ALT p9 starterkit (gnustep) Review

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I decided to go back to my Linux roots and revisit one of the first Linux distributions I ever used: ALT Linux.

A Bit Of My Linux History

(skip to the next part if you’re not interested)

When I first moved from MS-Windows (98) to Linux, I chose the Mandrake distribution as my OS. Back then, it was Mandrake 8.2. I really liked Mandrake and it made Linux my operating system of choice. I never went back to Microsoft after that. As Mandrake evolved and grew, the company (as many do with success) started to make changes. Not all of their changes were particularly bad, but as what happens with most operating systems, it started to get bogged down as it evolved.

It wasn’t long before I heard about a fork of the Mandrake (or what later became Mandriva) project, called ALT, which closer adhered to the methodology that made Mandrake special to me. It wasn’t long, after I installed ALT Junior 2.2 (back in 2003) that it replaced Mandriva as my OS of choice. ALT has now become it’s own independent Linux distro, with it’s own custom admin tools, package manager, and software repository (Sisyphus).

Although I did test drive many different versions of Linux, ALT remained on my main PC right up until 2009. This is when netbook PCs became my computer of choice. This is also when I started having some compatibility issues with ALT. One of the things that I liked so much about ALT was that it was stable. But, this was a trade-off with slower development of their “stable” branch. During the days of the netbooks, I found it difficult to get ALT working properly on these new PCs because of the slower pace. So, reluctantly, I moved on to other Linux distros so I could enjoy my new netbook PCs to their fullest; albeit at the risk of running less stable versions of Linux I was accustomed to running.

But now, I want to return to the stability and reliability that ALT Linux once provided me, as my PC of choice is still my ACER Aspire One netbook. There’s been plenty of time since I last tried to run ALT on my netbook; it should now be very capable of running perfectly fine on netbooks in general. So I’m expecting it to be a smooth installation process.

I’ve also been discovering a few things about Debian / *buntu based Linux distros – and who may be behind some of those projects – which has me second guessing their motivations. So, a return to an independent OS, like ALT Linux, seems like the right thing to do.

Choosing My Flavour of ALT Linux

After spending some time exploring the ALT Linux website and all the different flavours of the OS that are available, I decided to go with the P9 “Starter Kit” GNUstep sysv option (more about Starter Kits) . I would have preferred to use a Trinity desktop option, but ALT doesn’t have a modern TDE option at the moment. Next to TDE, Window Maker is my second favourite desktop environment/window manager and I was anxious to give it a try once again. I chose the SysV build simply because it’s been working out great for me with my Exe GNU/Linux system, so I’ll continue to stick with it, over systemd.

I decided to go with the P9 build, rather than the latest P10, because it’s classified as ALT’s “stable build”. From what I can gather (and if I’m wrong, please forgive me), P10 is their development build and I’ve read that others have experienced language issues with it – for those of us who don’t understand Russian. So, I decided that the stable branch, P9, would probably give me the best experience. Besides, the iso file shows a last update date of June 2021, so it’s quite up-to-date none-the-less.

The GNUStep iso is just a little over 900MB. Once downloaded, I used dd to transfer it to a USB storage device and I was on my way.

Install screen

Install Begins

The GNUStep image is a “live” distribution, so once I boot my netbook with the USB plugged in, it took just a couple of minutes for it to boot up and present me with a fully functional Window Maker environment. From first glace, I was very happy with what I saw. But, I wasn’t interested in doing too much with the live system, I wanted to do a full install right away. The ALT Dev team made that a very easy thing to do, I just had to double click on the big ALT Linux icon sitting on my screen.

A few seconds later, I was presented with the ALT Linux install welcome screen. This is one of the many things that I always liked about ALT Linux: they really do put some effort into making the install process of all of their Linux systems very welcoming and easy to follow. Whoever is responsible for designing the ALT installation tool interface really knows what they’re doing. They always impress me, anyway.

Another thing about ALT Linux’s approach that I like is they seem to assume you know what you’re doing and didn’t design their install application to try and out-think you.

Example: during the install process, I was asked what partitions of my hard drive where going to store what mount-points (root, home, usr, and so on). I was also asked what passwords I wanted to use for both root user and my regular system user. What ever I typed in, the install program did what I told it to do. Only once was I asked if I was sure that I wanted to proceed with my choices.

Now, in comparison, over the past year or so, I’ve also tried a few other Linux systems (Exe/Devuan, Q4OS and Zorin to name a few). The installers for those distributions always seem to be trying to out-think me. They don’t always like my choices and constantly question me about my partition, password and boot processes. I know, the developers are trying to make their systems “easy” for the novice computer user, but I just find it annoying. This is MY system and I want to set it up the way I want it.

Anyhow, it was nice to be working with my peers again, rather than a nagging “big brother” second guessing my every move.

Side note: ALT Linux uses SU, rather than SUDO, to handle administration/Super User tasks. This is the method of executing admin tasks I’m most accustomed to and prefer this method over SUDO. Why do I prefer using SU? I can’t really say, it just seems to better fit my way of thinking, I suppose.

A Shiny New Desktop

Installation of the ALT Linux GNUStep operating system took less than fifteen minutes to complete on my Acer Aspire One netbook. And after a quick reboot, I’m greeted by a handsome new GRUB boot screen.

The log-in screen is also a very bright and welcoming, and just seems to convey the feeling that you’re about to have a very pleasing experience with your new desktop.

And a few seconds after that, my new Window Maker desktop springs to life! For a nerd like me, when ever I boot into a brand new install like this, with a brand new crisp and clean desktop, I get the same feeling that automotive enthusiast gets when he/she first inhales that new car smell.

Once again, I’m always impressed with the aesthetics and design choices by the ALT development team. Simply lovely. At this point, I was instantly reminded as to why I liked using Window Maker so much: it’s simple, unassuming, and just gets out of your way to allow you to do what you want to do. And it’s fast! Boy, is it fast.

Don’t get me wrong, I do like TDE. But it, like most other “sophisticated” desktop environments, the extra level of complexity (that tries to help automate things for you) can get in the way and somewhat constrains your activities.

Window managers, like Window Maker, are the opposite. They give you a framework that you can build upon and customize to your heart’s content. It does take a little bit more effort and thinking to get it there, but I think it’s well worth it. I have to admit, after using TDE (and XFCE in Zorin) for the past couple of years, I’ve gotten a little lazy with my desktop skills. Now, it’s time to sharpen them up again and actually enjoy my computing experience a little more.

This Is Not A Window Maker Review

ALT p9 Review - Window Maker Menu

At this point, I’m fighting the urge to go into all the reasons why I like the Window Maker desktop. That’s another blog post. I want this to be about ALT Linux. So in this regard, let’s move on to some of the things that makes this install of Window Maker unique.

The first thing that I found of interest was the collection of GNUStep applications that is included in this build. I don’t have much experience using GNUStep apps (okay none at all really), but I was impressed at how many are included in this installation.

The second thing that caught my attention was that the ALT team chose to include SeaMonkey as the default web browser and e-mail client. I really like SeaMonkey and it’s been my daily web browser and e-mail reader for a long time. So, I was very much impressed to see it I didn’t have to go and download and install it, like I’ve had to do with all the other operating systems I’ve used over the years.

I can see that the ALT team have put a real effort into choosing applications that play nice within Window Maker’s framework. Much of the pre-installed applications are ones I’ve never used before, which is giving me a lot to explore and play with. Along with my re-discovery of the power within Window Maker, I’m having the kind of fun with my netbook that I haven’t had in quite a while.

ALT Linux has left out several modules in this Window Maker build that many people (including me) take for granted with those other operating systems that “you don’t need to learn”. But, again, I feel like they’ve done so because they’re giving me the benefit of a doubt that I know what I want and I know what I’m doing.

An example of this is printing. I’m used to using CUPS to configure and manage my printers. So, I just had to use Synaptic and download CUPS and my HP printer modules from the ALT repositories. It took less than five minutes to set up, but saves me from having all sorts of unnecessary libraries in my system that I’ll never use clogging up my hard disk; just to satisfy the possibility that someone else in the world may need them.

As a side note, ALT Linux uses RPM as it’s package manager and Synaptic / APT as it’s default front end user interface.

The System Management Center (aka Alterator)

ALT p9 Review - Alterator

The ALT team do not completely leave you high-and-dry when it comes to helping you with your system configuration. Very similar to the old Mandrake/Mandriva days, ALT Linux utilizes a custom in-house application called, “Alterator” or the System Management Center on all of their operating systems that has a set of tools to help you configure the most common (or complicated) system resources.

After my initial install of the system, I launched the SMC and went to the Ethernet Interfaces section, where I could easily connect to and configure my netbook’s WiFi module. Everything was detected correctly and I had it all configured and working in just a couple minutes.

The other tool I used here was the System Services module. From here, I configured my newly installed CUPS module to auto-run on boot up, with a simple click of a checkbox.

The SMC is one of those things about ALT Linux that, in my opinion, sets it over and above other Linux distributions. The ALT devs actually do innovate and develop their own systems (most notably their Sisyphus repository), and not just repackage and bundle work done by other projects.

We All Have Issues

No system is perfect, but from what I’ve experienced so far with ALT Linux’s GNUStep/Window Maker, there is very little to complain about. The system has been rock-solid and everything I’ve installed from Sisyphus has been implemented without any issues (aka no broken packages).

I have only encountered two minor issue and I’m speculating that they are language/font library issue. The first one I found in Synaptic and it’s system notifications. The library lists and toolbar operates just fine. But, during package installation and the output report after installation, I just see this:

So, I’m assuming it’s just referencing a font that I don’t have installed, or is not part of the English build of the GNUStep ISO.

The other issue I’m noticing is related to GTK-related applications. For what ever reason, anything that uses the GTK toolkit seems to display extra large fonts. For some of the applications, I can choose the fonts that are used in the toolbars and white spaces, but most times I cannot. And when I can change the fonts, I have to reduce them to really small point sizes in order to get them to a more reasonable display size. I’m not sure what the issue is there or how to fix it.

(Update: I was able to fix my issue with the extra large fonts in GTK-centric applications. I had to install gtk-theme-switch and then use it to adjust the default font size. Once I did that, everything was looking much better.)

This issue doesn’t affect performance of the application, it just makes it difficult to see the entire window at times, on my compact netbook monitor. The important thing is, everything works and, apart from a couple of font issues, it all looks great!

Most importantly, I’m having a lot of fun re-acquainting myself Window Maker and am very glad to be reconnecting with ALT Linux, once again.