This is a FreeSBIE 2.0.1 review by Steve Lake on

FreeSBIEFrom great anticipation to utter misery to mixed reactions. That in general sums up my experience with FreeSBIE 2.0.1.

For a live cd that’s built on one of the greatest free operating systems in the world (FreeBSD 6.2 in this case), you would expect equal greatness about it. But I didn’t find that here. And that is by no means the fault of Freebsd in any way, but rather this particular remixing of it. Booting the disk gave me several quick and simple booth options to choose from that seemed familiar enough, including FreeBSD’s ever famous startup boot menu. After that it loaded into a simple boot screen that told you the system was loading, but gave you no progress indicators or hints how it was doing or if and when it might be done. You had to hit enter, as suggested in the lower right hand corner of the boot image, in order to see the boot messages in order to figure out where it was in the boot process. The fact that I had to do that wasn’t a big deal. At least for me. Annoying for certain, but I’m not so lazy that hitting the enter key is beyond me. What bothered me about is that I’m looking at this from a new users perspective. IE, someone who’s still new to Linux or BSD. While it’s simply a small bother for me, I know that this one thing would be a huge red X for a new user. So therefore I mention it here in hopes the developers will fix it.

Now as for the boot speed, I know that live cd’s are supposed to take a while to load, but not 4 ½ minutes!! In 4 ½ minutes I could have already been racking up a body count in open arena, or doing some diagnostic testing instead of waiting for this thing to boot, and that was just the time it took to boot into the console. I still had to manually start the GUI after that! As a comparison, DesktopBSD, another distribution built on Freebsd, booted to its live cd version complete with gui in just over a minute! If another distribution in a live cd environment can do that, something’s very wrong here. Now getting back to the “booting into the command prompt” part, I found that a bit bothersome. I can see the logic of that from a super user’s perspective, but if you’re a new user, or a more experienced user who doesn’t work much in the console, you’re going to immediately be lost at this point.

Fewer and fewer Linux and Unix users even know about the “startx” command anymore. So why force everyone to use it in order to get to a gui? Now before anyone complains, I know that the Freebsd live cd does drop you into a command prompt when it boots. I’ll agree with that. But that’s because it’s supposed to!! The Freebsd live cd is designed that way because it has no GUI and is intended for shell level diagnostics and maintenance. But FreeSBIE is not that kind of a live cd. At least that’s not the way I took it to be. From everything I’ve seen, it’s a portable Freebsd live cd *WITH* a GUI. So why not boot into the gui when you load the CD? Ok, I’m likely being a bit harsh on FreeSBIE for this, but I have a little bar I’ve set for all of the different distributions I test, and if a distribution doesn’t match up, I get a little cranky. But at the same time you can rest assured that if a distribution passes muster with me, it’s one that I will stand behind and one you can feel safe trying, and eventually using. I like to call things the way they are, not beat around a bush and sugar coat things. The truth hurts sometimes, but even so, it still needs to be said in order for things to improve. Don’t think I’m bashing FreeSBIE in an effort to make it fail. Quite on the contrary. If I find flaws, I’m going to point them out in hopes that the developers will hear about them, pick up the challenge and fix them, the end result being a better distribution for everyone. But enough with my rantings. On with the rest of the review.

Upon typing “startx” at the command prompt I was greeted with a cute little spinning mouse pointer and a flashing mouse. Yes, an actual cartoon mouse. Anywho, it booted into XFCE Windows Manager in a reasonable amount of time (which is bad considering how lean and fast to load XFCE is.) and tossed me to the desktop. Once on the desktop, Firefox came up and displayed the release notes and handbook. I was glad to see this, then a bit surprised. Was that really firefox I was seeing? Yes it was. And there was also Thunderbird, BMP2 Music player, Abiword (ok, not the best pick for a word processor, but I’ll give them a break on that), and GAIM!! Having this selection of programs ready for you in the toolbar and program menu at the bottom of the screen is quite good. Another thing that surprised me a bit was the system monitoring tool that rested in the upper right corner of the screen. Depending on what you’re doing with the live cd, this can either be boon or bane. In the XFCE start menu I was pleased to see that the developers included a wide range of XFCE applications and a number of non-affiliated applications such as Gimp, Inkscape, Mplayer, and even Xchat, my favorite Linux IRC client, was there!

Rest assured, after my initial bashing of FreeSBIE, I think that the developers have earned back a few of the brownie points they lost during the bootup process. If they can fix that and get it booting and running as fast, if not faster than Knoppix, they’ll have an untouchable winner. The next thing up on the list of tests was the application load times. Overall these were mixed. Firefox, Abiword and Gaim, as well as a number of other programs, loaded fairly quickly with load times averaging between three to seven seconds. Other programs like Thunderbird and Inkscape didn’t do so well on the loadtimes taking anywhere from 20 to 45 seconds to load. Ironically, processor loads remained low most of the time I was using the live cd. My poor cdrom was crying uncle, but the processor and memory were doing great. Loads on those stayed very low. That was probably one of the main reasons for the slowness of loading. Too much required activity by the Cdrom drive. Again, another little quirk for the developers to fix to make FreeSBIE better. Another big plus for this live cd was how XFCE handled itself. While it did lag in a few places and didn’t by any means display the true beauty of XFCE, which is its overall lightning fast speed, in general it ran well. I found XFCE’s included applications to be quick and painless to use and the system seemed to handle just about everything I threw at it. So one thing it’s got going for it is that it’s stable. Surprisingly stable. In most of the other live cd’s I can usually find some creative way, short of hacking the OS itself, to crash the window manager and bring it to its knees. Interestingly enough, I couldn’t do that here. I don’t know if that was because of good coding, the general lack of something, or me loosing my touch.

But not to be outdone, I decided to ramp things up a bit. Sure, live cd’s are great for demoing Linux and BSD to people who are either unfamiliar with the OS, or sworn to a belief that Linux sucks. However, you know someone somewhere is going to come to you at some point and say, “that’s great, but can it play my videos or my music?” Well, instead of standing their with a blank stare, unable to answer them, I decided it might not hurt to try out a little multimedia testing while I was there. And so I did. First up, a DVD of Lilo and Stitch.

So, in went the DVD and….nothing. Apparently there’s no auto detecting of the DVD, auto mounting or anything of the like. So off we go to the console to do this by hand. A little prying found me having to make my dvd mounting directory in my home directory since apparently the whole file system, save for my home directory, is read only. A small glitch, but not insurmountable. A little poking and prying later, and manual mounting is a no-go. Again, likely do the read only filesystem. So I let Mplayer have at it instead. Surprisingly, it loaded the DVD without mounting it, and when the DVD played, it even had sound, which was quite a good thing to see, considering that some recent distributions I’ve tried have had huge issues with that for some reason. (I blame the media giants for that) DVD playback was a bit flaky, but it still worked. Playing of other media though was a mixed bag. WMV’s didn’t play while some AVI’s did and others didn’t. MP3’s played almost every single time without incident though.

One downside to using this live cd for diagnostics though is the very small amount of writable space available in your home directory for downloading and saving files (about 30 meg). So that might limit your diagnostic abilities somewhat unless you attach an external drive to the system for extra storage. Speaking of which, it handled loading a pendrive fairly easily. Another downside to using this for a live cd is that XFCE doesn’t operate in quite the same way that most other window managers do, or in a way that people are familiar with. So navigation through the window manager could cause a few headaches for those not familiar with XFCE and its interface model.

Overall I found FreeSBIE to be a decent live cd in general, but nothing to write home about. It’s definitely got a lot of potential and I think that if it does a bit more growing and maturing, it could become one of the premier live cd’s out there. Especially since it’s built on top of my favorite OS in the world. Freebsd.

Download a copy and try it out for yourself. If you find any bugs, feel free to report them to the developers, or if you know how to program, offer the developers some help in working out these bugs. What you do will help them eventually reach that goal. One I’d like to see this distribution reach. But for now it only gets a sad 5 of 10 from me. Good luck in the future and better luck next time guys.