Hands-on with AVLinux: Crammed with multimedia goodies

This Debian GNU/Linux derivative is absolutely jam-packed with elements for multimedia creation, editing and playing.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

My past few posts have been about Debian GNU/Linux and its derivatives. However, the derivatives I have looked at so far have been general-purpose distributions and there is another large and very interesting area of special-purpose distributions, which are targeted at some specific functions.

One such distribution is AVLinux, which is specifically intended for creating, editing and playing multimedia content. I wrote about AVLinux nearly two years ago (Specialized Linux Distributions — AVLinux 5.0), so when I saw their 6.0.3 release announcement a few weeks ago, I decided to see how it has developed since I last looked. What I found was quite impressive.

The AVLinux home page describes their distribution this way: "AV Linux is a free custom shop modded and rodded 32bit PAE computer Operating System designed to turn a regular old (or fairly new) PC or Intel Mac into an Audio/Graphics/Video workstation appliance."

The links to download their ISO image either via torrent (the preferred method) or direct from their FTP server are on their home page. The ISO image is quite large (about 3GB), and those downloads can be pretty busy especially right after a new release, so be prepared for it to take a rather long time to download.

The ISO image is in "hybrid" format, so you can either burn it to a DVD or copy it directly to a USB stick using the Linux dd utility. It can then be booted to the AVLinux Live desktop.

Note: This release of AVLinux does not include UEFI boot support, so if you want to install it on a system with UEFI firmware, you will have to use "Legacy Boot" or you will have to install some other boot manager, such as rEFInd.

ImportantIt will ask you a couple of questions about WINE configuration when you boot the Live image.  You can safely ignore/cancel them; read the Release Notes for more information on what they are about.

AVLinux Live Desktop

 From here you can start the Live Installer. That is a fairly straight-forward process (thank heavens, I don't think my heart was up for another major installer adventure quite yet). I made a couple of notes about the installation process:

  • Cancel the WINE questions (see Release Notes)
  • If you have a non-US keyboard, set it here. Don't assume that you can wait and do it after installation, it is a pain in the rear at that point. Well, it is a pain in the rear here too, but a bit less than it is later.
  • You are not allowed to use the same password for root and user.
  • The swap partition will be recreated/reformatted (as it is when Debian is installed). This doesn't matter unless you have other Linux installations on the same machine already that are using the same swap partition. Then it might be a pain. Sigh. This installer is a bit more of an adventure than I would really like for it to be.
  • The Live media boots with NumLock ON. If you have a real keyboard with a real number pad, this is good. If you have a netbook with the number pad embedded in the normal keys, this is not good.  Particularly not good because the first thing you have to enter is the root password that will be used for the installed system, and if the numlock is on and you haven't noticed it, that can later result in confusion and bad language. Not that I have experienced such a thing, or used such language...

Once the installation completes, you can reboot to the installed system. The desktop will look almost identical to the Live desktop shown above, without the Live Installer icon. It is pretty obviously an Xfce desktop, but it is certainly not a plain vanilla one such as we have recently seen with the Debian Jessie distribution!

AVLinux 6.0.3 Xfce Desktop

 The Xfce top panel has been preconfigured with a group of utility launcher icons at the left end, and a group of status/control icons on the right end. I'm not going to bore everyone with a list of them - you really need to explore them yourself, and you should then realize that a non-trivial amount of thought went into deciding what to put there.

The Xfce menus have been extensively modified in AVLinux, to make it easier for the user to find what they are looking for most frequently.  Everything is arranged in a two-tiered menu hierarchy, so you don't have to go wandering down through long stretches of cascading menus. Considering the amount of stuff they have in the menus, I think they have done an excellent job of arranging them. They have also included some custom launchers in these menus so that CLI utilities can be started from these menus too.

The AVLinux Audio Menu

I'm sure that everyone has noticed that lovely column of icons down the right side of the screen. That is the wbar quick launch bar, a rather Mac-OSx-like utility (the icons "bulge" as you move the cursor up and down the column). 

When I first saw this, and I noticed that a lot of the things in it just repeated the icons which are in the Xfce top panel, I thought it might be a bit "over the top" in terms of the developers just throwing things in because they can. But the more I looked at it, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it really is a good idea.

First, if you think of this as a multimedia-targeted system, there's a good chance that a lot of people interested in it might also have experience with Mac/OSx systems. Why not include something which might make them feel a bit more comfortable?  Second, it doesn't just replicate the top panel, there are a number of other things there, and having those easily launched from the desktop rather than having to go down through the Xfce menus to get them is handy. Good stuff.

Okay, what about the obligatory run through software versions?  Well, even this was a surprise — and not a small one! When I checked the Debian version, I found that AVLinux is based on Debian 6.0 (Squeeze)!  That was released in February 2011! That is not quite as shocking as it might sound, because at this time that is still the Debian "oldstable" distribution, and it is still being supported and updated by Debian. 

In fact, the 6.0.9 update was just released in February 2014 — which is probably a large part of the reason for this new AVLinux release. Jamie, your grasp of the obvious is outstanding, it just takes you a while to get there sometimes.

This situation relates to what I mentioned in my previous post about AVLinux, two years ago. If your purpose is to provide the latest, greatest, up-to-date system, then you need to be following the major releases of whatever distribution you are basing your system on. But if your purpose is to provide a stable platform for some application, such as in this case Multimedia creation, then you would probably be doing your users a disservice by forcing major updates more frequently than absolutely necessary. 

As long as you are getting the important security updates and such. the motto should be "if it isn't broken, don't try to fix it". The AVLinux developers obviously understand this.

Anyway, this release is running Linux kernel 3.10.27, which is reasonably current, and Xfce 4.10, which is their latest release. It include both Iceweasel 23.0 and Google Chrome 26.0 for web browsing, and Icedove 17.0.5 for mail/news (didn't I just say a few days ago that not many distributions include Icedove any more?).  It also includes Libre Office, VLC Media Player 2.0.1 and GIMP 2.6.10. Those all compare favorably with the versions included in other current Linux distributions.

Video Menu
The AVLinux Video Menu

 The really interesting and important thing about the AVLinux distribution, of course, is the Multimedia capability included in it. The Audio menu is shown to the right, above. Well, at least part of it is; it has so much in this category that it doesn't even fit on one screen!  Audio players, mixers, editors, synthesizers, analyzers, and pretty much anything and everything you can think of in this category are included.

This is where AVLinux really shines, and where Linux in general really shines in my opinion.  Almost all of these are FOSS projects, and the few which are not at least include DEMO versions of their licensed products (Mixbus, Pianoteq and Renoise).

The AVLinux Video menu is not quite as long but is no less impressive.  Ranging from the simplest Linux utilities (cheese) and desktop session recorders, through editors and transcoders to movie/video/TV players.

I think that's enough for now. You get the picture (no pun intended).  If you are at all interested in multimedia creation, editing and/or playback, this Debian GNU/Linux derivative is really worth a look.  Besides being jam-packed with goodies, it is a very good Linux distribution to boot!

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