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By mephisto786 at 2006-01-29 09:36
For the first part of these articles, please check out YADA...Yet Another Distro Article.

KNOPPIX
The acknowledged granddaddy of live distros, I first met Knoppix in version 3.7 or thereabouts as a Linux magazine freebie. When the amazement over booting a fully functional operation system off a mere cd drive passed, I was then amazed by the nearly two gigabytes of packages installed. Being new to Linux I didn't know what half the apps were actually supposed to do and the names of Linux apps seemed a cross between some sort of ulta-hip series of acronyms and psychosis.

Backed by the strength and versatility of Debian, this cd ushered in a new era in *nixdom by singlehandedly starting the live cd craze. Going beyond the mere novelty, we are left with a rescue tool, a portable OS without a computer attached to it and an exploration into quite a few realms of possibility.

In true Linux fashion, the Knoppix magic behind this cd was co-opted by anyone who wanted it and we have a veritable feast of distros and special interest live cds out now, some of which may have surpassed the original in speed, usability and install capabilities.

The only disappointments I've experienced with Knoppix are the inability to actually install version 3.7 to harddisk, which is probably my own fault; and the latest look of the 3.9 build. Am I the only one who's booted Knoppix around 3.9 and found the artwork repellent? Older versions didn't embarrass me if I were trying to introduce people to a new OS. The current default desktop artwork, of an astronaut on a poorly and cheesily rendered space background is abysmal enough to spark IRC discussions of how to alter boot splashes on Knoppix. The wallpaper of course can be replaced, but a live cd is most often used without any configuration saved so it's the present A Space Odyssey-as-Viewed-by-a-Glue-Sniffer look. If you like Knoppix enough to install, I hear the installer is vastly improved, largely from alterations and changes made by fellow German hacker “Kano” of Kanotix fame.

As of version 4.0, Knoppix is now a dvd with over 9 GB of compressed goodies, leaving the classic cd version to become Knoppix Lite. One hopes this cd will continue to remain a viable and growing development project, yet one gets the impression the Knoppix heyday is over and its being overtaken by a multitude of hackers improving endlessly upon the original genius.
Grade: B++

Simply MEPIS
A live cd that is so much more. Linux Magazine called this distro “the only Debian based live distribution that takes all of it's software from the original Debian repository,” in their February 2006 issue.

In theory this is a live cd with install capabilities, but on nearly every machine that I've run it live, it proved abysmally slow. These were up-to-date, average machines, not powerful, high end gaming machines or servers. For the sake of older machines, the Mepis versions I've used thus far had both a 2.4 and 2.6 kernel to choose from. People tend to install this Debian derivative to hard drive, using the live version as a test drive or a repair tool. As Debian derivatives go, it is among the best.

A live usage which I don't see discussed very often, is how the MEPIS OS Center can be used to repair bootloaders, and only a week ago, my X configuration. I've tweaked a Mepis install till it broke more than once, and overwritten my share of MBRs. Thanks to the MEPIS tools developed by Warren Woodford, I like to have this one-disk wonder on the first partition as the gateway to dual and triple boots because of the ease with which it handles setting up dual boots, fixing MBRs, painless installs, and partition and filesystem checks and other duties. A custom splash adorns what is usually a dry black and white grub text screen.

With enough RAM (my guess is 512MB or more) I imagine the live cd runs quite respectably. There are also a great many packages included out of the box to make life easier. Java, Flash and Adobe are already onboard. The standard tools to make a full blown Debian system are all there, including Synaptic which helps newbs and lazy users alike to install new .deb pkgs with a minimum of fuss and a pleasant gui.

The problem with a vast profusion of distros is that many of our favorite features are spread over several distros. What if, for example, there was a Mepis running at the speed of a Kanotix? The solution of course is to begin mastering your own live cd. You may run into diffficulties trying that one on Mepis because of the closed source autoinstaller and OS Center. If the entire distro were as open source as most other Debian based systems are, the Mepis folks would have a shot at the title fight for best all around Debian/Knoppix desktop Linux.

Another thing I tend to evaluate when looking at distros is the support available. For corporate users there is paid support, pro and SOHO versions, and packages and add-ons not available without subscription. There are naturally free IRC and Yahoo chatrooms but the problems I mentioned above tend to take the fun out of those, and the usability of the distro tends to suffer because of it. Mepis and Ubuntu are taking a lions share of the new-user market, with the result being that the experienced user finds an annoying amount of “Mepis Rocks!” and “Ubuntu Rulez!” chatter. This has led to a large migration of experienced Linuxers to the more mature and developer friendly Kanotix (reviewed below.)

Lest someone assume I've got it in for Mepis, I can assure you, I have attempted to initiate a dialog with both the Mepis forums and by contacting Mr. Woodford directly. All of which was done out of a sincere appreciation for the distro and the thought that this was a fresh, young distro worth further involvement and support. It didn't take long to figure out that the community aspect of this distro is its own worst enemy. GPL questions sparked flame wars and nothing sent to Warren himself was ever answered.

In order to separate the two issues for those who could care less about politics, forums and communities, I would have to say that Mepis is a sturdy, very easy to use Debian distro that allows anyone with with basic skills to create a sprawling, up to date, Debian system. It is certainly the closest thing to perfection for newbs starting out in Debian waters.

Make no mistake, this is one of the first choices of distro to give to someone afraid to take the plunge. If they have enough RAM one may test drive this package stuffed live cd and if they install, they are booting into a very Debian system. Mepis is one of the few derivatives already working with DCC (formerly Debian Common Core) kernels. The DCC initiative launched by founder Ian Murdoch, is an attempt to bring all Debian based systems into a cohesive and compatible family. A stated aim of Mepis is to help people migrate from Windows and in this too, one couldn't ask for much better. Although it is designed as a KDE-centric distribution, it is a snap to install Gnome and in my case, Enlightenment desktops as well.

With none of the odd bugginess that occasionally pops up when adding desktops to Ubuntu, I should add.

Which is why, at the end of the day, the lesser issues of marketing and community support grate so much more, when one realizes exactly what the talent behind this distro could do if it learned better how to play with others. Laying Linux politics aside for the moment, and considering the live “rescue” uses for this cd, the ability to install painlessly, the plethora of packages (and useful ones at that!), and the latest 'On the Go' apps for saving configurations to allow users to carry their entire OS around on a cd and flashdrive, it wouldn't be fair to grant this live and install cd anything less than a... Grade: A

Slax
With almost no publicity and a low key approach to marketing, this mini live version of Slackware has begun to climb disto watch top tens and pop up on forum boards through the strength of its elegance and ease of administration alone. On a mere 180 MB, users can run a Slackware based live cd with a number of configure-save options to keep changes and documents.

In the field of package management it is a pure joy. Not only can you add packages to this “live” cd, but the way to add them makes even Debian's apt-get look like a bloated package manager. Go to the Slax modules page. Pick a package. Drop it into the modules folder.

You have just added a working Open Office 2 or SuperTux to your live cd. There are tools available as well for making standard tgz pkgs into Slax modules. Combined with the ease with which one can install the distro onto a flashdrive, you can imagine how much power and flexibility this mini-live cd can give to its users. This is modularity taken to new heights. Remastering this cd to make your own home grown version of live cd is about as difficult as making a sandwich.

And when was the last time you saw such a tiny distro offering the latest KDE, in addition to the lighter and less cpu intensive Fluxbox? Based on Slackware but with the added module feature, it carries the Slackware concept of simplicity and speed and grace, to another level.

It is installable to hard drive as well, but in an amazing reversal of current trends (where live cd distros are pushing to become the installed system of choice), Slax maintainer Tomas begs users to install Slackware. Rather than trying to get users to run Slax as an easier way of running Slackware, Tomas is one of the few people trying to steer users back to the mother lode. The idea behind Slax is to make a live version of Slackware. Why then, the reasoning goes, would someone struggle to convert the live form of Slackware to a standard install of Slackware.

Because as everyone knows, the standard install of Slackware, is called “Slackware.”

Thankfully this little distro also comes out when it's ready and not when users want more novelty. This gives Slax a clear lead in the stability market. The intimate, small distro feel of Slax means that whatever bugs are in the current release are worked on, commented on, scripted and patched and worked around till a solution is found, and that this process is shared by users. When you have a live cd with such a wide range of options (flash drive install, hd install, live cd, a module package system, and live on the web 'save configuration' scripts for starters) there is a lot that can go wrong. To use Slax as a simple live cd, though, is to miss half the fun. Use it and stretch all your preconceptions of live cds to the snapping point. If it snaps, theres a place you can take both pieces for sympathy and solutions.

A first cursory look at Mutagenix, another live/rescue cd based on Slack, available in a base cd, a gnome version and a KDE, seems to be on par with Slax and seems to indicate that Slackware is entering the live cd race in earnest. A slick live Slack cd, which appears to be based on Slax technology, test drive the KDE version for a glimpse at KDE 3.5.

Having been a die hard Debian live cd junkie, it took a few hours for me to switch to Slax as my live, on the go, distro of choice. Combined with a very accessible distro maintainer, a simple but bright and streamlined home page complete with package modules, scripts, downloads, tutorials and a forum board; one gets the vague feeling you're seeing the future of Linux today.
Grade: A+

Kanotix
The son of Knoppix fulfills his father's dreams. Built for an i586 architecture, and with an improved version of the Knoppix installer by Master Kano himself, this is the next generation of Knoppix. The installer for example is now being used by Knoppix as well, and having tried it I can safely say it's as easy as installing Mepis. And installs don't get any easier than that. The i586 build assures us that this cd will fly on most any box built in the last three years and only gets faster after install. Like Mepis, this cd is intended to work as both live and installed Debian system. Kanotix is – for the most part – pure Sid, so the following for this German distro is chock full of developers, hackers and Unix gurus.

And like Slax, one can usually find the maintainer nearby, whether via the forum, an IRC channel, or by email. Kano sightings on IRC are fairly common and a special thread or two on their forum page is devoted to “features you would like to see in Kanotix.”

It is already nearly legendary for its ability to recognize and configure hardware. Which makes it an excellent rescue tool. It remains as open source as Knoppix to ensure that the benefits may be shared and enhanced by the community at large. Given these characteristics, it is not surprising that a large number of bleeding edge Debian users have flocked to Kanotix.

All of which make it a tad uncomfortable for new users. When I first installed it I was horrified to find myself without Internet (which is normal in my house) and without Synaptic or a useable package manager that could utilize apps from cds (which is,in my book, Debian heresy). No emacs, one (?!) game to kill a coffee break with....sniff, sniff.

A problem which could've been solved by dragging my laptop to a net connection. It could've also been solved by Synaptic. A small gripe, since the cd is loaded with 699MB out of 700. Many of which are geared towards power users and developers.

An additional complaint, which surfaced repeatedly on the forums was the “German-ness.” On IRC, most of the discussions are carried out in German. On the forum, it is possible to have pages translated into English and an entire section is purely in English. While I am the first to agree that English is the current lingua franca of all things cyber, I found that complaint to be a bit ethnocentric. Part of what is going to carry Linux forward into further mass acceptance is it's usability by all sorts of people speaking all sorts of languages. Instead of whining, it's better to use the moments where you are dumbfounded by instructions in German, to empathize with everyone who doesn't speak or read English as fluently as you do. Because most things Kanotix are also in English. In addition, we are seeing a growing wave of language based distros that make computing a little more comfortable. Where every hour in front of a monitor doesn't have to be a language lesson.

Yes, Kanotix is very German. And most other distros are very American. It's interesting, if nothing else, to walk a mile in another man's distro. Deal with it. Distros like ArabEyes and Kuminin are signs of the times, and the times say multicultural and multilingual people is a good thing. It is after all, one of the tenets of the Ubuntu Manifesto. Try Kanotix to see how multiculturalism feels in practice.

Certainly not on a newbie top ten, Kanotix is a fast moving, hacker's Debian with an EU feel. It is currently on its way towards usurping Knoppix as the uber-live-cd. Yes, you may have to work with it a bit, and figure out how to run some shell scripts. It's Sid based repositories mean that cutting edge is your middle name.

More than most other live cds, you may feel this one is akin to breaking a wild horse to make it rideable. But that's only because of the power beneath the hood. If you're looking for a bleeding edge challenge and ongoing development in a distro, Kanotix is a champion in the wings on its way up to the big time.
Grade: B+

I'm not ignoring the live cds offered by the likes of Suse, Ubuntu and Mandriva. I've tried them but most comments tend to be distribution related, with the live versions being simply a promotional tool. As "live for the sake of being live" they usually offer nothing new to the standard install version.


Wrapping up.....

A few honorable mentions to some fine mini-distros...if I knew them better, I could say more.

DSL
The last Damn Small Linux I burned to cd ran fine on my desktop. And not at all on my laptop. Still sporting a 2.4 kernel upon last trial, I hope to load up the latest version within the week to see what's new. When it runs, it is a shiny, slick mini-knoppix that can be made into a basic no frills Debian install for you to build from the ground up. The community seems active and committed, and this distro probably won't disappear anytime soon. Small and beautifully crafted.

Puppy Linux
Puppy's doing some odd things. Pup-get? Automatically installing a large PUP file upon first boot in my Windows partition? If you want to take Puppy for a walk, be sure to read the docs. It is fast, configurable... you can build on it and it comes in several sizes. There are additional cds for apps you can download if internet access is a problem. It remains somehow unique in that many of its features struck me as highly original ways of making this a useable on-the-go live distro. The one major complaint is the look, which is pure fvvm95, aimed at those who feel nostalgic towards Windows 95. I don't, so DSL looks much better as far as visuals go. I would say Puppy remains in the lead regarding innovation, parameters of use and the creation of a distro whose emphasis is on being small, fast and vastly configurable. I didn't find too many docs about installing as a hd system (which doesn't mean there aren't any) but if I recall, Puppy promises that, if you want, it can be raised and trained to become a purebred Debian.

Flash Linux
Download the iso in three parts. Use cli commands to make one iso. Burn iso. Boot into a live Gentoo cd. To install to a flash drive, follow the instructions. And wait.

Then wait some more. This is followed by waiting. This is Gentoo. I am a Gentoo infidel. I don't believe compiling qualifies as a computer user activity. It is spectator sport and here, there aren't even scrolling lines of code to stare at. I assume it was compiling although it is advertised as an experimental, binary based, Gentoo distro.

When you finally boot off the flash drive, or cheated by booting from the live cd you just burned, you will find yourself staring at the death of your monitor. No, not really, its just a bug that causes certain machines to be unable to boot with a proper X configuration. Your monitor is fine.

When you finally arrive on a Gnome desktop, you might gasp. This is the most polished Gnome desktop I have ever seen , with the hour glass icon twirling in 3D splendor and a well crafted and original set of themes that make Gnome a thing of beauty. I imagine for Gentoo fans, this under 400 MB live cd is a treat. For the rest of us pagans, it seems an awful lot of trouble to run a live cd or flash-Linux. Slick, fast and more than a little buggy it may attract users looking for something different or to get a small taste of the forbidding world of Gentoo. As Sandra Bernhardt might've said : I like Gentoo. I also liked Midnight Express...

A NOTE TO FLAMERS, TROLLS AND HOLY WARRIORS: No, I'm not referring to the Gentoo people here. They're used to the difficult and arduous, and if I've insulted them, it is more likely they will smile, nod and recompile me in their minds eye to a faster and more efficient human being with the ability to reach the true potential of my architecture. They're probably too busy emerging to bother with the likes of me.

If anyone else was offended by this distro survey, I would ask that you should feel free to point out any glaring errors, or misunderstandings on my part. If however, you're responding to a slight to a distro you are loyal to without actually responding to the arguments made and then countering them, I hope you ask yourself whether its worth it and what the motivation is. I've outlined the premise above. What followed were my own experiences with a number of distros. Any criticisms made are a sincere wish to see Linux as an OS and as a community, improve. What might at times read as mockery, is simply an attempt to use humor to soften criticisms.


So many distros, so little time.



(This article is copyrighted under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License. Permission is granted to reproduce and copy this work so long as the conditions of the A/M license are met. For more information , see the Creative Commons home page.)


  



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