A Totally Boring Operating System

Tinkerers on Linux like excitement. They enjoy messing with a distro until it breaks, then learning how to fix it. They like testing new updates, new software, new ways of doing ordinary things.

Developers, testers, experimenters – thank God for them – love that stuff. I say thank God for them because if it weren’t for all the wonderful geeks that do the scary stuff, trying out the new versions of stuff, coming up with cool ideas and making sure they work, the rest of us would be on the phone to tech support all the time, searching the forums for answers to new issues and better ways to fix old ones.

But for this technophobic sidekick, a positively boring OS is lots better! It’s stable, reliable, stays out of my way and lets me get my work done, and with no surprises, no interruptions, no random mysterious malfunctions. I bet I speak for the majority of computer users, too. Unfortunately most of them are still using Windows just because that’s “what came with the computer” and they either don’t know there are alternatives or they’re not aware of how easy it is to change their OS.

I have a wonderful, totally boring operating system on my old 32-bit desktop – just the way I like it.

I also have, on a spare 64-bit laptop, a more exciting one: Rolling-release, a little more techno-drama to challenge my inner geek, yet popular with beginners, and systemd-free. It dual-boots with another systemd-free favorite of mine that is every bit as boring as the old desktop.

All three are awesome.

It’s hard to pick a favorite from among these wonderful Linux mixtures. So much so that I’m stuck with all three of them! I suppose if I had to choose only one, it would be Linux Lite, but not without the added – and not officially supported – additions that help make it so wonderfully boring.

SalixOS doesn’t need any such safety features as the Mint Updater (adapted for Linux Lite by the venerable and talented “Ralphy” from unlockforus.com), because updates simply don’t break it. It’s Slackware! Legendary stability, ultra-long-term support. Salix is “friendly” enough, but better for experienced users than for newcomers to Linux. It’s Linux “for Lazy Slackers,” a phrase coined from the common term for Slackware users – “Slackers.”

If I ever get wildly paranoid of systemd again, Salix is where I would run to for safety, I think, rather than PCLinuxOS, because it’s Xfce by default and design, based on and fully compatible with it’s parent, so you get these vast repositories of awesomeness and some cool tools for compiling your own favorites. I even have “MintStick” in my Salix! It’s rolling-release kinda sorta, but not quite the all-or-nothing update methodology of PCLinuxOS.

  • For beginners, I recommend Linux Mint.
  • For beginners with modest hardware, I recommend Linux Lite with modifications I have described in a few posts here.
  • For beginners who want to explore and learn about this wonderful world of Linux, I recommend PCLinuxOS without reservations.
  • For experienced users with older to modern hardware who like stability and simplicity, I recommend Salix without reservation.

I’m enjoying the best of Linux with these three distros!

Better Mozilla Replacements

Last month I wrote about replacing all the Mozilla stuff on my computer, as a kinda-sorta protest against their stupid, purely political decision to fire their CEO because he dared to hold and dared to express a politically incorrect opinion about gay “marriage.” I love the Mozilla products, especially Seamonkey – the wonderful Internet Suite risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the Netscape project. I was hoping to find an equal replacement for Seamonkey that is entirely free and open-source. I tried out a few and settled on two awesome applications that not only give me everything Seamonkey did, but with less demand on system resources.

My browser is Xfce’s own wonderful ultralight browser, Midori. It can “identify” as any browser you wish, has built-in and customizable “add-on” options like Ad Blocker (which I don’t use, by the way, perhaps more on that later). It used to crash inexplicably all the time. Now it’s rock-stable on Linux Lite, Xubuntu, and SalixOS.

KMail

KMail is a sweet little KDE application that does almost everything quickly and simply, but it doesn’t allow for embedding images while composing HTML messages. That’s it’s only drawback – that and, of course, all the KDE dependencies that come with it when trying to install it in Linux Lite (Xfce desktop environment). Very nice, but not as full-featured as Thunderbird or Seamonkey just because of the Composer.

Geary / Pantheon-Mail

Pantheon-Mail is ElementaryOS’ own fork of the little Gnome e-mail client called Geary. I found absolutely no difference between the two at all, installing Geary from the Ubuntu repositories and Pantheon-Mail from ElementaryOS’ PPA. Both seem identical to me. The only difference was the default icon for the Xfce Panel, and the absence of any icons for certain options in Pantheon-Mail. Why fork a good project just to change it’s name? I found no difference whatsoever in my week-long comparison of the two. Neither has a proper Address Book, but depend on gathered addresses from incoming and outgoing e-mail. Rich Text is available but without any choice of font – just the default font and size, and the only rich-text options are color, Bold, Italics, Strikethrough, and Underline.

I didn’t even bother with the very popular and supposedly “full-featured” email clients Claws-Mail and Slypheed. I didn’t bother because neither has a mail composer that offers anything but plain text. It’s possible to write HTML messages, but you have to add a whole ‘nother application, an external editor. Hey I’m just a simple little sidekick, still scared of “complicated” software, and I prefer to keep things simple. For those who are aware of HTML’s “risks” and prefer only plain text, these two are very popular in the Linux world.

Evolution

I guess I have avoided this one for so long because of it’s association with Novell, a big office software company. But it’s FOSS, released under the GPL license, officially a Gnome project distributed by Novell (whatever that means, I got my copy from the repository, lol). Not available in Slackware or Salix because there’s just no Gnome stuff available for Slackware users, it is absolutely awesome. Full HTML composing using a Thunderbird-like WYSIWYG editor (oh, that’s “What You See Is What You Get”) and a truly super-cool interface, friendly enough for a little, mildly technophobic sidekick.

That’s the options available in the Composer window. Actually more options than Seamonkey offers, believe it or not. This post is being composed and published entirely via email, which is simply the way I prefer to do it when I can. Perhaps a leftover habit from back when we were on dial-up Internet and I did all my reading and writing offline anyway using an e-mail client (Eudora on Windows, then Thunderbird on Linux, and now Evolution (on Linux but not available as a Slackware package or Slack-build). When I’m ready I’ll test them out on Void Linux and write about it!

Sticking With Salix!

Well this is certainly unexpected! The first time I tried Salix, it refused to boot after an update, and I was like, “I’m done. I thought ‘borked by an update’ was uniquely a Debian/Ubuntu phenomenon until now. Screw this.”

What an ignorant and impatient fool I was. When an update includes a kernel update, you also have to update your bootloader to load the new kernel. That’s what I did wrong, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault but my own, for not reading the instructions and assuming far too much. Typical, perhaps, of a technophobic user playing with a Slackware derivative for the first time after using almost exclusively Ubuntu-based distros previously. I was used to being spoon-fed and giving the operating system too much automation. Simplicity does not mean “everything happens automagically and you don’t have to do anything but click Okay.” The user is responsible for knowing what the heck he or she is doing!

Salix tells me what my choices might mean during installation and updates, and when it refused to boot after I made a stupid decision, I should have known. Silly spoon-fed Ubuntu user and Slackware rookie.

But y’know what? I think I’m just gonna leave Salix on my old ancient relic desktop computer for good. I’m probably all done messing around with other distros, at least on this particular computer. Here are my reasons:

It’s Slackware-based and fully compatible with it’s parent distro, unlike most of the other Slackware-based “lightweight” distros. This means it has Slackware’s legendary stability and reliability, and ultra-mega-super-duper-uber-long-term support.

It’s super simple! In keeping with the whole Slackware philosophy – and Linux philosophy, for that matter. One application per task. Do one thing and do it well. Stay the heck out of the user’s way.

It’s systemd-free.
I know, before you jump all over me about it, I’ve read all the debates and I think I’ve probably never personally had any issues with systemd, except that even my beloved Xubuntu began to slow down over time (almost like “Windows rot”) and had to be rebooted regularly just to refresh it and dump cache and stuff. It didn’t do that before Ubuntu (and thus Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Mint, and all their derivatives and spin-offs and remixes) adopted systemd, so I wonder if that might be part of the reason. The “one ring to rule them all” feature of systemd is counter to the “do one thing and do it well” principle that has made Linux so awesome to begin with (until recently). I don’t reboot Salix. I don’t need to. Could systemd be the reason? I don’t know, but it sure is nice not to have the gradual loss of speed over time that I experienced with Xubu and other old favorites.

Yeah, he’s talking to systemd.

Salix doesn’t include kernel updates by default. Why should they? The installed kernel works fine, it’s secure, and my computer doesn’t need support for all kindsa features it doesn’t even have. It ain’t broke, no need to fix anything. The only thing I change is the wallpaper occasionally, or fonts and stuff. It’s perfectly boring, as it should be.

My distro-hopper-stopper is Salix.

I haven’t tried it on the laptop yet, but that’s another post for another day.

Round Two: A Technophobe Tries SalixOS Again

I didn’t even mean to do it! All I wanted was to try it on a Live USB stick, just to see what’s new with Salix since Slackware 14.2 came out. Slackware is the oldest Linux distro there is, and is known to be rock-solid stable, but not for newbies to Linux – and certainly not for technophobic sidekicks who just want a ready-out-of-the-box distro that doesn’t require a bunch of setup and tweaking to make it functional. It has some big advantages though:

No systemd being one of the big ones, although opinions on that vary greatly of course. “Do one thing and do it well” is a Linux philosophy that has made Linux awesome, and systemd runs completely counter to it, and many users of the major distros that depend on systemd have found it to be a resource-hogging daemon that imposes itself on every process from boot-up to launching applications. “One ring to rule them all” doesn’t agree with not conform to the keep-it-simple rule that even the geekiest and nerdiest of Slackware users (hereafter called “Slackers”) try to stick to.

Another advantage (again, in my opinion) is ultra-long-term support. Much earlier editions of Slackware are still supported. It’s rock-stable and reliable for many years. In the case of an ancient relic of a computer that isn’t even upgradable anymore hardware-wise, Slackware won’t become obsolete and require an upgrade or reinstall to keep a perfectly good old computer out of the landfill for hopefully (but by no means guaranteed) 3 to 5 years. Even my beloved Xubuntu and LXLE are outrunning this old heap. I still recommend them for newbies and people with newer hardware than mine (it’s an abacus compared to anything built in the last 10 years). But I’m all about making this old relic last as long as I possibly can, just for fun, and I don’t want to limit myself to Debian and Ubuntu-based distros.

But this isn’t a review of Slackware. This is SalixOS – a Slackware spin-off that remains fully compatible with it’s parent distro, which is why I wrote all that stuff. Other Slackware derivatives like Vector Linux and Zenwalk are meant more for newbies and users that want that out-of-the-box readiness where everything “just works.” But to get there they need to distance themselves from their parent, kinda like Ubuntu has done from Debian. If I was to describe SalixOS in a single sentence, it might be “SalixOS is Slackware with automated dependency resolution and some cool tools for compiling and installing software from source.” The developer calls it as a distro “for lazy Slackers.” Sounds perfect!

Anyway, I didn’t start out intending to install it, just revisit it in a Live environment to see what has changed. I really liked it before, and only quit using it because one day it just refused to boot at all and even a reinstallation didn’t fix it. Anyway I accidentally downloaded an installation iso instead of a “LiveCD” of Salix. But once I loaded I figured, “what the heck, this should only take about 30 minutes anyway.” WRONG. It took less than half that time! Badda-bing badda boom, done in under 15 minutes. And that’s including the time it took to figure out that graphical-but-not-for-new-users installer.

Three modes of installation are available. Being a technophobe, I installed “everything,” which really isn’t very much. That’s because the one-application-per-task philosophy doesn’t double up on a bunch of applications that do the same job. SalixOS is available in multiple flavors, but being an Xfce fanboy I installed the Xfce flavor and “full” install. You can download a minimal version with just a CLI to completely customize it. But that’s a really geeky option, certainly scary for a technophobe. My gosh, y’all, it’s Slackware and that’s scary enough! But I might have chosen “Basic,” and had Xfce and some GUI tools. So even with “Full” installation and that not-so-newbie-friendly installer, it still took mere minutes to completely install. That’s the fastest install in the history of ever, I think.

It was definitely not ready “out-of-the-box” for instant use though. But hey, cool, Seamonkey is in the Slackware repository! And installing it using the gslapt GUI is as easy as Synaptic Package Manager is in the Debian/Ubuntu-based distros. But the biggest deal and coolest feature of Salix is the automatic dependency resolution that Debian and Ubuntu users take for granted but which most Slackers don’t even want. But simple sidekicks and technophobes need it and depend on it! I’d rather be a “lazy Slacker” than forego the advantages of Slackware altogether. You can choose a repository mirror near you, anywhere in the entire universe. That is done during installation, which is pretty cool. I installed my favorite Internet suite effortlessly in mere seconds. No adding the Ubuntuzilla PPA and going through all that rigmarole to get a single application. Simplicity! That’s why I like Xfce. It’s why I like Xfce. And why Slackware appeals to me in spite of my moderate-to-severe technophobia.

Not in the repos? No problem. I bet Salix’s other cool tool can compile and install it right from the source code! This wonderful geeky application is another super awesome feature of SalixOS! I couldn’t find my old favorite icon themes in the repos, but Sourcery found them and installed them automagically!

So very cool. Again, no need to add a PPA just for an icon set to jazz up my Xfce desktop without adding “weight” to it. I was always warned about adding PPAs in Xubuntu, and LXLE is slap full of extra PPAs for everything from Mozilla stuff to the latest versions of LibreOffice. Probably not a good idea for brand-newbies who would have no idea what to with issues caused by all those extra PPAs. LXLE does get props for having a PPA Manager in LXLE, but I wouldn’t think a newbie would know what to do with it. In Salix there’s no need for PPAs, much less the need to manage an overabundance of them.

The only glitch this time was no sound at startup. Easily fixed by adding Pulseaudio and ALSA to the startup menu – again, and awesomely for a user scared of the terminal, graphically!

However, I did have to create a file a file using Leafpad in /home/user, named “asoundrc”. It simply reads:

pcm.!default {
type hw
card 1
}

ctl.!default {
type hw
card 1
}

Credit for that goes to “Jdemos” who posted it in the Salix forums here.

Here’s the system services menu.  Pulseaudio and ALSA were not ticked.

Maybe it should have been enabled by default at installation, but this is Slackware after all. Simple, not more than the user really needs. I just ticked the services I wanted enabled on startup and un-ticked stuff like Bluetooth and Wireless that I never use on this old relic.

It’s Xfce! Infinitely configurable and beautiful, and best of all, simple enough for a little technophobic sidekick.

Today is only Day Three since installation (during Hurricane Matthew, so I had enough time on my hands to play a little), but rebooting, suspension, and all that have been trouble-free so far. I haven’t decided whether or not to keep it, but unless I have an issue like last time, I’m likely to just leave it in place.

UPDATE:  This system is gorgeous, simple, and fast!  The Slackware repositories are vast, akin to Debian’s, and whatever you don’t find in there can probably be compiled and installed using Salix’s awesome Sourcery tool.  Day 7 and it’s effortless and trouble free after multiple reboots (thunderstorms and stuff around here, so I shut down to protect this old relic) and updates.

My simple, beautiful Xfce desktop with cool SalixOS wallpaper

robinxsalixdesktop

Thanks for reading!

SalixOS Does it Again

The first time I used SalixOS, I was delighted for the first few days, then it began to slow way down and lock up. No input was accepted from mouse or keyboard, and I had to reboot using the power button. I searched their forums for info on that, but apparently no one else suffered from that problem. I ended up dumping SalixOS when it refused to boot at all one day. Re-installs are just too easy, and actually take less time than trying to figure out why the damned thing won’t boot up… and certainly easier than Googling without a computer!

Trying it again last week, I hoped for a better result, but the same thing happened. Hard drive spinning like mad, screen frozen, mouse frozen, keyboard useless, power-off and on again. This time I didn’t want to give up so easily, so I tried to join the SalixOS forums for help. I was able to register but couldn’t use the account until an Administrator approved my registration. Days went by without any approval. “If you need help, contact an Administrator,” it says, but offers no way to contact an administrator. So I posted to the SalixOS mailing list (supposedly non-members can post there, but posts from non-members are moderated, as they should be). I wrote that I was trying to register for the forums, and that there is no link or info on how to contact an administrator. Several days later, my post is still awaiting moderation. What that tells me is that the little distro is largely unsupported, except for those who were lucky enough to get “in” before the “administrator” went on hiatus.

After another dozen or so times hitting the power button on the CPU cabinet to reboot and get anything done, and in light of the fact that I can’t even ask for help, much less get any, I’m saying goodbye and good riddance to SalixOS. “For Lazy Slackers,” the description on their web site says. And I have to agree. Too lazy to fix it, too lazy to check their own forums and mailing list. Unless there is only one person who is responsible for those things and he or she is laid up sick or something, new users can expect no support for this distro other than Googling and trial-and-error.

Revisiting SalixOS

I’ve gotta say I have absolutely loved Xubuntu – up until anything after 12.04, and LXLE, the brilliantly mixed respin of Lubuntu – up until 14.04. Precise, 12.04, was rock-stable and fairly nimble on this ancient relic I’m still using. I could continue using it through April of next year, but it’s largely unsupported now except for security updates. So I upgraded to Trusty, 14.04. Xubuntu Trusty was too much for this aging dinosaur, halting and slow. So again, LXLE to the rescue. Gorgeous, full-featured, and much faster than Xubu. All was well. Until updates cumulatively made it increasingly buggy. I did a little research and found this interesting article on some changes to 14.04 that were um, unorthodox at least. Among other things, Trusty isn’t using an LTS kernel for an LTS release. They’ve opted for “greater hardware compatibility” by using a more recent kernel, which was updated two or three times on LXLE during my sojourn with it. They’ve got some apps that depend on systemd to work, but systemd isn’t the default init application / process manager. Maybe that’s one of the things that contributed to LXLE’s bugginess after some updates. It became slow, reluctant to boot, and themes got glitchy. Other users of Ubuntu Trusty and derivatives have reported frequent loss of networking (both wired and wireless) after updates. Borked after updating is a frequent complaint, and it always had me walking on eggshells with Ubuntu, and even more so with LXLE’s all-or-nothing way of updating (open Synaptic > Mark all upgrades > Apply).

I wondered if systemd, especially in an updated distro that didn’t ship with it but has a bunch of stuff that depends on it, was part of the problem. I never took a position on the whole systemd debate because as a self-confessed technophobe I never dabbled in that “advanced coder stuff.” Suffice it to say that the debate ignited a bloody war among Linux geeks which has kinda died down a little but still rages in spots, even though all the Big Players (Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, SUSE, Gnome, etc) have adopted it. It’s more than just a “initiating” daemon, it’s a process manager also. So it sort of goes against the traditional “do one thing and do it well” rule of GNU/Linux. It’s not “mature” yet, to borrow another Linux cliche, yet it got widely adopted with such speed that bugs are still showing up, and developers are being forced to “fix someone else’ mistakes” by adapting their own projects for systemd. Uncool. So, I looked around for a “systemd-free” Linux distro that might be less buggy with all the changes being forced on users and developers and maintainers. One of them is PCLinuxOS, which I have played with before. I downloaded two of the community remixes, LXDE and Xfce. I made bootable USB keys of each, but both refused to boot. I spent a few hours retrying, but with the same result. Okay, chide me for giving up to easily, but I remind you – I’m a technophobe anyway, remember?

Enter my second choice from the systemd-free list of Linux distros: SalixOS. I’ve played with this one before too, and fled back to Xubuntu when SalixOS suddenly refused to boot one day. But a few things are different this time out. One of them is this cool LiloSetup utility that works in whether in Live mode or installed SalixOS. So I’m prepared now in case the bootloader ever balks again.

SalixOS 14.1 ships with Xfce4.10 (yeah I know, the new one is 4.12 but y’know what? I don’t care. New isn’t always better) and Linux Kernel 3.10.17 (yep, the LTS kernel, yay!) This superb and simple little distro is based on and fully compatible with Slackware, which is known for it’s rock-solid stability even though some of the software in Slackware-Current is “older.” I guess using Slackware Current is kinda like using Debian Stable. Older, perhaps, but stable. Certainly more stable than Ubuntu or cutting-edge Fedora, except not polluted with systemd. Gnome3 users take note: The Gnome people have decided to make Gnome3 with a bunch of systemd dependencies. Xfce is still good, if you’re trying to avoid systemd.

The repositories are chock full of awesome stuff, including Seamonkey! It’s nice not to have to add a PPA just to get one particular favorite application and keep it updated. There are all kinda of installation options, from bare-bones to full-on ready-to-play; and multiple desktops to choose from (Xfce is the default in the main edition). Software installation is nice and graphical for us technophobic users coming from the Ubuntu family, using GSlapt Package Manager. It looks and acts a lot like Synaptic! And if it ain’t in the repositories, there’s Sourcery, which works for a lot of users but was troublesome for me during my previous flirtation with SalixOS. Perhaps it’s better now. Sourcery compiles packages listed from source code – all from a sweet graphical interface that also looks and acts kinda sorta like Synaptic.

Rather than post screenshots just yet, I would encourage readers who are interested to look into this little-known gem for themselves. I think it’s a great choice for timid technophobic users like me as a “next step” beyond the Ubuntu family and it’s derivatives.

Back to Xubuntu, Again

Well that was fun while it lasted, but:

Yesterday Seamonkey updated twice (using Salix’s Gslapt manager). The first time, no problem except that certain extensions were incompatible with the new version, and none were upgradable. Not a showstopper though, it happens all the time.

Second update restored some extension functionality, but completely removed all my bookmarks, cookies, passwords, history, and saved preferences. And none of them could be input again! Seamonkey would not let me bookmark pages, store passwords, manage folders, cookies, search engines, nothing. Seamonkey was my last resort after Midori, Firefox, and Opera had all buggy prior to installing Seamonkey. Now even trusty old Seamonkey refused me and mocked me at every turn.

I thought about installing yet another browser this morning after a good night’s sleep. No dice. Not even possible. SalixOS refused to boot. Even doing all the tricks to get it going failed. I was beginning to think my computer was broken!

If my version of Salix was available as a LiveCD, I might have used it to at least see if my hard drive had crashed, recover what I could if possible to a USB stick, maybe check my e-mail. But SalixOS 14.0 is only available via an installation disk. But I still had my old Xubuntu 12.04 LiveCD handy, so I used it to see if my hard drive had died or something. It booted up effortlessly as always and guess what? Nothing wrong with the hard drive. SalixOS just simply up and quit on me, just like several applications had been doing since I installed Salix two months ago.

So I grabbed another cup of coffee and thought about it for a spell. Salix had been a little faster than Xubu, but not by enough to matter, especially now that it had come to a screeching halt. Most casual users probably wouldn’t even notice any difference in speed between them (except that Xubu boots a lot faster – Grub beats Lilo). In over two years on Xubuntu I never experienced so many failures of multiple applications as I did in two months using SalixOS. Also, as I thought some more about what to do next, I recalled all the times I wished for a particular software package that:

  • Either wasn’t in the SalixOS repositories or
  • did not appear in available Slackbuilds or refused to install from Slackbuilds.

The old saying is true: Choose a distro, and you’re choosing it’s repositories. There are a gazillion applications in the Ubuntu respositories (although it’s odd that you have to add PPAs to get the Seamonkey Internet suite or the Faenza icon set – both of which are in the Salix respositories). By comparison though, I could list every bit of software in the Salix repositories on about two ordinary printed pages. Others can be compiled from Slackbuilds using Sourcery, but there are all kinds of dependency issues. Enough to have it fail to install what I wanted at least 50% of the time.

So after careful, thoughtful, thorough consideration of my situation, I decided, “Screw this. I’ll just install Xubu replacing Salix while I’ve got the darned CD in there anyway.” I had thought to dual boot, but that idea lasted about 3 minutes before I dismissed it, considering all the ups and downs of the last 2 months using SalixOS. I had ventured away from Xubu because I’m scared of updates breaking things. I’ve read a lot of horror stories about that – but it occurs to me that I’ve never actually experienced any such horrific, disastrous, cataclysmic breakages in Xubuntu for as long as I’ve used. Just minor ones, like sound not working or having to reinstall some peripheral stuff. So y’know what?

It’s back to Xubuntu, no more to roam, until and unless Xubuntu fails me as badly as SalixOS did. Oh well, no one said Linux was boring I guess. But in my opinion, it should be. At least on my desktop!