Updated: August 28, 2009
Vector Linux is a Slackware-based distribution that aims to offer the Linux user a unique, friendly experience combined with the well-known stability of the Slackware family. Keep it simple and keep it small. Definitely not a bad mission statement, which makes it all the more interesting since Slackware is not a distro for beginner users.
There's a fair share of Linux distributions based on Slackware, mostly designed around lower-demand desktops like Xfce, which should make them suitable for weaker and older machines. Some are geared toward experienced users, others aim to be friendly toward everyone. Wolvix is a good example of a successful Slackware fork, which really surprises with its simple, gentle approach.
With Xfce as the default desktop, lots of useful programs and promised multimedia support out of the box, Vector is an excellent candidate for a review, all the more because of its Slackware legacy. Let's see what it can really do.
Vector Linux versions
I was a little confused about which version to choose and try. On Wikipedia, four editions are mentioned, including SOHO running KDE, Standard with Xfce desktop, Light edition with JWM or Fluxbox, and Live edition, based on either SOHO or Standard.
However, going to the official site, the latest version (6.0) is only available as no-live-CD, installable Standard or Light edition, plus a preinstalled, ready-to-use VirtualBox image. No mention of KDE or live CD ... except a payware Deluxe edition. It seems the choice of these two, as well as the 64-bit edition, were freely available only up to version 5.9.
While it is possible I have made a profound mistake grasping the Vector Linux site, I opted for the free, downloadable, latest (32-bit) Standard 6.0 version. Unfortunately, this means no live CD experience, meaning no Wireless, Bluetooth and other fun stuff. We'll have to do with a classic desktop. Follow me.
Vector has a simple, unassuming, 256-color boot menu that fits nicely into the Slackware niche.
After a little while, the distro will start loading:
The first step in the configuration of the distro will be to select your monitor and the screen resolution for the installation.
Following this step, the installer itself will load and begin. The installer has a KDE look that reminds of Mandriva. The installation progress is displayed in a navigation menu on the left, with actual steps in the center-right pane - the first being the language.
The choice of fonts, colors and the alignment of items on the screen is not ideal and definitely feels resolution-dependent, which should not be the case. The bottom of the installer window also has an uneven border line.
After language, comes the installation media. This step may be slightly confusing for new users, especially if they're not familiar with Linux notation. But it merely tells you that is has found Vector data on a drive - /dev/hdc in this case, the CD-ROM - and the minimal requirements for the installation.
The next step is the partitioning. I decided to use an existing layout, from a previous installation of another distro.
An interesting option is the checkbox at the bottom: Vector will automatically detect and mount Windows partitions, which is a great solution for people dual-booting Windows and Linux.
The next step is to choose packages. If you're a new user, leave the default selection as is. You will probably want everything that is already preselected. The most interesting choice are two desktop managers - Xfce and LXDE, which we first encountered when running Knoppix Adriane, with stunning Compiz effects.
After choosing the bundles, you will have to select individual packages. Again, most people need not change anything. As you can see, there are some very interesting choices in the package list. For instance, you get sources to build ATI and Nvidia graphic drivers, aMSN, Firefox, Opera, Pidgin, and other goodies. We'll talk about the applications more later on.
Next comes the Installation Summary, emphasizing bad GUI design all the way:
The distro will now begin installing. While waiting for the incorrect percentage timer to complete, you'll have a scrolling list of developers and contributors flashing by. Personally, I find this choice of presentation a little troublesome, as it steals away focus from important things.
After the data is copied, you'll have to configure the bootloader. The installation took about 10 minutes to complete, which is quite reasonable.
Next, time zone:
Next, root password:
After I setup the root password, Vector asked me whether I wanted to import existing user accounts from the installation that already existed in the /home directory.
On one hand, this is a very nice touch, as it improves migration efforts between distributions. However, it confused me, as I have expected the /home partition to be formatted as Ext3. Likewise, notice the missing question mark at the end of the popup.
I decided to use the option and import the existing Roger Bodger. The problem is, the functionality was broken. No user account could be selected. The drop-down menu was blank.
Again, I must point you to two details. One, the missing top border of the Account drop-down box. Two, the fact that Vector, just like SUSE, happens to be using the same color scheme like the background at Dedoimedo, which is simply ... coincidental and nice. Accounts wise, I had to go back and start over with the root password, then decline the import and create a new user.
The next step was to configure the network. Vector uses the simple, friendly wicd network manager.
This concludes the installation.
You'll get a text-based congratulations after Vector boots. Then, another series of unexpected text-based configurations; you might have though the installation to be complete ... but not just yet.
The last step left is configure the resolution, once again, this time for desktop use. Vector will inform that it has found an old X Server configuration and ask you to back it up. Whether this is a leftover from a previous installation or the Vector setup, I can't say. Then, Vector will jump to keyboard configuration, before going back to color depth and resolution. Quite tedious, I must admit.
And finally, the login menu:
The installation was complete. It was too long and had too many steps. I was tired at the end of it, from just too many clicks. The visual glitches and problems at a number of steps did not help. The partitioner could have provided a little more details, too; maybe a few color bars to let users visualize the partitioning process. On the other hand, the idea of helping users migrate previous accounts and the over-helpfulness should definitely be appreciated, even if their intent falls slightly off mark. Luckily, you only do this once. Now, it was time for the real test.
Toying with Vector
By default, Vector Linux boots into a KDE-like Xfce desktop with an interesting choice of wallpaper. Mind, we also have LXDE to check ... and it turns out Openbox is included, as well. Following my love affair with Crunchbang, this will definitely be interesting.
Vector has a number of interesting, unique features that you don't often see. For example, it has a panel icon for disk usage and when you launch the browser, you have the option to choose among many available browsers, most Gecko-based. You also get Opera.
Another useful function is embodied by the Vasm Control Center. Vector uses a centric management, allowing users to quickly access all facets of system administration via one unified utility. The Vasm Control Center is quite simple and friendly to use. You can easily forget you're running Slackware.
The terminal is also adorned with extra usability features in the form of useful finger-like information displayed. Most distros keep the terminals clean and quiet, which makes Vector somewhat of an exception, alongside Linux Mint that displays super-geeky fortune cookies to the user every time the terminal is launched.
My first check in "human" usability was to see how well Vector interfaces with non-Linux machines. I had to pull a number of files from a Windows share on the network and needed Samba sharing for that.
This one turned to be a little tricky. Like almost every "spartan" Linux running a desktop environment other KDE or Gnome, Vector armed with Xfce does not have an easy GUI option to browse network shares.
You are forced to use the command-line smbclient utility and put and get commands to shuffle the data to and fro. You'll be able to access NTFS shares, but you won't like the FTP-style of management.
Well, after a few moments of discomfort, I had the media files and could test the multimedia support.
This is one of the big questions, because no one wants to waste hours compiling this or that just to hear a few songs.
No issues, everything worked as expected.
I tried playing the Moron movie, but got an error from MPlayer. I then opened VLC and successfully played the short video.
There we no issue with MP3, except the inconsistency in VLC GUI: Notice the spaces in the file name of the Moron video are marked in HTML style (%20), whereas they are written normally when playing Shock The Monkey. This is yet another in the long run of small visual glitches and inadequate QA that mar the otherwise quite pleasant experience.
P.S. I read somewhere online that a reader of mine complained about me using always the same media files for testing. Well, the reason for that is: it's a control measurement. Testing different sets of media files on different distros would leave us without the ability to compare between them. It's the first rule of any pseudo-scientific work.
Vector comes with a range of useful programs. A whole squad of browser, VLC, MPlayer, as we've just seen. Then, there's a whole lot more. In the best of Xfce tradition, right-clicking anywhere on the desktop will display the application menu.
Vector comes with a lot of useful programs, mainly geared toward fun and creativity, with usual emphasis on multimedia and Internet-oriented applications.
For example, you get Bluefish for Web development, rippeX for audio ripping, wxCam as a Web camera utility, which I could not test, unfortunately, GIMP, Firestarter firewall GUI, and feisty AbiWord processor.
And here's Opera; notice the lovely theme, we'll talk about it soon.
Then, you get many other useful programs, including Scribus, Deluge, Xine, and quite a few others. Overall, the selection is spicy, interesting and well balanced, with a slight underemphasis of office applications. However, the program chosen are all rather lightweight and run quickly and briskly on Vector.
BTW, did you notice the onslaught of sexy desktop backgrounds? You must have, since I specifically hinted that a few paragraphs earlier. Well, it's time to talk about Vector's good looks.
Vector Linux has reasonable looks - which can be made into rather lovely in just a few quick mouse clicks. The Xfce desktop is quite customizable and will help you get the desired result. It's obvious that the developers have placed emphasis on aesthetics, as it shows in the large number of options given, despite the few quirks there and then.
You'll have a large number of desktop wallpapers to choose and many exciting themes.
For example, you can use the KDE-like Kokodi or maybe the OSX-like Agualemon:
And then, you can turn on the power of compositing to make superb use of 2D magic:
You get transparency, shadows and whatnot. Combined with the functionality of the lovely Control Center, you really get good looks, speed and usability, all together:
Another thing that pops to mind is the Xfce4 Pathfinder, a useful tool to help you find the right tool for the right task, in each category separately.
Vector + Xfce really looks lovely. It's fast and elegant, a real treat for the user. It may have some elemental spartan-ness of its Slackware spirit showing through here and there, but overall, it's quite exciting to use.
Earlier, we mentioned two additional desktops. We saw LXDE during the installation and Openbox is lurking in the session menu under login. Let's see how these two other environments fare.
LXDE & Openbox
The moment you launch an alternative desktop, you realize that the emphasis has been placed on Xfce and that including them was sort of an unnecessary mistake. This is the same sin Nimblex did, with an inclusion of no less than six or seven different choice, none as good as the default one. Not because they were bad - because little attention has been placed to make them truly useful.
The desktop itself is very similar to Xfce, but when you hit the menus, you see some changes, mainly in the windows decorations and fonts. And if I'm not mistaken, a number of applications, too.
Still, the difference between LXDE and the default environment is marginal. So the big question is, why bother?
What you see before you is not a joke. It's the default Openbox desktop in Vector. I'm serious. It's an empty screen. Right-click to enjoy anything else than total boredom.
And then, strangely, you also have the Xfce Settings Manager under Openbox, go figure.
Openbox under Vector is a disappointment, a quantum-leap of a cry from the superbly beautiful Openbox on Crunchbang. Just a matter of priorities, that's all.
It's very hard to get three awesome desktops in one package. This probably requires five times more work and attention to details. I suggest use just one, but make is super-right and populate the saved disk space with even more great programs.
The last thing I checked on Vector was package management. And hit my one big snag. I had no idea how to work this one out, although I was somewhat familiar with Slackware. I opened VPackager, dumbly clicked on Build/Install from cruxports4slack and let it run.
After a while, it completed indexing its database. I then tried to search for programs, but got a lot of weird entries that left me confused.
I had a sort of a Gentoo moment. The combination of words build and porting made me feel uncomfortable. I did not explore any more, so curse me if you will, but I think this was a rather unwelcoming opening scene. Woe the newbie who tries to use Vpackager.
Vector is definitely a very interesting choice. It has a long and exhausting installation, but once you get past that stage, you'll start enjoying a well laid out desktop, provided you login in the default Xfce session. The desktop will offer you a wide range of useful programs across many categories. You'll also be able to enjoy multimedia without any extra effort. It will also run quite fast. If you like simple eye candy, it can do that, too, rather well.
The two other desktops will be somewhat of a disappointment. You may also begrudge the visual inconsistencies in the GUIs and will definitely lament the package management.
Overall, Vector is probably Linux for intermediate or advanced users. New users can definitely run and like it, but they might find solving some of the problems a bit hard, or they might get lost in the menus hunting for the right desktop or application. In a strange way, Vector manages to be simple and complicated in the same breath.
Vector is a unique choice, given its legacy, the choice of desktop environments and applications it offers. I think you should give it a try. It should be a pleasant ride, but whether you fall in love or not, that's a question I can't answer.
Normally I don't do this, but this time, I've decided to make an exception. I've received several emails from Vector users, pointing out a number of mistakes and/or omissions that I have made in my review, regarding the usability of the distribution. I have decided to publish one of these, which summarizes the points in a very orderly and clear fashion, so you have an even better perspective of what Vector offers.
I'm a Vector Linux user and contributor and I just wanted to thank you for your (quite fair IMHO) review.
There are some things you mention that I think I can clarify you:
Installer: Graphical installer is quite new and may have bugs. Devs are still working on it. If graphical installer fails, you can use the old text installer, that I personally find equally intuitive (that being a good or a bad thing). At the CD boot prompt, enter 'linux' and press enter.
Window Managers: Xfce and LxDE are very similar in appearance, but lxde is a lot lighter. You may have not noticed it, but if you run htop/free you'll quickly see the difference. People that want to go lighter on resources may choose LxDE instead of Xfce. Now the Openbox thing: Desktop environments can run on top of window managers, being a higher layer. Gnome ran on top of sawfish (at least some time ago). I'm not sure, but probably devs make LxDE and/or Xfce run on top of Openbox, and being there, decided to make it available to be ran alone. Anyway, Openbox users tend to be computer savvy, and may like to hack manually their WM configs.
Package Management: Vector Linux uses tgz and tlz packages as its main formats. Using crux ports is an alternative way of installing (that IMHO is not being used by anyone). To install packages, you can use slapt-get or gslapt. It does the necessary dependency check. You can find more information at http://vectorlinux.osuosl.org/docs/ where you will find dedicated pages to both package management and desktop environments.
Thank you again for the review, you noticed some rough edges of Vector Linux that we are trying to solve for next versions. Feel free to ask anything about Vector Linux here, or better at http://forum.vectorlinux.com/index.php. There you'll see one of the big wins of the distro. The community!
Thanks to Raimon for his opinion and tips!