Updated: January 22, 2011
Sabayon is no stranger to Dedoimedo. 'Tis a weird beast, this Sabayon. A Linux distribution based on Gentoo, so you might expect all kinds of perils and troubles. But no, it actually manages to be quite reasonable, if not as perky as the top notch candidates. Still, with every release, I download the image and test to see how well Sabayon behaves, looking for changes, both good and bad, always slightly wary of its heritage. With 2011 stretching gently before us, it is time for another review.
I'm taking Sabayon 5.4 KDE for a spin. Expect the usual and then some. We'll see how useful and friendly the distro really is, starting with a live session via installation and then into the working desktop. We'll examine everything, including multimedia playback, the repertoire of programs, the visual bling-bling, desktop effects, package management, and more.
Sabayon 5.4 has gone on a diet
In the past, Sabayon used to dislike some of my hardware. It would either take too long to boot or plain refuse to cooperate. I could not boot the distro on T42, for instance. Then, there was the rock music playing while your system baked the desktop.
Now, things are more moderate. No more boot woes, no more music, the boot time has been sliced down. The rather Vista-like requirements that used to be the wow-effect feature of this distribution have been toned down, making it more mainstream. Sabayon is now friendly toward older hardware, which is always a nice gesture.
The first live session boot popped up with no window decorations. Must be a weird glitch with the windows decorations and possibly Compiz conflicting with the graphics card. Restarting the session worked. Fully repeatable. However, apart from this one problem, I did not encounter other issues with the desktop effects. I guess we can call this a progress, compared to what used to be.
I did not like the fact that the network adapter was not up. I had to start it up manually before I could try connecting to my routers. Then, the KDE Wallet popped, asking for a password. Refusing to give it one was a bad choice, since it refused to give me network access. Unlike Gnome, which lets you use plain-text password storage, KDE seems a little more stringent.
Overall, connecting was a bit clunky. Go here, go there, too many clicks, not really intuitive and somewhat counterproductive for a modern and smooth desktop.
Worked fine, with only an occasional hiccup. But what irked me most was that there was no way to add shortcuts in Dolphin automatically, sort of like bookmarking a site. Instead, I had to do it 80s style, manually, not that there's anything wrong with the 80s, that is.
The firewall made a single roaring noise, but did not interfere otherwise. Samba performance was reasonable, but not the best, at least in my personal opinion, as if opinions can be apersonal.
Look and feel
Sabayon 5.4 feels decent. The system menu is good, although not quite as good as the one used in Linux Mint. You do have an inline search, though. The default theme is reasonable, kind of blue and black and unchanged from what used to be.
Good choice of icons and colors, too:
I could not escape thinking the desktop looked a little like Windows 7, which is mostly apparent in the notification area. There's class and style, but the system tray area feels a bit overcrowded. The clutter has been reduced, and there's obvious progress in the use of colors, gradients and shapes, but it could be better.
An excellent experience, including MMS, although without controls. Things are getting better and better. However, the default choice for the music player is rather odd; it is called Clementine, which I've never heard of. I would have expected Amarok. There's VLC, too, so that kind of evens out the odds. We'll talk more about the applications later on.
Oh, you also get the whole media center! XBMC is part of the multimedia repertoire, which is a splendid addition. It works well. In fact, I easily scanned my entire multimedia collection located on an external encrypted NTFS drive connected to a Windows machine over Samba via Wireless in seconds. Worked like a charm. XBMC gives Sabayon a competitive edge against Windows, which also packs its own media center.
If there's one thing that has always been given top priority in Sabayon, it's the aesthetics. Desktop effects are turned on by default, with a very liberal and stylish choice of plugins, nicely rounded with snazzy transitions and decorations. A treat.
First, the shiny window border:
Here's a bunch of screenshots, with the desktop cube adorned with a lovely background image, raised application windows, the KDE cap logos, and whatnot. Works like a charm. What more, no slowdown on a T60p, which is not really a killer machine nowadays, yet another manifest to Sabayon going lean and frugal, but in a good way.
One bug (or fact), though, Sabayon could not blur windows. Beats me.
A good opportunity to show you once again the effect of clutter in the right-bottom corner of the desktop, with too many notifications and just too much activity.
Unlike previous generations of Sabayon, which used to boast a tremendous load and exact a heavy price on your disk space, the latest edition has become lighter and friendlier, on the expanse of fun and color. You get the pretty standard KDE set of tools, with just a few interesting items.
You have Firefox, VLC, Okular, Kopete, Akregator, Qt Assistant for GUI development, and a handful more, but nothing too exciting. There's also Yakuake, a drop-down terminal.
Another cool thing is the Firewall Builder. Looks neat and may even make controlling the firewall on your machine attainable to non-geeks. Maybe.
Clementine stands out as a weird choice. Plus it has the Cover Manager thingie, which is supposed to download missing artwork and make your collections more complete, only it found no albums for my music and failed to download anything. A real disappointment, especially considering the zombie-like interface. Amarok, hands down.
You can also configure your system using a centralized System Settings menu. My impression is that the seemingly impossible task of taming KDE down has become a little easier, but there's still too much to digest, especially if you're a newbie or a lazy person.
Sabayon has a RedHat-like installation. Decent, robust, uneventful.
An interesting question was that of additional languages. I was asked if I wanted them, which is a nice gesture you don't normally see. No need to churn extra bits - or spend hours downloading languages, when they are ready during the installation.
The slideshow is interesting but useless. It's a confusing collection of images that does not really help you get a better overview of the system. It does highlight some of the bling-bling you may expect, including XBMC and third-party applications.
My Sabayon 5.4 ended with GRUB2, which is the only non-Ubuntu distro that I know of using the latest GRUB. Personally, I don't think this is a good idea. Finally, when rebooting for first use, the system opened the CD tray, even though I was booting from a USB drive. Not really important, but not quite as elegant as you would expect.
Time for the reality test. Overall, so far so good, with a few snags. Here's a fanboyish screenshot of the desktop with a wallpaper I used for my Linux conversion article.
Again, I was disappointed by the package manager. If I'm not mistaken, the Gentoo folks do not really know what to do with their emerge and potatoes, becoming portage. And now, the package manager is called Magneto and it takes a nuclear reactor to start. For some reason, you get a grand and unneeded notification that the update service is up and running, without offering any updates. Kind of pre-flight check, magnetos [sic] on, getting ready to spin the turbine, but wait.
Now, there are just too many terms for one and the same thing. There's Sulfur, which is the package manager frontend, supposedly, querying Entropy Store, from where the packages are emerged, with Magneto in the background. You can disregard this sentence.
Overall, in addition to a torrent of confusing names, the management was not really inspiring. Slow and not really friendly. Searching for packages, what, where? No results? How do I use this thing? Yes, it's my fault. Software is always right.
Performance & stability
Suspend & hibernate worked well, without problems. On a 32-bit machine born several years ago, Sabayon + KDE4 exacted about 400MB of RAM, which is not that much. Expect a few more if you run a decent discrete graphics card. But not bad. An improvement, overall. The experience was snappy too, without any major sluggishness in response.
I've presented a few throughout the article, now, let's examine a few more.
For a weird reason, no way you can disable this thing. You must issue a synclient command on the command line and add this to your session if you wish the change to take effect permanently. C'mon, seriously. 2011, I can't tweak my mouse?
I could not get the audio booming in my speakers, even with system and application volume maxed up. Not sure why or how, but I don't like it. Something is not calibrated properly.
A few crashes
No KDE4 session is complete without a crash. Unfortunately, Sabayon is no exception, with a total of three during my testing, a fairly high number. KWin does not like me apparently.
I've shown you a few earlier, but then you get one like this - Repositories Notice Board. What? Why? New binutils in Entropy. Wow. Who cares? Why do I need to be bombarded with geeky stuff?
And then, there's the hide this until something new happens? What's supposed to happen? Should I dread my desktop going zombie on me?
Let's sum it up: clunky wireless combined with KDE Wallet, some problems with graphics drivers and desktop effects, a confusing slideshow during the installation, the installer tries to eject a CD when there's none, a fairly slow boot, occasional KDE crashes, no ability to disable touchpad, a mediocre collection of programs, a weird package management, audio issues, and a few more details. Quite a lot really.
You can pit that against better hardware compatibility, more reasonable system requirements, a more toned down, slightly conservative desktop layout and furnishings, and overall more mature look and feel, but it's a tight win.
You may decide that Sabayon is not worth your time, considering the long list of issues. But that would be a wrong impression, which probably means I've not conveyed my message correctly.
Yes, Sabayon 5.4 is somewhat buggy. But it has made a lot of progress since version 4.x. The distro is friendlier on hardware and system resources, it's more conservative and yet more polished, making it a good candidate for a broader spectrum of users. Some of the aggressive youth stuff has been taken away, but without becoming too boring. XBMC is a killer app, infusing the distro with fire. Desktop effects are a blast, too. Unfortunately, the downside of this transition is a bland arsenal of applications.
The biggest problem remains the package manager, flavored with KDE-specific issues, which are becoming less and less. I fear by the time KDE4 becomes super-stable, there's going to be the next release. But it can be worked around with more careful QA. The package manager might also become usable for inexperienced Gentoo users.
Comparing to Sabayon 4.x, this version is a major step ahead. But to best Ubuntu, Mint, PCLinuxOS, or perhaps openSUSE, Sabayon has a long way ahead.