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Zenwalk 6.4 review

With all the hype surrounding mainstream Linux distributions like Ubuntu, openSUSE and Fedora, it’s easy to forget that there are quite a few other excellent distros out there. Case in point – Zenwalk. As Dmitri Popov discovers it's a great way to give your old hardware a new lease of

This article is due to appear in issue 93 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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Born around 2004, this Slackware-based distribution is a surprisingly good little distro with a small but dedicated community that has been releasing new versions on a regular basis. The first thing you’ll probably notice when visiting the project’s website is an impressive number of Zenwalk editions. The distro is available in Standard, Core, Gnome, Openbox and Live flavours.

For this review we decided to take a closer look at the last of these. As the name suggests, Zenwalk Live is a distribution designed to run off a USB drive or CD-ROM without installing anything on the hard disk. We grabbed an ISO image of the latest Zenwalk Live 6.4 release and created a bootable USB stick using the UNetbootin tool (unetbootin.sourceforge.net). It took about one minute and 15 seconds to boot Zenwalk on an Eee PC 1005HA – not fast, but not unbearably slow either. Similar to Knoppix, Zenwalk Live supports cheatcodes which let you specify certain parameters before the boot. This includes the keyboard layout, language, copy2ram (lets you copy and run the entire system from RAM) and ramsize (the amount of RAM reserved for session settings) parameters.

Zenwalk Live did a commendable job of detecting and configuring the netbook’s hardware, including the network interface, sound card and graphics card – so pretty much everything worked out of the box. Zenwalk Live uses Xfce as its default graphical desktop environment, which is both lightning fast and a real pleasure to use. The Start button in the top panel provides access to the installed applications grouped into categories. Here you’ll find the usual suspects like the GIMP image manipulation application, the OpenOffice.org productivity suite and the Totem media player.

The IceCat (rebranded Mozilla Firefox) browser and the IceDove (aka Mozilla Thunderbird) email client cater for all your browsing and emailing needs, while the Pidgin instant messaging application helps you to stay in touch with your friends and colleagues. We were pleased to discover that IceCat comes with Flash enabled, so we could enjoy our favourite YouTube videos without any additional tweaking. While Zenwalk Live sports a well-rounded collection of pre-installed applications, there is still room for improvement. We have nothing against OpenOffice.org, but it would have made more sense to include lightweight alternatives like AbiWord and Gnumeric instead. And it’s hard to see the reason for including the Transmission BitTorrent client: after all, who would want to seed torrents from a live system?

If you decide to install Zenwalk Live on your machine, you can do so using the supplied Zen Installer tool (use the default root password ZenLive when prompted). This tool is a far cry from the graphical installers of Ubuntu or openSUSE, though. It’s a no-frills text-based installer that doesn’t offer many options. In fact, before you can even run it, you have to manually partition your hard disk using the GParted partitioning tool. Despite being a rather barebones tool, Zen Installer did a good job of recognising an existing NTFS partition and installing Zenwalk alongside Windows 7.

While there is a lot to like about Zenwalk Live, the distro does have one serious drawback: it lacks the ability to save session settings between reboots. Of course, it’s a minor issue if all you want is to test-drive Zenwalk before you commit to a full-blown install. But if you are looking for a live distro to replace Knoppix or Puppy Linux, Zenwalk Live is probably not the one you want.

Verdict: 3/5
If you want to test-drive Zenwalk without installing it on your machine, Zenwalk Live is the perfect distro for the job. But the inability to save session settings seriously limits Zenwalk Live’s usefulness as a live CD distro.

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