After more than two and a half years of development, Elive 2.0 ("Topaz"), a Debian-based live CD with the Enlightenment E17 desktop environment, has been released. This is a major release, bringing Enlightenment lovers up-to-date. Under the hood lies Debian Lenny (5.0.3) with a Linux 126.96.36.199 kernel. Most users won't try Elive only for what it does, but also for what it looks like: it combines minimal hardware requirements with style and eye candy. The distribution works on a 100 MHz CPU with 64 MB of RAM, but a 300 MHz CPU with 128 MB RAM is recommended. Installing it requires 2 GB of disk space.
First a word of warning: Elive is pretty much a one-man show: Samuel
"Thanatermesis" F. Baggen is working full-time on the distribution. One of
the consequences is that users can download the distribution
for free, but they have to pay (Elive calls it a "donation") to install it
to a hard drive. This makes more sense than the previous policy (that asked
for a donation to even download Elive 1.0), but it's not clear for visitors
to the Elive web site: there is no mention on the home page nor the
download page. Even the installer doesn't tell users the full details until
they are well into the installation process and get redirected to the
payment web page. Only after they have paid at least $15 using PayPal will they receive a code that they have to enter at www.elivecd.org/installer-module. After that, they are sent the (seemingly closed source) "installer module" by email.
Although the Elive project has been asking for donations for years and this
could be called "common knowledge", it would be much more honest if the
developer told users before the install begins that they have to pay
— and how much. In the Complaints section of the
Elive forum, one user questions the business
model of Elive, and the developer responds:
"The donation is forced for the stable version *only*, and for now
that's the plans for it...". In the project's FAQ, he explains this
You know that free has no relation with cost. This payment is required to pay the development of Elive, that is the full time work of the Developer 'Thanatermesis' and also to pay external development and/or services. Think that more money is made and more development can be possible to pay and so, a better final product (Elive). But in any of the cases, you are not obliged to pay for Elive, nobody obliges you to use Elive. Without any cost, Elive would not be the same, at least not with all its features, usefriendly things, and the lot of work involved. By other side, if your problem is that you can't possibly pay for any personal reason, we don't want to prevent anybody from using Elive so we propose alternatives which are described in the payment process.
Users that really don't want to pay can download the free (but
purportedly unstable) development version
of Elive, although at the moment there isn't a development version. Of
course, they can also install plain Debian, then add the Elive repository
to their /etc/apt/sources.list and install the Enlightenment
packages, but this will likely result in an unstable desktop. Users can
also request an invitation code,
which is free for those who write an article about Elive or need it in an
An idiosyncratic installer
The distribution also comes with its own user-friendly, but somewhat
chaotic, installer that has advanced features such as upgrade and migrate
modes. The latter allows users to migrate any Linux system to an Elive
system: it copies user accounts including their passwords and files along with various configuration files. In the first step, the user is asked to choose from different customization levels: "Auto" (mostly automated), "Easy mode" (asking only a few questions) and "Complete mode" (fully featured). After this, the installer shows a vague message that the user has to make a "small payment" to use Elive.
The partitioning step shows a few options: use the full disk, start
gparted or cfdisk, show some information about a RAID
setup or do nothing at all on an already partitioned system. After this,
the user is asked to obtain the installer module and enter an identifier on
the web site. After receiving the module and clicking on OK in the
installer window, the module asks the user to enter a security code to be
sure the user knows that the installer will erase the disk. Then the
installation begins and, though interrupted by a couple of questions, shows
a progress bar while installing all packages on the hard disk.
does the job without problems, the installer has an idiosyncratic user
interface with lots of windows popping up, and it's not always clear what
it is doing. The installation itself doesn't take long, but after the first
boot (which shows a nice looking splash screen and an animated login screen), Elive begins a lengthy and seemingly inefficient post-install process, where your author saw hald stopping and starting twice and the initramfs being generated eight times. There's still work to do here.
A user-friendly Debian
Elive is more than just Debian with an E17 interface. It adds a lot of
tweaks to make a more user-friendly version of its mother distribution. For
example, the context menu in the file manager Thunar shows commands to
convert music files to Ogg or MP3, as well as commands to convert image
files to another resolution. It also offers a lot of functionality out of
the box. For example, Firefox is configured with the Flash 10.0 plug-in for
YouTube videos and MPlayer browser plug-ins for DivX, QuickTime, RealPlayer
9, and Windows Media Player. Skype is also installed by default. USB sticks
are automatically detected and mounted, with an icon placed on the desktop,
and DVDs are automatically played. Even the kernel has some extra
user-friendly features, such as TuxOnIce for hibernation.
There are different kernels available, and their source can be found in the Elive repository. The source of the Elive-specific applications and modules can be found on the Elive development web site. On a related note, it's not clear to your author how much Elive contributes back upstream to Enlightenment, but Baggen is active on the Enlightenment bug tracker and he is contributing patches.
The distribution has an aptly named nurse
mode, which offers recovery and repair features. For example,
users can recover the default Elive configuration if they have messed up
their settings. It is also able to check whether the system contains all
the packages that are installed by default in Elive: if a user has
accidentally deleted some crucial packages, some features could be
missing. Other things that the nurse mode can do includes installing newer
or special kernels, freeing space on the disk, and hardware tests. Also
interesting is that it offers to help solve graphical problems by reconfiguring the Xorg configuration or reinstalling graphics drivers.
In order to prevent incompatibility problems with the tweaked Elive desktop when upgrading the Debian base, the distribution doesn't use the official Debian mirrors in /etc/apt/sources.list. From time to time, the project creates a snapshot of the entire Debian repository and mirrors it. This official Elive mirror is used in /etc/apt/sources.list for Debian software, in addition to another repository for Elive-specific software. According to Baggen, the snapshot is updated when a package needs an update for security reasons.
Beauty is in the details
Elive is dressed up with some impressive eye candy that is difficult to find in other distributions. For example, when the login screen appears, the box with the user name and password falls from the top of the screen. The box with the time and date and the shutdown icon each do a walk around the screen before they find their place, while the box where the user chooses the desktop also falls from the top of the screen and then stops at the top left. After this, a lot of words describing Elive appear on the screen. Even if this sounds somewhat over the top, it doesn't get in the way of the user: the login box works right from the start, so the user doesn't have to sit through the entire animation.
The Enlightenment desktop itself is also beautiful. At the top right, there's a pager that leads the user to different virtual desktops, while the bottom right is a notification area with icons for the network, battery, CPU temperature, and so on. At the middle bottom, there's a panel with quick launchers for some applications. Hovering over the launchers makes them grow in size. Minimizing an application's window brings its high-resolution icon to the top left on the desktop.
Enlightenment is known for its artful themes, and Elive 2.0 comes with four themes installed. The default "elive" theme comes with a non-intrusive light blue wallpaper that has some subtle twinkling white stars. Another theme, "Lucax3", has more personality: it has a dark blue wallpaper with energetically twinkling stars and black menus with purple arrows. When changing the Enlightenment theme, the user also gets invited to choose a Gtk+ 2.0 theme that matches. By the way, most users will only discover many subtle details in the style only after working with Elive for an extended time. For example, your author saw a scrolling window title in a title bar, but he has only seen happening it twice while writing this review.
Enlightenment is also fully customizable. Click on the wallpaper to open
the menu, choose Settings and then Settings Panel to open the extensive
Enlightenment settings. Here the user can change the look, the behavior of
the windows, input settings, and so on. An interesting feature is that
almost all settings windows have a "Basic" and an "Advanced version". In
the default Basic mode, clicking on the Advanced button shows the user more
options, and then clicking on the Basic button shows again the basic
settings. In "Extensions - Modules", the user can pick various desktop
modules, such as weather forecasts, a battery or CPU frequency monitor, but
also more frivolous things like snow, fire, or rain on the desktop — or even walking penguins. However, be aware that some of these modules can be unstable.
Beautiful but disappointing
Elive 2.0 proves again that users can have a nice looking desktop
without eating up all their computer's resources. That's mostly thanks to
Enlightenment, which is refreshingly different from other desktop
environments. The minimal hardware requirements make Elive a contender on
netbooks. It's a pity that the commercial purpose of the distribution is
covered up. Saying nothing about a requirement to pay on the home page or
download page and then requiring it only in the middle of the install is
deceptive. On the technical side, the installer and post-install process
could use some work too. So all in all, while Elive 2.0 is a really nice
showcase of an Enlightenment desktop, it's hard to see it becoming a wildly
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