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One quick way to do this would be to install Slackware without KDE, Y, X, ..etc series. You could probably just install the A series as this has all you need for your kernel. Depending on what apps you want to install, you will probably want to include some libraries as well.
You could also try Linux from Scratch, but that will be more time consuming.
so is there no "straight out of the box" type distro to achieve this? i want to a media center so it would have to be fast.
I'm sure there is, but I don't know what it is. Using Slackware is what I would use because I am familiar with it. To not include a certain series all you do is uncheck a box. It is really quick, so you could probably have your system up and running in 15-20 minutes depending on all what you install. Of course that doesn't count the time post-install where you add your specific packages and settings.
The kernel has nothing to do with whether the computer has a gui. You can however recompile your kernel from source and remove unneeded options. I would recommend starting with "make oldconfig" and then "make xconfig". Now you can disable options.
The snappiness of the computer may have more to do with which services are running. Look at the output of "top" and "ps -A". Find out which services are running and what resources they use.
You might want to read some howto's on creating a bastion linux host. One of the steps is identifying unneeded packages. A secure server will run leaner than a typical workstation. A lot of software & services that the server doesn't need are removed. Even if your goal isn't in security, the outcome will be a more efficient machine.
Now, I don't get two of your goals. In post #1 you said you don't want a GUI. In post #3 you said that you want a media center. A media center will use X11 to display the video. Unless you mean you want a video streaming server or video file server.
Distribution: Distribution: RHEL 5 with Pieces of this and that.
Kernel 184.108.40.206, KDE 3.5.8 and KDE 4.0 beta, Plu
Not really any distro that I have seen that is basic. One ususally will just need to uninstall apps after the install and recompile the kernel to make a monothicit kernel. A kernel that has no external modules. Everything runs within it.
Slackware would do this for you. Just uncheck the "KDE" and "Y" (games) box during install and do a full install. If you want you can choose to not install more packages you can do so as well. You can do this for groups of packages or individual packages.
*) Slackware comes with Fluxbox, Blackbox, twm, Xfce, WindowMaker, and fvwm2 (and KDE). Of those I recommend fluxbox, but if you don't like configuring it through a text file then Xfce might be more for you. Openbox is also very nice and is easy to add and can be configured through a GUI with obconf.
*) Slackware starts in runlevel 3 by default.
*) Services are easy to turn off. Just remove the executable bit from it /etc/rc.d/rc.* file.
*) Cron jobs are easy to manage. Just add/remove a script from /etc/cron.daily, /etc/cron.hourly, /etc/cron.monthly, /etc/cron.weekly. Or you can modify the crontab directly if you need.
There are literally thousands of linux distributions, some of which even offer a dedicated media centre out of the box. If you understand what you are looking for in a distribution then have a poke around distrowatch.com and find one that meets you needs.
Generally, I'd recommend running a mainstream distribution because they get updated far more regularly than the more obscure ones (but that means nothing unless you actually update regularly; some do this automatically). If all you actually want is a distro' without a GUI, then pretty much any of the mainstream one will do. For example, Ubuntu is a notoriously GUI-driven distro' for the desktop, but you can still download an "alternative" install CD which gives you the option of installing a completely text-based system, without the X windows GUI (which you can find under xubuntu).