FreeBSD Desktop

by Dru Lavigne

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I saw a post regarding a new BSD "distro" based on FreeBSD with a GUI installer over on the other day, so of course I burned a copy of the ISO and gave it a try.

Now, I've been using FreeBSD as my main desktop since 1999 and have probably installed over a thousand FreeBSD desktops for the students in my labs. In short, I have no complaints regarding the install or maintenance of FreeBSD desktops. However, I'm always on the lookout for advocacy tools and media to give out at conference booths. And yes, I've been known to pass out CDs of open source operating systems and tools to complete strangers at the local computer store.

This is one CD I'll definitely be passing out and I look forward to watching this project mature and achieve its goals. Having installed pretty well every i386 operating system out there, this install asks the least amount of questions of any installer I've seen. What you see at the screenshots section of the website is what you get.

Installation walk-through

The installation is very easy: simply insert the CD and boot the system. Anyone used to an open source Unix will see the familiar startup messages as the kernel is loaded and hardware is probed. As is to be expected with FreeBSD, all of my hardware was found, my NIC got an address from the DHCP server, and best of all, the installer configured X at a very nice resolution.

Once X was configured, I was presented with the screens seen on the screenshots page. Anyone who has installed RedHat before will recognize the anaconda-like interface.

First, I was asked on which harddrive to install. I like that the installer gives both the FreeBSD and a human friendly name so you can easily select the correct drive on a multi-drive system. For example, my drive looked like this:

/dev/ad0:9787MB<QUANTUM FIREBALLlct20> 10/AP

I was then asked to select on which partition to install or if I wished to use the entire disk. I tried the CD on a few systems I had laying around and it correctly found existing Microsoft, Linux and FreeBSD partitions.

When I chose to use the entire disk, I received this message:

The disk (/dev/ad0) will be formatted. All data will be lost. Do you wish to continue? I pressed OK.

Finally, I was asked which boot loader to use. And then the install began and a familiar blue bar proceeded towards the right. The Install Tips included these:

"The installer is now extracting your PC-BSD system. This process will take several minutes, so please sit back and relax. The program will let you know when it is ready to continue.

PC-BSD has as its goal to be one of the easiest to install and use BSD OS's available. For this reason, your install comes pre-loaded with KDE 3.4.0, which lets you work in a purely graphical environment. Check out
for further information and to grab pre-packaged software for your system.

Still want to use the traditional port system? If so, you can easily download the ports system by logging in as root, and running this command:

cvsup /root/ports-supfile

Your ports directory will then be populated automatically!"

My only nit with the installer is that it doesn't proceed to the next screen when the install is finished; I had to press Next when the blue bar indicated 100%.

I was then prompted to set the root password and create a user account. The side tip had a nice reminder that you don't login as root and you only become root when necessary.

I was then prompted to reboot into the new system. The system booted up to KDM. While the screenshot doesn't show it, the Menu button gives these options:

Session Type Alt+T : Default, Custom, KDE, MWM, TWM, and Failsafe
Remote Login Alt+R
Console Login Alt+N
Shutdown ALT+S

Post installation Poke about

Rather than logging into KDE, I dropped down to a terminal (CTRL ALT F1) to do some investigation.

As expected, the GUI was on CTRL ALT F9 and there were 8 terminals from CTRL ALT F1 to CTRL ALT F8.

I started with df:

Filesystem 1K-blocks Used Avail Capacity Mounted on
/dev/ad0s1a 8714188 1498986 6518068 19% /
devfs 1 1 0 100% /dev

A little disappointed to see one large partition, but I suppose it's a necessary evil to keep the install idiot proof. And I'm certainly used to seeing one large partition in Windows and Linux desktop-land.

I was pleased to see that sockstat -4 only showed sendmail, sshd, syslogd and dhclient open as is to be expected on a default FreeBSD install. (I dare you to compare that to a netstat -an on any non-BSD system.)

pkg_info showed 153 installed packages which was quite impressive considering KDE and xorg are installed. My main FreeBSD desktop has 253 packages installed and my FreeBSD laptop has over 280. Compare this to my last Fedora install which had over 1100 packages.

portupgrade wasn't installed, but pkg_add -r portupgrade took care of that and also indicated that this was a 5.3-RELEASE kernel.

KDE 3.4.0 was built without kdetoys, so I had to pkgdb -F before portversion -l "<" worked. Was pleasantly surprised to see that most of the software was up-to-date.

I ran that cvsup /root/ports-supfile command which retrieved ports-all from That took a while, so next time I'll just download the ports tarball and untar it.

In short, this was a FreeBSD system. As an administrator, I could continue doing all of the stuff I normally do on a desktop. I certainly wouldn't turn this install into a server system due to X and the one big partition, but I have no problem with this as a desktop.


This project shows great promise. Especially if it can deliver a GUI package management system targetted at the novice user.

This CD is ideal for those who want to give FreeBSD a try. Especially if they've tried an install before and perhaps gave up at configuring X (which can be a daunting task for any Unix novice). I'd also rather give a manager a CD to check out then tell him "well, you have to go to this website and make 3 floppies, then answer these questions during the install..." I haven't met that many managers that have the time to learn technical details in order to check something out. While it's sometimes hard for us techies to admit, a CD with a graphical interface is a much more effective advocacy tool.

I was sorry that I did my test install on an ancient AMD 700 with 128 MB of RAM and an even older CDROM drive. My install took just over an hour; I'm sure that time would be greatly reduced on a newer system. I was also reminded that KDE is a hog. If you plan on giving the CD a go, pick a system with a good processor and lots of memory.


2005-04-28 18:42:59
I think there is a big typo in the license:

Seems that the license of the graphic installer is described as "GPL" but it's actually supposed to be BSD. GPL style licenses are incompatible with the BSD ideology. FSF philosophy targets follows completely different objectives from the principles of the Berkeley UNIX,, Apache, MIT and other similar licenses.

If the license of this software is really GPL (and not BSD, I assume there is a typo) then such software is not really helping the BSD community to move forward but instead it helps the assimilation of the BSD into GPL.

I hope it's error and will be corrected, otherwise BSD community should be looking forward for BSD style graphic installer.

2005-04-29 06:56:29
You probably missed the FAQ :

Why the GPL License for PC-BSD Installer?

All custom software developed for PC-BSD, The GUI Installer, Package Manager, Package Creator, were developed using the QT libraries. ( QT is one of the most powerful, solid C++ library sets available today, but it does not allow releasing under the BSD license, only under the GPL, or their own custom license QPL. For this reason, we have chosen to go the GPL approach. This was not intended to *pollute* the BSD license, just as a user running KDE on BSD doesn't intend to pollute the license either.

2005-05-02 16:22:42
Or maybe the BSD folk will decide to do the same thing the GNU guys did when they got miffed over the Qt license: write their own desktop. Because, you know, that's what the world needs.


2006-04-18 23:25:48
Do you think this will be as popular as the desktop distros of linux ? and possibly make more desktop acceptance of the os ?
2006-04-19 05:26:36
Kedar, while I don't know about future popularity, both the PC-BSD and DesktopBSD projects will do much to increase desktop usage of the BSDs. Watch for a full-fledged article on each coming soon to the FreeBSD Basics column.
2006-04-25 22:42:54
By no fault of PC-BSD, or FreeBSD for that matter, my only issue is the fact that Java and flash don't run without emulation. These are, IMHO, essential elements to a smooth running, internet savvy desktop environment. I use FreeBSD to provide core network components on my home network and am thrilled by the concept of having the same OS in a desktop environment. Is there any indication that we FreeBSD fans could ever run these natively?
2006-04-26 17:33:50
spcmnspff,the FreeBSD Foundation recently announced the release of Java binaries for FreeBSD 5.4 and 6.0. There's also a lively thread on a native flash player at freebsd-advocacy.