All original content copyright © Tom Wilkinson 2003-5. All rights reserved.

Slackware Linux 10

Buyer Information:

Linux distribution aimed at advanced users, with similar audiences to Debian and Gentoo.
Developer: Slackware
Cost: Free download, CD-ROM US$39.95

Many modern distributions aim to make Linux as easy as possible to install, configure and use, providing graphical tools allowing the user to use the ever-increasing number of applications available for Linux without ever going near a command prompt. Slackware isn't one of these, instead aiming at an altogether different and more technically advanced user base.

The oldest commercial Linux distribution, Slackware began life in 1993. Since then it's continued to advance, aiming to remain the most UNIX-like distribution while offering up-to-date software. It's a methodology which has worked well, with a core of Slackware users gradually increasing as they migrate from the more popular distributions to something which offers somewhat more control. Although aimed at more recent machines, it's still possible to install Slackware on a 486 giving such a machine a new lease of life as a fileserver or something equally computationally inexpensive. The more user-friendly distributions such as Fedora Core have much higher requirements, even for a base install.

Installing Slackware

As is to be expected for a distribution aimed at the more experienced end of the Linux user base, Slackware has just a text-based installer, providing the required functionality but no more. The installer doesn't include its own disk partitioning software - before it starts up, the user is dumped at a shell prompt with a few hints as to how to continue, and the suggestion of using cfdisk or fdisk to partition the disks. Our test machine had problems with cfdisk, the more intuitive of the two, but fdisk coped admirably and was able to create and delete partitions without any problems. It's worth noting that unlike most other modern distributions, Slackware doesn't include a tool to resize an existing partition as part of the installation procedure - this must be done using third-party tools before installation if you want a dual boot system. The shell prompt at this point is more useful than at first might be apparent, as it will also allow you to load third party device drivers and kernel modules before starting. This is useful if. for example, you want to install to a partition on a RAID array or some other nonstandard file system.

Once disk partitioning is complete, the setup proper begins. A basic text menu allows you to jump to any stage in the installation at any point - though it will throw an error if a given menu item isn't yet available, for example if the main partition has not yet been selected, installation of packages can't proceed. One nice touch is that when selecting partitions to mount, those detected on a USB or Firewire port, for example USB keys. are included in the list. Conceivably this means that you could install Slackware onto an external hard drive and boot any machine to that, assuming the BIOS supports it. This flexibility is something we've not seen in any other distribution. Installation of packages is supported from a variety of media including FTP, NFS as well as the usual CD-ROM. One irritation we noticed was that network-based installations didn't support DHCP for automatic detection of network settings, which makes it unsuitable for use in some environments. However, given the installed system does support DHCP, we can't see it being too much of a problem for most people.

Slackware divides its packages into various different sections, related to what they do - all networking packages are under a single heading, for example, as is everything related to GNOME, or console Internet applications such as lynx and slrn. These are called disk sets, a throwback to when the whole distribution came on a total of 40 floppy disks, divided up into functionality. While it's no longer possible to install Slackware from floppies (the entire distribution takes up 4 CDs, the equivalent of nearly 2000 1.44MB disks), it's interesting to note that the installation method has survived the transition to much higher-capacity media. This shows that the installation system at least was well-designed from the start.

There are several options for package selection, once you've decided which disk sets to install from. These range from "newbie", which explains what each package does before asking whether or not it should be installed (it's worth noting this probably isn't very newbie friendly any more, but when there were fewer packages available it made more sense). The "menu" option provides a list of each package in a disk set, allowing selection of the desired ones in a single screen - very useful if you know what each package does. The final option is to install everything, which the installer warns will take up 3GB of space. This is a useful indicator for those with smaller disks, because there's no warning that the installed system will be bigger than the available disk space.

Once the packages are installed, the selection of a default Window Manager is presented. The default is GNOME, but as well as the usual KDE, there are several options for the less powerful PC, including Fluxbox, Blackbox, Window Maker and the venerable fvwm95. This, and the network configuration, is all that the system will do automatically - from here the user is on their own, left to configure the system themselves.

After Installation

Once the installation procedure is complete, there's no further automatic setup to be done by the user. We were quite surprised to find that although we hadn't had to do any configuration, the correct drivers for the mouse, sound card and USB ports had been loaded, something which other distributions had had problems with in the past. Creation of user accounts is left until after the system has been installed. Presumably the target audience of the distro are trusted to know better than to log in to use the root account for day-to-day use.

While GNOME was selected as the default window manager during the installation, only a very basic X server configuration had been included, limiting the screen to 640x480 when the graphical environment was started. Slackware, like most recent distributions, uses's fork of the XFree86 software. While this means that the configuration file format hasn't changed at all, and binary drivers such as those supplied for use with Nvidia's GeForce cards will still work, many programs have changed names, making initial configuration very slightly more difficult for a user who is used to the XFree86 commands. It doesn't take long to work out the new equivalents, though.

The GNOME desktop is supplied as-is without any distribution-specific customisations such as those added by Red Hat or Mandrake. While this means that many applications aren't listed in the menus to start off with, what is there is a solid base any user would be happy to use until they customised the desktop to their own liking. One thing I did note, though, was that although the Epiphany web browser, the usual GNOME default, was installed, Galeon had been placed in the menus instead. Unusual as this departure from an otherwise vanilla installation of the desktop was, we suspect this was done for usability reasons - Galeon has support for mouse gestures straight away, while Epiphany uses a plugin that is supplied separately.

A common misconception about Slackware is that it lacks a package management system. This isn't exactly true, but it is the case that its package management system is somewhat simpler than RPM or especially deb, the Debian package management tool. Packages under Slackware are simply compressed tar files of the relevant binaries or libraries, without any information on dependencies or requirements included. This means that it's quite easy for a new user to make a mistake by installing the wrong version of a package, but on the other hand it's also more straightforward to create and distribute packages to other users than it is with RPM or deb. It's worth noting that packages for these distributions can also be installed through use of the alien program, which converts between formats.

A recent innovation for Slackware packages, and one that's not yet installed as part of the main distribution, is the slackpkg program. This provides functionality similar to apt and yum, in that it allows packages to be downloaded and installed automatically, and handles package dependencies unlike the standard pkgtool program. We suspect that this incredibly useful tool will find its way into the main distribution before long - it's one of the few areas where Slackware has been behind the competition in recent times.

While it ships with an older 2.4.26 kernel, Slackware 10 has support for the newer 2.6 kernel tree built in, and in the "extras" section of the installation disk, includes the more recent kernel as well as a large amount of other software which isn't ready to include with the main distribution, including the slackpkg system mentioned above, along with a more recent version of GCC, and tools to help maintain and build packages yourself, along with extra drivers for less common, but still widely used hardware such as wireless networking kit. Another nice touch is the optional inclusion of packages dropped from the main distribution since the last release, allowing users of the older software to acclimatise themselves with the more recent replacements before it is removed completely from the future releases.

For a distribution which has changed so little in comparison to its peers over time, Slackware continues to offer what the original Linux users, and those today who are migrating away from the more graphical friendly distributions, want - a fully configurable system that isn't bogged down by the requirements of graphical or automated tools to have a standard configuration format. While you can install a tool such as Webmin to administer the machine, it's almost frowned upon to do so - putting such tools on top a Slackware install is tantamount to admitting that you should be using a different distribution in preference.

However, if you're not afraid of getting your hands dirty, and finding out exactly how to configure a Linux machine, give Slackware a go. It's a solid, dependable distribution with little in the way of frills, which is just the way it should be. Take the plunge - Slackware is different from what many readers may be used to - it'll teach you a lot more than the more common distributions with graphical interfaces for everything.


Features: 9/10
Installation: 8/10
Ease of Use: 7/10
Documentation: 9/10

Although not for the faint-hearted, users who'd like to get more in-depth knowledge of Linux would do a lot worse than try Slackware.

Overall: 9/10
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