Originally Published: Wednesday, 8 March 2000 Author: Matt Michie
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Helix GNOME Review

Helix Code, "an open source software company devoted to improving GNOME," released their flagship product Monday. Does their desktop improvement live up to the hype? Is Linux finally easy enough for your mother to use?

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Helix Code, "an open source software company devoted to improving GNOME," released their flagship product Monday. Does their desktop improvement live up to the hype? Is Linux finally easy enough for your mother to use?

After their web site went live, it was immediately buried with requests from curious visitors. Fortunately, they had already mirrored their installation programs and packages. I loaded the installation instructions and was dismayed to see they expected me to execute as root, a script piped directly from their web site. Although this makes installation of the Helix Desktop easy for a newbie, it is a major security risk. If you are security-paranoid, Helix Code gives you the option to download the source code, review it, and then compile it yourself. I chose instead to download the compressed 1.5M installer binary and go from there.

Users familiar with the technique used to download Microsoft Internet Explorer will feel right at home installing Helix GNOME. The installer fetches a mirror listing, allowing you to choose the geographically closest download site. Next, you can select which packages you want installed. Once again, the look and feel is reminiscent of setting up Microsoft Windows. Finally, the program begins the arduous process of downloading the binaries for your system. So far, Red Hat 6.X, Caldera 2.3, Mandrake 6.1 & 7.X, Suse 6.3, and LinuxPPC 2000 are supported. I've been assured that Debian packaging is in the works. I'm sure Helix Code would also accept contributions for your favorite unsupported distribution as well.

The graphical interface is professional and polished. In my excitement, I seem to have overlooked the text on the web site that says, "this is a preview release"! The first problem I ran over, was the program seemingly locked up. I sat there staring slack-jawed at the screen for several moments surprised that I had locked up a Linux program. A few seconds later, the program recovered and began to download again. The installer continued to do this throughout the download. Next, due to the network congestion, the download halted and the installer rudely exited. I re-loaded it expecting to resume my download. Sorry, it seems that functionality hasn't been implemented yet. Then, the application actually did bite the dust with a nice segfault.

Disgusted, I manually downloaded the RPMs for my distribution using FTP. Now, for some reason I couldn't select local media as an install. After a bit of tweaking, I realized the RPMs needed to be created in ~/distributions/Red_Hat_6 along with the required .XML configuration files. After this, the little cartoon monkey guide seemed to have no more trouble getting through the install. I was beginning to gain a measure of respect for the little guy.

I restarted X and was greeted with a pleasant splash screen. As my updated GNOME desktop came alive, I realized that most of the nagging complaints I had about GNOME were fixed. Sawmill was made the default window manager, the little GNOME foot icon is anti-aliased, the GNOME menu is much faster, and the icons are improved and larger. The size of the panel is also now configurable. Impressive. Not only had the exterior been re-painted and polished, some under the hood work had been going on too.

Is the Helix Code desktop that much easier to use? Not yet. It is definitely on the right path though. With its sister company Eazel, working on the next generation file manager Nautilus, and the Outlook killer Evolution on the way, the free software community is going to broaden its appeal to a wider user base. However, I would not recommend that a newbie attempt to install Helix GNOME at least until the next version of the Helix Installer is released. There are some major hang-ups that need to be resolved first. I'm eagerly anticipating the next release of the Helix Code desktop. Now, to submit some bug reports. :)

Matt Michie is a Computer Science student living in New Mexico. He maintains a small web page at http://web.nmsu.edu/~mmichie.





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