After long hours of experimenting with various GNU/Linux distributions, I decided to return to the place I truly belong – FreeBSD. Whenever I feel tired of all of the inconsistencies in other operating systems, I go back to FreeBSD, as I know it will not let me down. It’s stable, reliable and secure thanks to its Unix heritage. I especially like the fact that whatever I throw at FreeBSD, it never ceases to amaze me. Recently, I managed to compile pyMOL via Clang and get it to run on a non-Linux platform. Apparently, the fixes suggested by me were introduced and pyMOL compiled cleanly. I was simply overjoyed!
Of course, what for me sounds great, might not be so for the average Joe who just wants a stable platform, a tool to do his/her work. To be frank, for that there is PC-BSD (now TrueOS). However, if you’re not daunted by the likes of Arch Linux or Debian and you don’t mind spending some extra time on the initial setup, hear my story! FreeBSD might just be the right OS for you.
First, we have to install the operating system. The ncurses menu of “bsdinstall” might look ugly and off-putting, though it serves its purpose well. One doesn’t even have to manually partition the drives, though I would honestly recommend doing so. Especially, that the two filesystems offered by FreeBSD, UFS or ZFS, harbor features fitting slightly different scenarios. UFS is light and quite reliable, though it doesn’t offer the safe-guarding capabilities of ZFS. I recently started using ZFS as the go-to filesystem for data storage even on GNU/Linux. Although it was originally developed by Sun Microsystems for their SUN platform, FreeBSD can be fully proud of it. It has no equals on servers (except for DragonflyBSD’s HAMMER perhaps).
Next comes package management, which is similarly trivial. “pkg” is the FreeBSD equivalent of Fedora’s “dnf” and Debian/Ubuntu’s “apt”. However, “pkg” is a new kid on the block. In former times one would rely entirely on the Ports Tree to “make” all of the programs from source code. Later, an ncurses menu was added so that each port could be configured for selected features. Although building programs from scratch can be considered fun for only some users, it is important to highlight that the Ports Tree was one of the first distribution paradigms for Unix-like operating systems.
FreeBSD offers the same selection of desktop environments as most GNU/Linux distros and some of them don’t even require in-depth configuration. While a big fan of Openbox, I decided to go with something more streamlined for this analysis, for instance XFCE4. The whole environment can be installed or built from the xfce4 meta-port. In addition, polkit is already configured so that the whiskermenu can be used without setbacks. That being said, FreeBSD does not rely on either dbus or HAL by default so these options have to be enabled in /etc/rc.conf. Once that’s taken care of, the logout, suspend and hibernate options work.
Other than that, it’s rather smooth sailing. On a fairly standard, off-the-shelf ASUS ultrabook almost everything works. Realtek, Atheros, Ralink and Intel wireless chips are rather well supported, thanks to the joint efforts of the BSD community (especially OpenBSD and DragonflyBSD programmers). Thereby, PCI wifi cards or USB dongles are fine. Surprisingly, some work more efficiently than on GNU/Linux. The current limitations I found are the lack of Steam support (though that’s in progress so there IS hope), no fully functional native video chat application and minor issues with non-native filesystems. Currently, ext4, ntfs, exfat and a couple of other filesystems are supported, though only as FUSE modules.
As I mentioned in one of my former entries, FreeBSD has come a long way within the last years and many desktop features are now available. The definite advantage over other operating systems in my opinion is that the desktop features do not taint the original server designation of FreeBSD. They’re more like helpful add-ons to an already great platform. Once the remaining limitations (Steam, video chatting, etc.) are ironed out, FreeBSD will shine as a real alternative to Windows, MacOS X or GNU/Linux.