(Not So) Spooky! A GhostBSD Investigation

A different OS experience, but incredibly familiar.

Introduction

GhostBSD describes itself as “simplifying FreeBSD for those who lack the technical expertise required to use it and lower the entry-level of using BSD.” I haven’t tried a BSD in quite some time, so the prospect of an easy-to-use BSD option sounds promising. This was originally going to be a Halloween-themed post, but life and timing just didn’t hit right. So here it is, your not-so-spooky look at GhostBSD from a long-time Linux user and contributor — either a day late or 364 days early.

Installation

I fired up GhostBSD in VMware Player. The live image took a while to load up and ultimately failed to load X. I selected the VESA driver from the available options, and the desktop quickly loaded. I was greeted with the MATE desktop with the standard two-panel layout.

GhostBSD looks refined at first boot. It’s clean and easy to get started.

Double-clicking “Install GhostBSD” on the desktop started the installer. The installer was surprisingly easy-to-use and non-technical. First, you select the language for the installer and keyboard layout. Next, choose whether to install to the entire disk or custom partitioning. Disks are partitioned using ZFS, but all you have to do is choose the installation target. Finally, select your bootloader and enter your administrative and user details, and you’re done.

Once installed, you are prompted to restart your computer or continue using the live media. You can restart immediately by clicking the Restart button — no need to head to the session menu. This is a nice feature, and not all distribution installers have this. It’s great to see it here. The newly installed GhostBSD booted without an issue, and the clean and familiar slick-greeter was displayed.

Slick Greeter gets out of your way so you can appreciate the user’s wallpaper.

The Bootloader

Before getting into the installed system, let’s talk about the bootloader. It’s not GRUB, LILO, or other bootloaders the Linux-faithful expect. Instead, GhostBSD features the FreeBSD BIOS loader. It looks great and presents a list of mostly clear options:

Eight options, with only a hint of geekiness. Press enter to get to your desktop.

What is “CONS: Video”? Here, “CONS” is short for console. Pressing 5 switches between Video, Serial, and dual console options. “Boot options” is likewise somewhat mysterious. Pressing 8 shows a new screen, enabling you to individually toggle ACPI, safe mode, single-user mode, and verbosity.

Updates

The aptly-named “Update Station” manages updates for GhostBSD and is found in the System > Administration submenu. When I checked for updates, I had 29 packages to be upgraded and 533 to be reinstalled. The updater included a preselected option to create a boot environment backup, yet another nice touch. The update went smoothly, if not a bit slowly, and afterward, I was prompted to restart. With updates out of the way, I was ready to check out GhostBSD.

The first thing that threw me for a loop. Why do 533 packages have to be reinstalled to update?

Application Selection

GhostBSD features the MATE 1.26 desktop and its collection of applications. You will also Alacarte, Plank, Shotwell, Firefox, Transmission, Evolution, Rhythmbox, VLC, and the GhostBSD applications Software Station and Update Station. It’s a well-rounded application stack that can do everything except edit office documents.

31,290 available packages means odds are good you’ll find what you’re looking for.

Software Station lists 31,290 packages available for download. Searching for some standard apps, you find OBS Studio, Steam, and VS Code. So it seems like you can pretty much do what you want with GhostBSD, much like you can with Linux. I’d expect that not everything is available or will work, but your mileage may vary.

Installing Steam

I proceeded to install Steam from Software Station. Unfortunately, steam wasn’t available in the application menu, so I tried launching it from the terminal. I used `steam-install` and was presented with the following error message:

An intense warning for sure. But also not wrong. Congrats GhostBSD on warning your users, but also giving alternative options.

Please, consider setting up a dedicated OS user account for Steam. Otherwise each and every Steam game will have unrestricted access to your files. If you really couldn’t care less, you can suppress this message with ` — allow-stealing-my-passwords,-browser-history-and-ssh-keys` flag.

I installed the recommended flags and then launched Steam with the `steam` command. It seemed to start as expected but ultimately crashed. My (lack of) graphics drivers are likely to blame. Steam was still nowhere in the menu, but it’s unclear where the fault lies for that.

Appearance

GhostBSD uses the Vimix GTK theme out of the box, with no other theme options available. Vimix is a flat Material Design theme with support for the various GTK desktop environments, including MATE. The overall look is clean, with the blues of the icon theme. However, Material Design makes heavy use of shadows to convey depth, which doesn’t always work well in desktop applications. In particular, MATE Calculator looks rough, with shadows rendering inconsistently. Caja’s navigation bar is also inconsistently shaded.

Material Design looks great except for when it doesn’t.

GhostBSD includes the Station Tweak customization tool, which allows you to switch between several layouts easily. Windowy and Purity mimic a Windows layout. Element and Classy are reminiscent of elementary OS. Finally, Netbook reduces the layout to a single panel. Station Tweak also has options for customizing desktop icons and the window manager.

Switch between six different layouts to quickly get a familiar look and feel.

Fourteen background options are available in the Appearance Preferences. The curated wallpapers all appear to be high quality and are likely to be used. They’re great picks for background pics!

Fourteen unique background options makes it hard to pick just one.

Conclusion

GhostBSD aims to provide an experience that makes it easier to use BSD. And it delivers! Installation, updates, and software installation are all a breeze. In addition, the MATE desktop provides a stable, reliable, classic-paradigm desktop. Finally, the included features and usability make it a welcoming experience for beginners from another desktop, free or otherwise. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say I was using just another Linux distribution. It’s that easy.

If you want to take GhostBSD for a test drive, I recommend installing it on hardware. Without working graphics drivers, my experience within VMware was limited. VirtualBox users may also have better luck with GhostBSD as I believe it includes the VirtualBox Guest Additions on the live image.

Head over to ghostbsd.org to check out and download your very own live ISO.

Image Credits

Xubuntu, Xfce, and elementary contributor. Free software advocate. My opinions are my own. Writing about FOSS, gaming, tech, and more. https://bluesabre.org