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PC-BSD 1.3

Thursday 31st May 2007

PC-BSD should make an interesting change for two main reasons. Firstly, it uses a BSD kernel, as opposed to the Linux kernel used in distributions such as Debian and Slackware. Secondly, its main method of installing new programs seems to be closer to that of Windows than apt. So, let's see if its claims of user friendliness are accurate.


Installation is handled by a graphical installer, which fits its role well. The first few screens are relatively straightforward - setting language, keyboard layout and timezone, the latter even providing the opportunity to set up NTP to keep your clock accurate.

There's also a screen for setting up root and an ordinary user, although a little more explanation of exactly what root was wouldn't go amiss for newer users.

One nice thing about the installation is that there is an option at the end for 'Advanced Setup', allowing you to tinker with the partitioning, networking and firewall. When choosing what partition to use, I didn't see any options to actually modify any partitions - I'm probably just being blind, but the ability to create and destroy partitions, rather than using what's already there, would have been handy, and saved fishing out that GParted LiveCD. Incidentally, this is one of the differences between BSD and Linux - BSD first claims a slice of the hard drive, and then partitions this slice further.

The networking screen is unremarkable, not that there's any way in which a networking screen really can be remarkable - it gets the job done! The firewall screen lets you open certain ports, telling you what services use them - while its not an exhaustive list, it does mean that there's very little tinkering required post installation.

Once you've finished all of your option-setting, the installer whizzes off until you get a nice shiny new system.

On The Desktop

PC-BSD uses a KDE desktop - whether that's a positive or negative is a matter of opinion! Suffice to say that it looks clean, tidy and up-to-date without being tacky or obtrusive.

By default, the applications installed cover most, although not all, main uses you'll probably have for your PC. For instant messaging there's Kopete, Konqueror for web browsing, Akregator for web feeds, and Kaffiene for multimedia. However, an office suite is absent, whether its KOffice or

In terms of multimedia, Kaffeine is unable to handle everything since, as it points out upon first use, the Win32 codecs are not installed, and nor does a PBI appear to be available for them from pbiDIR, although they do seem to exist at (more on PBIs later).

One of the major problems I encountered on my real PC (as opposed to QEMU) was that the network didn't work. For some reason, PC-BSD couldn't use my 3COM network card. The resulting difficulties are fairly obvious - I couldn't access other PCs on the network to get files that I normally use to test distros, and I couldn't get any packages online.

Sticking a CD into the drive causes it to be automatically mounted, and a dialog pops up asking if you want to open it. Unfortunately, there's no handy icon created on the desktop for the CD, meaning the quickest way I found to eject it was to go into Konqueror, choose the System tab (out of several tabs), go to Storage Media, right click on the CD and hit Eject.

As for my USB stick... it didn't even turn on. Logging onto the same PC with Debian showed that neither the stick nor the hardware was at fault.

I'm pleased to say that Samba works out of the box, accessible via 'Network Folders' in Konqueror, although you probably need to open the relevant port with the firewall during the installation.

Sadly, trying to enable a share is less successful. By right-clicking a directory, hitting 'Properties' and going to the 'Share' tab, there's a button that says 'Configure File Sharing...'. Pressing this asks you for the root password. However, after obliging, nothing happens. I looked through the menus for a application to setup the sharing, but nothing jumped out at me - if I have missed the obvious, please let me know!

And Now For Something Completely Different

Well, not completely different, but enough of a change to be noteworthy. Most distributions use packages in repositories to install new programs. FreeBSD, upon which PC-BSD is based, does so using ports. While PC-BSD can also use ports, the main method of software installation is through the use of files called PBIs. This is perhaps closer to what Windows users are familiar with - simply go to pbiDIR, and download whatever package it is that you're looking for. Once that's done, double click on what you just downloaded, and you'll be taken through the extremely simple installation.

There is a clear advantage here in that the process is simple and well-known to users of Windows. Of course, it doesn't come without disadvantages. First of all, more traditional package management, such as Apt, RPM or ports, allows you to download and install packages en masse. When using PBIs, you'll have to download and install them one by one. In addition, its not always clear what package you should download. While there isn't the problem of obscure packages that can be confusing, such as gimp-data-extras, there are multiple versions of the same package - for GIMP alone, there are four on offer.

Finally, trying to get updates for the PBIs resulted in being told that there was a network error, despite the fact that I could access the Internet without a problem.

On the other hand, I did get a prompt telling me an update to PC-BSD itself was available, which was downloaded and installed without any fuss.

The various utilities for installing/updating can be a little confusing - in one section of the menu, you can choose from:

along with plenty of other programs that configure the system.

There doesn't seem to be a graphical interface to the ports system, but you can still install packages from FreeBSD by commands such as pkg_add -r However, trying pkg_add -r liferea resulted in being informed of conflicting dependencies, with no painless solution evident. Although it suggested removing some other packages, I didn't relish the thought of taking apart a system I'd barely used. I also noticed that using pkg_add often causes warnings about package versions - specifically, it warns that a certain version is required, but that a later version is installed. For instance, installing GAIM alone produced over a dozen such warnings, despite the fact that it worked perfectly fine afterwards. This isn't disastrous, but it doesn't do wonders for the user's confidence either.

Despite being billed as a user-friendly system, PC-BSD lacks configuration utilities for many aspects of the system, such as changing hard drive partitions or configuring X. For instance, so far as I can tell, if your monitor is detected incorrectly, you're stuck with the wrong resolution. Without any equivalent of YaST or the Mandriva/PCLinuxOS Control Center, whether as an entire package or many separate utilities, PC-BSD cannot match those distributions for the ability for an ordinary user to tweak almost any aspect of the system.


PC-BSD is certainly different, and using PBIs should make Windows users feel at home. However, I have encountered too many problems to be satisfied, with the network unavailable and USB sticks inaccessible. I have left out some of the smaller niggles I have for the simple reason that they're trivial compared to some of the larger problems, and therefore somewhat irrelevant at this point.

The lack of something to match up to YaST or the Mandriva/PCLinuxOS Control Center means that users would have to resort to the command line to solve some problems or change some settings, such as the maximum monitor resolution. For that reason, I feel that PCLinuxOS is the better choice if you're looking for simplicity and ease of use. If the flaws I found could be ironed out, however, then PC-BSD is well-deserving of a second look.

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