Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Distro Hoppin`: Trisquel GNU/Linux 4.0

To my shame, I never really gave 100% libre GNU/Linux OSes more than a look or two, mainly because I don't like to dodge limitations just so I can feel "pure". Especially when I still have Windows happily running on a separate partition, which in itself makes for a pretty good ticket straight to hell.

If I recall correctly, the first FREE distro I have tried was gNewSense, which runs Richard Stallman's computer and I remember being pretty appalled by it. All the packages were so out of date, it was sad. You won't attract people to the light side with a distro that looks to not have been updated in ages.

Trisquel, on the other hand, which also can be found on the FSF white list, is doing it right. Having recently reached version 4, I thought it was a great time to put it to the test. And because a Windows-tainted machine doesn't deserve the privilege of hosting such a clean distro, I have found the perfect candidate: a 6 or 7-year old Compaq laptop that was a true rock-star back in the day, but is now retired. 2.20 GhZ Pentium 4 processor, 768 MB of RAM (updated from 256) and an ATI Radeon Mobility 7500 graphics card. Other than a bunch of damaged crystals in the LCD and, obviously, an useless battery, the Evo is as good as it can be. After burning Trisquel onto a CD, I threw it in the tray, fired the machine up and selected the Live option. What came next got me pretty worried that I would not be able to test the OS: errors after errors scrolled up and down, down and up for about 1 minute but, surprise surprise, the desktop appeared! And it worked pretty darn well.

The installation, which is the exact one from Ubuntu (yes, Trisquel is based on Ubuntu) went smoothly and was done in about 12-13 minutes. Booting the system is quite a pleasure to the eye, and not because it has a super fancy graphical splah animation; I guess it has something to do with the laptop, as the verbose mode is progressing while flying sideways across the screen. Wheeeeeee! Watch the proof below - great video content, as you surely have come to expect from me.

Oook... so now that it's installed, can you actually do anything without proprietary soul-eating bytes of code? Well, hell yes! But first of all, let me tell you that I am very impressed with how polished and professional this distro looks. The fonts are BEAUTIFULLY rendered, both on the desktop and inside the browser - a very pleasant surprise. The wallpaper is a soothing combination of dark and light, bright and yet discreet. There is only one panel on screen, situated at the bottom, but, as it's a bit thicker, it can host two rows of applications, a good thing for those of you with 15 windows open at once. Starting from left, you'll find: the Main Menu button, file browser, Internet browser, network manager, battery indicator, volume control, email and IM center, date/time and update notifier. Sadly, they all conspired against my sanity and decided to randomly switch positions after a bunch of reboots. But did they succeed? Of course they didn't! I had a very serious conversation with them, maybe threw a bunch of death threats in my rage, who knows, and they complied. We are now best friends. 


The panel was also configured to fake transparency, so everything blends in quite nicely. The icon set is very well done and the theme provides a MAC-ish feel with a crisp gray and minimalistic window controls. But enough with the looks, let's check out the insides of this distro and how well it can perform out of the box in a regular work or home environment.

The "Web Browser" (yes, that is the actual name of the application) will easily be recognized by anyone as the latest version of Mozilla's Firefox - 3.6.10, but without all the branding. It comes preloaded with a bunch of useful links for those who want to learn more about Trisquel, GNU and the Free Software Foundation and, more importantly, comes with Gnash, the best replacement for Adobe's Flash Player. I did not test it on a lot of flash-rich websites, but YouTube movies played just fine and dandy. There's also DivX web Player, Totem QuickTime, VLC and Windows Media Player plugins to further expand its multimedia capabilities. 


 It is often thought that 100% Free means no MP3, but don't worry, my friends, you won't have to convert your entire music collection to OGG, as Trisquel handles MP3s with ease.

But let's explore more of the Internet category (which deservingly sits at the very top of the Main Menu)... If you enjoy desktop RSS clients (rather than Google Reader, for example), Liferea is one of the the best choices in Linux and Trisquel bundles it, along with a pre-configured set of news sources. The most awesome IRC client, XChat, is next on the list, followed by Transmission BitTorrent Client and, sadly, Empathy IM Client instead of our beloved purple bird. Of course, the Remote Desktop Viewer ends the list. 



Text processing, spreadsheets, presentations and drawings are all taken care of by the OpenOffice Suite version 3.2.0 that shares the "Office" category with the Evolution Mail and Calendar client and a Dictionary. If I was a bit disappointed because of Empathy replacing Pidgin, the fact that Trisquel includes The GIMP by default kind of compensated. Yes, we are now in the "Graphics" category. Please stay with the group and don't make a lot of noise. The image viewing tasks fall in the hands of gThumb 2.10.11; but that description really doesn't do it justice, as it can do much more than open up pictures for you to see. It can organize your collection in catalogs, it can tweak your images, crop, resize, rotate, convert and it even has a red eye removal function. Not too shabby at all. If you want an application that's more specialized in the same job of organizing, Trisquel also brings you Showtell Photo Manager 0.5.0.


In the Sound & Video section, you will immediately notice that Rhythmbox was replaced by the more resource-friendly Exaile 0.3.1.1. Don't worry, it has plenty of features to not make you miss its "competitor". Cheese is also in the category, though I couldn't test it as, back when this laptop was made, there were few models that came with a built-in webcam. And no, I don't have an external one either. Ogg convert is an interesting addition and can turn those evil formats (both video and audio) into the libre Ogg. Movie Player and Sound Recorder are expected to be found in just about any distro and Trisquel makes no exception. For basic video editing, Pitivi will please most of amateur vloggers and "Family Vacation" motion picture producers.

"Games" consists of a tiny selection of timewasters: Solitaire, Chess, Mahjongg, Mines and dreaded Sudoku (I hate numbers), but enough to greatly damage productivity. The "Accesories" area has all the usual suspects, except that Tomboy was replaced by the pure alternative . - Gnote. You can still use Brasero to burn discs, take screenshots, search for files, etc, etc. 


Installing new applications is, no surprise here, very easy. You can either choose the geekier Synaptic, or enjoy the more user-friendly Gnome Add/Remove app, complete with shiny icons and community ratings. The memory consumption of Trisquel is within normal limits for Gnome desktops, under 200 MB and the CPU is under no significant stress. 



As this particular laptop lacks built-in wireless capabilities, I took a shot with my Edimax USB Wi-Fi card, but, though recognized, no networks could be detected. This is a problem present in the last 2 releases of Ubuntu, so Trisquel can't be blamed too much for it. But there is hope, as the latest Ubuntu 10.10 Beta works like a charm with this particular Internet device, meaning a near-future Trisquel release will also have no problems handling it. Until then, eth0 for me, baby!

There's also a weird annoyance with the touchpad: holding my finger as steady as I could would still result in tiny movements of the cursor. Happily, other than maybe a tad of dizziness, it didn't affect my normal workflow (more flow than work but hey!). The volume and brightness keys work perfectly, the little "i" opens the Web Browser, the mail fires up Evolution and the magnifier button opens the search function, just like it should.

Can the truly free survive?

I was more than pleasantly surprised with how gracefully Trisquel managed to bury my preconception about 100% free OSes being more of a creed, a philosophy than a practical operating environment, either at work or at home. Add that functionality to a polished, professional look and you have a project that is worthy of admiration and anticipation for future releases. 

Download Trisquel GNU/Linux here