Migrating to FreeBSD: a distinct possibility

I am currently using Debian Squeeze (stable) in all my machines and I am very satisfied with it. Excellent performance and stability, awesome package managing system, responsiveness, versatility, security… After a bit of tweaking, it is all I ask from an operating system. However, I like to test a new distribution from time to time to see what it is new and what the future will bring. First, I use to do some preliminary testing on a virtual machine and then, if I see something I really like, I give the distro a try on real hardware.

This is how I came to the realisation that some of the hardware in my laptop seems to be deprecated in the most current GNU/Linux distributions. For instance, my sound card (ALC883) does not work well with any kernel above 2.6.32. In addition, the NVIDIA proprietary drivers above 275.x, which I need for proper 3D acceleration and CUDA computing, fail to work with recent kernels and/or versions of XOrg (I have a 8800 GTX card).

I think I will stick to Squeeze for a while, but, in order to prepare for the probably distant time when it will be unsupported or just to old, I have been doing a few incursions in the BSD word. After having tried a few BSD-based distros within virtual machines, I decided to give PCBSD an opportunity in real hardware. I used PCBSD version 9.0 Release Candidate 3 in its 64-bit version. I had already reviewed a beta version of this very same distro within a virtual machine, and therefore I will try not repeat here the points that have been already addressed before.

1.- INSTALLATION. Easy and smooth even using the ZFS file system. The only issue I found this time was that the user defined during installation was not correctly registered. I therefore needed to login as root and create the user again. Score : 8/10 (assuming that the bugs will be corrected in the definitive release version) .

2.- DESKTOP ENVIRONMENTS. I found the KDE and XFCE versions to be pretty stable, whereas the LXDE flavour seems quite buggy. I have not tried GNOME as yet. XFCE and LXDE are just default installs which does not appear to be customised at all. About KDE4, I am not so sure, but it looks good anyway. KDE feels responsive enough. Score : 7/10.

3.- HARDWARE SUPPORT. 100% of the hardware in my laptop was correctly detected and auto-configured, including the wireless card (Intel PRO/Wireless 4965 AG or AGN) and the graphics card (NVIDIA 8800 GTX), which works like a charm with the latest proprietary drivers 290.x. The sound card also works perfectly and switching between sound cards is quite easy in FreeBSD. Score : 10/10.

4.- SOFTWARE. PCBSD offers several possibilities for installing software: i) Compiling manually from source, as any other UNIX system; ii) Using the FreeBSD ports collection (compilation from source with automatic handling of dependencies); iii) Installing FreeBSD pre-compiled packages; and iv) Installing PCBSD-specific PBI packages.

How this hybrid system work in the long term still needs to be assessed. My, limited, experience with Gentoo GNU/Linux indicates that compiling ports can fail every so often and that system updates can break the system. The first issue was confirmed with PCBSD, for I have not been able to compile all the ports I needed.

The easiest way of installing software in PCBSD is using pre-compiled PBI packages. In order to to so one can use the so called AppCafe, accessible from the excellent PCBSD Control Panel. The AppCafe is easy to use and quite fast. However, one of the packages failed to install and for LibreOffice I had to try twice. The collection of software that is available through AppCafe is limited to the few most commonly used applications: LibreOffice/OpenOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird, VLC, MythTV, etc. For most of the users, this may be more than enough. If you need to install more “exotic” software, though,  you most likely will need to get acquainted with FreeBSD ports and  compile everything from source while keeping your fingers crossed.

Score : 6/10.

PERFORMANCE & STABILITY. In order to address this questions I would need to run some benchmarks and to use the system for a longer period of time. This far, the system seems responsive and stable enough (as it should, for it is FreeBSD). As I mentioned before, I experienced systems breakages with Gentoo when installing and updating system ports and also when performing systems upgrades. Maybe this was due to my ignorance and maybe FreeBSD is a more more robust systems. If I ever migrate to PCBSD, I will let you know. Score : ?

CONCLUSIONS. In summary, PCBSD is an easy-to-use desktop-oriented FreeBSD derivative which, allegedly, is fully compatible with its parent. I guess that for most users it constitutes a reasonably good replacement for most popular GNU/Linux distributions and even for proprietary systems such as Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS X. In fact, PCBSD offers a better out-of-the-box experience than most other systems I had tried this far.

The main limitation I see right now, apart from potential issues with hardware drivers that may not be FreeBSD compatible (this was not my case, though), concerns software management. AppCafe is great but the spectrum of available applications is still limited, whereas the FreBSD ports, being almost as comprehensive as Debian or Ubuntu (over 20.000 packages for FreeBSD and over 30.000 for Debian and derivatives), proves to be still tricky to use for the novice.

That said, if my laptop gets deprecated by Linux, I will definitively put PCBSD in this machine as and excellent plan B.