Updated: February 17, 2010
SAM, an acronym that stands for Surface to Air missile. SAM, Linux. SAM Linux is a distribution based on PCLinuxOS, a small if rather popular distribution that caters to new users by offering a rich, exciting desktop, with everything working out of the box. That is PCLinuxOS. So what can SAM Linux do?
SAM Linux promises similar results. Furnished with an Xfce desktop, it aims at being lightweight and suitable for older computers, as well as offering the range of goodies its father did. Seems like an easy task, since PCLinuxOS 2009 really did present a beautiful and exciting experience. But then, there's the Xfce desktop, which is more suitable for savvy users and is known to have problems with proxy and network sharing.
Today, I will show you the results of my success - and lack thereof - working with SAM Linux. I will explore the live CD session, install the distribution, examine different aspects of desktop usage functionality like multimedia codecs, Samba sharing, applications, unique features, and more. Follow me.
Get SAM Linux
The official website does not really inspire confidence. It's hastily done. For example, the official distro logo is blurry and badly done, probably by resizing a smaller image. And the About page is empty. Still, if this does not bother you, download and test.
Live session, not what you expected
I tried booting SAM Linux on my three laptops, T42, T61, and RD510, intending to install the distro on the first, as well as show you the behavior in the live session on several laptops, covering stuff like Wireless, Bluetooth, suspend, hibernate, and whatnot.
Unfortunately, this was not meant to be. Probably due to a driver issue of some sort, SAM Linux would start booting and hang indefinitely, never quite reaching the desktops. Recalling my experience with PCLinuxOS, the very same thing happened with T42, but this time it's even worse. Must be some big bug in the distro internals, or just plain ole incompatibility with a wide range of hardware choices. Either way, not inspiring one bit.
To get the distro running, I had to resort to using the virtual machine, which definitely limits the scope of my review, but you will still get a plenty of topics covered. Like most distros, SAM Linux starts with a fairly simple GRUB menu.
You will have to configure your keyboard, language and time zone. After a few moments, you'll reach a login screen. I don't really understand why you would need to login into a live session, but there it is.
The desktop is a fairly standard Xfce experience, with a few rather interesting, unique additions that spice up the atmosphere.
Four corners of the world
To extend the basic functionality, SAM Linux hides important functionality in desktop corners. You will notice tiny white lines in the upper corners and mistake them for visual glitches, where they are in fact desktop widgets. You might not like the arrangement, though. In the left corner, you get a screenshot tool.
In the right corner, you get a sort of Swiss knife tool, which lets you add widgets to your desktop, change the wallpaper and configure the top panel, which we will discuss shortly.
Widgets, called screenlets, let you enliven your desktop with a range of innocent and possibly functional applets, similar to what gOS Linux or just about any distro running KDE4 offers, like openSUSE. You start with an analog clock, but you can add more.
The dock, which acts as a top panel, definitely makes up an important piece of the desktop scheme. It's really a nice addition, especially considering it works great without any special 3D effects.
On the other hand, the desktop wallpaper is fairly common. The color choice makes for a somewhat blurry-eye feel after a while. The white background under icon names does not help either, granting the distro a somewhat Vista feeling.
Screenlets and the zoom-in dock help a little, but it's a tight call. Regardless, the visual experience is among the first things you will notice. It will steal your focus, for good or worse, and you will either like the distractions or found them too colorful and counterproductive. Well, enough about aesthetics, let's see what SAM Linux can do.
Like almost every other Xfce desktop, SAM Linux ignores Samba. Oh, PCLinuxOS sharing components are there all right, except that they do not really work. You will get a very friendly wizard that will try to help you, but you won't get anywhere.
The only way to enable Samba sharing is to run smbclient tool from the command line. This is really annoying and spoils the experience majorly. It took me fifteen minutes to grab my multimedia test kit, when it could have been done in seconds.
Worked as expected - Flash, MP3, my Windows video.
Well, some of the codecs will be missing, but if you launch the welcome shortcut, you'll get into a short manual, which will inform you about the most important aspects of the distro, including how to obtain missing software. Not bad, but could be automated.
SAM Linux comes with a rather rich repertoire, similar to PCLinuxOS.
System wise, there's GParted, NTFS configuration tool, and Synaptic as the package manager. There's even a tool for configuring Lexmark printers. The balance between category is good. You get a little bit of everything. The only thing missing is a proper Office suite.
SAM Linux comes with an interesting tool called Flyback, which is supposed to help you manage your backups smartly, but it launches with a big error that will definitely confuse new users.
Proxy did not work either. Well, it's an old, sad story with Xfce desktops, really. Furthermore, there were also small visual problems here and there. Icon reflection is not perfect; icons look cropped. Then, menu columns are somewhat misaligned, by a couple of pixels.
Overall, SAM Linux is a weird beast. On one hand, you get a very pleasant, vibrant experience, with lots of great programs and multimedia support. On the other, hardware compatibility is flaky and classic Xfce issues budge through the crust of goodness like old scars. Well, it was time to install the distro.
The installation begins by clicking on the Toolbox icon, not really intuitive.
Once you fire the installer, you get an untouched, un-branded PCLinuxOS installer wizard. The same kind of problem happened with OzOS and it does not inspire confidence into the completeness of the distro.
The installation begins with a partitioning, PCLinuxOS style and then switches abruptly into the core process, copying files to the hard disk. You're not asked any other questions. While this makes for a simple installation, it can be confusing.
After the files are copied, you need to configure the bootloader:
The next step is to reboot. Like PCLinuxOS, you will need to configure the users after the first restart.
However, unlike PCLinuxOS, the post-install configuration is scrunched up into the top left corner, rather than centered. Furthermore, the wizard windows does not fit the allocated monitor space, so you get annoying scrollbars for something that should be fully visible. It's a trivial mistake, but oh so annoying.
You're saved the hassle of reconfiguring your keyboard, language and time zone. After the installation, the usage was fairly similar to what we've seen in the live session. So this pretty much covers our review for today.
SAM Linux suffers from all the ailments of a small distro. It has many great things, but the integration is missing. The sum of all parts is lower than the value of each. Proper quality control is missing sorely, beginning with the website design, via hardware compatibility, all the way to small details and annoyances that reduce the professional look and feel of the final desktop.
Xfce is not the best choice, it seems, due to cross-platform issues that arise, time and again. Combined with other quirks that arose during the testing, SAM Linux makes for an odd choice. Gnome desktop would have been much better, but then, there's PCLinuxOS already.
Multimedia support and program choice are great. The style is decent, although it could be polished. Just don't try to share anything with Windows machines or use proxy and pray that your hardware will run the distro. However, looking ahead, you need to ask yourself can SAM Linux offer a sustained experience. Will the distro still be here in three or five years? Can you commit this system onto your production machines?
With a mixed experience and a slight fear, I must conclude that SAM Linux is indeed what it is, a small distro, floating precariously on the thin cusp of the twilight zone. With a little more work in the polish department, it could be a very decent choice. But today, SAM Linux probably makes sense only to hardcore followers and experienced users. See ya around!