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.
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|
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|
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|
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.