G.A.P. Part II – A Brief Review of Yellow Dog Linux 5.0.2 (macppc)

What follows is a rant/review of Yellow Dog Linux 5.0.2. It’s the second part of the “Golden Apple Project” article series, which tells the tale of my quest to transform a formerly unused Apple PowerMac G4 (450Mhz, AGP Video) into something more useful than an unused OS 9 machine.

After a somewhat discouraging attempt at installing NetBSD (see the first article in the series), I decided to try the OS that first showed me how nice the PPC architecture is for Linux – Yellow Dog. I figured that since Yellow Dog was great when I tried it about 2 or 3 years ago it would be even better now, especially with all the support Terra Soft has been getting from Sony. What I found, however, was that YDL was not quite what I had hoped. In fact I was very disappointed.

When I install an operating system I look for a few basic things, the first of which being a quick and reliable way to install. I’ve installed several operating systems and several distributions of Linux and so far Yellow Dog is the only one that requires either a 3+GB DVD or 6 CD’s to install. 6 CD’s and every one is required? That is simply insane. What if I just want to try the OS for a while? What if I only need a minimal system? What if I don’t have enough hard disk space to install every application under the sun? Yellow Dog Linux was not designed with these “what if’s” in mind.

After a few unsuccessful attempts at downloading the DVD ISO image (each attempt stalled at or near 2/3 completion, which is not YDL’s fault but still not fun) I decided to get all 6 CD images burned instead. At least this way I would be able to download the distribution in smaller chunks. I thought that since I already downloaded everything that the install would go fairly quickly. I was wrong. It took about 2 and a half hours to install from the CDs. Granted, it’s an old 450Mhz machine with a slow FSB and 256K ram, etc. but still – 2 and a half hours is a long time. I moved forward though… swapping discs when asked and watching anxiously as the installer showed me that it was copying package after package of open source software (none of which I was allowed to choose or not choose).

When I tell you I watched anxiously, I am being very literal. The install process consisted primarily of watching the installer. It didn’t ask me any questions. It didn’t let me make any choices. It only prompted me to insert CD after CD. After disc 6 I was finally asked for the root password and was invited to create a user account for myself. I expected to be asked for some networking information at least, but was not. Root password and user account name and password. That’s it. I tried to tell myself that it was a hassle-free install (again since I don’t count the download as YD’s fault, really), but I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no way to configure the network during the install. Normally I would configure the network first, and use it to install the operating system over the network via FTP or HTTP. With YDL network installs are not an option but I would have liked to have my network configuration done before first boot.

So far YDL had already been an unusual experience, and I hadn’t even gotten to first boot. As the machine restarted I told myself that the worst was over and that after I logged in and configured the network everything would be fine. Wrong again. I logged in with the user account I created during the install and saw a very nice looking E17 desktop. I must admit – E17 is coming along nicely. The only word I could use to describe it right now is… pimp! hahaha 🙂 I mean wow. It’s one gorgeous desktop. Kudos to the E17 team. Unfortunately however, this desktop was basically for my viewing pleasure only. No program would start that was not already running for me, neither from a launcher, nor a menu. Not even the “run command” box worked for me. Seems the user account was running as a different user than X and had no permission to the display. Nothing would work as the regular user except logging in and logging out. The word that best describes this is LAME. If you are keeping track of the adjectives so far you’ll see that the negatives outweigh the positives already.

At this point I had basically lost faith in the YDL distribution. I have seen desktop Linux come a long way over the past few years and YDL took me back to a time when I could undoubtedly expect more problems than ease with Linux. Yet, I logged in as root just so I could at least take a tour and see what all of that downloading and waiting and watching would get me.

As root, launchers worked and the menu too. Firefox started and was very responsive, even with the limited resources. Even OpenOffice’s writer and spreadsheet programs worked fairly quickly. I was reminded that the PPC architecture is great, even without OS X. This moment of happiness was short lived – I found out soon after opening Firefox that there was no flash support for Apple PPC Linux. There will most likely never be official Adobe Flash support for Apple PPC Linux. That saddens me but not to the point where I’m going to give up on the whole project.

I looked around some more and found some more things I didn’t like (while trying to find things to like). Apache came pre-installed and so did Java and Python. PHP and Ruby were left out though, and those are my two favorite languages to code with. Some Gnome games were installed, but not Gnome sudoku (which is awesome, btw).

In summation, if you add up all the adjectives you get this – Yellow Dog Linux on Apple PPC is a disappointing, lame, pimp (remember that E17 is PIMP). A disappointing lame pimp that saddens and frustrates the user, but looks so nice. What else can I say? At least it’s better than OS 9? I’m not sure I can even say that. I guess any Linux is more fun to use than OS 9… but a crippled desktop is a crippled desktop, pimped out or not.

So where does this leave the Golden Apple Project? To paraphrase the beautiful Joss Stone… My hopes for this old PowerMac G4 are “Bruised but not broken”. I’m going to try OpenBSD… and I have plans to revisit NetBSD as well. There is no giving up on this quest! Stay tuned…

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