Test one: PHLAK version 0.21
PHLAK 0.21 default wallpaper
The blurb you get from the version 0.3 install disk tells the tale pretty well: "PHLAK was created for security professionals and advanced users who are interested in learning about security. It is not meant to be a standard desktop environment, nor is it meant to be used by beginners. If you're unfamiliar with Linux, we recommend starting with a more user friendly distro." Heed this warning well. They aren't kidding!!!
PHLAK 0.21 is not available at their main site. However, since I do have a copy of that particular distribution, and since it was technically the first Linux distribution I set up on the test machine, I decided it was worth it to rate this one. I downloaded it months ago when I saw one of my friends running it on a laptop he had. I decided I'd download it in case the desire to jump back on the Linux bandwagon hit me again. Obviously, that desire did come around. If not, I wouldn't be writing this series of articles. Anyone who would like a copy of PHLAK 0.21 can ask for it.. I'll send it to you somehow.
As far as the first criterion, ease of installation, PHLAK 0.21 is very easy to install. Set your computer to boot from the CD-ROM drive, and have at it. The CD boots flawlessly to the GUI. From there, installation is more or less a click away. There is no need to enter any boot time arguments, or anything of the like.
As with all Linux distributions, it is assumed you know a little something about computers. As long as you know how to partition a drive, you're in like flint! Once the drive is partitioned, the rest of the software installs without a hitch. Therefore, PHLAK 0.21 receives five stars for ease of installation.
For the second criterion, basic system operation, alas PHLAK 0.21 comes up very short. For the most part, the applications supplied with PHLAK 0.21 operate adequately. The Word processor, Abi Word, works with ease comparable to Microsoft Word. It has spell check on the fly. However, it doesn't auto-correct common spelling errors. No big deal. I honestly didn't expect it to work exactly like Word. The rest of the supplied suite of applications has varying degrees of operability. Some work, some don't. Some leave you wondering why they were even put in the system.
The real short fall of PHLAK 0.21operability is Internet connectivity. Once installed, it stubbornly refuses to connect to the Internet on its own. In order to get the Internet functional, you have to start a super user terminal session and invoke the "dhclient" daemon.
This requires you know a bit about Linux, and starting a protected terminal session. Frankly, even I didn't know how to do it until I looked at some other applications that did it automatically when you clicked on their icons. If they hadn't had some applications set up to operate that way, I doubt I would have been able to get PHLAK 0.21 on the Internet at all.
The problem with invoking "dhclient" is once you invoke the daemon, the supplied web browser, Mozilla Firebird, becomes unstable. It will respond to the mouse, but any attempt to use the keyboard results in a serious lock. As with most locked Linux applications, it will unlock, but it takes at least three minutes. In order to browse the Internet, you have to go to http://mozilla.com and pick up Mozilla Firefox.
Fortunately, there is a direct link to this web site considering that Mozilla makes the supplied browser. Still, it's a real pain in the ass having to take all those steps to get on the Internet. This is especially true when one considers that PHLAK 0.21 is supposed to be built specifically for Internet mischief. While browsing generally doesn't make for Internet mischief, connecting to the Internet is a necessity to accomplish anything on the Internet, mischievous or otherwise.
If Firebird's instability was the only problem brought on by invoking dhclient, it could almost be tolerated. Unfortunately, once the daemon is invoked, it causes other instability problems. These problems arise when you shutdown the GUI and either reboot or fully shutdown. Firstly, PHLAK 0.21 doesn't shutdown fully. The GUI exits to a prompt. With the dhclient daemon invoked, you have to hit enter twice to clear some garbage and get to a usable log in prompt. Secondly, when you enter a "halt" or "reboot" command, the computer hangs once again. This time, it hangs when trying to shut down the daemon "named". As with the Firebird lock-up, it will eventually time out, and you can shut down normally.
By virtue of these two glaring deficiencies, PHLAK 0.21 rates (barely) one star for basic system operation. I can't believe that a system set up specifically for Internet operation would be so resistant to Internet operation. Hopefully, PHLAK 0.3 will address these issues.
On the third criterion, device support, PHLAK 0.21 gets good marks. It found the net card, the sound card, and the video card with barely even a whimper. The only thing not found was the second CD ROM drive. However, none of the other systems I tried before I began this project could accomplish this deed either. I can hardly fault PHLAK 0.21 for a problem that seems pandemic in the world of Linux. Therefore, I have to give PHLAK 0.21 four and a half stars on device support. It found everything and all installed devices worked as expected from the first boot of the system. Moreover, it did this task without any prompting from me. If only the other Linux flavors work this well.
On the fourth criterion, look and feel, PHLAK 0.21 gets an average mark. The installation and first reboot meet the user with a glowing mushroom cloud as the default wallpaper for the GUI. There's something both cool and disconcerting about that wallpaper. It's visually striking to say the least. You can see it for yourself at the top of the article.
The screen also has two task bars at the top and bottom of the screen. The top bar shows programs in operation as well as the other seven work spaces available. The bottom bar contains the quick launcher for installed applications. The provided icons carry on the war theme of the mushroom cloud wallpaper. There are other icon choices and themes available as well.
The downside of PHLAK 0.21 look is no screen savers. While this might be seen as nit picky, when you consider that PHLAK 0.21 will not compile any of the numerous screen saver options available from the net, it's a downright shame. The simple addition of even one screen saver would have added to the cool of PHLAK 0.21, especially if it was war themed. For whatever reason, be it economy of setup, or just lack of concern about something as mundane and "uncool" as a screen saver, the makers of PHLAK just couldn't bring themselves to put something in there for the not-so-geeky among us. Hell, don't they know even geeks like pretty designs on their screens?
So, for the fourth criterion, look and feel, I have to give PHLAK 0.21 two and a half stars. I'd have given it three and a half if installing a screen saver had even been possible. While such trivialities may be meaningless when one considers the purpose for PHLAK's existence, the fact that PHLAK 0.21 can't even live up to its supposed purpose of Internet mischief lets me know that PHLAK 0.21 was a good idea that fell way short of its goal. My hope is that if they do a new release, they will take the time to clean the bugs and include the libraries to make installing a screen saver a reality.
On the fifth criterion, overall impression of the distribution, I have to give PHLAK two stars. The fact that its installation is straight forward and easy as well as the fact that PHLAK 0.21finds all the devices installed is far overshadowed by many of its patent annoyances. Although it gets good marks in both installation and device support, the fact that the other areas are so grossly deficient just renders the good marks pretty much non-existent. The bad points were simply too bad to be outweighed by the good points, even though those good points were the highest on my scale.
For many years, UNIX was the backbone of the Internet. Many sites refuse to use anything else. The fact that a UNIX based operating system can't even get on the Internet without training wheels is not a good thing. If just invoking the "dhclient" daemon were enough to get you there, I'd have been a bit more forgiving. However, the fact that the supplied web browser ties up when that daemon is in operation shows a lack of consideration for the operation of the system. The addition of the fact that the "dhclinet" daemon also renders other parts of the O/S unstable makes me wonder who did testing for PHLAK 0.21, and what kind of drugs they were on at the time.
Since the purpose of these reviews is to give the newbie a heads up, I can say that if you are a neophyte, take the advice PHLAK offers on its version 0.3release and, "[start] with a more user friendly [distribution]."
While it installs with real ease, I can't see a first timer getting anywhere with PHLAK. 0.21. It's a real bug-fest! I can't believe they even allowed it to get out to real people. If they are putting it out specifically for hackers, maybe hackers can put up with the problems inherent in PHLAK 0.21. However, even hackers might like a nifty screen saver to come up while they are away doing something else. In my opinion, an operating system should make a computer operate. PHLAK 0.21 barely achieves that goal. In the process, it irritates folks like me who expect their computer to work in a marginally acceptable fashion upon operating system installation. If only by virtue of the irritation factor, PHLAK 0.21 should keep users away in droves.
Perhaps that's exactly what the guys who created it had in mind.