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Feature: Zenwalk

Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

By Mayank Sharma on February 14, 2008 (4:00:00 PM)

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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 (2.6.23.12). 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.

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on Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

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Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 204.137.64.112] on February 14, 2008 05:44 PM
Hmmm.... I will have to give this distro a try.

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Zenwalk, I'm in love...

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 159.149.24.100] on February 14, 2008 06:07 PM
I'm using Zen since version 2.0, whithout any regret. Its Slackware roots gives it that order and good internal design that every OS should have...

About the numlock problem, you can resolve it looking for "numlock support" in ZenPanel=>Startup Services & ZenPanel=>Keyboard layout.

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Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 87.203.115.12] on February 14, 2008 07:42 PM
Hi! If you get the netpkg package from a snapshot repository, you will see that all your complaints about the package manager have already been addressed! Thanks for the lovely review and welcome to Zenwalk! :)

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Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 212.251.124.178] on February 15, 2008 12:44 AM
I dont like zenwalk. Where is vlc, compiz in default repositories? It lacks packages

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Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 10.176.247.29] on February 15, 2008 01:36 AM
XFCE has compositing support already. You DONT need compiz additionally. Just go to settings->window manager tweaks->composite and enable transparency and cool effects like shadows and transparent title bars.

Of course, if you can't find it, you may have to enable composite extension in your xorg.conf file for nvidia(or similar for ati), logout and relogin.

As for vlc, I know of one good way, there is a package in the slapt-get repository.

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Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 125.20.39.38] on February 15, 2008 02:16 AM
mayank, yours is a good review.
but, i wonder why zenwalk missed on openoffice. zenwalk 5.0 is only 468 mb, it could have easily dropped abiword+gnumeric and included OO.o.
well, i found pclinuxos 2008 a better responsive desktop, though it's based on mandriva and packed with kde.

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Re: Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

Posted by: Mayank Sharma on February 15, 2008 04:32 AM
I think it's a matter of choice. Probably Zenwalk's community prefers a small ISO download with the latest OOo binary available on-demand via their repository. Abiword works for most people because it does what a major portion of word processing people need.

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Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.147.138.1] on February 15, 2008 08:01 AM
I am using this distro for 2 months and I love it, it is very light and very beautiful and at the same time it has every piece of software I need already compiled as a package.

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Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 158.39.116.55] on February 15, 2008 11:07 AM
Zenwalk is great, got me introduced to the slack-way of doing things. Unfortunately it's not as flexible as the major distributions like Fedora, Ubuntu and OpenSUSE so I found it frustration to use as a main OS in my studies. Maybe in more stable environments it'll be a very god alternative.

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Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

Posted by: illuminari on February 16, 2008 09:31 PM
I tried 5 different distros of Linux before I finally settled on Zenwalk. I'm a complete and utter newbie. I tried for 3 days to get my wireless working with other distros, but to no avail. Just so happens I have the Atheros card, which I've read Linux hates. I installed Zenwalk and had my wireless up and running in under 10 minutes, thanks to their wiki, which addresses my card specifically. If it hadn't been for Zenwalk, I would have gone back to Windows, so I'm eternally grateful.

Good review, by the way! Being a n00b, the netpkg is a bit harder to understand than the (K)Ubuntu one, but I've gotten Opera and a few other games installed pretty easily (I love black jack), so it's not that difficult.

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Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 85.140.144.155] on February 17, 2008 08:00 PM
Nice distro, but the developers really should pay more attention to what people are saying. There are some minor things that can be fixed easily by them, some essential packages that could be added painless to the extra repos and so on. And they don't have any effective way of flagging packages as out-dated. And since not every piece of repository is actively maintained, things like emacs, dosbox, openbox, obconf and so on are a bit outdated. And I'm sure there are many other things in /extra that should be updated.
But otherwise - the distro is great, I should say

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Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 75.134.124.147] on February 18, 2008 04:30 AM
It does too!!

Between this and Blag70000, I'm settled in on my Linux distros of choice. I can have the best of both worlds/distros.

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Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 217.40.154.89] on February 19, 2008 10:00 AM
I installed Zenwalk over the weekend and I love it! I thought they'd tear Slackware from my dead, cold hands but this tiny miracle has done it! Zenwalk team I salute you!

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Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 68.7.113.148] on February 20, 2008 04:02 PM
try Vector, you'll like it better than Zenwalk

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Re: Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 84.203.176.10] on February 29, 2008 01:52 PM
re. trying Vector.

I did, I didn't. But Vector is also great

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Tiny Zenwalk 5.0 packs a big punch

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 78.149.83.49] on February 20, 2008 07:40 PM
Ref below

I could have wrote this myself I had the same experience with a Dreaded 3Com wireless PCMCIA card but with a NDISwrapper entry it was up and running in 10 mins. I love it to bits - It just works and is fast and stable to boot! I have tried every distro off Distrowatch to number 20 and have not been tempted away from Windoze but ZENWALK has truly made me a Linux convert!

Posted by: illuminari on February 16, 2008 09:31 PM
I tried 5 different distros of Linux before I finally settled on Zenwalk. I'm a complete and utter newbie. I tried for 3 days to get my wireless working with other distros, but to no avail. Just so happens I have the Atheros card, which I've read Linux hates. I installed Zenwalk and had my wireless up and running in under 10 minutes, thanks to their wiki, which addresses my card specifically. If it hadn't been for Zenwalk, I would have gone back to Windows, so I'm eternally grateful.

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