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DistributionWatch Review: Progeny Linux beta 2 - page 3

Another move into services

  • January 24, 2001
  • By Michael Hall

Debian advocates often find themselves working hardest just to get people to finish an install of the distribution. Though the first stage of the installation, involving hard drive partitioning and setting basic parameters, isn't hard for experienced users, selecting packages during the second stage is a daunting proposition thanks to dselect, the default package selection tool. While dselect includes online help, it's a far cry from the point-n-click package selection most other distributions have moved to.

Debian corrected some of the ease of use issues dselect introduces in its latest release by introducing generalized tasks users could select instead of the package-by-package method dselect requires. Progeny has taken this one step further by narrowing the options even more and wrapping the whole process in a GTK+-based front-end that substantially ups the sense of ease without compromising the feel of Debian's overall installation process, which places a strong premium on requiring users to decide on configuration issues as packages are installed. We've maintained in the past that this is a strength, even if it makes the installation less easy to walk away from, because it also fosters familiarity with critical components before they're given a chance to do harm with a "one size fits all" default setting.

We installed Progeny Debian using a bootable CD. Unlike Debian 2.2, Progeny only briefly rests on a text-based screen (which offers instructions to mount NFS shares or pass parameters to the kernel if the user has hardware with special requirements) before launching a GTK+-based installer app that steps users through the basic steps of partitioning a hard drive. For the most part, the partitioning tool was as easy to use as Red Hat's Disk Druid or Mandrake's DiskDrake, offering "simple" (complete overwrite of the existing partition table and date), "medium," (use of existing free space on the hard drive), and "expert" (user-specified partitioning) levels of control.

We selected the "expert" method in order to preserve our existing partition scheme, which houses another Linux install and a Windows partition. With one extremely minor exception (the installer wouldn't recognize the Windows partition as a valid mount target), the partitioning tool worked very well, though we had to figure out that it wanted us to tap the 'ESC' key to back out of our ill-fated attempt to mount the FAT32 partition.

Once disk partitioning was out the way, the installer placed the base system on the hard drive. As with Debian, it requires a reboot after this step is performed. The installer did a good job of informing us of what it was up to every step of the way during the first phase of the installation.

Once the system rebooted and began the second stage of the installation, we were presented with an X configuration tool which allowed for simple, medium, and expert options. We've had bad luck on our particular hardware configuration with "one size fits all" X configurations that drop our monitor just below its sync range, so we selected the "expert" option, which allowed us to specify the exact horizontal and vertical sync ranges of our monitor. A quick glance at the other choices, though, indicated that the defaults offered were fairly generic options that will work well on common hardware.

From there, the installer followed the same procedure as a standard Debian installation, with the exception being that it provided GTK+-based windows and dialog buttons instead of a plain, text-based display. Most of the options provided 'help' buttons to explain the choices presented, and the date and time setting widget included a graphical calendar.

We noticed a few tweaks toward the end of the setup process we don't recall from Debian's: a checkbox was provided that explicitly activates wheelmouses, and the X configuration tool (which carries the values given to launch the installer forward) also offers the option to set the priority at which X runs, defaulting to -10 (meaning it will take higher priority than most processes on the system for processor time.)

Simple tools were also offered to configure the network, a printer (but without as many features as Red Hat's printtool provides, and the Postfix MTA, which has five configuration levels to suit everything from a simple, standalone system that sends and receives only internally, to a more complex network mail router.

In all, the setup and configuration phase was smooth and simple and we encountered no problems to speak of.

The final stage of the install is where Progeny Debian and standard Debian diverge the most. Where Debian's installer allows the user to select from a list of tasks or the more specific package-by-package installation entailed in dselect, Progeny opts for a much more generalized, "coarse-grained" collection of "package sets". These package sets give users a choice of very broad collections of software plus a few popular packages people might tend to specify. The specific software packages include Apache, Emacs, Xemacs, Netscape, Mozilla, LDAP support, bind, the GIMP, and Samba. In addition, there are some broader package themes available that make it easier to select general categories of software and ensure all dependencies are met.

Once the package sets are selected, a small console window opens that allows the user to monitor the progress of each package as it's installed via Debian's dpkg tool. It's a good positive feedback touch.

Simply relating what the installer does, however, misses a few key elements from the standard Debian installation that have gone missing in action. The process of setting the MBR, for instance, is never mentioned during the install, nor is the user queried for package sources, or which kernel modules they'd like to install by default.

Even though patient users have been answering a few extra questions like this with only the squawks of reviewers wringing their hands over "ease of use" and "attracting new users" to distract them for years, the fact is, their absence will contribute to the perception that Progeny's not as hard to install as its predecessor.

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