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OpenBSD: Full details

Revised 5 January 2018

I have a variety of computers, ranging from a desktop (Acer Veriton M460) through Thinkpads of several kinds, both 64-bit and 32-bit. All run OpenBSD.

OpenBSD was probably the easiest OS to install that I've ever tried. By simply following the defaults (except for choosing the uk keyboard) I found myself, after about 15 minutes, with a working system including X. Everything else worked as expected too, including sound, which is often something you have to struggle with in Linux.

Installing third-party applications such as Firefox was equally easy. OpenBSD does have ports via a scheme borrowed from FreeBSD, but you don't need to use them since all the ported stuff also exists on OpenBSD as packages, and you are encouraged to use those instead of ports. (You only need ports when you want to modify a supplied program.) I found that nearly everything I wanted existed as a package so getting my system into order was pretty easy.

But of course nothing is ever as simple as it seems at first. Coming from a Linux background I had to adapt to new ways of thinking. This particularly applies to updating/upgrading the system.

There are three "flavours" of OpenBSD which are upgraded or updated differently.

1. There is an official "-release" every 6 months, in May and November, from which you can upgrade your system.

2. There is a "-stable" branch which only gets serious errata and security fixes; you have to compile this yourself from source and it doesn't get you anything new (so you can't install new versions of third-party packages, since they won't work). This could be compared to Debian Stable.

3. There is also a "-current" branch, in which the developers post their new code. It is updated frequently both as code and as "snapshots". There are differing opinions about the desirability of using this but plenty of people do it on production machines. I've now done numerous snpahot upgrades and there have been no serious problems in 3 years. Snapshots are roughly comparable to Arch or the 'sid' branch of Debian, but in my experience OpenBSD -current is more stable than either of these.

Packages are maintained separately from the core system and have to be upgraded separately.

Keeping OpenBSD up to date with snapshots and packages isn't difficult although it does take a little time to do. But you don't have to do it too frequently—just when you think it is necessary, perhaps because a new or updated package that you need has become available.

1. The number of packages available for OpenBSD is smaller than on most Linux distributions. I found most of what I needed but in a few cases (qsf, sitecopy) I had to compile my own from source.

2. Some packages are rather old. Mostly it doesn't matter too much, but it can be a problem. For example, I transferred a lot of slides made with LyX and Beamer on another machine, and when I wanted to edit them I couldn't because the OpenBSD version of LyX was not compatible with the one I'd used previously. (LyX was updated a month or two later for OpenBSD, after which the problem disappeared.)

3. Some things I looked for simply don't work on OpenBSD. One of these is Flash, which is still needed on a few sites although the number is fortunately decreasing. There is no Flash for OpenBSD and most people who use the system don't want it anyway because of its poor safety record.

Skype is also not available for OpenBSD. If you need this you will have to use Linux.

4. My flatbed scanner (Epson Perfection v330) needs proprietary software that isn't available for OpenBSD. So I brought back my Epson Perfection 1650 from abroad and this works out of the box with the sane backend. Incidentally, I think this now-superseded model is a better scanner than the v330.

5. To get round these and similar difficulties it might seem logical to install OpenBSD and Linux on the same machine and dual boot, but although this is technically possible it's harder to do than you might expect. You are probably better off using at least two machines rather than attempting to dual boot. Virtualisation is another possibility but I haven't tried that.

If you want to use OpenBSD you have to be willing to learn new things. (You might say that's a feature not a drawback since it helps to keep your brain alive!) At first glance OpenBSD is quite similar to Linux but on closer acquaintance numerous differences appear. One of the most important is knowing where to look for help.

OpenBSD users are always advised to read the (excellent) man pages, which often provide the answer, so that's usually the place to start. The online FAQ is also essential reading.

All the Linux distributions I've used have mail lists and these are probably the most widely accessed resources for help with the different distributions. OpenBSD has a general mail list ( but this is not the place to ask newbie questions. Most of the discussion is more technical than what you will find on a typical LInux list and many of the topics are not relevant to desktop users. I read it daily and learn from it, but even after 3 years much of it still goes over my head.

A better place to go when starting out with OpenBSD is There are some very knowledgeable people here who kindly and patiently answer beginners' questions. Remember to search the site before you ask your question; you'll often find that it's already been answered.

Google (or in my case duckduckgo) might seem like an obvious place to go for help but be careful. A lot of what you find there is out of date or misleading so it's seldom a useful resource.

Finally, anyone who has decided they want to use OpenBSD regularly should get a copy of Absolute OpenBSD (2nd edition) by Michael Lucas (ISBN-13 978-1-59327-476-4).


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