5 minutes in VMware. At the end of it you get to choose if and where you want to install the boot loader, which I was happy to note is still Grub-legacy, after Grub2 wiped out my Windows boot record leaving me reaching for the Rescue disk for the first time in eight years. Good choice here.

Screen 5
What was not so good was that, exactly like SimplyMEPIS and only there, the boot loader did find but not name my other existing linux systems, leaving blank lines for all three of them, although again like with Mepis the Windows Recovery Environment was found and properly labelled. You win some you loose some. Be prepared to add them manually to the menu list.You'll get a nice message that Grub installed correctly (Screen 6).

Screen 6
Then it's off to choosing commonly used services which the average user will probably want to leave enabled, unless you never print at home like myself.

Screen 7
Step 8 allows to set computer name and the domain it belongs to so it doesn't feel lonely. Samba is greyed out although installed, but the service is disabled at this stage.

Screen 8
After setting clock and timezone, the keyboard layout and system locale it's almost over. Define your users and passwords and we're off into the reboot to look at our shiny new desktop.

Screen 9
antiX M11 presents the Grub menu with a tasteful background, mostly black and white and easy to read and a blue globe on the left, perhaps a reference to its parent.

Applications and the Desktop

You're welcomed by a bright silvery white desktop with simple, stylish icons similar to the style used by distributions like Crunchbang and Archbang. If that's too bright for you a nice selection of backgrounds is included and easily accessible via the custom settings panel. In fact there is quite a lot here to spruce up your desktop, more than I did expect from a distribution designed to be more on the minimalist and light side. I mean this in a positive way in case the default really isn't your thing.
One of the included tools can even set any wallpaper as background for the SLiM login manager. A whole array of IceWM styles is also included, from flat to the glossy Ultrablack, which should please most people for a start.
A few more icon themes are there to choose from as well, but I was unable to actually get icons to change after applying the selection, even after logging out and back in the default theme remained. Applying a new IceWM theme though is instant.

The desktop with one of the included backgrounds and themes
Another problem I encountered was the jerky mouse pointer that would freeze for 30 seconds to a minute every time in full install and live CD/USB mode. Like the boot menu, another problem inherited from Mepis where I had the same problem, and strangely enough nowhere else. As the cursor would only move for a few seconds at a time before freezing again this made the system pretty much unusable except for the keyboard, and I mostly navigated my way around with key strokes from here on. I can only speculate this is an issue with the Acer Aspire's touchpad. The issue did not persist on a desktop with mouse attached nor in a virtual machine session, which shows why only using virtualized hardware for reference is a bad idea.

A completely new problem was that in my real session the IceWM menu scrolled up and moved away in what I can only call a weird way under the mouse when trying to interact with it, like starting an application or logging out. I've never experienced this before, and again it did not happen in a VM. At this point I have to say that I did an MD5 sum check, but at any rate the virtual install was done with the same CD.

There is also a choice to log in to the window manager with ROX managing the desktop, meaning you will also get icons, or to pure IceWM. You get the same choice for Fluxbox. All in all a useful light setup with additional menu entries to update the menu after installing more software or to start ROX panel which will appear at the top for easy access to your folders. Turning ROX pinboard off gives you a desktop without icons and minimzed launchers.
You also get a useful Conky setup in the upper right to monitor your system. This is actually one configuration I will save for use on other systems, it is simple and clean yet provides all the information you could want in such a small window.

antiX packs a whole bunch of useful but light applications, too many to list here, think mtPaint instead of the GIMP. Many of them are terminal applications, and this seems to put the emphasis on more advanced users who are comfortable chatting in a cli application, emailing with Alpine and reading RSS feeds with newsbeuter.
Many of the usual suspects are included as well, like Transmission for a graphical torrent client and SeaMonkey for an all in one internet suite. SeaMonkey seems to be getting increasingly popular lately. It makes sense to include it in distributions of lighter design considering its smaller resource usage, IF the user is making use of the integrated product to full extent for browsing, email and address book, web page authoring or even the chat client, as the libraries only have to load once instead of having several applications like Thunderbird, Firefox, and perhaps Kompozer open. In addition, the suite recently seems faster to me than Firefox itself for start up and page loading although they are supposedly using the same engine.

Ultrablack glossy theme and suitable wallpaper, terminal RSS reader, antiX Control Center
Similar to the main edition of Puppy Linux it is possible to block ads system wide with the antiX Adblocker, a small utility that downloads definitions and writes them to the host file. According to the main release page the primary reason for inclusion was to increase internet surfing speed for old machines which are low on memory, but it works just as well if you just do not want to see ads ;). A huge boon and I believe part of its identity are all the small custom tools included, and the main developer deserves a big pat on the back for his work. The Control Center allows to configure almost anything, from changing backgrounds to the network to creating backups and imaging whole partitions as well as managing packages and users. Access to all these mostly separate tools is unified in a simple tabbed interface that is easy to navigate.

Even a graphical tool to configure UMTS and GPRS connections, that is mobile USB dongles like my Huawei Vodafone modem, is there with a list of providers to choose from.
Unfortunately I was unable to get a wireless connection set up with my Broadcom 43225 chip although the package manager Synaptic showed the necessary files as installed. You get Wicd, Ceni and Rutilt for wireless management, all three very light applications to manage connections, and also Gnome PPP for dial-up. Despite all these tools no networks were detected and I was unable to coax a connection out of them, which is a first in a long time. Wicd normally works very well for me in all distributions that are using it.

What else? The desktop is immediately responsive and lightning fast, even in a virtual machine there is no lag at all, and memory usage after start up is a meagre 65 MB with no swap in use. Good stuff, this is something that could possibly even run on my old Pentium II with 64 MB. Starting the file manager, the browser and a couple of tools and the terminal brought it up to 132 MB. I brought the available memory down to 512 MB, the amount my weakest desktop has available, and then to 256 MB with the system still performing well. You also get a 'real' *nix system with a proper separate root account for administration, and a user created for unprivileged day to day operation.
For those interested in adding other desktop environments antiX makes meta-installers available that add either full or light sets in a user-friendly manner. Oh yes, a full range of media codecs is there, all set to work in the browser with the mediaplayer plugin for your online watching and listening convenience.

Help, Support and Documentation

There are several links on the main page that are leading to support sections, namely user articles (which at present only includes an upgrade script), a page of How-to articles which should cover many common questions and includes tips on how to install to some of the more tricky hardware, and the fairly active forum where the man behind this is participating on a regular basis.

In addition, and this should be any new users first port of call, the distribution menu includes a well-stocked  help section that is pointing to documents on how to get started with antiX and the two window managers, and also to the man pages for several important applications as well as how to use Partimage and the Gufw graphical firewall. Unfortunately only the FAQ's and the man pages are actually on the drive, with the rest linking to the respective projects' internet sites. On the other hand, the FAQ's are more like a getting started guide and cover a vast ground, sub-linked to other sections as well as to more pages on the net.


I would sum up that antiX certainly meets its goal to be usable on older machines and make them useful again. Anything with at least 128 MB Ram will probably be fine if you limit activity to only a few tasks and open applications. Sadly there are just too many things that aren't right so I will not keep using it, although antiX also has many good points to it. At present it seems easier to build a basic system from the base of your choice and just add IceWM rather than try and troubleshoot all these issues.
If the problems encountered do not affect you good for you. As antiX is intended in the main to run on and prolong the life of older computers these will quite often be ancient desktops with a mouse attached, chances are most users will not notice. Still, I think some of this comes down to basic quality control. To be fair a lot of it is inherited from Mepis, and mixing it with a moving and potentially unstable Debian Testing branch probably does not help.
antiX has its purpose and its users, but in the face of stiff competition from so many lightweight distributions I will not be recommending this release.


  1. I had Antix running on an old thinkpad x20 for several years, used to be always the best solution for older hardware, my desert Island laptop if all else failed.. now I run Bodhi Linux or Mint Lxde to do the same job. (I will check it out again though, thanks!)

  2. If your mouse problem is kernel related (as antiX uses the same kernel as MEPIS) you can just try the Debian or the Liquorix kernels.

  3. Ah, thanks for the tip. That could make a difference.

  4. This is what I call a pretty good review.

  5. Hmm, not so sure that the title of the review does justice to antiX. antiX doesn't claim to be 'great' so the 'not so great' is based on what and compared to what (is great)?
    You had the same issues (mouse) when trying out MEPIS (not surprisingly), yet your conclusion then was far more positive and did not end up with a non-recommendation.

    "Too many things" - you mention 4.

    changing desktop icons
    jerky mouse pointer - (same issue in MEPIS)
    IceWM menu scrolled up and moved away - (probably connected with jerky mouse pointer)
    wireless connection

    You mention a lot more than 4 positives for antiX.

    Someone above mentioned trying a newer kernel to see if it solves 2 (and possibly 3) of the issues above, and any feeedback on this would help us improve antiX to at least get a 'give it a try' recommendation.


  6. Hi anti,

    you're right, nobody claimed antiX is great. It's that I was expecting more and haven't had any problem getting wifi up in any other distribution when Wicd and the firmware/driver were installed. I mean that what is otherwise a nice distribution sadly did not work so well on some of my hardware, that is my main machine.

    I'm also summarizing that these things will probably not affect most people, so it's up to them to make up their own mind depending on what the're going to use antiX on if they want to try it.

  7. Well, I've got an update, which doesn't change anything re: my overall conclusion though.

    1.) I did another fresh install, and this time went for Wicd straight away instead of the other tools, and after some more cycling through possible interfaces, as default is empty, got networks showing up and got connected with eth1. I did the same thing in my previous installation and had nothing showing up, but had tried the other tools first. Or it may have to do with blacklisting modules.

    2.) Although usbmodeswitch and a tool to connect with USB dongles is included, it still failed to see my interface /dev/ttyUSB0, the search function to find the interface returned nothing and manually specifying it was to no avail. All distributions that support this modem from the start, Sabayon 6, Puppy Linux, and several more, worked with this setup. To be sure I also tried several variations like /dev/modem/ttyUSB0.

    3.) Found a new problem with suspend/resume where the display would not update after resume and show the desktop before suspending. The screen was also displaced to the left. I did not test this initially because I didn't think it was an important feature for older machines.

    4.) Tried upgrading the kernel to Liquorix and Debian as recommended and ran into libc6 failures and pre-dependency errors.

    I think at this point this is more than one should have to bother with to get going, and all but the most determined would move on. A distribution review should look at the image as it is released, not how it would be with a different kernel.

    These are only my results. I have nothing personal against the project whatsoever, and it may actually work better on (considerably) older hardware and with the i486 optimized edition.

  8. I would have to agree with your statement "It seems obvious that this is not actually geared towards the linux n00b but more towards the intermediate user".
    I have too had some issues with some computers using Broadcom wireless chips but have always been able to resolve same with some research and tinkering. This is not unique to antiX however, in fact antiX as you stated at least has the firmware included as "non-free" isn't a dirty word here.
    Admittedly preferring Debian based distro's, I have found the antiX aka Mepis installer to be the simplest and most dependable way to install a Debian system. The stock Debian installer is awful.
    The live CD has functioned properly on my computers. I haven't had any mouse problems and I don't use desktop icons preferring an uncluttered desktop.
    I would say at this point the M-11 release is getting a little long in the tooth. A full package upgrade in testing is huge. Because this is a rolling release, some of the built in tools of the original distribution don't work so well.
    I have tried other distro's including Debian derivatives like Mint and Aptosid (yes Mepis too) but always end up with antiX on my desktop. It suits my needs perfectly.
    I am disappointed your experience was not so great.


  9. Thanks afab4, good to know it works for others. I'm sure my case isn't typical.

  10. I've evaluated a lot of distros for my eeepc and found antix to be the least problematic. Their forum support is great too.

  11. I'm extremely picky about linux distros, have tried many of them, and chose AntiX 11. And I'm not a command-line masochist or anything like that - I just like the blend of "lightweight" with "full-featured".

    I have found a few annoyances, but the entire experience has really been quite good.

  12. I've been using Antix M11 quite happily with the Liquorix kernels for a few months after moving from Crunchbang. I prefer Debian Testing with Fluxbox so it was a natural choice for me. Using Ceni to configure wireless was simple.

  13. AntiX is wonderful. And that is coming from a pro-capitalist libertarian (all the left-wing links included are no big deal as I run into collectivists all the time). Thank you, anticapitalista, for the hard work you put into this great distro.

  14. Lots of updates, yes. I get a stable installation by starting from a preview version of A11, old enough to be Squeeze compatible.
    Rolling gets annoying because of the amount of upgrades on mobile net.

  15. As for mobile net I find that wvdial can handle just about anything and always gives a stable connection.
    Not that hard to find a working wvdial.conf either.


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