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The cost of free software

Sabayon 16.05

Sabayon is a Linux distribution that is based onGentoo. Sabayon takes on some of the characteristics of its parent, providing users with a rolling release distribution that can make use of both binary and source software packages. Recent snapshots of Sabayon offer support for computers running on 64-bit x86 processors along with Raspberry Pi 2 & 3 computers. Perhaps the biggest new feature of Sabayon though is the launch of Sabayon Community Repositories (SCR). These new repositories provide a way for community members to build and distribute software for Sabayon without the necessity of getting their software into Sabayon’s official repositories.

There are seven editions of Sabayon, including the builds for Raspberry Pi computers. There are several desktop editions, a Server edition and a small Minimal edition. I decided to begin my trial with Sabayon’s KDE edition which is a 2.7GB download. Booting from the distribution’s media brings up a menu asking if we would like to run Sabayon’s live desktop, perform an installation, boot to a text console, check the installation media for defects or perform a memory check. Taking the live desktop option loads the KDE desktop. The wallpaper shows a gravel road passing through farmland while a moon rises with the Sabayon logo on it. Icons on the desktop invite us to donate to the distribution, get on-line help and launch the system installer. At the bottom of the display we find the application menu, a task switcher and the system tray.

I found clicking the on-line help icon would open the Chrome web browser and bring me to a page where I could sign into a Sabayon chat room. Clicking the icon for the system installer would launch Calamares, a distribution-independent installer.

Calamares is a graphical system installer that begins by asking us to select our preferred language. On this initial screen we find buttons that link us to the Sabayon FAQ page and the distribution’s release notes. These pages open in the Chrome web browser. When Chrome is launched from the Calamares installer it displays a warning letting us know the browser is being run as the root user and cautions us against doing this. The next few pages of the Calamares installer get us to select our time zone from a map of the world and select our keyboard’s layout from a list. The partitioning section comes next and we can choose to either manually divide up our hard drive or wipe the disk and allow the installer to set up its own partitions. I quite like how Calamares handles manual partitioning. The disk partitioning screen is easy to navigate, responds quickly and gives us the chance to work with ext2/3/4, JFS, XFS and Reiser file systems. The disk partitioning screen also gives us the chance to decide where to place the boot loader, or to skip installing the GRUB boot loader altogether. The final step gets us to create a user account for ourselves. By default I noticed the user creation screen assumes we want to be able to log into Sabayon without providing a password, but we can click a box to disable this feature. The installer then sets up Sabayon on our disk and concludes by giving us the chance to reboot the computer or return to the live desktop environment.

I ran into a problem when I rebooted the computer and tried to explore my new copy of Sabayon. The system would boot, display a graphical splash screen for a few seconds and then switch to a text console with a login prompt. Switching to other terminals all showed the same text screen, there was no graphical login screen. I could sign into my user account and run startx to access a minimal graphical environment (the TWM window manager) which would display three virtual terminals and nothing else. This was clearly not the experience I was expecting and I did some poking through settings and log files.

I found that systemd (Sabayon’s init software) was set up to boot to a graphical environment and, from my tests with startx and the live disc I knew my video card was supported. I believe the issue which caused the lack of graphical interface came from a configuration problem with the display manager services. Sabayon’s KDE edition ships with three display managers (SDDM, LightDM and XDM). The SDDM service, when launched, would fail with the error "Two services allocated for the same bus name." LightDM would simply fail to start. The XDM software would run and launch a graphical login screen, but any attempt to login would immediately fail and return me to the XDM login screen.

At this point I gave up playing with Sabayon’s KDE edition and downloaded the project’s MATE media to see how the experience would compare. I found the MATE media was a lot smaller than Sabayon’s KDE download. The KDE ISO is 2.7GB in size while MATE’s is approximately 1.8GB.

The cost of free software

Sabayon 16.05 — MATE’s Applications menu

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Despite the large difference in the size of the two editions, exploring the two installation discs provided nearly identical experiences. The MATE edition provides us with a similar desktop theme, similar controls and the same system installer. When I finished installing the MATE edition and rebooted I was brought to a graphical login screen. Signing into my account brought up the MATE 1.10.2 desktop environment. MATE provides us with two panels, one at the top of the screen and the other at the bottom. The top panel features the system tray and the Applications, Places and System menus. The bottom panel provides us with a task switcher.

Shortly after I got signed into MATE for the first time, a notification appeared by the system tray telling me all of my software was up to date and there were no packages to upgrade. This struck me as odd since I installed Sabayon 16.05 several weeks after it was released. Clicking on the update icon in the system tray gives us the option of opening the distribution’s package manager. When I opened the package manager there was a warning at the top of the window letting me know my repository information was out of date. This message was replaced after a few seconds with two new messages. The first reported there were 30 updates available in Sabayon’s repositories. Buttons in the message window gave me the options: Show, Update, Ignore and "srsly ignore". The Show option shows a list of available updates, with the version and size of each new package. We can click on specific packages to update them one-by-one or click the aforementioned Update button to grab all new software updates.

The second note that appeared in the software manager reported there was important news I should read on the Sabayon website. Opting to read these messages showed me two news items. The first was from February 2014 and told me OpenRC was no longer a supported init option. The second message, from September 2015, told me the KDM display manager was being replaced with SDDM. Given my experience with the SDDM software and the KDE edition of Sabayon, I’m not sure the switch was a beneficial one.

The cost of free software

Sabayon 16.05 — Installing updated packages with Rigo

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The software manager, which is called Rigo, not only installs software updates, it can be used to perform a wide range of tasks. Rigo’s top level menu provides access to tools which help us browse alternative versions of Linux kernels, refresh our repository information, show installed applications and manage repositories. We can also browse categories of software to install. Each category displays a list of available software in alphabetical order and clicking an item gives us the option of installing it or bringing up a description of the software. I generally found Rigo worked well and I had no trouble installing and removing packages.

I had hoped Rigo would allow me to access the Sabayon Community Repositories (SCR), but this was not an option. I did some looking around the SCR website and found a tutorial for accessing the software in the SCR. At this point, the process for enabling the SCR on Sabayon is unusually long and requires adding a separate repository manager (called enman ). I did walk through the process of adding one community repository (as the name implies, SCR is a collection of repositories rather than one unified collection of third-party software). I was able to install software from the repository and get it running. This requires a little command line work, but the steps required to install each package are clearly explained on the SCR website.

The cost of free software

Sabayon 16.05 — Installing new software packages with Rigo

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Sabayon ships with lots of useful software. Looking through MATE’s application menu I found the Chrome web browser, the HexChat IRC software and the Transmission bittorrent client. LibreOffice and the Gnumeric spreadsheet application are included. The Atril document viewer, MATE Dictionary and Eye of MATE image viewer are featured too. Digging further we find a calculator, archive manager and the Pluma text editor. The Audacious music player and the VLC multimedia player are included. The mpv player is included too and Sabayon ships with a full range of media codecs. The MATE edition of the distribution provides us with plenty of tools for adjusting the look and behaviour of the desktop environment. We can also make use of the Caja file manager and a system monitor. Network Manager is available to help us get on-line. Sabayon ships with the Clang compiler, Java and systemd 226. In the background we find version 4.5 of the Linux kernel. Sabayon uses a rolling release model so version numbers will trend upward over time.

The cost of free software

Sabayon 16.05 — The MATE Control Centre

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While exploring the distribution I noted a few things I feel worth mentioning. One is that the application menu features entries offering to take us to key pages of Sabayon’s website. This makes finding documentation and support a bit easier. I found that applications were listed in the application menu by name rather than by function. At first it seemed like no description was available for the various applications, but I found hovering my mouse over menu entries would provide an explanation of what the software did. I like this feature as otherwise new users are unlikely to know what Caja or Audacious are.

One feature I disliked was that the Chrome browser prompted for a key-ring password every time it launched. This is a semi-common feature across distributions and one I would like to see disabled.

At one point I went into the settings panel to set up my printer and found there was no Printer module. A search through the Applications menu did turn up a Manage Printers entry (it’s under the System sub-menu). Clicking this module opened my web browser to a local web-based CUPS interface. This method of managing printers is a good deal more complex than the usual graphical CUPS printer manager. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate the appropriate printer with the web-based interface while the native CUPS module usually locates any nearby printers automatically.

The cost of free software

Sabayon 16.05 — Running various desktop applications

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I tried running Sabayon in two test environments. I began with VirtualBox and found Sabayon worked well in the virtual environment. When running in VirtualBox, Sabayon performed smoothly, the distribution was able to automatically integrate into the virtual environment and make use of my screen’s full resolution. When running on my desktop test machine Sabayon got off to a good start. A network connection was set up automatically and my display was set to its maximum resolution. I did run into one problem when running Sabayon on the desktop computer. I found when playing videos on YouTube in the Chrome web browser the video was not visible. I could hear the audio playing, but the video box remained blank. One quirk of the distribution was that, in either environment, Sabayon muted audio by default. I actually like this feature as it avoids the unexpected blast of sound some distributions play when the user logs in.

In both test environments, Sabayon’s MATE edition used approximately 270MB of memory. The distribution tended to be a little slow when booting, but once the system was up and running, desktop performance was solid.

Conclusions

Sabayon is a distribution which tends to do a lot of interesting things and it does enough things differently to keep me intrigued. The rolling-release, hybrid source/binary approach is something I find unusual enough to keep me coming back, for example. Sabayon has an unusual software manager, Rigo, which works pretty well and I like that it provides news headlines along with software updates. Sabayon offers lots of different editions, giving just about everyone something they like.

I was enthusiastic this time around to explore the SCR. This community effort seems to be in its early stages and I think there should be an easier (or automated) way to enable community repositories. Despite the configuration steps required, the SCR will provide a wider ranger of software to Sabayon’s users and I think it’s a welcome feature.

The problem I tend to have with Sabayon (both in the past and again this week) is the project feels like it has been stretched too thin. There are lots of interesting ideas and a huge selection of options to be had, but I feel the quality of the features suffer. Being unable to get a desktop environment running on the KDE edition was the strongest example. Little glitches in the package manager, which kept showing me "news" from years ago, were another. The patchy printer support was something most users probably will not be able to navigate on their own.

All in all, I think Sabayon is doing good things and I think the distribution will appeal to people who like rolling releases. There are a few rough spots in the distribution, but I think working through those is generally worth the experience Sabayon offers.

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Hardware used in this review

My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications:

  • Processor: Dual-core 2.8GHz AMD A4-3420 APU
  • Storage: 500GB Hitachi hard drive
  • Memory: 6GB of RAM
  • Networking: Realtek RTL8111 wired network card
  • Display: AMD Radeon HD 6410D video card

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