GhostBSD makes FreeBSD a little less frightening for the Linux loyal

Traditional Unix sanity plus your choice of MATE or Xfce

The first new version of GhostBSD in over a year is here. If you want to try FreeBSD, Linux's most credible rival and competitor in the FOSS OS marketplace, there's no easier way.

GhostBSD, now at version 23.10.1 based on FreeBSD 13.2, has been around since 2010. Although the project has gone through some changes in that time, it is once again what it started out as – a distribution of FreeBSD that provides the sort of friendly graphical environment and easy installation modern Linux users have come to expect.

It boots straight into a graphical desktop and has an easy graphical installation program, which has been basic in Linux for a decade and a half, but remains unexplored territory in BSD-land.

GhostBSD with MATE provides a familiar environment which old-time GNOME users will find comfortable.

GhostBSD with MATE provides a familiar environment which old-time GNOME users will find comfortable

From 2018 to 2021, GhostBSD switched to being a downstream distribution of TrueOS instead, and changed its version numbering scheme. Version 11.1 was succeeded by the TrueOS-based version 18.10. True OS was itself an easy-to-use graphical distribution of FreeBSD. Originally called PC-BSD, in 2006 it was acquired by TrueNAS creators iXsystems, renamed to TrueOS in 2016, and shut down in 2020. Subsequently, the GhostBSD team switched back to FreeBSD itself with version 21.04.27. So this is a relatively mature distro with some 27 releases over 13 years.

TrueOS – as its rather bombastic name suggests – was an ambitious project that made some substantial additions over and above the basic FreeBSD OS, developing its own desktop environment called Lumina and its own software packaging system, PBI. To be fair, when the project started, FreeBSD didn't include a package manager. The current one became official as of FreeBSD 10.

GhostBSD is somewhat more modest in scope than its former upstream. It offers just two of the most mainstream traditional desktops from the Linux world, MATE and Xfce. These two editions are separate downloads, and both are a great deal more complete than the very minimal Lumina desktop, which is barely more than a window and file manager. GhostBSD adds some of the standard tools that Linux users are familiar with – Firefox, VLC, and the Transmission BitTorrent client, plus the desktops' usual collections of accessories.

The Software Station is a little unpolished but it's a lot easier than navigating the `ports` tree from the shell.

The Software Station is a little unpolished but it's a lot easier than navigating the 'ports' tree from the shell

It also provides some simple but useful system admin tools: a system update tool, a preferences app called Control Center, a graphical package manager called Software Station, and some of the other basic niceties that Linux take for granted but are still a novelty in the mostly text-oriented BSD world. The default shell is fish, although Bash is also available. Because this is FreeBSD, the default filesystem is ZFS.

The Reg FOSS desk has been experimenting with GhostBSD since the last release, and we can report that it's substantially easier to install and configure than FreeBSD itself. We have been attempting to brush up our very meagre BSD skills since we looked at FreeBSD 13.1 last year, and now have a native bare-metal install on an old Thinkpad T420, where it runs very nicely indeed. Getting it to dual-boot cleanly alongside both Windows and Linux on our testbed machines has, thus far, defeated us – but GhostBSD made this achievable, even if with last June's version it wasn't exactly easy.

GhostBSD 23.10 is based on the latest full FreeBSD release, version 13.2, although it has arrived perilously close to FreeBSD 14, which is still in Release Candidate status – currently expected next week.

There aren't many other FreeBSD distros around. There was FuryBSD, but that project shut down in 2020, although a distro based on it, known as the Hello System, is still going. There is also Midnight BSD – we took a very brief look six months ago, and found little to recommend. Finally there's Nomad BSD, but that's a slightly different beast, designed to run directly from a bootable USB key rather than being permanently installed onto a PC.

As such, GhostBSD is the easiest and most polished desktop version of FreeBSD around – but bear in mind that there really isn't much competition. The Hello System has great promise, but it hasn't got to version 1.0 yet, and the last release is missing features that were present in version 0.5, such as a desktop dock.

FreeBSD is quite different from Linux, and even experienced Linux users will find themselves lost sometimes. A lot of familiar tools are missing, such as this vulture's favorite shell text editor Tilde – but GhostBSD does offer other familiar subsitutes, such as joe and nano. However, as vast sprawling modern subsystems such as systemd, snap, Wayland, and Flatpak take over more and more of Linux, FreeBSD offers a refuge where you will find traditional Unix sanity. And for now, GhostBSD is by far the easiest way to put it on a PC alongside some other operating systems. ®

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