PC-BSD Users Review

Well, I thought it was about time I got around to doing this properly.

I’ve been using PC-BSD for approx. 10 Months so I’ve had enough time to see what life throws at me with it. My first install was 1.0 Release Candidate (RC) 1 and I currently run PC-BSD 1.2 (the current release) on my laptop and have a beta version of 1.3 installed on my desktop for testing. This will cover PC-BSD 1.2 and PC-BSD in general.

PC-BSD is primarily for desktops but makes a darn good laptop/workstation system. I won’t cover installation details as this is changing in future versions and often reviewed. My reviews sole interest is in a End User perspective (imho).

The Desktop. Well the default desktop on PC-BSD is pretty simple, it uses a program called “KDE” to put it simply to offer use a sweet system. The prepared setup is what most users should feel comfortable with, bottom bar with a applications menu and a few icons (personal files and web browser/file manager IIRC). A system tray and a clock, task bar in the bottom bar showing all running windows e.t.c. Trashcan and a few Icons on the desktop with (currently) a nice blue PC-BSD wall paper, in the old days there was a yellow field of flowers on a mountain top. For stuff a new user might not be familiar with let me explain some stuff. We have a simple applications or “K-Menu” that you click on the icon (the red one, bottom left corner.) and it presents the usual. Neatly grouped into catagories such as Games, Internet, Multimedia e.t.c This is a lot more logical then a certain other OS which tries to hide and poorly sort it’s start menu by default 😛

You should probably have a “House” like icon, clicking this opens Konqueror in file manager mode to your home directory. A home directory is a users personal space, by default you have folders such as Documents, Images, Music, e.t.c. You should have another icon next to this that when clicked should open Konqueror ether as a File Manager or a Web browser (it does both). You can think of Konqueror as the Windows/Internet Explorer and Finder/Safari of PC-BSD. It’s got a Mozilla Firefox feel to its web browsing but is not a Mozilla. Useful options for it include tabbed browsing (soon to hit Internet Explorer via Suggested Updates), spell checking, downloader, password/form manager, Google tool bar and quick Wikipedia lookups and more. In your system tray you should see a number of little icons. A clip board named “Klipper” that helps with cut, copy, and paste operations. You can cut (control+x), copy (control+c), and paste (control+v) like normal and you can highlight text with your mouse and press in the mouse wheel (button 3) to paste it without using your usual CC&P stuff -> And keep two things copied ! If you ever want to recall some thing you copied you can click on klipper and find it to use again quickly. It can also be cleared for privacy needs.

You will have a network applet giving status of your internet connection, you can open it give it the admin password and toy with your network settings if needed. The tool is borrowed from DesktopBSD and supports WEP crypto for Wifi users. (PC-BSD supports real crypto but not in the DBSD gui). Laptop users are least, a battery monitor, KOrganizer a nice Organizer program and possibly a volume control. A number of programs can be made to use or not use the system tray, so with things like Kopete (instant messenger) you can choose if you want a system tray icon or not. You might notice a little set of boxes around ether side of the panel. This is called a “Pager”, how it works is simple. If you open konqueror it is on the current “Virtual Desktop”, you click one of the boxes and your on another “Virtual Desktop”, you can open KMail and check your mail then click the first box again and go back to konqueror. Completely different sets of windows on different work spaces. For new computer users this is not some thing you need to care about but for “Multi-taskers” it rocks and rolls. Theres also some eye-candy replacements for the pager you can install. (I recommend kompose).

Configuring your desktop is pretty easy, right click on the desktop and click configure desktop. It’ll open a nice window to setup options such as: Desktop background (Wallpaper), which can be set to a different one for each virtual desktop. A number of expected options are available including the option of making your wallpaper change over time automatically (Slide show). On the behavior tab you can change how the desktop works. Things like what the mouse buttons do, device icons e.t.c. On the Multiple Desktops tab you can specify the number and names of the Virtual Desktops you want. I’ll have 2 to 4 depending on wall paper moods. Currently I run 3 Virtual Desktops. On the Screen saver tab you can set your screen saver and it’s settings. Clicking the Display tab lets you adjust your screen resolution, refresh rate, and monitor power saving scheme. Usually you should have 800×600 or 1024×768, on the PC-BSD beta I got about 1280×1024 out of the box. If you can’t select the res you want you will need to edit a settings file with the details of your monitor. (You can try to have it do auto-detection). You can click on the bottom bar or “Panel” to configure it as well as add extra “applets”, icons, more panels, external task bars, a kasbar (which would be more familiar to Windowmaker users) and all kinds of stuff – as well as configure your panel. I usually run my panel(s) transparent. Currently I have 3, a really small one lower left-hand for the K-Menu, a Konqueror profiles applet, and Seamonkey. One lower right hand for a system tray and one up top that is a “External task bar” that I have set to auto hide it self. By default you just get one panel across the bottom of the screen. If you click the little arrow on the edge you can hide/unhide it all together.

A lot more settings can be tuned from the control center under the K-Menu or there applets listed in the K-Menu under “Settings” including user management.

Ok lets talk turkey, uh software. What can we do out of the box with PC-BSD? Well lets have a look see. We have a number of games listed in Games-> Arcade, Board Games, Card Games, Tactics & Strategy, and one under Kids in the K-Menus games folder. Good fun for wasting time, I’ll let you decide what to play. My only complaint is no Chess or Centipede included out of the box :@ But for solitaire lovers there is kpatience which is like 20 different solitaire games in one, found in Games->Card Games on the K-Menu.

If you need some graphical software we can use Kolour Paint for simple art, KSnapshot for taking a screen shot of the desktop. As well as a bunch of image/file viewers including decent software for viewing .pdf and .ps files. I suggest Inkscape or Gimp for real work, see www.pbidir.com or ports.

For the Internet lover in all of us we have a lot of software. We have Akregator a RSS/Atom news reader – I like it and it exports/imports to OPML and XML. KGet download manager, a nice app if you need it which also has konqueror and system tray embedding options. KMail the default E-Mail client. It’s nothing special but it does have Pretty Good Privacy (Crypto) support built in afaik. Works ok but I prefer Seamonkies mail&newsgroups. It has import for *Mozilla/Netscape, Outlook Express, Evolution mailboxes and more. KNetAttach a Wizard for network resources. KNode a rock’n News reader (USENET or NNTP Newsgroup). I like it very much although I’ve yet to be able to find a decent news server. KPPP a GUI for dealing with Dial up. Best forget Dial up in this age IMHO but if it’s all you got… Ksirc a very simple, user friendly if not feature full IRC (Internet Relay Chat) Client. Konqueror a web browser and file manager with good standards compliance. Safari or Firefox users should feel homey with it (layout and UI respectively). Kopete a Instant Messaging Client that supports MSN, AIM, Gadu-Gadu, Novell Groupwise, ICQ, IRC, Jabber, SMS, Yahoo, and it’s own prototype protocol out of the box. You can be logged into multiple networks at once in one buddy window. I don’t care to much for the client, it feels more like traditional MSN/AOL/IMs in general. – I like Gaim which is like the new AOL AIM client but without the adds or bloat. Kopete is great for Joe user though. A few MSN clones are available on www.pbidir.com as of this writing called. One called aMSN is made to make MSN users feel at home in many ways. You also have Remote Desktop connection and sharing. You can even connect via VNC and RDP. On Windows XP Pro you can use RDP for desktop sharing but on Home and older systems you basically can only connect not share I think. KDE has two programs one to share one to connect. The X Windows System offers a limited form of this as well using it’s own technology.

For Multimedia work we have a few nice apps. Since various countries have laws and such you may as well go to www.pbidir.com, run a search for codecs & download the “Essential Codecs PBI” so you can watch encrypted DVDs and play MP3/WMV/WMA files and the like. We have KAduioCreator for CD Ripping. You will need to setup the encoders. I’ve never used it as I don’t really buy or download music often but you can setup most you will need. You have OggEnc (.ogg files), Lame (.mp3 files), and FLAC (.flac files). KMix for adjusting sound settings. KRec a recording tool, Kaffeine the standard media player. I personally find kaffeine a bit jumpy but in PC-BSD 1.3 it’s looking at better stability as it’s been upgraded but still not perfect. You can play DVD, .avi, .mkv, .wma,.wmv, .wav, .ogg, .flac, .mpg, .m4a, allot of stuff basically if you install the Codecs PBI. I personally prefer Amarok for music and MPlayer for video. You have KsCD a Analog CD Player – if you can’t use this it’s because your computer does not have the cable between CD-ROM and Sound card for analog playback, use kaffine instead. I think KsCD will be dropped soon ! Theres a few more stuff here but it’s not important. There is also MPlayer for the advanced Move Player in all of us. The new All Codecs PBI works with MPlayer unlike the Essential Codecs PBI and should be able to replace Essential Codecs. If you uninstall the Essential Codecs you’ll have to change settings in Kaffeine to play *WMV files. In 1.2 MPlayer was poorly compiled and doesn’t have GUI support but in the 1.3Beta it’s done right (includes gui support). I recommend the Amarok and VLC PBIs as well as the codecs:)

For Office users we have basically a few good apps including Kontact which combines a number of programs into a single personal information manager. From it you can use the supplied E-Mail, Notes, Newsgroups reader, RSS/Atom news reader, To-Do Lists, Organizer, Alarm clock, Address book, and theres even a few tools for Palm pilot people, I don’t own a PDA that advanced so I can’t help you there brother. If you want some solid office work go to www.pbidir.com and look in the office category. You can find word processors, spread sheets e.t.c. There is also the OpenOffice.org and KOffice office suites that each give you a full featured office suite. I love MS Word as much as the next person but I prefer OpenOffice to the other options. Especially since Open and K Office are Free and Open Source where most Office suites are closed source and cost ALOT. OO.o gives a word proc, spread sheet, database, image, formulas, and presentation program at least. KOffice gives you the mother load.

A number of basic utils are around including. KSysGuard a task manager, KInfoCenter a detailed system information tool, KNotes sticky notes for your desktop (I love this app), KJots out liner, KCron task scheduler, Disk Usage, Floppy formatter, and a removable media util. USB, CD/DVD disks should auto-mount with a pop-up asking what to do (usually).

We have a bunch of accessibility tools which I hope will be expanded in future releases. For utils and candy – We’ve got KCalc the most important item (a calculator), SuperKaramba desktop widgets which might be familer to Mac OS X users more so. You can have little applets on your desktop like system monitors or Media player controls e.t.c. You’ve got KPGP a crypto tool and shedder (hoozah), Groupware Wizard, Alarm program, news ticker and a few other apps. Theres an Archiving tool named “ark” that will handle compressed archives. It can handle Gzip, BZip2, Zip, Tar, LHA, LZopped, BZip, Debian pkg, AR Archive (.a), and with support tools added via PBI or ports 7z and RAR files, Users of OLD versions of PC-BSD had to install support for .ZIP but now it’s included. You’ll still need 7Zip and RAR from www.pbidir.com though 😀

Most people should be familiar with .Zip no matter what OS your used to. I reccomend using GZip which gives .tgz or .tar.tgz files depending on how you use it. For when your making a compressed file on PC-BSD. Use the .zip for sharing with Windows users. Bzip2 (.bz2, .tar.bz2) or 7Zip (.7z) is nice if you need smaller files too. Unix likes are a bit different about this then just Zipp’ing it and that warrants an article on it’s own. I just suggest Zip and GZip formats depending on your needs.

For the most important programs we have the Text Editors. KEdit, KWrite, and Kate. KEdit is a very simple editor, think of it like Notepad. It’s ok for quick edits and supports some basic key combos. KWrite is a more powerful editor and what I recommend. It has syntax highlighting which makes life easier when you edit a config file or if your writing HTML or a script e.t.c. I think you can also do spell checking IIRC. My favorite is Kate, you could say it’s the Midnight Commander of editors. It has a small file browser, terminal, and embedded KWrite editor in one window. It’s very good for writing console software and it’s geared towards programmers. It uses KWrite for editing afaik but with more just for programming 🙂

Kate is very nice and is more configurable then KWrite or KEdit. Also last but not least you have the humble “Konsole” a Terminal Emulator like cmd.exe or XTerm. It’s very nice and supports tabs, my favorite way to use the command line. CLI Warriors and GNU/Linux/BSD/Unix avids will find a Bourne style shell as sh, the Tenix C-Shell (tcsh), and he Bourne Again Shell (bash) installed. The “sh” is based on ash not linked to bash so be careful when scripting.

I find that PC-BSD is very configurable and allots me a lot of freedom without me having to break it’s arm. A lot of the software is Free and Open Source (two different things). Theres a few commercial apps that come as PBI as well. Underneath PC-BSD you have a full FreeBSD 6.1-Release (as of this writing) system. You can do every thing with it you can on PC-BSD but keep aware that PC-BSD add ins are centered around KDE/QT. So if your heart is set on running GNOME your likely to run into problems here and there. In my humble opinion the weakest point for PC-BSD is multimedia. Generally you can play any thing but some times it can be a little bit of a hassle if you don’t like Kaffine and Realplayer (see www.pbidir.com or ports). The biggest issue is that it’s currently limited to flashplayer7 which only works in Konqueror. For some reason it crashes all other browsers. Some people have had better luck using ports but I don’t like flash content very much so I have not toyed with it. As GNU/Linux gets flashplayer9 support so will we soon. After all you can run GNU/Linux binaries on *BSD hehehehehehe.

I’ve found you oh most never need to use the command line but it does make life easier. It’s so much more powerful then DOS based stuff it rocks. Usually you can do a lot of “hand tweaking” by editing files, this is also how a lot of special operating system oriented changes are done (system admin stuff). Yet most programs you can modify it by text files as well if you wish. Some times you can access settings not tunable from the GUI 🙂

There is full access to PBI, FreeBSD ports, packages, and even GNU/Linux RPMs via a Linux Compatibility loader but that means dealing with GNU/Linux Redheaded Pest Management (RPM) or installing other GNU/Linux packmans by hand. You will find approx 16,000 programs available for PC-BSD right now and many GNU/Linux applications. The stock of PBI are picking up as well but still are very few in comparison.

What about security? Well we have 3 professional grade firewalls included, they are a little bit involved to setup but heck if it’s good enough for Yahoo’s security it should be ok on a desktop <_> In the next release or the one after we should be getting an easy way to configure the OpenBSD firewall “pf”, the foundation of which I feel has been laid in the 1.3 Beta1 installers advanced mode.

The system follows the old school approach to user security. The core concepts dates back to like MULTICS in the late 1960s for Multi-User systems – they still are as useful today as they where then. By multi-user I mean any computer used by more then one person. If your the only user of it, user management is only as much concern as what you have on the system. You see back in the days when a Computer cost so much no one could own one. You had to be like a University or IBM to have one. So time was very valuable and one computer had to serve many users. Once a true “Multi-User” oriented systems came about instead of the limit of one user at a time, computers could have many users using them at once. PC-BSD supports this as well in modern style. You could actually have 10 people working via a Remote Desktop or Secure Shell (or both) setup on 1 box + some one sitting on it while the others are logged in via the network. To be honest outside of business use, all this matters to use is the concepts that makes the system inherently more secure by default practice.

Every person has a user “account” to log on with, preferably with a password. You can use a blank password but it defeats the purpose of security -> Any one can then use the account. The account should consist of your login name and password. Your first name or your initials are good choices for a account name. Passwords should be 6 to 10 characters and contain more then numbers or letters. Because of internationalization you can only use letters and numbers in the installer but you can change it to any thing you want after boot up. Ever user has a group, a group is like a department. At a small business you might groups like accounting, clerks, billing, e.t.c. Every file is owned by both a user and a group and has certain permissions for three kinds of users. Permissions for the owning user, the owning group, and permissions for every body else. You can be a member of any number of groups. Permissions are for Read, Write, and Execute. So you can control who can do what with your files. A good example:

User           Group
Joe Joe
Jane Jane
Tim Tim, Joe

If Joe wants Tim to be able to edit one of his documents he can set the file permissions to allow members of his group Read and Write access. So if the file “Tax Returns.doc” was owned by Joe of group Joe. With permissions Read&Write for Joe User, and Read&Write for Joe Group, and Read Only for every body else. Tim could edit the file because he is a member of Joes group. Thats the basic thing about it, it’s really very easy to set up such things if you own the file. PC-BSD uses FreeBSD underneath so you have support for Mandatory Access Controls if you want to set those up.

Every user account has it’s own folder called a “Home Directory” for there personal files, for the most part you can’t delete or edit any thing outside this directory from your user account. So no worries about some one trying to delete part of the Operating System or installing some program globally without a heck of a good fight 😀

What if you want to do some thing like edit a configuration file? For that there is a special account called “root” or the super user account. This account is like the GOD account. As root you have unlimited power over the system – even files root does not own. This is why the root account is used for admin work, changing special settings for the OS, installing software e.t.c. You can create more if you want or make yourself a super user. It’s not worth it unless your prepared to risk screwbing up the box though. ^_^ You can switch user to root in the command line at any time if you belong to the group “wheel”. I don’t know why they call it that, you could change it if you really want as the computer only sees User ID and Group ID numbers (which you can set/change/view too). If you want to run a program as root, you can type “kdesu appname” into the run dialog (wihout quotes). Logging into the Desktop as root directly even over the network is disabled by default. You can allow this if you want to reduce security. PC-BSD is not the worlds most secure OS, OpenBSD is but it tries to make it reasonably secure for every one. You can make it as insecure as you want if that rocks you boat…

Using the “root” account directly is just like running as an Administrator on Windows XP only you never need to do so directly. When you try to reach an option menu only root can or install a PBI. The system will ask you for the root password in order to launch the program or applet. You can even have it remember the password if your lazy. For day to day work you shouldn’t need to care about this, it’s when you do some thing only the person who owns the computer should allow done or in the case of business the guy/gal who is responsible for every bodies computers at work. I use PC-BSD daily and usually don’t need to use a password after I’ve logged in unless I want to install software. It makes e feel better that malicious stuff can screw up my files easy enough if I let it but can’t delete my operating system so easy. Don’t even have to worry about your employees installing Doom behind your back if they are not admin and few have need to be. Nore do I have to put up with other people being able to edit my files out of the box unless they have my permission 😀

It’s free
It’s Open Source under a BSD Style license
It’s a custom FreeBSD system not a Fork.
It’s Easy to use and intends to be
A lot of good software is available at no cost
Extremely limited Virus or Spy ware threats. (Currently)
Can run most GNU/Linux software (not tied into the kernel, i.e. drivers)
C/C++/Perl/Python developers should feel at home, QT/X11 Open Source Edition included.
Many languages and developer tools available.
Updates are easy (PBI) and full access to FreeBSD methods.
Solid update path between releases (no BETAs !)
It’s stable and has good reliability
Low total cost of ownership
Custom kernel builds for better Desktop use (Video support, PF, e.t.c.)
Includes a kernel build for Single Processor and SMP systems (Multi-processor and Dual Core machines).
Free Community tech support
PBI makes installing some software quick, easy, and painless
Most common desktop software needs met out of the box or with ease
Has a KDE based Desktop and Integration
A lot of information available online.
Can dual boot with many other OSes.
Java Runtime and SDK can be installed with a few mouse clicks
nVidia wants FreeBSD to have good drivers and PC-BSD makes installing them a snap.
Runs pretty well with a 500Mhz Pentium 3 and 384MB of Memory.
The FreeBSD handbook is very good for a lot of things
Can be good for Laptops/Desktops/Workstations, possibly small business file servers.

It sucks for DirectX (Win) Gaming.
Getting a working flashplayer can be sticky (for now) this is a pro imho hehee.
May not support all hardware
Supports newer hardware slower then Linux.
Support for many popular multimedia formats require a easy install package.
Limited support for Windows software (via WINE) -> very crappy imho for any thing major
Wireless support takes some additional configuration right now, easy setup is limited to WEP – full support via conventional methods as of PC-BSDv1.2.
Professional phone support costs money.
PBI installed programs cannot interface with traditional FreeBSD ports/packages most times
Most “Special needs”, Shareware, and Mal ware softwares do not support GNU/Linux, *BSD, or Mac OS X.
Poor integration if Gnome desktop is wished (not fun to do, curse the Gnome heads for it though)
Most businesses only offer Wintel support (see below)
Uninstalling Windows or Mac OS will probably void your vendors warranty.
Included boot loader is poor for multi-hard drive setups (use GAG or GRUB)
Does not support VisualBasic or natively Microsoft/Apple extensions to languages
Don’t even think about DirectX…
Cannot run as a 64-Bit OS (but supports the 64-Bit CPUs in 32-Bit mode)
Intel graphics cards are poorly supported (but thats true any where !)
Does not support _very_ old CPU architectures(< i686). Such as AMD K6, Intel 80486, 80386, or 80286s. Needs at least 384~512MB of DDR Memory or 256+ MB of DDR2 memory to run fast enough for me. The FreeBSD handbook only covers traditional FreeBSD methods. PC-BSD website
The PBI Directory
PC-BSD Forums

More Unix basics are not within the scope of this review and are for another Blog entry.

If any one actually reads this, feel free to drop a comment or a question about PC-BSD or visit the PC-BSD support forums.

What better place to write a review of some thing then on my Blog 

As for parting words I’ve just got to say 🙂

We don’t have any Blue Screens of Death, we have a Blue Wallpaper !

Stable, Free, Open, Powerful, Functional, Secure, Easy, Customizable -> PC-BSD is fun muahuahuah.

Edit — as of 2008-09-09, comments have been closed. It’s been ~two years and I’m tired of managing spam-bots.