Debian on Steroids II: The Libranet Workout

by Leon A. Goldstein

Libranet 2.8 is now available by download or, for the broadband challenged like me, on CDs ordered directly from Libra Computer Systems, Ltd., in Vancouver, BC, Canada. As the Linux Journal site previously posted a detailed review of Libranet 2.7, this article concerns the changes and improvements in Libranet 2.8 that would interest the desktop user and how they got there.

Libranet is a commercial Debian distribution. If you hold the belief that Debian Linux is genuine only if it doesn't cost anything, then read no further. Commercial Debian distributions do, indeed, exist. Some, such as Storm, Progeny and Corel Linux, have come and gone, whether for good reasons or bad, but Libranet and Xandros (as well as the Xandros derivative Lindows) are still around. How long they exist depends, of course, on whether Linux users feel such distributions are worth paying for.

I think Libranet is worth paying for. My first Debian experience was with Corel Linux. My initial exuberance was quickly smothered by the absence of support from Corel, followed by Corel's corporate decision to abandon Linux and its customers who paid for their retail Linux products.

After that, I returned to Caldera Open Linux. After months of struggle and quite a bit of help from Caldera's tech support--yes, Caldera did have tech support and it was good--I managed to extract WordPerfect 8.1. WP 8.1 was the substantially enhanced version of WordPerfect 8 for Linux that came with Corel Linux deluxe, and I installed it on Caldera Open Linux 2.3, an RPM distribution. Caldera followed with eDesk 2.4, a saintly distribution that had it all. In fact, I still run eDesk 2.4 on one of my boxes. However, Caldera followed Corel in abandoning its desktop users. I then tried Storm Linux. I fumbled and stumbled around in the classic Debian environment. By the time I got the hang of it and decided to buy the Storm package, it was too late. Storm was gone too; a lot of people freeloaded Storm, but not enough bought it.

Then I read a post on a mail-list about Libranet and tried it. To me, Libranet 1.9.0 seemed to provide the reliability of Debian with the sensation of refinement and well designed administration tools that I had come to appreciate with Caldera eDesk 2.4.

I've stayed with Libranet ever since. Each successive Libranet release has been an evolutionary step towards ease of installation, system administration and, as the bottom line, functionality for the desktop user.

How Libranet evolves is itself evolutionary. Libranet 2.7, the predecessor, had a small beta group. For Libranet 2.8, about 80 users with skills ranging from beginner to guru were brought in. The beta testers talked to one another and the developers on a special mail-list. Every issue raised was discussed and resolved in an open forum that included all of the beta testers. While some of the beta testers posted problems that experienced Linux users might dismiss as sophomoric, they did identify a number of potential pitfalls a first-time Linux user could encounter. For example, a simple change to a configuration dialog box reduces the likelihood of selecting the wrong CD drive as the Libranet package installer's default. For all of these bugs and issues, beta testers could communicate directly with the programmers and watch the changes and development take place as a team.

Libranet 2.8 is the result. It is built on Linux kernel 2.4.20, XFree86 4.3, KDE 3.1.1 and GNOME 2.2.1, along with IceWM, Fluxbox and Xfce.

The installation utility remains classic Libranet, meaning it's basically interactive text with automatic hardware detection. Libranet veterans will be pleasantly surprised when, after the base system is installed and rebooted, Libranet configures video. Fans of nVIDIA will be pleased to know that Libranet offers to install the accelerated nVIDIA drivers without having to go through the download and compile ritual. Also new is the facility for setting display text DPI proportionate to the selected resolution and the monitor's diagonal dimension.

Figure 1. AdminMenu --> X --> DPI

Users of the popular ATI Radeon cards should be aware that Libranet installs the ATI driver with 3-D acceleration disabled. A bug in XFree86 4.3 makes KDE lock up during log out when direct rendering is enabled. This affects only certain Radeon cards; I enabled it for my Radeon 7000 with no ill effect. A simple edit of /etc/X11/XF86Config-4 takes care of it, or you can reconfigure X with Adminmenu.

With X up and running, Libranet's graphic package installer lets the user custom tailor the installation. Responding to user requests, Libranet now lets you examine the features in each package group and select packages individually if you want. I selected a full system, less inapplicable laptop and networking support. Remember, this is a desktop-oriented discussion.

One complaint about Libranet is the lack of a progress meter to show how much of the installation remains.

While watching the installation log scroll by as the packages were installed, I thought about the Windows vs. Linux argument: "Windows is easy to install while Linux is complicated." After about 45 minutes, I had 2.8GB of Libranet 2.8 installed. Video was auto-detected and configured for color depth and resolution, the wheelmouse scrolled, sound worked and my modem and printer were configured. Furthermore, I could write a letter with a choice of word processors: OpenOffice.org 1.0.2, KOffice 1.2.1 and Abiword 1.1.4, among others. For internet connection, Mozilla 1.3, Opera 6.12 and various other browsers are available.

On the other hand, I recently installed Windows on my computer. After installing Windows and rebooting, I then installed the VIA 4-in-1 chipset driver and rebooted. Next, I installed the sound driver and rebooted, then the video driver and rebooted. Then I installed WordPerfect Office, rebooting several more times. Indeed, Windows is easier to install than is Libranet Linux--about as much as Florida swampland is a great investment. Actually, the only reason Windows is easier to install than Libranet is it comes already installed and set up on many machines. I suspect that is the real reason you cannot by a brand-name desktop or laptop without Windows. If people really knew how "easy" Windows is to install and make usable, they wouldn't use it.

By the time my philosophical analysis of the Windows-Linux debate was over, it was time to finish setting up Libranet. Not much was left to do really.

Libranet's default window manager is IceWM. Other window managers provided, besides KDE and GNOME, include Fluxbox and Xfce. I prefer Xfce for older, slower computers with less than 192MB of RAM. Xfce has an attractive and functional desktop with low system overhead.

I use KDE, so my next step was setting up the desktop. A common complaint from Libranet neophytes is they have to set up device icons on the KDE or GNOME desktop. Hidden in the KDE Control Center (Desktop --> Behavior --> Devices) is a utility for posting drive icons on the desktop.

Figure 2. KDE Control Center --> Desktop --> Behavior

A welcome improvement from the previous version is CUPS now works out of the box and no longer requires tinkering with config files. Because Libranet sets up a CUPS printer during install, if it is IEEE 1284 compliant, you are ready to print. Libranet also sets up the free evaluation version of TurboPrint, which works nicely along with CUPS. Printer preferences and properties can be adjusted with Adminmenu.

Figure 3. Xadminmenu --> Printers

Setting up a USB scanner also is easier in Libranet 2.8. Running USB devices as a user no longer requires elaborate tinkering with permissions. If you dual-boot Windows, Libranet's installer lets you select user access to the Windows partition too.

I prefer WordPerfect 8 for my writing chores, so I installed WP8.1 from my old Corel Linux deluxe CD. Libranet's WP compatibility package makes this uneventful, and wheelmouse scrolling is easy to set up too. I also use Applix 5.0, and thanks to Libranet's included RPM support, installing Applix also is not a crusade. The same goes for Star Office 6.0. Because Libranet is real Debian, I had to add exec to the /etc/fstab CD-ROM lines in order to install applications from a CD. I have been playing with WordPerfect Office 2000 for Linux, and it installed without complaint too.

Libranet 2.8 offers the desktop user all of the latest Linux productivity applications over a Debian foundation. But it is not only for work. Use it to play a game or watch a DVD movie while waiting for creative inspiration.

Libranet's proprietary features are ease of installation and administration. While based on the rock-solid Debian Woody, Libranet also includes up-to-date applications from the Debian testing and unstable versions, making sure that everything works smoothly and together. Updates come from Sarge, the testing branch. Is that worth paying for? With a full 30-day refund guarantee, trying it yourself is the best way to answer the question.

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