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Sabayon 9 review – Gentoo for the impatient

If you have tried Gentoo in the past but its compile times have put you off using it, maybe try again with Sabayon 9 KDE, which couples Italian elegance with Gentoo's raw power…

Sabayon 9 is the latest release of the Gentoo-based Linux distribution aimed at cutting-edge users who don’t want to spend a whole weekend compiling from source before they can use their distribution. It does this by providing an out-of-the-box desktop experience including proprietary video drivers, Adobe Flash, and so on, as well as attention to eye candy and detail. The Anaconda installer makes installation a breeze, although it crashed when we tried to resize an existing partition.

Under the hood, Sabayon 9 has the 3.4 Linux kernel with PAE (Physical Address Extension) to support more than 4 GB of RAM on 32-bit systems. The rolling-release distribution has official flavours for the ‘big three’ desktop environments: GNOME 3.2.3, KDE 4.8.3 and Xfce 4.10.

The Sabayon 9 ISO is packed with applications

We put the KDE version to the test, as the GNOME version doesn’t ship the latest GNOME 3.4 release. The 2.4 GB Sabayon KDE ISO comes with a huge selection of applications, including Google’s web browser Chromium, the music player Clementine, the media player VLC, the media center XBMC, the desktop globe Marble, LibreOffice 3.5.3, and so on. But as Sabayon uses a rolling release model, you’ll get weekly updates.

The graphical package manager Sulfur has been replaced by the Rigo Application Browser. This is a quite minimalist package manager with a clean interface: the only way to browse Sabayon packages is by searching. It doesn’t even have a list of applications by category. However, once you get used to the search-based interface, Rigo works surprisingly well, even including “Did you mean foobar” suggestions when you mistype a package name.

Sabayon 9 also includes the popular XBMC 11 ("Eden") application

However, this deceptively simple Google-like interface covers already a lot of functionality for a first release. For instance, Rigo regularly shows you helpful notices from the repositories, such as a solution for the problem of LibreOffice freezing when creating a new document. You can also vote for packages and write comments (you have to register an account on the Sabayon forums for this functionality), update the repositories manually or show the list of pending configuration file updates.

Of course many advanced tasks of Sabayon’s Entropy framework for package management are not accessible in Rigo, but according to the press release Rigo “includes 99% of the features people are supposed to find in a tool that can be used to find, update and remove applications”, which we tend to believe.

An interesting feature Sabayon has inherited from its mother distribution is straightforward support for ZFS, Oracle’s filesystem for Solaris. Due to a license conflict between the CDDL license of the ZFS code and the GPL license of the Linux kernel, the developers couldn’t provide out-of-the box ZFS support in the installer, but after installation you can simply use the familiar zfs and zpool commands to create ZFS pools and datasets for your data and work with them. All this functionality comes from the ZFS On Linux project, which implements ZFS as a Linux kernel module.

Sabayon 9 surprised us with out-of-the-box ZFS support

In principle, it’s possible to use ZFS for your root filesystem in Sabayon, but this requires a complex procedure: install Sabayon normally, boot into a live CD, create a tarball of the installed root file system, reformat your hard drive with a ZFS filesystem, and unpack the tarball to this filesystem.

As GRUB2 includes official ZFS support since version 1.99, the result will boot fine. It requires some fiddling, but we can’t think of anything cooler than the elegance of the Sabayon desktop coupled to the power of ZFS, including snapshots, clones, deduplication, and so on. We’d love to see ZFS promoted from tech preview to a fully supported filesystem in Sabayon 10.

Verdict: 4/5

Sabayon 9 is an excellent example of what Linux is capable of. This rolling-release distribution taps into the power of cutting-edge Gentoo and makes an elegant out-of-the-box user experience around it. At the same time, the developers are innovative enough to rethink their package manager and to include technology like hardened base system packages and ZFS support.