If you’d like to use FreeBSD as a desktop system, you’ll have to invest a lot of time in setting up the operating system and installing all the right packages. Obviously, this is a serious barrier for a lot of Linux users who are interested in trying out FreeBSD. PC-BSD fills in this gap by offering a completely usable and user-friendly FreeBSD desktop install with all kinds of stuff pre-configured. In a way, PC-BSD is to FreeBSD what Ubuntu is to Debian.
PC-BSD 9 is based on FreeBSD 9.0 and hence inherits its new features, such as ZFS version 28, which has a lot of new functionality compared to ZFS version 13 from FreeBSD 8, including triple-parity RAIDZ, improved snapshot creation and deletion performance and deduplication. But PC-BSD has a lot of its own improvements too. For instance, it now supports installation to BootCamp partitions on a Mac.
In previous editions, PC-BSD was KDE-only. Beginning from the new PC-BSD 9 release, the Ubuntu of the BSDs doesn’t lock you into KDE anymore but allows you to choose your desktop environment among KDE 4.7, GNOME 2 (GNOME 3 hasn’t been ported yet), Xfce 4 and LXDE. The DVD version comes with all these desktop environments, but we downloaded the CD version which installs a minimal LXDE environment. In the installer, you can choose the default UFS filesystem or the ZFS filesystem. The latter is more advanced, with features like snapshots, transparent compression and deduplication, but it’s only recommended if you have a 64-bit system with at least 4GB of RAM.
When you log into your installed PC-BSD system, three icons appear on your desktop: the AppCafe, the Control Panel and the Handbook. You are also greeted by a welcome window that gives you a crash course about some PC-BSD tools, such as the wireless tray icon, the AppCafe and the Control Panel. As its name says, the AppCafe is the program where you search for and install applications. It’s rather basic (it doesn’t even show how many applications are available for installation, nor how big an application download will be), but it gets the job done.
The Control Panel is the one-stop shop for managing your system. For instance, this is where you configure your firewall (which has a default configuration that allows SMB and NFS) or your network connection and where you enable and disable system services, add a printer or a new user etc..
An interesting application installed by default is Life-Preserver, which makes it easy to automate backups of your home directory and synchronize your data to a remote FreeNAS system or another backup server. Life-Preserver uses rsync and SSH for this, and PC-BSD installs a tray icon to configure your backup schedule, such as daily or weekly. It’s a quite basic tool, but it ‘just works’ and even restoring a backup is very easy to do.
Working with PC-BSD feels a lot like working with a Linux distribution. Of course that’s because almost all the software you can install from AppCafe is the same you’ll find in Linux. There is, though, one big issue: even more than in the Linux world, graphics hardware support can be a challenge. If you want 3D support, having an Nvidia card is the best option, as there’s a proprietary driver for FreeBSD/PC-BSD. But if you’re having an ATI or Intel chip, you’re out of luck for now.
One of the strong points of PC-BSD is its documentation: the PC-BSD Handbook on your desktop has 247 pages explaining all major tasks, including pre-installation, installation, the various desktop environments, installing applications, using the control panel, some common tasks and finding help. For more low-level help, the FreeBSD Handbook is also an excellent resource.
If you love 3D games and don’t have an Nvidia graphics card, PC-BSD obviously isn’t the choice for you, but if you want to try out a BSD system instead of a Linux distribution, PC-BSD is definitely the way to go. It offers a nice graphical installer and a fully functional desktop environment, with powerful FreeBSD technology under the hood, not to mention the the ZFS filesystem.
You can find out more about PC-BSD 9 on the project homepage