Edit: Unfortunately, the images originally included in this post are gone, because of hosting problems in late 2009. My apologies.
Ordinarily Zenwalk is mentioned in the same breath as distros like Xubuntu or Slax, as a full-featured alternative to something like Ubuntu, that generally has a quicker feel to it. I have suggested it to many people myself and for those same reasons, but this time my own advice turned out to be a disappointment.
Installation was easy as pie, although it’s been a while since I worked with a system that had to reboot to finish configuration. I think the last time I saw that was Breezy. It set itself up perfectly though, with no hassles or difficulties.
The only quirk was the network card again, which this time was recognized, and the xircom_cb module was inserted, but it wasn’t activated when I logged in. And I think I committed the error of leaving myself out of a network group, because I wasn’t allowed to access ifconfig, even with sudo.
Which made for an additional complication: I could only bring up the network by logging in as root in a terminal window, but for some reason, I couldn’t bounce back to the GUI. CTRL+ALT+F7 left me at a blinking cursor.
So I would restart gdm from the root console, which suddenly made the entire machine run dog slow. I don’t know how or why that was happening, but it was taking all the longer for things to get around to a workable state.
Like I said, that whole unfortunate sequence is probably my fault, and could probably be fixed with a simple one-line command. But it would only make things a little easier, since performance was terrible to start with.
Boot times from LILO to the desktop were around two minutes, and that was without a network. Firefox took its grand old time, finally popping up in 19 seconds, but without network access. xfce4-terminal, with nifty transparency effects by default, opened in just under 5 seconds, and Thunar needed about the same. Shutdown was around 39 seconds, from clicking “Quit” to a full poweroff.
So altogether, the entire experience on this machine was about par with Xubuntu — sometimes faster, sometimes slower.
Zenwalk does a few things differently, that I like. First, I think the mountpoints icon on the desktop is a very good idea. Rather than spattering icons all over the place to represent every partition on the drive, you get one persistent icon, and opening it gives you all those drives/partitions in a nice neat bundle. Very clean and very efficient.
Also, I find the Zenwalk XFCE to be closer to the old-style XFCE layout, which I prefer to Xubuntu’s phony Gnomeified one. I know, those things can be changed, but … well, never mind.
In short, Zen didn’t do the trick for me. It might be that this machine is too old for it, or that there’s some sort of hardware muck that keeps it from running at the speed its reputation gives it. It might also be that it has suffered the same fate of Xubuntu — that as it grew and became more popular, it snowballed into something more hefty than originally advertised.
I can’t answer that, mostly because I’m just a passing observer, looking for a distro that works well without pinching in the wrong places. Kind of like shoe shopping, isn’t it?