If I were to pick any BSD for everyday desktop use at the moment, then PC-BSD would be my first port of call.
I have a soft spot for BSD, the red-headed step-child of Open Source — the operating system that's more open than Open. It is rock solid, and can trace its heritage directly back to the original Unix days.
Those benefits come at a price, though.
If you want to be flashy and have updates and new features flying out of your ears, then you'd better head back to Linux; BSD land is the land of dependency on the tried and tested.
Often times, it was either the lag behind the curve or the fragility of otherwise standard features (graphics drivers and hardware acceleration, I'm looking at you here) that inevitably returned me to Linux.
This time, with PC-BSD, though, it's different.
PC-BSD 9.0 is the latest release of the operating system, and arrived only weeks after FreeBSD 9.0 appeared. PC-BSD takes FreeBSD, and aims up at the desktop user with a collection of helpful graphical tools and learning-curve easing.
For starters, the installation process dispenses with the BSD-standard text install, and uses a graphical install. The installer also installs an X server and desktop environment, which removes a lot of the hassle and saves an awful lot of time, compared to a standard BSD installation.
One of the big improvements in PC-BSD 9.0 is its new Control Panel, which provides access to the control panels of the KDE, GNOME, XFCE, and LXDE desktop environments, as well as PC-BSD's own utilities. A graphical-control option for networking and service control is handy, especially for Linux refugees, as BSD utilities are superficially similar to Linux utilities, but often frustratingly different in tiny ways.
The theme of supplementing the text utilities with graphical ones continues when installing and managing programs. The best advice I could give a lay-person on the ports system is: "Beware! That way there be dragons. Read up and prepare for mistakes!"
AppCafe takes a lot of the pain out of ports; it uses its pbi packages, which are analogous to the way that OS X bundles programs and their dependencies. The < href="http://www.pbidir.com/">pbi packages track and auto-build from the ports system, so updates appear automatically, and are handled with less fuss than having to use portupgrade. The time saved by using a binary package and not having to wait for the port to compile is replaced by larger package sizes and bloat in the form of all applications having their own copy of the libraries they use.
But if AppCafe seems a little too much like hand holding, then the ports system is still there, and can be used in exactly the same way that it would be on any other BSD. The choice is yours. Old hands can use the skills that they have, while newbies are able to install programs and get up and running without the steep learning curve that ports needs.
A halfway house exists in the form of Ports Jail — a caged environment where those wanting to dip their toes into the world of ports can do so without the possibility of hosing their entire system. The concept of having a sandbox for ports testing appeals in theory, but in reality seems like a solution which time has passed by. Rather than having to maintain a caged copy of the operating system, I would suggest that users install another BSD in a VM to test ports properly.
Ports Jail is the only improvement that leaves me wondering why it exists; every other addition makes sense and fills a gap that BSD needs if it is to be used on a workstation without sysadmin work experience.
To sum up PC-BSD: it is to FreeBSD what Ubuntu is to Debian, without the mess. It closely tracks its FreeBSD parent, adds improvements where necessary, and has avoided additions that would detract. Here's hoping that PC-BSD continues this winning formula.
View our PC-BSD workstation gallery.