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FreeBSD is a Unix-like open source operating system that can trace its ancestry back to the original Unix. It's well known and well respected in the server marketplace, but until recently FreeBSD lacked an easy-to-use desktop version. In 2005 the PC-BSD project was started to provide just that. This month PC-BSD version 7 was released. I downloaded and installed it to see how it squares up to user-friendly Linux distributions like Ubuntu. I came away a little disappointed.
PC-BSD offers the stability and security of FreeBSD but pitches itself as "a complete desktop operating system, which has been designed with the 'casual' computer user in mind," so from the start my expectations were high. I downloaded the CD ISOs (three in total; a single DVD version is also available) and booted a test machine. The installation is straightforward and the PC-BSD guide gives detailed installation instructions if you get stuck anywhere.
The installer handles all the normal tasks, including getting the user details and passwords, disk partitioning, and package selection. In PC-BSD the default shell is csh and not bash, as is common on Linux. Also, Firefox and OpenOffice.org are not installed by default and need to be added from the system components screen. The installer is quite flexible and also allows you to install a server version with the GUI disabled, and you can configure autologin of the first defined user for easy access at startup.
PC-BSD uses the relatively new KDE 4.1 along with some specially designed PC-BSD themes. KDE 4.1 includes several desktop widgets, and PC-BSD uses the Folder View widget by default to show files on the desktop. I don't know if it is a bug in KDE or a problem with the driver for my graphics card (a GeForce 6800LE) but the files in this widget would appear only when I moved my mouse over them, and then they would fade away. At first I thought this was the intended functionality, but I found a video on You Tube demonstrating how the Folder View widget should work, so I guess I was just unlucky. I disabled it and my desktop started to make sense again.
PC-BSD comes with all the tools you need for Internet, office, and multimedia tasks. For Web browsing there is Firefox 3, Opera 9.52, and KDE's Konqueror. KDE provides the other Internet tools including Kopete for instant messaging and KMail and KNode for email and RSS news respectively. On the office side there is OpenOffice.org 2.4.1 and KDE applications such as the Kontact personal information manager. For multimedia files PC-BSD uses KMplayer, and I was able to play MP3 and DivX (MP4) files without any problems because PC-BSD ships with a collection of freely downloadable Windows codecs that PC-BSD uses for multimedia playback. CD/DVD burning is handled by K3b.
If the software you want isn't included on the CDs, PC-BSD has a software repository from which you can download open source and commercial software. To make software installation easy, PC-BSD uses Push-Button Installer technology, which ships software packages with all the files and libraries necessary for the installed program to function, eliminating much of the hardship of dealing with broken dependencies and system incompatibilities.
The installation media doesn't contain Mozilla's Thunderbird, so I went to the software repository to download it. Double-clicking on the downloaded .PBI file brought up a simple installer, and Thunderbird was installed in less than a minute. The software repository has hundreds of additional software packages available, including games, chat/IM applications (including Skype), development tools (including Java), P2P programs (including several BitTorrent clients), and graphics programs (including the GIMP 2.4.6).
If you ignore the desktop theme, on the surface PC-BSD looks like a Linux distribution running KDE 4.1. But underneath the user interface, PC-BSD is a very different beast. Where as Linux was written from scratch to emulate or be compatible with Unix, PC-BSD's FreeBSD underpinning has grown from Unix. PC-BSD is also licensed under the BSD license, which is different from the GPL in that is doesn't force developers to resubmit their modifications back to the BSD community. This has both positive and negative aspects, but one plus point is that FreeBSD now contains experimental support for Sun's ZFS, which is licensed under a GPL-incompatible license and as such won't be making its way into the mainstream Linux kernel anytime soon.
There are other technical and philosophical differences between FreeBSD and Linux, including the naming of devices (on Linux eth0 is the first Ethernet network card for any chipset, but on FreeBSD each device is named after its driver -- for example, you'd see rl0 for a RealTek network interface) and the philosophy of code development and inclusion in the main source tree. Although an official Linux source tree exists, the majority of Linux distributions use their own tweaked source tree, while PC-BSD uses the standard FreeBSD sources.
Unfortunately my time with PC-BSD wasn't all full of smiles. I generally start my testing of an OS release using a virtual machine. I tried PC-BSD under three different virtual machine solutions (VMware, VirtualBox, and Parallels) and couldn't get it to install on any of them. Under one the installer wouldn't start, in another the installer crashed halfway through, and in the third PC-BSD installed but would not boot. Maybe the fault was with the VM programs, so next I tried to install PC-BSD on a Pentium II machine that met the minimum requirements. Here again the installer didn't start. Finally I went to a Pentium 4 machine with 768MB of memory and I managed to get it to install. But my woes didn't stop there. While trying to test the multimedia capabilities of PC-BSD I inserted a flash disk into a USB port. PC-BSD wouldn't read it. I then tried another stick and the system froze.
I had high expectations of PC-BSD, as much is said of FreeBSD's stability and security, and having used FreeNAS, which is based on FreeBSD, I knew that FreeBSD has lots to offer. The idea of a desktop-orientated version of FreeBSD with easy-to-install software packages sounded useful. But on the whole PC-BSD failed to impress me. On the plus side, the Push Button Installation works as advertised and the ability to play MP3 and DivX files out of the box is something that many Linux distributions lack. But having struggled to install it, along with the KDE widget glitch and experiencing a system freeze, I feel that PC-BSD still needs some work.
Gary Sims has a degree in Business Information Systems from a British university. He worked for 10 years as a software engineer and is now a freelance Linux consultant and writer.