Updated: February 1, 2020
In the Linux world, Arch is the great noob equalizer. But there's an ever more frightening beast in the forest. It's BSD, and even invoking its name can send the lesser man into despair. The simple truth of the matter is, throughout the nerdy circles of the world, BSD holds a respectable place as a stable, reliable workhorse. But it's never distinguished itself as a viable desktop alternative.
Over the years, I've dabbled in BSD quite some - you can check my UNIX reviews to figure out what gives. Sometimes, there would be this or that BSD flavor that surprised with its simplicity, but things would usually unravel at some point, whether it's hardware compatibility, disk-greedy partitioning, or perhaps the ease of everyday use. Then, recently, I came across GhostBSD, and it looks pretty and inviting. So let's see what gives.
Ere we commence, I must say this is a virtual machine test - not a proper hardware test on a laptop the likes of which I do with Linux. The reason is - disk management. Often, BSD wants the whole device for itself, and I don't have a spare machine I can wholly dedicate to this cause. This forces me to test using VirtualBox. The downside of this effort is, you won't get the full scope of what BSD does and doesn't, specifically things like Wireless connectivity, Nvidia drivers and alike.
GhostBSD did boot fine in VirtualBox, though. The boot splash is super-short, so you must have quick fingers. Next, you're asked what kind of graphics drivers you want to use - VirtualBox is there in the list. While you don't get mouse integration out of the box, you can resize the guest as you see fit, so you can actually have a normal-sized desktop experience. A promising start then.
GhostBSD 20 is a pretty thing. You get the MATE desktop with the classic menu layout, true to the old, proven Gnome 2 formula, similar to what we've seen with OpenIndiana a while back. You also get a fancy theme and icons. But to be fair, these do feel a little out of place, as they are a bit too flat and modern-like. Still.
The other problem with this stylish theme is that you get about 10px worth of alpha border for window screenshots, so this creates a visual clutter - anything caught in the background will be included, which is not what you want when taking screenshots of individual programs. The file manager also has a visual buglet - if you want to resize the sidebar, you can, but there's no visual indicator of the grab handle one would expect.
Font & HD (DPI) scaling
Since I was testing on my Slimbook Pro2 laptop, I did have to sort the scaling. The machine comes with a 14-inch screen, with 1920x1080px resolution, and this makes everything a bit tiny. In Kubuntu, HD scaling wasn't trivial, so I had to resort to all sorts of font size tricks to get the job done. Since, I've had a chance to fiddle with Windows 10 scaling, and I discovered a new world of wonders and snags, which puts the Plasma issues in a completely different light, but that's a story for another time. It would appear scaling isn't really plug-n-play in any operating system, it seems, at all. Shame. Maybe macOS, but I don't have enough experience with that.
Now, how does MATE handle scaling - well, you can change font DPI settings. This doesn't sound ideal, but it works great. I was able to go from default 97 DPI (not sure why not 96) to any value, and the elements were all correctly resized, with a sharp transition effect. No sudden blurring or stretching or anything like that. So I was able to make the desktop session pleasant to use, even on a small, hi-res display. Very cool. Full fractional fun. A buglet: the system menu would not show after tweaking the DPI; a session logout was needed.
I decided to go about my usual set of testing, as much as possible. With bridged networking, I was able to access my Windows machines. Samba connectivity worked fine. Nice. Samba printing, that too! Even my Wireless printer was detected properly. Noice.
This one worked quite all right, as well. I had HD video and MP3 playback. You have VLC, so you shouldn't expect any (bad) surprises. Once, I skipped forward within the current track, and audio disappeared even though the time stamp for the song kept on ticking. At this point, VLC had to be hard-killed. Hm. System area integration is rather elegant.
At some point, I had a notification that there were updates available, in the live session. Looks similar to what some Linux distros do. But I wonder if the actual mechanism works well while running from a removable media with no persistent storage.
Text files open in LibreOffice by default - and not in the text editor (Pluma). Go figure. The mouse was sluggish, and I had to change its acceleration and sensitivity. And also the mouse icon theme, as the default one is all 1999 in its glory. This includes the wait-for-action clock that makes FVWM look like the coolest wonder in the universe. But at least you have the power of MATE to edit everything. So you win some, you lose some.
GhostBSD comes with a simple, straightforward installer. Most of the steps are very similar if not identical to how you do that in a typical Linux distro. Overall, much friendlier than I've expected. But you have to be careful with the partitioning.
I decided to go with ZFS Full Disk Configuration - I wonder why there's no space between the word configuration and the left parenthesis. Anyway, what's BE. But there's the thing - full disk usage, it seems. Maybe you can do something less stringent with UFS, but it might be risky, especially if you care about the data. This is never really an issue with Linux. ZFS sounds super-cool, but you probably want a real, multi-disk setup to make best use of its advanced functionality.
The ZFS setup isn't trivial. For example, the partition scheme is GPT, but then, I seem to be having only one non-grayed-out option for the bootloader - FreeBSD BIOS (nothing seemingly EFI). Weird. You also need to understand what ZFS pools are, what they do, and how the block size affects performance. Surely not something for the common user.
Finally, speaking of bootloaders, I don't know how well these different options cooperate with other operating systems, like Linux and/or Windows. Not sure about the EFI setup either. Maybe, one day, I'll have a scapegoat system just for these BSD games. For the time being, soz.
After that, the installation took about 20 minutes to complete. Could be ZFS, could be the amount of resources I've decided to the virtual machine. Ideally, it should be less, as the underlying storage is SSD, but then the type of virtualized I/O interface must also play a part.
The reboot after the installation was slow. This isn't a new thing. It's almost like powering down a spaceship. No live session data was preserved into the installed system, but no matter. Linux distros don't do that either, except for a rare, wondrous exception now and then. I did need to logout once or twice early on, and the system didn't cycle to the login page. Only a black screen. Might be virtual session artifacts.
Package management & updates
This is an interesting one - and ultimately the downfall of BSD versus Linux. In general, it is much easier to grab software in a typical distro than it is in UNIX operating systems. Now, GhostBSD does a pretty reasonable job. Software Station and Update Station are okay. The former looks like Synaptic more or less, although language categories could all be bundled into one section for brevity. The usage is pretty straightforward. But the problems begin once you step outside the boundaries of what's available in the default channels. For instance, no Skype or Steam. Are they even supported on this platform? I don't know. But then, the leap from Linux to BSD must be similar to Windows people trying Linux and then wondering what they ought to do when stuff is missing. The concepts of repos and such is actually weird and alien to the ordinary user.
The update manager worked fine - and fast. Annoyingly, there's no alpha border in screenshots here. Why this discrepancy, me no know. But it's no different than what you often see in Linux - dark and light theme mixed, some programs come with their own borders or theming, and alike.
You get a reasonable set. Firefox, Thunderbird, Transmission, LibreOffice, VLC. A balanced collection of modern software. Not as glamorous as it could be, but not a spartan graveyard of relics either. In fact, most distros ship with a similar bundle. The question of what happens if something is missing still remains, but all in all, this ain't bad.
Performance, resource usage
Since this is a VM test - as opposed to my usual real-hardware routine, there's really no point talking about these. First, the host is a completely different system from my testing laptop. Second, the numbers from the virtual environment won't mean much. However, that said, GhostBSD was fairly snappy and responsive, even running in its own isolated world. Apart from a somewhat laggy mouse, you wouldn't necessarily know. Overall, the results are indicative - and highly encouraging.
When it comes to arcane operating systems, my experience with GhostBSD is pretty solid. It offered a fairly balanced, accessible setup, with good connectivity, perks for the common user - like media playback, nice looks, and the ease of use that surpassed my expectations. Sure, here and there, you could feel the odd sharp edge or quirk. But it was far smoother than I imagined. There was none of that 2005 frozen in time thingie.
What worries me is the next step. Assuming you take BSD for a proper journey, what happens then. How does one go about enjoying stuff that isn't provided by the system creators. Even in Linux, things can be rough when you don't have what you need in the repos, or you need to dig into the command line. The severity of such an escapade will probably be greater in BSD, quite some. Buy hey. The first step was good. No pain, no anger. Which means, I can now contemplate a wider, bolder, more in-depth test. I'm not saying it's all roses and you should convert to the BSD cult of thinking. But GhostBSD surprised me, and for the first time I think, there's more than a zero-percent interest in my heart in taking this further. And that says it all. Grade wise, 8/10. Recommended for tech pioneers and adventurers.