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J.A.M.D. Linux 0.0.6 Review
Benjamin Vander Jagt - Saturday, June 14, 2003 (Errors corrected Sunday, July 6, 2003)
benjaminvanderjagt@adelphia.net


Description of J.A.M.D.:


J.A.M.D. is, according to the distribution founder, Just Another Modified (Red Hat) Distribution.  There are currently over fifty Red Hat based distributions.  Many are stripped way down, making a "minimal" Red Hat installation just about the same thing.  Several, especially the more established (such as Mandrake), are modified in ways that Red Hat-geared software is no longer compatible.  Some are so far gone that they don't install right on many systems.  J.A.M.D. was created to prove that it's possible for a Linux Desktop to surpass Windows in usability and to be the premiere desktop distribution.  It also helps to undo some of the (often reviled) changes made by Red Hat to the KDE desktop.

The included KDE is provided by Rex Dieter and the KDE-Red Hat prjoect, which can be found at SourceForge at http://kde-redhat.sourceforge.net/


J.A.M.D. version 0.0.6, which I will be testing, is based on Red Hat 9.  While Red Hat 8.0 is as stable as Linux is generally advertised to be, I've personally had problems with Red Hat 9 on all five of the computers in my room and on other computers I've worked on.  I grant that most of the problems I've encountered have fixes and workarounds, such as up2date, but they generally require so much work that I've stuck with Red Hat 8.0.

Systems installed on:

The first system I tried to install it on was my main desktop:

Jetway J867V266B Socket 462 mommybored
AMD Athlon XP 1700+
nVidia GeForce2 MX200 PCI (probes as 64MB. hey, PCI 3D cards are almost as fast as AGP)
ESS Allegro 1988 PCI
Linksys (Tulip) PCI network card
ATI TV Wonder
80GB 7200RPM 8MB cache
80GB 7200RPM 2MB cache
52x24x52x CD recorder
512MB PC2100 DDR-RAM
USB optical wheel mouse (which worked perfectly in installation)
HP DeskJet 842c
HP LaserJet 4
Plustek OpticPro 600P Parallel port scanner

Installation took 14 min (9 min of file copying), which beats Windows hands down!  Windows XP took around 2 hours on the same system.  The full J.A.M.D. installation uses about 1.6 to 1.8 GB.  Red Hat 8.0 takes about 4.5 GB when I click on "Everything", and installation takes around 45 minutes.

It actually didn't start X on that system.  It went into an infinite loop trying to do so, crashing and restarting X, and I never got a chance to go to the terminal to diagnose the problem.  I really felt as though I found yet another loser OS, but I will find later that I was wrong.  I will return to that system to try again, but first, I installed it successfully on a Gateway Solo 9300ve laptop:

Pentium III 650MHz
160 MB RAM
12GB hard drive
Built in unknown sound card
Built in unknown modem
USB
Firewire
DVD-ROM
ATI Rage Mobility with RCA input and output (cool, eh?)
PCMCIA 32-bit
Belkin F5D5050 USB Ethernet dongle
2 button touchpad pointing device
and a beautiful 15.7" screen  ;-)

Everything worked perfectly.  I enjoyed playing Frozen Bubble, and although I just didn't have the 3D acceleration to play Tux Racer, I did start it in order to play the music.  While Red Hat 8.0 is a bit cumbersome on this laptop with only 160MB RAM, J.A.M.D. was quite comfortable.  The KDE 3.1.1a included is pretty responsive while still powerful, and since it's a standard KDE, more of my software worked right.

The icons and background used were kind of Jetson-ish, and while they are attractive, they aren't as easy to understand at first glance.  Of course, commenting on the default theme of a distribution seems silly, since users can change the look and feel of any Linux system as they choose, but since the most common theme for any distribution is the default as shipped, it is, ironically, important to those who are not interested in themes.

When I first installed J.A.M.D., I guessed that it would be stripped down.  I thought I would get KOffice or Abiword for word processing, Noatun for multimedia, just Konqueror for internet browsing, etc.  However, I was pleased to find OpenOffice.org, MPlayer and XMMS for multimedia, and Mozilla for internet (as well as Konqueror).  Samba worked perfectly, as I just swapped my smb.conf file from my Red Hat partition over and I was sharing just the same as before.

A couple things were missing that I thought really should have been included.  I don't know the internals that well, so I don't know if there's some strange dependency preventing their presence, but it doesn't seem that way to me.  GCC was not there!  The way Linux is used, GCC is practically the foundation for installing anything.  RPMBUILD was therefore missing.  More surprisingly, mkreiserfs was wanted for questioning during installation when I tried starting with "advanced reiserfs".  I thought mkreiserfs was pretty small, just a few K.  Not just that, but it looks as though J.A.M.D. would work perfectly well on a Reiser filesystem.  I've heard rumors that it's faster than Ext3, and so far I haven't had a Reiserfs filesystem give one iota of trouble, so I'd like to see it added to a later version of J.A.M.D.

A possible workaround which I haven't tried yet is to preformat the partition you want to use as reiserfs and install without allowing Anaconda to format.

When you boot J.A.M.D., it will look very similar to Red Hat, for good reason.  The desktop is unique, though.  It sort of feels like Mandrake, but without all the convoluted mess!  In the top right is a nifty gadget.  It appears to be a desktop applet that lets you know of news on the J.A.M.D. website and recent posts to the J.A.M.D. forums.

(120k JPEG screenshot)


The applications are arranged more neatly and logically than I have seen in any Linux distribution before.  Everything's in the right place.  Having the system settings menu inside the system tools menu makes sense, as the global and user spaces are separate.

(97k JPEG screenshot - I used ImageMagick from the Red Hat 9 CD to convert the PNG screenshots to JPG.  After installing the RPM, ImageMagick can be started with the "display" command.  Add it to your KDE menu by right-clicking on the KDE menu icon and selecting "Menu Editor".)


When I returned to my desktop system, I reinstalled as before except that I told the installer that I wanted to boot into text mode instead of graphical mode.  I installed the nVidia drivers, which installed in an astounding 1 second, but when I tried to start X, I got the nVidia logo and the mouse pointer, but everything else was unreadable.  (In TV terms, it looked like the hsync was too high.  In programming terms, it looked like the horizontal scanline was almost twice as big as it should have been.)  I guess "Jammed" is a good name for it...well, not quite. 

Update

This is the text I wrote about the 4191 nVidia driver: This is a classic illustration of what happens when you don't RTFM.  I had seen, and ignored, the official instructions from J.A.M.D. as to how to install the nVidia drivers, and I proceeded to install the latest driver (4363?) from nVidia.  It turns out that you have to install the 4191 driver for 2.4.18 kernels.  Apparently, J.A.M.D.'s 2.4.20 kernel is properly backported for the nVidia driver.  Installation went basically by the book, except that you need to add the option --nodeps when installing the NVIDIA_kernel RPM.  I started X and I was Tux Racing away, with sound.

Apparently, I was wrong again.  When I RTFM, I was reading older instructions for a Red Hat 8.0 based version of J.A.M.D.  Essentially, what I did was to shove the kernel module made for the 2.4.18-18.8.0 kernel in Red Hat 8.0 systems into the Red Hat 9 based 2.4.20-9 kernel.  The kernels are worlds apart when it comes to nVidia drivers.  Surprisingly, it worked perfectly.  In fact, it has worked perfectly in all cases where I tried it.  In fact, I now have about a 10% to 20% increase in speed on the PCI nVidia GeForce2 MX200.  The 4363 driver, which is the driver you're supposed to use, does not seem to work right for me on some systems.  Your mileage may vary.  Officially, you should use the 4363 driver.  Unofficially, if you feel lucky and are willing to take possible risk, especially if the 4363 driver doesn't work for you, try the 4191 driver.


Other systems successfully installed on:

Jetway 692? Motherboard
AMD Athlon Thunderbird 1.2GHz
512MB PC133 SDR-RAM
16x12x40x CD-R
ATI All-In-Wonder 128 AGP with 16MB
Turtle Beach Tropez+
Linksys (Tulip) PCI network card
60GB 7200RPM hard drive
PS/2 optical wheel mouse
Installation time 18 minutes (14 minutes of file transfer)

Jetway J867V266B Motherboard
AMD Athlon XP 1700+
512MB PC133 SDR-RAM
6x Goldstar CD-ROM
nVidia GeForce2 MX 200 AGP with 32MB
ESS Allegro PCI sound card
Linksys (tulip) PCI network card
40GB 7200RPM hard drive
PS/2 optical wheel mouse

J.A.M.D. is not a very independent distribution.  This is exactly what I wanted.  Red Hat is favorite among Linux users for good reason!  However, many people, even those who applaud Red Hat for only using open software, proceed to download and install the MP3 plugin for XMMS, MPlayer, MPlayer plugins, Shockwave plugins, Opera, and other somewhat luxury items.  J.A.M.D. includes those already installed and already configured in a well thought out, intricate way.  This distribution is top for usability!

Red Hat also took a hit in reliability with the release of version 9.  While running up2date will keep you, um, up to date, some systems can't get that far.  My laptop, for example, currently uses a Belkin F5D5050 network dongle, and when I tried to start the network configuration tool, it would crash, so I couldn't use the network to download updates which may have fixed the problem.  I tried downloading and installing the Red Hat 9 update RPMs, but there were some mysterious dependency failures that up2date seems to be able to solve.  J.A.M.D. doesn't include the crippling bugs that prevented me from even fully installing Red Hat 9 on my systems, so J.A.M.D. is actually more compatible and reliable than Red Hat 9 out of the box.  Plus, since J.A.M.D. is Red Hat 9 based, you can theoretically install any of the Red Hat updates.

When Red Hat played around with KDE, they succeeded in merging KDE and Gnome.  However, they also succeeded in upsetting many users and developers who had gotten used to KDE being a certain way.  Some programs don't install or operate right in the Red Hat supplied KDE, and most (perhaps all) do not know why.  Kopete 0.6.2 does not work in Red Hat, but it works fine in J.A.M.D., which uses a standard KDE desktop.

On this laptop, Red Hat 9 was much slower than Red Hat 8.0.  Programs not only took longer to load, but they ran more slowly.  J.A.M.D., on the other hand, is faster than 8.0!  It's true that I'm currently writing this in Red Hat 8.0 on the laptop, but that's only because I needed to use KDevelop, and I didn't feel like installing it in J.A.M.D. yet.

One of the beautiful advantages of J.A.M.D. being so close to Red Hat is that if you want to install some of your favorite Red Hat 9 programs, just grab your CDs and shove the RPMs in!  It's (usually) that easy!  Of course, then you have to track the dependencies yourself, but since all the RPMs are on the CDs, hunting doesn't take long.  I've accidentally installed most of my extra software from my Red Hat 8.0 CDs, and it didn't complain.

Another big advantage of being close to Red Hat Linux 9 is that it can be considered something of a cousin.  When you need training, RHCE is an even better choice than before.  Problems that plague J.A.M.D. are likely problems that plague Red Hat as well, so solutions can often be found in the Red Hat community.  If you are starting out fresh in Linux and J.A.M.D. doesn't have what you need, you can migrate up to Red Hat very easily.  In fact, although I haven't tested it, I wouldn't be surprised if Red Hat's Anaconda installer could "upgrade" from J.A.M.D. to Red Hat.

Installation process:


The introduction is a little unclear.  Two options look as though they will wipe out your entire system.

Those familiar with Red Hat know that you can enable the Reiser filesystem by typing linux reiserfs at the start.  While this command activates that option in Anaconda, the mkfs.reiserfs is not present on the CD and the installation will die right after partitioning the disc.

The release notes button is present in Anaconda, but the release notes themselves aren't.

Otherwise, installation is the same as in Red Hat Linux, so I won't delve deeper into the details.

Problems encountered:

When playing Tux Racer or Unreal Tournament, the mouse is sluggish on some systems.  I haven't figured out why.  In this case, the systems that are sluggish use PS/2 mouses, but I don't know if that makes any difference.  The sound is almost always latent when the aRts daemon is running.

A bug in Samba carried over from Red Hat 9 to J.A.M.D.  When mounting shares using smbmount, if you try to mount them one at a time, the system usually gets to the second one and just sits there until you press <CTRL>+'c'.  While you may be willing to accept this in a terminal, it's not acceptable in a startup script as it will simply hang your system.  A way to circumvent this is to run all the mounts at once in the same command.  On my systems, for example, I would run "smbmount //benjamin/c /mnt/benc -o password=***** && smbmount //benjamin/networkdata /mnt/networkdata -o password=*****".

Update

It turns out that this does not fix the problem (or at least it does not always fix the problem) as it can hang on its very first smbmount attempt.  As far as I can tell, there's no actual fix for this short of using Red Hat 8.0 or J.A.M.D. 0.0.5.


Differences from Red Hat 9:

J.A.M.D. is precompiled for i686 processors.  While many argue that this kind of optimization doesn't truly make much difference, it does save a couple seconds here, a few megs there, and complex i386 code everywhere that simple i686 code would be smarted.  Optimizing for your architecture is always beneficial.  If one team can spend some time recompiling all the sources for i686, and a million people end up using the compiled binaries, and each person saves a miserable 1 minute each day, a total of 694 man-years will have been saved in total over the period of one year!  Even if it saves just a second from each day, that's still 11.6 man-years saved...that time is worth it!

Out of curiosity, I ran hdparm -tT /dev/hda.  I expected to see the same performance as before, but I feared that it may have slowed way down.  I had such luck with Lycoris Beta 75, where disk reads were slowed to an anemic 4 to 6 MB/sec.  To my surprise, my hard drive transfer speeds went up by about 10%!

Install third-party software:

Normally, to test a new distribution's standards adherance, whether established or colloquial standards, I install Kopete.  Red Hat 9 chokes and sometimes dies on Kopete.  I find that installing Kopete 0.6.1 causes serious system instability in Red Hat 9, and Kopete 0.6.2 doesn't compile.  I suspected that J.A.M.D. would be able to run Kopete just fine, since J.A.M.D. has a proper KDE where Red Hat has a very fooled-around-with KDE.  To my surprise, Kopete version 0.6.2 was already installed.  (Then I remembered that KDE adopted the program into it's standard distribution.)  To be as fair as possible, I tried rebuilding Kopete from downloaded source just to see if it would get past Red Hat's old speedbump.  To my dismay, it encountered the same problem:"configure: error: no acceptable C compiler found in $PATH"  In the past, I've tried looking at the errors and attempting to fix them.  I've learned better.  Linux has turned me from a brain surgeon into a shotgun soldier.  Can't install this program?  Can't fit the square into the triangle hole?  Use the hammer.  Just install another Linux and try again.  In this case, it is looking for GCC (or theoretically any other C compiler).  While that's most likely to fix the problem and allow me to finish compiling, all too often programs are like lemon cars.  You fix one thing after another after another only to find that the software just keeps crashing on your system.  (Thus, aimed at developers, I'd like to plug my SourceForge project in the making, DLIP: Desktop List of Installed/Installable Programs.  It will make installed programs easier to identify and make menu listings for in any window manager while automating the complicated installation process for any program.  Visit http://dlip.sourceforge.net or http://sourceforge.net/projects/dlip/ for more info.)

It should also be noted that after starting Kopete for the first time and "closing" it, it automatically starts itself in the panel.  Also, if you have a large server-side contact list, your system (or at least Kopete) will sit motionless (consuming 100% CPU) until the contact list is loaded.

I even tried Unreal Tournament 2003.  Now, according to Epic Megagames (or "Epic" I guess they're called now), Unreal Tournament 2003 will not work playably on PCI video cards.  It runs on my PCI Geforce2 MX200 PCI, but too slowly to be any fun.  Frame rates run around 5 to 10 fps.  I must concede that in Windows it runs faster on my PCI than it does on my brother's otherwise nearly identical AGP GeForce2 MX200 in Linux, but on the other hand, it doesn't run at all in Windows on my brother's system.  UT2003 runs faster in Red Hat 8.0 than in Red Hat 9, but it runs faster in J.A.M.D. than in Red Hat 8.0!  I think that the problem stems from those nVidia drivers.  Had nVidia released their drivers under GPL, or had they released information regarding making drivers for it, drivers could have been written into the kernel by people who know the kernel intimately, and graphics would surely be faster.  Linux users wouldn't shy from nVidia cards because of the serious driver troubles they cause.  The driver installed in J.A.M.D. is version 4191, where the driver installed in Red Hat 9 is 4363.  Perhaps the 4191 driver is faster than the 4363 driver.  I tried installing the 4191 driver into my Red Hat 8.0 2.4.18-27.8.0 kernel, but apparently having updated other parts of that installation seem to have broken it somehow so that the nvidia kernel module can't load.  I also tried installing the 2.4.20-9 kernel into Red Hat 8.0, but after booting that kernel RPM hangs as I try to install the 4191 kernel module.

I've always been bothered by the sluggishness of certain things in Linux when compared to older non-NT Windows systems.  I understand that for serious threading and security, you really need an interpreting kernel, like NT and Linux have, but I would have hoped that power would not be sapped *that* much.  Despite Linux taking the clear lead over Windows in desktop usability and beginning to catch up to Windows in game availability, Windows 98 is still by far your best bet for gaming.

Quake3 is clearly faster.  It's astoundingly fast.  That matters, too!  I played far better.  Normally, when the game is even the slightest bit choppy, I shoot blindly in all directions when fighting someone right in front of me, because things are moving around faster than the screen can refresh, so my brain doesn't get time to figure out what's going on.  (Imagine hand-to-hand sparring where your opponent has infra-red vision and you have a strobe light.)

Compatibility:

All my hardware eventually worked on the J.A.M.D. systems, even several things that did NOT work in Red Hat 9.  The only thing that gave more trouble than usual was the nVidia driver, but it would have gone smoothly if I had followed the directions.  (The PCI nVidia card did not even work with the nv driver, in J.A.M.D., so if you're the lucky owner of a PCI nVidia card, you may want to select Text login instead of Graphical login while you're running installation.)

Summary:

J.A.M.D. is only up to version 0.0.6, but it is mature enough to use as a standalone operating system, partly thanks to it's rich Red Hat base.  I recommend keeping the Red Hat CDs handy, since they're the easiest way to add a few programs or daemons quickly.  J.A.M.D. is not a stripped, crippled version of Red Hat Linux 9.  It is truly a modified distribution aimed towards desktop use, and it does its job perfectly.

J.A.M.D. takes the best of Red Hat Linux 9 and makes it better for desktop use.  While it lacks a couple of what I believe are essential programs, it's still a rich, Windows-busting, standards-compliant, high-performing, easy-to-use, compatible, reliable, excellent, nearly complete Linux distribution.  If I gave scores to Linux, I would give J.A.M.D. four-and-a-half or five out of five stars, and I'm usually very hard on Linux distributions.

Moving from Windows into Linux?  Wondering what you'll still be able to do?  You can do everything!  Here's a modest screenshot showing an internet browser, office suite, and movie player (DVDs are no problem) on a lightweight Linux distribution, and don't forget The GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), better games, multi-protocol instant messenger client, CD recording software, probably unbreakable file server, and more for the low low price of $0.

(109K JPEG Screenshot)