Why use a Linux Live CD?
Well, there are four main reasons.
* You want to test drive Linux (or that particular distribution). You want to give it a look, and see what programs it offers.
* You want to test your hardware. Will it work with Linux?
* You want to install Linux to your hardware. If you like it, you might want to make the leap right then.
* You want to do real work.
What does real work consist of? Usually, it means:
* Surf the web, meaning "look at html pages." On occasion, it's also handy to have built-in plugins: flash, pdf, shockwave, and the codecs necessary to run a movie trailer.
* Email. You might want a dedicated email client. More often, using a CD means that you're fetching your mail via a browser.
* Open or create an office document. It could be that you're just trying to read a document, spreadsheet, or Power Point that someone emailed you. Or you're trying to create one.
* Print. So you view or create a document. Maybe emailing is good enough. Sometimes, you want a copy.
* Read/write to a floppy or USB pen drive. Either of these might store your configuration files, or documents you're working on as you travel.
Here's my home collection to date (and while it isn't complete, it's a good look at today's offerings).
* Basilisk (based on Fedora)
* BeatrIX (based on Debian/Knoppix/Ubuntu)
* Berry Linux (based on Fedora)
* Damn Small Linux (based on Debian)
* FreeSBIE (based on Free BSD)
* Gnoppix (Knoppix/Debian plus Gnome, now merged with Ubuntu)
* Kanotix (modified Knoppix/Debian)
* Knoppix (the first big live CD, based on Debian)
* Luit (Debian/Xfce, rox filing system)
* Mandrake Move (based on Mandrake)
* Mepis (Debian)
* Morphix (modular Debian)
* PCLinuxOS Preview (a Mandrake fork)
* Sam (Mandrake/Xfce)
* SLAX (Slackware)
* Suse 9.1 and 9.2 (rpm-based)
* Ubuntu Live (Debian)
* Xfld (Debian/Damn Small Linux and Xfce)
The most significant way to categorize them is their software management systems. Most of the Live CD's fall into one of two camps: Debian apt-based (Damn Small, Gnoppix, Kanotix, Knoppix, Luit, Mepis, Morphix, Ubuntu, Xfld), or rpm-based (Basilisk, Berry, or SUSE).
As I hope is obvious from the above, Debian is winning. The apt-get program allows the user -- at least one who isn't afraid of the command line -- to easily add and remove programs, even to upgrade to a newer distribution with a single command.
In general, all of the Live CD's booted, found the Internet through an ethernet port, and launched their bundled programs.
Few of them managed to print. Often, it wasn't even possible to figure out how you were supposed to set this up. (I freely admit that the problem may be me. CUPS has proved slippery for me.) Many of the distros also had trouble locating a wireless connection.
Some, of course, were faster than others. A few were so slow (taking over 5 minutes to load a program, for instance) that they weren't even worth trying to use on an old Gateway, 128 megabyte machine (see test machines, below).
Some were easier or more pleasurable to use. This, of course, is subjective, a matter (aside from speed and function) of taste. I'll try to declare my biases as I go along. But in general, "pleasure" means that I found a sense of integral design, a consistent look and feel, a focus on not just lots of choices, but the right choices.
I tested the Linux Live CDs on three machines:
* a Gateway E-3200, PII, with 128 megs of memory, 3D Rage Pro AGP 1X/2X, 10 gig hard drive.
* an HP Pavilion A520n,with 512 megs of memory, nVidia video and sound. The Internet connection for this one is via wireless: an Intersil Corp, PRISMII.5 Wireless LAN card.
* Dell Precision with 256 megs of memory, nVidia video and sound drivers.