Zenwalk: Slackware's Moment of Zen

by Ostatic Staff - Oct. 16, 2008

Periodically, Linux media outlets go on list frenzies -- Ten Linux Distros for New Users, Five Great Distributions You've Never Heard Of. These are interesting lists but always seem to feature the same distributions.

Some distributions are consistently left off these lists, seemingly regardless of whether they are a better fit than the usual candidates. I always read these lists, and wonder why Zenwalk is rarely mentioned. Perhaps it isn't for brand new users, but it's a great distribution that is overlooked far too often.

Zenwalk (formerly known as Minislack) is a Slackware based distribution. Don't let its previous name fool you: Zenwalk is more like Slackware than some of the Slackware-driven pendrive distributions, such as SLAX. In the right circumstances, there are major advantages to using Zenwalk over Slackware (or SLAX).

A rule of thumb I'd recommend for those interested in trying out a Slackwaresque distribution: If you're looking for a distribution for server related tasks, go with Slackware. It's not particularly modern feeling, but it's stable, solid, and manages the heavy lifting of server applications with ease. If you are looking for a more desktop oriented distribution with a wider variety of recent packages, that is lightweight yet still able to do server related tasks, think Zenwalk. (Vector Linux is another Slackware based distribution that covers this area quite nicely, but with more release iterations, it can be less straightforward to get an overview of the system.) SLAX is a great choice for those wanting a portable Linux reminiscent of Slackware, but daily use could get bothersome rather quickly.

Installation Feels Like Slackware -- Management Doesn't

Zenwalk's installation disk features a text based installer. It looks similar to (and functions exactly like) Slackware's installer. This means that a certain familiarity with disk partitioning (Zenwalk uses cfdisk to this end) is required. There is an autopartitioning module, which makes the process easier (but it requires that the entire disk is reformatted and used for installation).

Installations are fast, and I am always appreciative of the ability to choose services to start automatically at boot. Previously, Zenwalk would ask whether it should start in a graphical mode, or with a terminal. This is no longer the case and both "versions" of Zenwalk (Zenwalk traditionally features the XFCE desktop environment, but an alternative GNOME version was recently released) boot to the GDM login screen.

A downside to Slackware, for desktop purposes in particular, is the package management system (or, some would say, lack thereof). There is a package install/remove function, and there are front ends to it (utilities like swaret and slaptget). These make life easier, but dependency checking has historically been spotty, when available.

Zenwalk uses Netpkg for package management. It's not as flashy as APT frontends, such as Synaptic or Adept. It is different from RPM frontends, such as YUM or YaST. In past versions, though, Netpkg worked reasonably well, and made installing, updating, and maintaining packages on this Slack-like system fairly painless.

As of Zenwalk 5.2, Netpkg has gotten a facelift, and some feature enhancements. Choosing mirrors and repositories (and updating them quickly) requires less hunting and clicking. Netpkg's window pane layouts and collapsible tree structure make spotting desired packages (and package groups) faster. The dependency issues? It's now as easy to install required dependencies on Zenwalk as it is the better known alternatives.

Part of the beauty of Zenwalk is that though there are Zenwalk-specific repositories, it is compatible with Slackware .tgz packages, as well.

A Simple Desktop, and Functional from the Beginning

Zenwalk offers some strong applications from the start. The standard XFCE desktop has the usual suspects, of course -- media players, GIMP, email client and browser (in this case, Icedove and Iceweasel, which are the free (as in speech), unbranded versions of Thunderbird and Firefox), and the Thunar file manager.

There are a wide variety of up-to-date packages in the mirrors, however. OpenOffice.org's 3.0 release, out less than a week, is available for installation. Zenwalk, though sometimes overlooked, has an active, dedicated community and user base. It's a great distribution for people looking for Slackware's stability and framework, but desiring something with a stronger emphasis on the desktop.