Getting started with FreeBSD as a desktop operating system

FuryBSD's live desktop environment lets you try it before committing to it.
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FreeBSD is a great operating system, but, by design, it does not come with a desktop environment. Without installing additional software from FreeBSD's ports and packages collection, FreeBSD is a command-line only experience. The screenshot below shows what logging into FreeBSD 12.1 looks like when every one of the "optional system components" is selected during installation.


FreeBSD can be turned into a desktop operating system with any of a wide selection of desktop environments, but it takes time, effort, and following a lot of written instructions. Using the desktop-installer package, which provides the user with options in a text-based menu and helps automate much of the process, is still time-consuming. The biggest problem with either of these methods is that users might find out that their system is not fully compatible with FreeBSD after they have taken all the time to set things up.

FuryBSD solves that problem by providing a live desktop image that users can evaluate before installing. Currently, FuryBSD provides an Xfce image and a KDE image. Each of these images provides an installation of FreeBSD that has a desktop environment pre-installed. If users try out the image and find that their hardware works, they can install FuryBSD and have a ready-to-go desktop operating system powered by FreeBSD. For the purposes of this article, I will be using the Xfce image, but the KDE image works the exact same way.

Getting started with FuryBSD should be a familiar process to anyone who has installed a Linux distribution, any of the BSDs, or any other Unix-like open source operating system. Download the ISO from the FuryBSD website, copy it to a flash drive, and boot a computer from the flash drive. If booting from the flash drive fails, make sure Secure Boot is disabled.

FuryBSD Live XFCE Desktop

After booting from the flash drive, the desktop environment loads automatically. In addition to the Home, File System, and Trash icons, the live desktop has icons for a tool to configure Xorg, getting started instructions, the FuryBSD installer, and a system information utility. Other than these extras and some custom Xfce settings and wallpaper, the desktop environment does not come with much beyond the basic Xfce applications and Firefox.

FuryBSD Xorg Tool

Only basic graphics drivers are loaded at this point, but it is enough to check to see if the system's wired and wireless network interfaces are supported by FuryBSD. If none of the network interfaces is working automatically, the Getting Started.txt file contains instructions for attempting to configure network interfaces and other configuration tasks. If at least one of the network interfaces works, the Configure Xorg application can be used to install Intel, NVidia, or VirtualBox graphics drivers. The drivers will be downloaded and installed, and Xorg will need to be restarted. If the system does not automatically re-login to the live image user, the password is furybsd. Once they are configured, the graphics drivers will carry over to an installed system.

FuryBSD Installer - ZFS Configuration

If everything works well in the live environment, the FuryBSD installer can configure and install FuryBSD onto the computer. This installer runs in a terminal, but it provides the same options found in most other BSD and Linux installers. The user will be asked to set the system's hostname, configure ZFS storage, set the root password, add at least one non-root user, and configure the time and date settings. Once the process is complete, the system can be rebooted into a pre-configured FreeBSD with an Xfce (or KDE) desktop. FuryBSD did all the hard work and even took the extra effort to make the desktop look nice.

FuryBSD Post-Install XFCE Desktop

As noted above, the desktop environment does not come with a lot of pre-installed software, so installing additional packages is almost certainly necessary. The quickest way to do this is by using the pkg command in the terminal. This command behaves much like dnf and apt, so users coming from a Linux distribution that uses one of those should feel right at home when it comes to finding and installing packages. FreeBSD's package collection is large, so most of the big-name open source software packages are available.

Users trying out FuryBSD without having much FreeBSD experience should consult the FreeBSD Handbook to learn more about how to do things the FreeBSD way. Users with experience using any Linux distribution or one of the other BSDs should be able to figure out a lot of things, but there are differences that the handbook can help clarify. Another great resource for learning more about the FreeBSD way of doing things is Absolute FreeBSD, 3rd Edition, by Michael W. Lucas.

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Nice review Joshua! I tried FreeBSD a few times in the past but not in a number of years. I strongly considered back in the day when there were lawsuits by certain vendors against Linux. Glad to know about FuryBSD. I had not heard of that.

Thanks, Don. FuryBSD is quite new, so it is not surprising that you have not hear of it. What is impressive is how quickly FuryBSD is improving. There was a new release of FuryBSD that came out after this article was submitted for publication. The new release provides a tool for Wi-Fi configuration and comes with the VirtualBox graphic drivers preloaded.

In reply to by Don Watkins

With Linux Mint being easy to install and use, along with being stable and built off Ubuntu, why would anyone want to install a command line OS that required a lot of work to add on a desktop environment????

This article demonstrates that FuryBSD eliminates that process by providing a desktop by default.

In reply to by GDI (not verified)

The same reason people decide to use Arch Linux instead of Ubuntu or Mint. Ubuntu and Mint are great distributions, but not everyone wants their system to do things the Mint or Ubuntu way. FreeBSD has a lot of nice features and a great community, so some people prefer that to the alternatives. It is all about personal choice. Some want to run a Linux distribution. Some people want to run a BSD. Some people pick Debian, Fedora, Mint, Fedora, or some other distribution. And some people pick FreeBSD, NetBSD, or OpenBSD. Plus, the whole point of the article is that FuryBSD lets a user install FreeBSD with a pre-configured desktop just like when using an "easy to install and use" Linux distribution like Mint.

In reply to by GDI (not verified)

I have been meaning to try a BSD for a while, and this review has definitely pushed me to do so! One (rather newbie) question, though: if I find that FuryBSD runs successfully on my test laptop, is it possible to easily install it in a partition rather than giving it the entire HD? I have some other Linux installs on there that I want to keep for the time being.

You can partition your hard drive for BSD to coexist with Linux, but you should back up your existing data first. Dual-booting can be tricky.

I'd probably reduce the Linux partition, allowing GRUB to be your bootloader. Install BSD into a partition, update GRUB, and you should be good to go.

In reply to by Stuart Homfray (not verified)

Thanks, Seth. I already have a partition ready on my test machine (and there are a few other distros on there right now) - I was wondering whether there was anything BSD-specific to bear in mind. As Seth mentions, it may be the ZFS setup, so I'll go VM for now

In reply to by sethkenlon

"Easily", probably not. At present, the FuryBSD installer seems to want to use an entire drive in the ZFS configuration options. Like Seth noted, it is possible to dual (or multi boot) using FreeBSD in general, but the specific installer options available in FuryBSD do not make such a process "easy." There is an open GitHub issue about "Documenting how to use dual boot", which has a 2020-Q4 milestone: In the meantime, I suggest trying FuryBSD in a virtual machine instead.

In reply to by Stuart Homfray (not verified)

Ok thanks, Joshua - I'll keep an eye on that issue and will try FuryBSD in a VM

In reply to by holmja

This would also be true for installing alongside an existing MSWin install.

I've been meaning to install Linux on an SD card for use as an alternative (and hopefully faster) OS for my hybrid/tablet PC. Provided the tablet can boot off the SD card and the installer recognises this fact, FuryBSD should definitely be something the check out - I've often read that *BSD is less resource hungry than Linux.

In reply to by holmja

Didn't knew about FuryBSD

Thanks for writing this Joshua! It's encouraged me to give it a try... so far so good. Last time I used a BSD-based UNIX it was Solaris, in about 2003 or so.

Although I have not tried it yet, I have a good feeling about FuryBSD. It sounds like the project is in capable hands.

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