Updated: May 24, 2011
FreeBSD is a UNIX-like operating system, designed to be super stable and super secure. As such, it is probably not the simplest one to tame and run on a daily basis. Unfortunately, reliability and robustness do not always fully align with the mass-usage model of friendliness.
BSD developers realize this. So they released VirtualBSD, a VMware virtual appliance built using Xfce desktop with a very pretty theme and lots of programs and utilities preinstalled. VirtualBSD is intended for people who have never tried BSD or never dared try, did not have the right hardware for the task, or former users struck by nostalgia. Whatever the motives, testing VirtualBSD has never seen easier.
To run VirtualBSD, you will need to download the 850MB zipped appliance, extract it and register the VMX configuration file with your virtualization product. In my case, it was the VMware Workstation running on top of my Lucid installation on the RD510 laptop. The virtual machine was stored on an external disk for best performance. I left the initial settings intact, including the 1GB memory allocation.
VirtualBSD comes with a serene, blue desktop showing a beautiful mountain vista, with a dock at the bottom. Lots of bling-bling even with 2D graphics, including icon zoom.
VirtualBSD comes with a very impressive array of programs and tools. Firefox, Thunderbird, Pidgin, OpenOffice, Skype, Acrobat Reader, GIMP, VLC, Miro, and more. Multimedia wise, you get all the codecs and plugins you need.
Under Favorites, you will find links to social media and popular Web applications, including some fancy Flash games, Dropbox, Grooveshark, Google programs, and others. Not bad for an intimidating UNIX, right?
Sun Java is there too, and you can also customize the dock at the bottom, called Wbar, by adding and removing shortcuts, changing the order, font size, and more. You retain full control of the desktop, and you get tons of great programs. Best of both worlds.
VirtualBSD looks very nice. The default theme reminds me of Vector. The combination of colors, window borders, the smart wallpaper, and the dock give an expensive feeling to the simple and lightweight Xfce desktop.
Not only do you get subtle transparency in menus, you also get Gutenprint, a wide collection of free drivers for a range of printing devices. Not bad at all.
This attempt reminds me of my first encounter with PC-BSD, running KDE 3.5 back in 2006, when I tested the system using VMware Player. I even managed to install Clam anti-virus, even though it was completely unnecessary and made it update through a proxy. Nothing like solid KDE 3.5 and Alta Badia desktop to remind you of the glorious days of the past.
While the virtual machine test is far from being a real-life example of how simple or difficult or well-integrated a desktop is, VirtualBSD is a pleasant, refreshing diversion from the mainstream of free operating systems. It is an excellent technology demonstrator. The appliance testdrive proves that BSD is not a monster. Far from it; it's a witty, charming, highly useful platform that anyone could use.
Even if you never intend on using BSD on your machine as the primary desktop, VirtualBSD could shatter some of your fears and misconceptions about the dreadful UNIX. It may not eclipse the Linux just yet, and probably never will, and it does not have to. What it can do is become another alternative should you need it, should you seek it. Overall, VirtualBSD delivers a handsome punch of good quality in all aspects of the desktop usage, aesthetics, availability of programs, codecs, everything. Quite a surprise and a breath of fresh air.
Looking back at my flirtations with the BSD family, things are getting better, significantly. The critical turning point is not there yet, but in time, this operating system might stir the flames of competition in the software world. For the time being, you have the perfect appliance to play with and sharpen your UNIX skills.