The antiX Linux distribution
started its life as a
lightweight version of MEPIS, which is based on Debian
stable, but it has diverged from its mother distribution. The current
antiX-12 release comes 15 months after antiX-M11 and is based directly on
Debian testing, instead of being remastered from MEPIS. The goal of antiX
is to provide a fully functional Linux distribution for older computers,
which is demonstrated by its modest minimum hardware requirements: a
Pentium II 266 MHz processor and 128 MB RAM. To that end, antiX-12 uses a 3.5 kernel optimized for Pentium and AMD K5/K6 processors.
AntiX can be used as a live CD (e.g. as a rescue system), but most users
will want to install it. The installation footprint for the full install is
2.6 GB. It uses a
modified MEPIS installer, antiX Install, which looks quite old-fashioned
but is straightforward and easy to use. A strong point of this installer is
that it offers a lot of explanation in the left panel, so inexperienced
users are not left out in the cold.
Lightweight window managers
AntiX-12 comes in three variants: core, base and full. The core ISO is
135 MB and doesn't contain any proprietary drivers. As a
core version, it lacks X and has a command-line installer. This is the
version you want to install on a headless server or if you want to choose
for yourself which minimal X environment to install. But if you just want a minimal X environment without too much configuration, the base variant is better suited: this 356 MB ISO features four lightweight window managers (Fluxbox, JWM, wmii and dwm) and some applications.
The most usable variant is, of course, the full version, which offers a
lot of choices for the graphical environment while still providing a
complete desktop experience. It uses IceWM as its default window manager, but
you can also choose Fluxbox or JWM. Moreover, you can use
these three with or without the ROX
Desktop. ROX adds launcher icons and the ROX-Filer to your desktop. For more minimalist users, who don't require a desktop environment with launcher icons and so on, antiX also offers the tiling window managers wmii and dwm.
Logging in is handled by the lightweight display manager SLiM. By pressing F1, you can cycle
through all available window manager session types. Once you are logged in, you see some system information at the top right of the desktop background, such as the uptime, date, CPU, RAM, swap, and filesystem usage. All this is shown by the highly configurable system monitor application Conky.
The full version comes with a lot of applications: Iceweasel
10—Debian's rebranded Firefox—as the web browser, Claws-mail as
the email client, Pidgin for instant messaging, LibreOffice as the office
suite, XMMS as the default audio player, and GNOME MPlayer as the default
video player. For file management, the user has ROX-Filer at their disposal
when using the ROX Desktop. Otherwise, SpaceFM is available,
which uses udevil
instead of udisks. AntiX-12 uses the Debian testing repositories by
default, so you can install a lot of other applications using Synaptic,
which is shipped for graphical package management.
Maybe the most interesting aspect of antiX (especially the full variant)
is that it comes with a lot of command-line alternatives to well-known
applications. These are shown in a separate submenu "Terminal Apps". For IRC, antiX comes with the good old irssi, for downloading torrents there's rTorrent, for email there's Alpine, and for reading RSS, newsbeuter. For playing audio files from the command line antiX ships moc and for file management, Midnight Commander (mc).
What's interesting is that antiX-12 not only includes the usual suspects
(mentioned above), but also some lesser known command-line programs. For
instance, for ripping CDs there's RipIt, for writing
and for creating presentations xsw. When you click on Slides in
the Terminal Apps -> Office menu, it even shows the user a presentation
written in xsw, explaining how to create a presentation with xsw.
When choosing one of these command-line programs in the application menu, a
terminal window is opened and the program is started in it. All in all,
antiX-12 is a nice showcase of command-line utilities. My only criticism is that some of these utilities have been unmaintained for a couple of years, so teaching new Linux users how to use these tools is not really future-proof.
AntiX-12 also comes with a lot of useful scripts implementing features normally only available in full-fledged desktop environments. For instance, the program user-management lets you edit and add users, and wallpaper.py lets you change the wallpaper. A problem is that many of these scripts aren't available from the application menu. The user has to read the online documentation to discover their existence.
Precious hardware resources
I tested antiX-12 primarily on an Acer Aspire One, a first-generation
netbook which is a fairly underpowered machine by current standards: it has
a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor, 512 MB RAM and a slow SSD.
At first, I wasn't impressed with antiX-12 on the Aspire One because of
some hardware support issues. For instance, once installed, antiX doesn't
boot directly to a graphical mode, but shows a message about an undefined
video mode. This message is shown for every boot; you can only get rid of
changing the vga=NNN variable in /boot/grub/menu.lst
(antiX still uses GRUB Legacy). In addition, the VGA mode number must be
hexadecimal to decimal, something a newcomer won't easily figure out on
their own. Another hardware issue that I encountered on my netbook is that
the mouse pointer freezes from time to time, which also happened during
installation, so I had to use the keyboard to be able to complete
installation. When I scroll horizontally on the touchpad while the
application menu is open, the menu suddenly detaches itself from the bottom
of the screen. None of these problems were present on other (granted, more
modern) machines I tested antiX-12 on, such as Dell and Acer laptops, but
the Aspire One is well-supported on other Linux distributions, so these
issues are surprising.
Other than these glitches, though, antiX-12 works well on an
underpowered machine. This is of course mostly due to the lightweight
window managers. I never had the impression that I was working on an old
machine, something I did have with other distributions. For instance,
Ubuntu 12.04 really doesn't work well on this machine, mostly because of
the small amount of RAM. Even Lubuntu
12.04, which is meant for older computers, didn't fare well on the Aspire
One: the machine seemed to freeze for a long time during the
installation, and when it was finally installed, it felt slower than
AntiX-12 succeeds in reviving that machine you may not have touched in a while. But it's not only because of the window manager: the antiX developers have cleverly chosen applications with your precious hardware resources in mind. You won't find GIMP, for example, but the mtPaint graphic editor. The gentle push to use the command-line applications also helps to use less resources.
Rough edges but helpful documentation
The antiX developers say that Linux newcomers are part of their target audience, but for these users, the distribution is a bit too rough around the edges. For instance, antiX doesn't seem to be targeted at netbook and laptop users (the words "laptop", "notebook" or "netbook" aren't even mentioned on the home page), as it doesn't show a battery indicator. You have to add some lines to ~/.conkyrc if you always want to see the status of your battery. Of course this is only an inconvenience on portable machines: a desktop or a laptop that is always connected to AC won't need such an indicator. I found another oversight in the configuration of the command-line RSS reader newsbeuter: if you start it from the application menu, it fails because the antiX developers didn't set up a default file with RSS feed URLs. As a result, newsbeuter quits directly after it has started and the terminal window is closed before the user even sees what's wrong.
Also, antiX-12 comes with the antiX2usb utility, which promises
to write an ISO file to a USB stick, optionally with a persistent home
partition. However, according to the antiX web site, this application has
some issues, and users should resort to the command-line script
new_usb.sh. Many newcomers may not be reading the web site, so it would be better if the antiX2usb utility was removed or showed a big warning when started.
On the other hand, the installer is quite helpful with a lot of
information for newcomers. The application menu has also a Help submenu
with links to various sources of information, such as the antiX FAQ, ROX
manual, documentation about Fluxbox, IceWM and JWM, and even man pages of
some of the basic command-line programs. The MEPIS wiki contains some HOWTO articles for antiX and there's also an antiX forum. So, while antiX is not as polished as it should be for a distribution that targets newcomers, it's quite powerful for users that want to revive an old computer and have some time to fiddle with it. They'll probably even learn a couple of interesting command-line applications in the process.
to post comments)