With so many new Linux distributions being launched every month, you
will be forgiven to give most of them nothing but a passing glance.
Usually based on Debian GNU/Linux or Fedora Core, they often provide
little new besides a different application set and a pretty wallpaper
on the otherwise standard KDE or GNOME, or less commonly, XFce or
Fluxbox desktops. That said, every once in a while there is a new
distribution that makes an honest effort to depart from the standard
fare. One of them is Rocklyte Systems'
, a new commercial
Linux distribution from New Zealand.
Three notable characteristics differentiate Athene from other Linux
distributions: fast boot times, integration of the SNAP Graphics
technology (in place of XFree86 or X.org), and the desktop look and
feel. The boot times are impressive - on this author's 1.6 GHz Pentium
4 machine it took 32 seconds to get from GRUB to Athene's graphical
login prompt and another 1 - 2 seconds to get to the full graphical
desktop, ready for user input. Shutdown times were equally striking,
with about 11 seconds needed to halt the system.
SNAP Graphics is a commercial cross-platform driver architecture,
originally developed for OS/2 and DOS, but now also supporting Windows
and Linux. The major advantages of SNAP over XFree86 or X.org are ease
of installation and auto-configuration of most graphics cards,
including many of the latest NVIDIA and ATI cards. The company's web
site also claims substantial speed achievements and provides benchmarks
to prove them. However, a noteworthy disadvantage of SNAP is its lack
of support for the XVideo extension and GL direct rendering, which
makes it less acceptable on the home desktop market where video
playback and gaming represent a fairly common PC usage. But the low
cost of support and maintenance might make the $20 SNAP (trial editions
are available for download) an adequate solution for many businesses.
Athene's desktop environment is unlike anything else on the market. It
comes in three themes: Wintel,
Workbench, each of which has been developed by Rocklyte Systems.
They contribute towards that pleasant feeling of novelty and excitement
that normally accompanies any new purchase. The desktop is complemented
by a central configuration utility designed to perform basic tasks,
such as desktop and system configuration, as well as installation and
removal of applications from the system. Then there is a custom file
manager, a custom media player, a custom text editor, a custom picture
viewer, etc., but otherwise the available applications set is very
limited - perhaps on par with MS Windows, but certainly a lot scantier
than what one finds on a 4-CD Fedora Core set.
The good news is that the installation CD contains additional
applications in binary format to complement the Athene OS. Both Qt and
GTK+ libraries are available, together with many of the best open
source applications that make use of these libraries. Almost all of
KDE, including KOffice, are on the CD, as well as the GIMP,
OpenOffice.org, Firefox, and MPlayer - just to name a few of the more
interesting software packages. Development tools are available too and
menu entries are automatically populated with icons upon installation.
Because of these extra packages, Athene can be easily turned into a
full-featured desktop, ready for every-day use.
Unfortunately, the Athene OS is still in its infancy and as such, it has
unrefined edges, especially considering that the product seems to be
designed for non-technical persons. As an example, networking is not
configured during the initial installation. A quick trip to Athene's
forums revealed that the correct way to set up networking was to
install DHCP (available on the CD, but not installed by default), then
read the DHCP documentation to learn how to configure /etc/dhcpd.conf
and what to add to /etc/boot to bring networking up at boot. Hardly
something that your average aunt Tilly would be thrilled doing!
Furthermore, creation of user accounts is not enforced during or after
installation as Athene seems content to provide just one root account
There are usability issues that take the pleasure out of using some of
Athene's otherwise pretty-looking utilities. Take the application
installer, called QikInstall; it not only fails to auto-resolve
dependencies of installed applications (nowadays the only major
distribution that doesn't do this is Slackware), it merely displays the
name of the first immediate dependency. The user is then left to
navigate the application directories on the installation CD to find it!
Another problem is inconsistent interaction with icons throughout the
system - while the desktop icons require a single click to activate,
those in the file manager and QikInstall need a double click. Since
accidental double clicks are not detected, it is easy to end up with a
very messy desktop!
Overall though, Athene is an innovative and fun distribution, with speed
and stability as its most noticeable features. It is not difficult to
see how it could become a standard OS in some small company where most
work is accomplished in an office suite. Whereas users of RPM- or
DEB-based distributions could be tempted to install additional
applications and introduce potential instability into the system,
Athene's non-standard packaging and a limited set of applications
ensure that the operating system remains in its pristine and stable
state, thus reducing administration costs. If Rocklyte can fix a few
annoyances in Athene and design an effective marketing strategy, the
obvious talent of Athene's developers could be transformed into a
financial success for the entire company.
The Athene OS is available from Rocklyte Systems' online
store, starting at $47.95, while Athene's desktop component (to be
installed on top of an existing Windows or Linux installation) is
available as a free download from the distribution's download page.
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