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Zenwalk, a Slackware-based slim-and-zippy distribution, released a major update last month. The release announcement listed some noticeable enhancements and promised the best support for Wi-Fi you can expect in any Linux distro. Excuse me for being skeptic, but one doesn't expect midget distros to be the best in any field. How well can a single-CD 469MB distro hold up against every other multi-GB DVD distro available today? As it turns out, Zenwalk manages to squeeze in a long list of open source wireless drivers, as well as the proprietary Intel wireless device firmware. Surprisingly Zenwalk 5.0 not only does things you don't expect from a single CD distro, it does them with ease and very little command-line sorcery.
Zenwalk is based on the mature and respected Slackware Linux. It's popular for its one-task-one-app approach to limiting the number of bundled apps. The distro performs respectably on dated hardware by selecting low-resource apps wherever possible, such as the Xfce desktop.
Zenwalk 5.0 runs atop a recent stable release of the kernel (188.8.131.52). According to its release announcement, this is the first Zenwalk release that includes the freedesktop.org Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL). In terms of software, it packs the latest X.Org 7.3 suite of X Window software, Iceweasel Web browser, Icedove email client, Pidgin for instant messaging, AbiWord word processor, Gnumeric spreadsheet, GIMP image manipulator, GMPlayer media player, streamtuner Internet stream browser, and more; all accessible from menus under Xfce 4.4.2. The window manager has grown more sophisticated in recent releases and helps distros that use it appear more professional.
Zenwalk's install is text-based, much like Slackware's. There's no package selection -- just specify a partition and let it install. To make things simpler, there is an auto-install option, which takes care of the partitioning if you want to install Zenwalk over an entire disk. It took about 20 minutes to install on my 1.3GHz IBM laptop. Zenwalk also ran (actually flew) without any issues on a 2.0GHz E4400 desktop, and looked great on the 1280x1025 17-inch LCD monitor. Although I didn't install Zenwalk's boot loader (instead adding the distro to my existing GRUB software) it's one of the few distros that still uses the LILO boot loader.
The distro seems to be a little flaky when it comes to the Num Lock key. You have to make sure Num Lock is off before you enter your password if you are using a laptop where certain keys double up for the absent numeric keypad. On my laptop, Zenwalk always had the Num Lock light on, despite the key being switched off. All other lights indicated their states properly.
The first thing that pops up when you've installed Zenwalk is the GNU GPLv2 license, followed by licenses for the Intel PRO wireless firmware. I have an old Linksys PCMCIA wireless adapter on the laptop that worked out of the box with Zenwalk. Getting the unsupported PCI wireless card on the desktop and a Linksys USB wireless adapter working wasn't much work, since Zenwalk packs Ndiswrapper. Just point it to your proprietary .inf drivers and you're in business. The other wireless-related improvement in this release is the Wicd network manager. Like everything Zenwalk, Wicd is lightweight, and has a simple folding interface that accepts your WEP/WPA keys and lets you run scripts when you're connected or disconnected to the router.
Though Zenwalk detects wireless hardware, it failed to detect and load my onboard wired Ethernet adapter. I had to manually load the module for the card (
modprobe e100) to get it working. For the wireless cards that were powered via Ndiswrapper, I had to change the WPA Supplicant Driver to Ndiswrapper within Wicd's preferences to get Wicd to list the wireless interface.
Zenwalk provides three interesting system tools. lshw is a hardware lister that provides detailed information about every piece of hardware on the machine. grsync provides a front end to rysnc so you can use it as a backup tool. The netpkg package manager is one of the things that separates Zenwalk from Slackware, because, unlike Slackware's pkgtool, it resolves dependencies. For a small distro, Zenwalk's repository mirrors have a variety of software, from productivity apps like the current openoffice-2.3.1 suite to games such as OpenArena. The only drawback is that the package manager doesn't arrange apps in logical categories that new users can identify with (such as Office, Games, or window managers), but rather in Slackware-style groups (such as a, ap, extra/a, xap). If you're looking for a particular application, the easiest way to find it is to use the search bar in the package manager. The size of the apps is listed in KB, and the package manager doesn't break the dependency list into required dependencies and installed dependencies, but it's not hard to overlook these annoyances.
All my USB devices (including pen drives, camera, and USB-to-PS/2 converters) were cleanly mounted thanks to the new HAL system. One 80GB USB disk was NTFS formatted, but Zenwalk wrote files on it without complaining. It also played MP3, OGG, AVI, MPG, and FLV files, extracted RAR archives, and let me view PDF and edit DOC documents, straight out of the box. The browser can play Flash video once it gets the right plugin, which it will fetch and install on its own when you visit a Web site that requires Flash. File associations seem to be set perfectly. Using the right-click context menu you can create an archive of selected files, calculate their MD5sum (which pops up in a new window), or burn them to a disk using the Brasero CD/DVD burner.
While Zenwalk can mount all sorts of disks and partitions on them, you have to manually define mount points for mounting local partitions on the hard disk during installation. Additionally, local NTFS partitions are mounted read-only, so you have to edit /etc/fstab to make them writeable.
For a single-CD distro, Zenwalk 5.0 packs quite a punch. It's light, it's zippy, and it has all the everyday applications a desktop user would need. It still isn't the best distro for users who shun the command line. But since I'm used to the command line after years of running Linux, Zenwalk 5.0 is staying on all my machines.