Hello dear readers, and welcome to another exciting (at least for me) Distro Hoppin` adventure. You've most likely seen the title, so you know I'm going to share a bit of my experiences and opinions on SAM Linux 2009.
First of all, I have to admit I really like SAM's logo. And not because it is of an extraordinary beauty, but because it offers quite a lot of information about the operating system. Let me elaborate: you have the PCLinuxOS-like circle, so you know it's based on that, you have the Xfce mouse, so you know it uses the lightweight desktop environment, and, of course you have the name: SAM. All in one little logo. But I probably am giving too much attention to unimportant matters, so let's move on, shall we? :)
As with every distribution, you begin by downloading the ISO image. This time around, its 679 MB "weight" will almost fill a single CD. Once it's safely on the HDD, open up your favorite disc burner and burn away! By the way, if you're planning on starting a distro hoppin` career, I highly recommend using rewritables. Sure, they do wear out in time, but if you keep them in reasonably good conditions, they will save you a lot of $$$ AND desk space. :)
Aaanyway... PCLinuxOS is a truly well done Linux distribution, I'm sure you all agree, so SAM sounded good from the very beginning. It benefits from a Live environment, as 99% of Linuxes do today thus, the first contact with it took place straight on the optical disc. To be able to access the desktop, you will have to guess that the password for the guest user is "guest". Sure, you don't need a diploma for that, but newbies might get confused. Live environments should, in my humble opinion, be loaded automatically, skipping the login part.
First problem: I couldn't connect to the Internet. I clicked the icon in the notification area, typed in my password, clicked again on connect and... nothing. After several tries, I decided it's best to restart the system and try again. Happily, after doing that, it connected automatically. Yay! Internet FTW! Ahem.
The first thing that caught my attention was the "Welcome SAM" icon on the desktop, which acts both as a decent tour of the distro and a quick installation guide. There I found out that the "Install SAM" shortcut was inside the Toolbox folder on the desktop, along with Live USB Maker, SAM IRC Channel (which doesn't work - "Failed to execute child process "xchat" (No such file or directory)." :) ), Video settings and, again, the Welcome thingy.
I went ahead for the installation, by typing in the root password, which is "root" and quickly found out that if you minimize/maximize the window, it closes altogether, so you have to open it again (yes, that includes canceling the ongoing installation). Weird! Moreover, it "steals" focus (during the first few steps) from all other windows, leaving you unable to use the keyboard, for, say... writing an article. :) But if you roll it up (click the arrow pointing up), it starts to behave and lets you take control. As I arrived to the partition setup screen, I noticed that, though not enabled by default, I could select the Ext4 filesystem from the drop-down list, so I said, why not? Ext4 has served me well until now. Unfortunately, after many retries and restarts, SAM would continue to give a mount error, thus the installation couldn't continue. As I soon realized, it only supports ext3 (and maybe others, but not ext4). Once that was out of the way, it went on with the process and in about ten minutes, the system was installed and the grub configuration window popped up. I left those settings as default and restarted the mean machine, anxious to see how this operating system performs.
Before the system was fully loaded, I added an user and chose a root password. The desktop welcomes you with a nice, clean, green wallpaper, a pretty dock-like bar (wbar) that sits on the top and an elegant analogue clock screenlet. Though pretty, wBar has a few visual bugs here and there. Whenever you log in your account, it will be surrounded by a black box. To get rid of it, just right click and it will disappear; certainly, much better without it.
I also noticed, in the top left and right corners, two white lines. At first I thought they were simply some crazy graphical artifacts, but when I hovered the mouse pointer over them, I was proven wrong. The left one is actually the screenshot tool, a handy addition, and on the right, a "Swiss army knife" lets you configure the wbar, the screenlets and change the wallpaper. Well, in this case I'm not too happy about its placement. Why, you ask? I tend to run most of my applications maximized, so I'm used to going straight to the top and clicking the X button whenever I want to close them, without actually looking where the mouse's going, as I know it will land on the X. Well, with the toolbox thingy there, I have to be more careful with the movement of the pointer. But anyway, everything is customizable, so you can place it on the bottom panel, for example, or just remove it. Speaking of the bottom panel, I looked and looked for the volume icon, but couldn't find it, so I had to add it myself. This really should have been enabled by default. On the flip side, I noticed the awesome Parcellite clipboard manager tool, ready to gather all your text copying actions.
The Xfce desktop environment is at its latest, 4.6.1, version, keeping in tone with the overall up-to-date SAM. The software selection is where this distribution really manages to make me happy: Firefox 3.5.1, Pidgin 2.5.8, Mobile Media Converter (you will LOVE this if you watch movies on the go), VLC Media Player, Kino or Opera 9.64.
For office tasks, Abiword is provided by default and should handle most of the things it's fed just fine. If you're more of an OpenOffice guy/gal, you can open up the Synaptic package manager and look for it. What you will find is not the complete package, but a bash script that will download and install the suite for you. Unfortunately, a server error didn't allow for the script to be installed, so I couldn't get OOo on SAM.
Even though I'm running a lightweight desktop environment, it doesn't mean I can't let myself enjoy some eye-candy from time to time. But to do that, I needed the NVIDIA proprietary graphics drivers to be installed. The hardware configuration area didn't help me much so I went back to Synaptic and querried for "nvidia". Sure enough, I found the corresponding drivers for my FX5500 and downloaded them. Fortunately, I didn't have to get my hands dirty and modify the Xorg.conf file in order to activate them, so a logout/login later, my computer was NVIDIA-powered. I opened the PCLinuxOS control center, went to the Hardware tab, clicked the "Configure 3D Desktop effects" button, chose Compiz and it told me I had to logout yet again. I accepted and when I returned, not only did the windows wobble and the menus jiggle, but the window decorations were also replaced by the ones from Emerald. And surprisingly, SAM remained stable and responsive.
The ugly part showed itself when I decided to disable Compiz. After logging back in with it disabled, my windows were decorationless (nice word!) and the effects were still there. Yeah...
But what about hardware support, Danny? Well, I'm happy to report that, through the great bundled HP utility, I managed to setup and configure my Deskjet 3940 printer in no time. Sadly though, I've yet to find a Linux distribution in which the printer would perform as well as it does on Windows with the drivers from HP. Printing in draft mode is horrible and the normal mode is painfully slow. I've also noticed some Lexmark and Epson software in SAM, but you can always use CUPS. The Canon A550 digital camera was recognized immediately and I was offered to import the photos stored on it with gtkam.
In the repositories I found Skype and installed it, just to see if the mic input works properly out of the box. Happily, I was heard crystal clear on the other end of the "line", whereas with Ubuntu, for example, one has to make some tweaking before using the popular VoIP software.
SAM 2009 also comes with a quite interesting backup utility, called Flyback, which lets you schedule backups for selected folders on your HDD.
Most multimedia files, be they audio or video, play fine in SAM, as it comes with all the codecs you need.
Is it worth it?
Well, if you like trying out new distributions, certainly give SAM a spin. Despite its problems, it brings forward some original elements that separate it from the crowd. Plus, it is packed with the latest and greatest software. I'm very curious about how the next release will be though, as the developers said that SAM 2009 is the last version using the PCLinuxOS base.
Download SAM Linux 2009 here!