NomadBSD 1.1One of the most recent additions to the DistroWatch database is NomadBSD. According to the NomadBSD website: "NomadBSD is a 64-bit live system for USB flash drives, based on FreeBSD. Together with automatic hardware detection and setup, it is configured to be used as a desktop system that works out of the box, but can also be used for data recovery."
The latest release of NomadBSD (or simply "Nomad", as I will refer to the project in this review) is version 1.1. It is based on FreeBSD 11.2 and is offered in two builds, one for generic personal computers and one for Macbooks. The release announcement mentions version 1.1 offers improved video driver support for Intel and AMD cards. The operating system ships with Octopkg for graphical package management and the system should automatically detect, and work with, VirtualBox environments.
Nomad 1.1 is available as a 2GB download, which we then decompress to produce a 4GB file which can be written to a USB thumb drive. There is no optical media build of Nomad as it is designed to be run entirely from the USB drive, and write data persistently to the drive, rather than simply being installed from the USB media.
Booting from the USB drive brings up a series of text-based menus which ask us to configure key parts of the operating system. We are asked to select our time zone, keyboard layout, keyboard model, keyboard mapping and our preferred language. While we can select options from a list, the options tend to be short and cryptic. Rather than "English (US)", for example, we might be given "en_US". We are also asked to create a password for the root user account and another one for a regular user which is called "nomad". We can then select which shell nomad will use. The default is zsh, but there are plenty of other options, including csh and bash. We have the option of encrypting our user's home directory.
I feel it is important to point out that these settings, and nomad's home directory, are stored on the USB drive. The options and settings we select will not be saved to our local hard drive and our configuration choices will not affect other operating systems already installed on our computer. At the end, the configuration wizard asks if we want to run the BSDstats service. This option is not explained at all, but it contacts BSDstats to provide some basic statistics on BSD users.
The system then takes a few minutes to apply its changes to the USB drive and automatically reboots the computer. While running the initial setup wizard, I had nearly identical experiences when running Nomad on a physical computer and running the operating system in a VirtualBox virtual machine. However, after the initial setup process was over, I had quite different experiences depending on the environment so I want to divide my experiences into two different sections.
NomadBSD in VirtualBox
When running Nomad in a virtual environment, the operating system offered slightly different results almost every time it booted. The first time, Nomad booted to a blank graphical environment with a working mouse pointer. There were no desktop elements and both left- and right-clicking produced no results. I could switch to a text console which showed a stream of messages saying "pushing table, processing notify events, popping table" over and over. The text consoles did not respond to keyboard input.
On the second boot, Nomad loaded a minimal desktop environment. A panel at the bottom of the screen presented me with a logout menu and a system tray. Right-clicking on the desktop brought up an application menu. Trying to open more than one application caused the system to lock up.
NomadBSD 1.1 -- The default desktop and application menu (full image size: 634kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
On the third boot, the desktop was displayed again, but the mouse pointer did not work at all.
The fourth time I launched Nomad the system booted and displayed the desktop. The graphical environment worked for about a minute, then the operating system froze and would not respond to any input.
I eventually found that Nomad would never run for more than a few minutes before locking up. Trying to run more than one application at a time would also bring the system immediately to a halt.
Despite the project's website mentioning VirtualBox integration, and the existence of a display configuration tool in the application menu, I could not get Nomad to display a desktop at a resolution above about 800x600 pixels. I noticed that when Nomad was displaying its minimal desktop, my host computer's CPU was always running at 100%, but when Nomad was displaying a text console my host's CPU idled around 5%.
Physical desktop computer
At first, Nomad failed to boot on my desktop computer. From the operating system's boot loader, I enabled Safe Mode which allowed Nomad to boot. At that point, Nomad was able to start up, but would only display a text console. The desktop environment failed to start when running in Safe Mode.
Networking was also disabled by default and I had to enable a network interface and DHCP address assignment to connect to the Internet. Instructions for enabling networking can be found in FreeBSD's Handbook. Once we are on-line we can use the pkg command line package manager to install and update software. Had the desktop environment worked then the Octopkg graphical package manager would also be available to make browsing and installing software a point-n-click experience.
Had I been able to run the desktop for prolonged amounts of time I could have made use of such pre-installed items as the Firefox web browser, the VLC media player, LibreOffice and Thunderbird. Nomad offers a fairly small collection of desktop applications, but what is there is mostly popular, capable software.
When running the operating system I noted that, with one user logged in, Nomad only runs 15 processes with the default configuration. These processes require less than 100MB of RAM, and the whole system fits comfortably on a 4GB USB drive.
Ultimately using Nomad was not a practical option for me. The operating system did not work well with my hardware, or the virtual environment. In the virtual machine, Nomad crashed consistently after just a few minutes of uptime. On the desktop computer, I could not get a desktop environment to run. The command line tools worked well, and the system performed tasks very quickly, but a command line only environment is not well suited to my workflow.
I like the idea of what NomadBSD is offering. There are not many live desktop flavours of FreeBSD, apart from GhostBSD. It was nice to see developers trying to make a FreeBSD-based, plug-and-go operating system that would offer a desktop and persistent storage. I suspect the system would work and perform its stated functions on different hardware, but in my case my experiment was necessarily short lived.
* * * * *
Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: