Libranet 2.8.1 Review

This is a review I wrote forLinux Magazinein March 2004 that was never published, so I'm including it here for historical reasons.

Libranet 2.8.1 achieves a studied balance between the power of a Debian-based GNU/Linux system that is still easy to install and manage. I've installed Libranet on a number of systems, ranging from an IBM ThinkPad A31 to a Dell Precision Workstation 210, from a Dell Inspiron 2650 to a Digital PC 3000. I've even installed it in a classroom of Dell OptiPlex GX110 machines. In every case, the installation just worked. Oh, it's old school, to be sure: text-based, in simple colors, and with a minimum of graphical prettiness. But it works, and that's the important thing. Hardware is detected and set up, users are created, software is chosen and installed, and then your system boots into a usable, powerful, and, yes, I<stable>GNU/Linux distro.

There are a few caveats about Libranet's installer: it's easier than Debian's normal routine, but it's still not something that a Linux newbie could use without a little help. Of course, certain hardware will not work -- check the hardware list on the Web site first. There's no built-in way to resize NTFS partitions, so dual-booting on a machine that is currently filled to the brim with Windows XP may be difficult. Also, Libranet is a desktop-oriented system, so it's actually kind of difficult to install it as a GUI-less server. Even with these issues, however, I think most users will find Libranet's installer functional -- just not slick.

Once the install has finished, you have your choice of KDE, GNOME, or a variety of window managers. In fact, if you do nothing, IceWM is the default, a plain but highly functional desktop, although I chose KDE. No matter which one you use, you're going to see the same 'Adminmenu' desktop icon. This is the crown jewel for Libranet, one of the things that makes it special. Even so, Libra, the makers of Libranet, have put their money where their mouth is and released the Adminmenu under the GPL, showing their commitment to free software.

The Adminmenu is just that: a menu of items that enables users to easily manage their computer. Along the top of the window is a set of tabs (Kernel, Packages, X-windows, Sound, Network, Printer, Time, Disk/CD/Floppy, Users, Desktop, and Browser Plugins), with buttons on each tab that perform a specific task. For instance, choose Printer, and you can Detect printers or Configure CUPS. Browser Plugins allows you to download and install Real Player, Macromedia Flash, or Java. Packages provides a wealth of opportunities, including Update Adminmenu, Upgrade system, Remove packages, and Install security updates. Perhaps most impressively, the Recompile kernel button on the Kernel tab makes updating your kernel so easy that just about the greenest Linux user could do it. More experienced Linux users can skip the Adminmenu, but even they might find that it can make some tasks easier to perform.

For those who know about APT and its importance, let me stress that Libranet, unlike some other Debian-based distros (Xandros, Libranet), is completely compatible with the Debian software archives. If you know Debian's APT, this means that pinning and the other APT goodies work; if you are less familiar, try this on for size: 16,000 software packages, available for easy download and install. When it comes to APT, Libranet does it right.

Support for Libranet is available on the Libranet Web site, on the Libranet listserv, or in the Libranet Forum. On the Web site, a variety of issues are clearly explained. In fact, Libranet provides downloadable patches for a couple of important tasks, such as updating the 2.4 kernel (the 2.6 kernel is not supported currently, although users have reported successful upgrades; expect a kernel upgrade when the next version of Libranet appears). The listserv is low volume but still informative. The Forum is an excellent, friendly source of information, where users come together to help each other, augmented by the occasional involvement of Tal and Jon, the two developers behind Libranet.

Libranet downloads cost $40 for students, $70 for individuals, and $155 for businesses; add $5 if you want CDs. You can install it on as many machines as you desire. All purchasers get a 30-day money-back guarantee, no questions asked. It's a great way for Linux users to migrate to Debian in a relatively painless way, and the thought that has gone into the installer and Adminmenu alone make it worthy to take its place as a top choice for any interested Linux user.

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