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PC-BSD aims to be an easy to use desktop operating system, based on FreeBSD. As many Linux users, I have little or no knowledge about FreeBSD. I heard many rumors about it. I read about it and about its history. I even tried it a little while ago and, although I appreciated some aspects of it, I came to the conclusion that it wasn't ready for the desktop. So when I read the announcement of PC-BSD being released, I decided to have a look at it.

Introduction

PC-BSD comes as a single ISO file which is available here: http://www.pcbsd.org/

The official website is nice and welcoming. I recommend spending some time on it, while you're downloading the ISO. It features a quick tour of the operating system, a description of its features and many screenshots.

There is an extra ISO file available, which is there for multi-language support. I didn't feel the need for it, so I didn't download it. I also noticed that PC-BSD was available for download as a VMWare image. Now that VMWare player is free, this can encourage people to try PC-BSD without having to modify their existing partitions. This is a brilliant idea. If this operating system is truly easy to use and ready for the desktop as it's aimed to be, then it could potentially attract many users and make FreeBSD a bit more popular among non-BSD users. I have a dedicated machine though, and I only use virtual machines to get some screenshots of the installation process, so I went for the ISO download.

I finally got the file downloaded and burnt on a CD. The name of the CD is "FreeSBIE". This probably makes sense as PC-BSD is based on FreeSBIE and FreeBSD, but this is a sign indicating somehow that attention to details is lacking, and I was a bit disappointed to see that.

I inserted the disc in the CD drive and booted on it. {mospagebreak title=Installation}

Installation

The official website features an installation tour and many screenshots, so I already had an idea of what to expect.

The boot menu offers a few options. It probably allows to boot an already installed image, or to perform a text mode installation. I decided to go with the default choice.


The boot splash

The boot process is then hidden by a nice boot splash. Unfortunately it doesn't have a progress bar. The background picture looks nice, but it has little or no connection with FreeBSD, and I don't recall seeing any yellow flowers on the PC-BSD website.


The PC-BSD installation menu

Once the boot process is finished, a menu appears. After seeing a nice bootsplash, and knowing the fact that PC-BSD has a graphical installer, I was a bit disappointed by the look of this text-based menu. However, it offers handy features and allows the user to open a Unix shell, to chroot into an existing operating system on the hard drive and even to run fdisk. This gives the CD more functionality, and it's nice to know that you can use it not only to install PC-BSD but also to fix it once already installed. I selected the default option and went on with the installation.


The PC-BSD logo

The system launched XWindow and the graphical installer, which started with a good looking PC-BSD logo.


The PC-BSD Installation Wizard - Language preference and keyboard layout

I was then asked to set my language preference and my keyboard layout. As I mentioned in the Fedora Core 5 review, people do not necessarily know what their keyboard model and layout are. For this reason, it would be nice to be able to test them after making a selection.


The PC-BSD Installation Wizard - Welcome Screen

A welcome message then greeted me and invited me to go through the next steps.


The PC-BSD Installation Wizard - Partitioning

The first step was to partition my hard drive. I usually use a virtual machine to test installers, because it makes it easy for me to take screenshots. I already had a 5GB hard drive which was dedicated to this review, so I simply selected the "use entire disk" option. I noticed the Install Tips pane on the left, which described FreeBSD naming conventions for hard drive partitions. As this is probably something non-BSD users are not familiar with, I thought it was a very nice attention.


The PC-BSD Installation Wizard - Boot loader configuration

The second step was to install the BSD boot loader. This is an optional step and the user can choose to leave the MBR untouched.


The PC-BSD Installation Wizard - Installation

The installer then started copying files on the hard-drive. I was amazed by the small number of questions I had been asked. After all, I simply had to choose among some localization settings, partition my hard-drive and tell the installer whether or not I wanted it to set a boot loader. Other installers usually ask about network settings, time configuration, packages selection and many other things. Choice is good of course, but PC-BSD's purpose is to be simple. I found the simplicity of its installation very impressive.


The PC-BSD Installation Wizard - Root password and account setup

After a little time, the system was installed on my hard drive, and I had reasons to believe that the installation was finished. However, a final step came up. It asked me to set a root password and a user account. This was obviously a necessary step, but I really can't see why I wasn't asked before. Since the previous operation took some time, it would have been nice to answer all questions first and then let the computer go on with the installation.

By default, the option "Auto-login user" was checked, so I left it that way. This can be considered a security risk, but again, if PC-BSD's purpose is to make things simple and to be used on mono-user home computers, then it is a logical choice.


The PC-BSD Installation Wizard - Ready to reboot...

After that, the installation was finished. I was amazed by its simplicity. As I said earlier, some little details could be improved, but overall I found the installer very efficient and very easy to use. I pressed "finish" and the system rebooted on the installed PC-BSD. {mospagebreak title=Inside PC-BSD}

Inside PC-BSD

The same boot splash as seen in the installation appeared and hid the boot sequence. Then, the system launched KDE and logged me in automatically. I was surprised by the nice sound theme which accompanied me into KDE. There is a nice welcoming sound and each action, such as minimizing or maximizing a window, triggers a little noise which sounds nice without being too overwhelming.


The default PC-BSD desktop

Somebody must love yellow flowers in the PC-BSD development team, the default background is nice but the PC-BSD logo background (which is also installed) would make more sense as a default choice. The desktop itself is KDE 3.5.2, and it looks very nice.

The first thing I did was to set my network. I wasn't particularly impressed with the network configuration tool that comes with PC-BSD. I could have used the KDE network configuration tool but I chose to use the console. The KDE console, Konsole, is hard to find in the menus and doesn't appear in the context menus. PC-BSD obviously wants the user to use the click:// protocol.

Once my network was configured, I had a look through the menus to see what software PC-BSD had installed for me. I was a bit disappointed by the selection. Firefox, OpenOffice, Amarok and Konversation were nowhere to be seen. I decided to install them. Because of my little knowledge of FreeBSD I was expecting to find a frontend to the package management or to the ports collection. I was amazed to see none of that, but a link on the desktop pointing to http://www.pbidir.com and called "Download Software". I clicked on it...


The pbiDIR website

My first impression was quite good. Konqueror opened on a website which looked a bit like download.com. I immediately understood how it worked. I was supposed to download the PBI file for the software I wanted to install, and then simply run it on the machine. Somehow, it felt very similar to what I was used to do under Windows when installing something from download.com. I decided to download Firefox and Skype. I found it slow, and I suspected these PBI were containing the static binaries coming with a lot of needed libraries.


PBI - First step

Once the PBI was downloaded, I clicked on it to launch the installation of the software. A wizard appeared...


PBI - Second step

It only asked a few questions, such as whether or not a link to the software should appear on the desktop or in the menus.


PBI - Third step

Then it extracted the software from the PBI file and installed it on the machine.


The "Programs" Menu

As I had previously selected the "launch K menu" option from the PBI wizard, the installed software appeared in the "Programs" menu.


The "PC-BSD Settings" Menu

In order to update or to remove the installed software, the "PC-BSD Settings" menu provides a set of tools, such as "PBI Update Checker", "PC-BSD Package Manager" or "Online Update Manager".


The PC-BSD tools to remove and upgrade installed software

These tools, together with the http://www.pbidir.com website, do not offer much functionality, but they make it easy for the user to install, update and remove software. I had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, this is definitely something easy to understand for the novice users and it doesn't require any learning. It is particularly easy for Windows users as this is more or less the way software gets installed under Microsoft operating systems. On the other hand, I've always though that Linux and BSD package managements were marvelous and that the ports collection was really something good. I suppose one can use the ports collection in PC-BSD, but it is PBI which is underlined as the main technology for the user. I didn't find many applications on the http://www.pbidir.com website, the downloads were slow, I suspected the binaries to be statically linked... so, yes PBI was easy to use, but I'm sure there are ways to make the ports collection and the BSD package management easy to use as well, and I would have preferred PC-BSD to go that way. {mospagebreak title=Conclusion}

Conclusion

The only things I was disappointed with were the lack of a unified graphical theme and the fact that PC-BSD chose PBI instead of developing easy to use frontends to the Ports Collection and the Package Management. Also, I don't like to see proprietary and free software mixed together. Proprietary software should be easy to install but not installed by default. For instance, PC-BSD supports MP3 by default. For me, this is a problem. I played a bit with the system; plugged some USB devices and everything went quite well. I also found it very fast and responsive. Overall I was very impressed by PC-BSD. It is one of the most easy to use and to install operating system I've seen so far. Not only would I recommend it to anybody who wants to try FreeBSD, but also to any novice user who wants a simple to use operating system. Of course, PC-BSD has a few issues to address, but it definitely deserves to be more popular and known to the public than it is now. In any case, having tested PC-BSD, I can confidently say "FreeBSD is ready for the desktop!"

 
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Comments about this article
DesktopBSD
writen by: Aero on 2006-05-17 20:35:29
You sound like the perfect person for DesktopBSD. It uses an easy to use graphical front end to the freebsd ports and packages system (plus a few more tools) and is much easier to install. I think DesktopBSD would make a great review for you.
RE: DesktopBSD written by Aero:
Wonderful
writen by: TerryP on 2006-05-17 21:00:50
Great review. I've been using PC-BSD as my primary OS for all but gaming based computing since around 1.0rc1 and hope to see a few small details fixed. (Like the FreeSBIE thing) Those sounds in KDE get dang annoying after 50seconds or so. But they can be killed from the Control Center. PBI are the "PC-BSD" way to install software but any one can install programs using traditional FreeBSD Ports and packages, you can also install the ports collection itself using the GUI if your new to a shell. If you want to use GUI Front ends to ports just go get the Desktop BSD front end and vola GUIbie heaven I bet. There are maybe 70-80 PBI right now, but they are very very easy to make if you are working with one of the 14,600 some programs in ports or can install it the program. nVidia drivers and system updates even come in an easy to install PBI !! About the deal of free/non free software, well I think software should be free as in freedom as in free speech and free as in free beer equally. But truth be told the many desktop users are going to be needing to play MP3, and it's rude not to include it if you want to be a [b]desktop[/b] OS. Also there is a PBI to enable support for other formats; like .wmv .wma .avi e.t.c. on www.pbidir.com PBI install the program and dep's into one directory. It takes up a little more hard drive space (which is much cheaper then time) so it does not effect the base system. When you think about it, you could probably install GIMPShop without evening having the right GTK on your system if the PBI is made right! (Gimp PBI about 12MB download.)
RE: Wonderful written by TerryP:
Live cd
writen by: Vidya on 2006-05-18 03:55:30
I wish they would make a live cd of this for more safe testing and familiarisation.
RE: Live cd written by Vidya:
Fair enough
writen by: dylansmrjones on 2006-05-18 08:53:54
I agree about the PBI-solution, since big static libraries aren't exactly something I enjoy. You might wanna take a look at DesktopBSD. However, I don't see why it's a problem blending proprietary and open source/free software [freedomware]. Nor why it is a problem to have MP3-support as default. It's an open source support for MP3, AFAIK.
RE: Fair enough written by dylansmrjones:
DesktopBSD
writen by: Tom Burdick on 2006-05-18 15:31:09
You mention that you don't like how PC-BSD had created its own way of installing software and that it should have used ports, well DesktopBSD does just that.
RE: DesktopBSD written by Tom Burdick:
Ports collection
writen by: matthes on 2006-05-19 04:19:20
While PC-BSD offers installation via PBI packages by default, you can find notice in user's manual that ports collection is also available as only a few PBI packages are available at this time. While there's no special GUI ports manager, you can try traditional kpackage utility which can handle ports tree under FreeBSD, but it seems to have somewhat limited functionality so commandline is still preferred (portinstall utility is great).
RE: Ports collection written by matthes:
de
writen by: Adam on 2006-05-20 19:09:01
@ Vidya Did you not see the VMware image...even better than a live CD.
RE: de written by Adam:
BSD not stable enough
writen by: deltatux on 2006-05-21 10:59:20
Ok, a few kudos to address that it may well be ready for desktop usage. Yet, it's not stable enough. I have already crashed PCBSD by just doing usual things like surfing the net, typing a document and compiling a few software (on userspace and not kernelspace). On Linux, I don't see that problem, my Linux machine is rock solid. Except that sometimes kdm kills my hard drive before it shuts down properly.
RE: BSD not stable enough written by deltatux:
Systems Manager
writen by: Jason Bacon on 2006-05-23 14:49:34
If your BSD system is crashing, you probably have a hardware problem of some sort. I manage 25 FreeBSD systems running on a wide variety of hardware, and virtually all of them run from power outage to power outage without a hiccup. These machines also run a wide variety of software, and get hammered pretty hard running fMRI analyses for days on end. Most of the (infrequent) instability I've seen has been traced to bad memory or a bad disk. I've also used Linux heavily since the mid 90's. I've been impressed with it's overall stability as well, but FreeBSD is by far the most stable platform I've ever worked with.
RE: Systems Manager written by Jason Bacon:
Systems Manager
writen by: Jason Bacon on 2006-05-23 14:57:02
I think the main advantage of the PBI system is evident when you have a large number of complex and interdependent packages installed. Try upgrading FireFox on a system with 200 ports or rpms installed, and you'll see what I mean. I don't mind the extra space taken by PBIs since it saves me the hassle of upgrading dozens of dependent packages every time I need a security patch. As for speed, I've been using an old Pentium 450 with a 10G disk (half dedicated to Windows) to play with PC-BSD, and it has run pretty comfortably. I'm definitely liking the PBI system so far... Cheers, Jason
RE: Systems Manager written by Jason Bacon:
servant
writen by: sam on 2006-06-05 12:36:27
i'm sold on pcbsd,,,i'm a nubeee getting tired of windoze and macos....have been reading everything possible on linux/bsd and have decided from my research that pcbsd would be the best choice...and btw it was a tossup between pclinuxos and pcbsd....
RE: servant written by sam:
ADSL
writen by: Ben on 2006-06-07 07:46:31
Do you have tried to setup the configuration for the xdsl connection (pppoe)? I cannot. It's not easy, it's not desktop. Can you help me?
RE: ADSL written by Ben:
Live No...VMWARE
writen by: Martin on 2007-01-05 11:55:26
RE: Live No...VMWARE written by Martin:

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