Salix Ratpoison – An Esoteric Distro For The Alpha Geeks

If you don’t care much about fancy desktop bling, and think the keyboard is still the best means of interacting with the computer, then you’ll find yourself at home with Salix Ratpoison 14.0.1.

If you haven’t heard of it before, think of Salix OS as Slackware with the convenience of a package manager.

The developers of Salix OS think of the distro a bonsai: small, light and a product of infinite care. They prune the list of apps that make up a release to make sure they aren’t packing in multiple apps for the same job.

No wonder then, the distro is very fast and easy to use. It includes a detailed guide, and there’s lots of additional task-based documentation on the distro’s website. Salix doesn’t include any codecs, but it does have a one-click codec installer. In fact, the distro is chock-full of custom tools developed in-house.

salix-plugins

Salix is available in six different editions, based around the KDE, Xfce, Mate, LXDE, Fluxbox and Ratpoison desktops. After releasing versions for KDE and Xfce, Salix recently put out it’s latest 14.0.1 release with the Ratpoison desktop.

Ratpoison is a tiling window manager that’s designed to be operated solely from the keyboard. According to Salix developers, the aim of the Salix Ratpoison edition is to create a system that is fully usable with the keyboard only.

Which is why they have carefully included only those apps that can be operated without the mouse. So there’s no LibreOffice, AbiWord, Firefox. Instead you get their keyboard-friendly alternatives such as the Wordgrinder word processor, the Vimprobable2 web browser, together with the MCabber Jabber client, IRSSI IRC client, Alpine for email and such.

The developers have also gone the extra mile and ensured that some of their custom tools are completely usable from the keyboard. Two prime examples are the partition mounting tool GMountMan and the Sourcery app to install software from SlackBuilds.

Don’t underestimate the usefulness of the distro just because it ships with weird sounding apps and no fancy graphics or window decorations. The distro bundles a music player as well as a video player. Once you’ve equipped it with proprietary codecs using the custom codec installer, the distro will handle all sorts of multimedia content. For managing packages, the distro uses the Gslapt package manager, which is a front-end to slap-get.

salix-install-mode

But don’t let that fool you into thinking of this release as a regular desktop distro. Ratpoison has a steep learning curve. Also, the Salix distro installer is very barebones. You don’t get a fancy disk partitioning tool and instead have to use the CLI cfdisk tool to create partitions. And Salix still uses the LILO bootloader.

There’s also no login manager. So you have to type “startx” to boot into the ratpoison desktop. On the desktop, you get no icons and no taskbars. Just a blank desktop with a wallpaper.

salix-menu

To bring up the menu you have to press the “Ctrl + T + r” key combination. The “Ctrl + T” key combination puts the desktop in a mode where it is ready to accept further keyboard commands. So for example, the “r” key brings up the RatMenu or you could add the “?” key to bring up a list of all the other available keyboard shortcuts. Here’s a small guide to get started with the desktop.

Your learning experience doesn’t end with the desktop. You’ll also have to spend time memorising the keyboard shortcuts for the individual apps. Also all applications under Ratpoison run in full-screen mode, and they won’t have any window border, meaning you can’t move them with your mouse.

But once you get a hang of the peculiarities of the desktop and the apps, using the distro is a pleasant experience. And since it doesn’t ship with any bells and whistles, the distro performs well on slower hardware with limited resources.

As long as you know what you’re getting into, the Ratpoison edition of Salix is for keeps. The developers have spent time making sure the apps in the distro compliment the keyboard-friendly window manager. Hat-tip to the developers for crafting a coherent desktop distro and for the effort they have put in to maintain a consistent user experience.

Image credit: Stefancu Ovidiu

7 comments

  1. They could have used the SLiM login manager while still remaining true to the “keyboard only” flavor of the distro. SLiM is graphical, but it doesn’t even support a mouse cursor (although X will put one up sometimes if something goes wrong because of a misconfiguration). Of course people who use Ratpoison will hardly be intimidated by starting out at a command prompt, so it doesn’t really matter. It just seems that SLiM is a popular choice among Ratpoison users.

    • Thanks for the pointer Charlie, but like you said it yourself Ratpoison users wouldn’t be intimidated by init 3.

  2. It is so nice to see a subjective review of a non bells and whistles. The best thing since sliced bread Ubuntu or variant?
    A reviewer that is willing to get his hands dirty is very rare nowadays.
    Salix does a great job with Slackware its nice to see a positive review of one of there more non newbie releases, Yes its fast low on resources as are all Salix variants.
    And as steady as a rock

  3. Thanks for this review, it is nice to read the comments of someone who knows their stuff!
    As a Slackware user I will pick one point: you describe Salix as “…Slackware with the convenience of a package manager.” Slackware has always had a package manager, you mean that Salix has a PM that does dependency checking. Slackware users do not want or need dependency checking, and I daresay that someone using Ratpoison would not be to worried doing this manually either!
    Thanks again for the review, I will give this one a try!

    • You’re not the first one to point out the existence of slackpkg. In hindsight, it would have been better to describe Salix as “Slackware with the convenience of a dependency-resolving package manager.”

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