Puppy Linux: Top Dog of the Lightweight Distros

How can you run a full range of current applications on older
computers, netbooks, thin clients, and mobile devices? One way is to
install a lightweight Linux like Puppy, Lubuntu, or Vector Light.
Select the distro with the apps that meets your needs while matching
your computer’s resources.

Puppy is worthy of your attention because it’s pushed its way into Distrowatch‘s
top ten most popular operating systems by merit alone. It doesn’t
have a corporate sponsor or advertising budget. This article describes Puppy. Screenshots follow the article.

What’s Unique About Puppy

Puppy runs on many limited-resource computers. This includes Pentium
IV’s, III’s, M’s, D’s, Atom and Celeron netbooks, and even Pentium
II’s. I’ve used it in
refurbishing computers donated to charity yet I also run it on my
state-of-the-art computers. What makes it appealing is
how it combines three characteristics that normally force a trade-off:

            1. A full range of applications

            2. Ease of use

            3. Good performance on limited hardware

              Puppy supplies all the
              applications most users need while running
              on low-resource computers. It does this
              while retaining ease-of-use. So you can install it for
              consumers on low-end or older equipment.

              Puppy combines high
              functionality
              with minimal
              hardware
              . These
              two goals force a direct trade-off — typically you get one or the
              other, but
              not both. Puppy employs specific techniques to circumvent the
              trade-off and combine these two goals. Among them:

              • Bundled applications are selected for high
                functionality and minimal
                resource consumption.
              • Puppy excludes all but the mandatory Linux functions, code,
                services, and
                daemons.
              • The OS and bundled apps automatically load and run from memory on
                any
                computer having 256 M or more. This executes code at in-memory
                speeds and eliminates slow hard disk and optical
                disc access. It yields good performance even on older computers with slow devices.
              • Graphical user interfaces are the most resource-consumptive
                component of modern operating systems. Puppy dodges the GUI performance bullet with the
                lightweight JWM as
                its default interface,
                based on X-server with either Xorg or the more limited but efficient XVesa.
              • Puppy’s frugal install
                option copies the Live CD code into any Windows or
                Linux disk partition and boots from there. This yields hard disk boot
                speed without requiring disk re-partitioning.


                Puppy doesn’t require the anti-malware software
                that
                overwhelms older Windows systems. You can take a Windows ME/98/95
                system, replace Windows with
                Puppy, and
                have a secure, performant system running current software. Puppy is a prime candidate for reusing these old systems.

                Flexibility

                Flexibility is essential when working with low-end computers. You need
                software that runs on the system you have, rather than requiring you to
                upgrade, change, or fix hardware. Puppy doesn’t impose hardware requirements.

                For example, Puppy installs and boots from any
                bootable device and saves your work to any
                writeable device. No hard disk, optical drive, or USB?
                No problem. Want to use your old SCSI drive, floppy, Zip
                drive, LS-120/240 Superdisk, or compact flash memory? Puppy does it.
                It’s great to see a distro that leverages whatever odd old devices your system has.

                Puppy can even use write-once
                CDs or DVDs for persistent storage. It will
                prompt you to insert a new disc when needed. It then carries all your
                work forward onto the newly inserted CD or DVD.

                Puppy gives you a choice of Linux kernels. It comes with the
                latest one for
                current equipment and older “retro” kernels for aging machines. So it
                runs on computers most other lightweight Linuxes no longer support.

                Puppy complements Windows. You can install and load
                it from
                within a Windows disk partition. Or install on its own partition using
                Linux filesystems like ext2, ext3, ext4, or reiserfs. Puppy’s
                boot manager, GRUB, recognizes all existing Windows install(s) and
                generates a boot-time menu that asks you which OS you want to run. So
                you can install Puppy on a computer that already runs Windows or
                Linux without worry.

                All this flexibility makes Puppy better suited for revitalizing mature computers than many competing lightweight distributions.

                Apps Are the Name of the Game

                I’ve described how Puppy achieves good performance on minimal hardware.
                But what can you do with it?

                Puppy bundles the applications to perform the same tasks as much larger
                distros. I can comfortably use it for everything I do instead of Ubuntu. With Puppy you can —

                • Perform home and office tasks with word processors, file and HTML
                  editors, PDF viewers, spreadsheets, and HomeBank
                  finance manager. Puppy bundles GNOME Office.
                • Surf the Internet with your choice of browsers, and read, write, send and manage email with Sylpheed
                • Play, record, mix, rip and manage music
                • Scan in documents and pictures, read or scan photographs,
                  alter and manage images and graphics with image and vector editors
                • Write your personal blog with PPLOG and the Hiawatha web
                  server, or create your own wiki with DidiWiki
                • Telephone, chat, or message via Voice Over IP with Psip, and instant
                  message and chat with Ayttm
                • Manage your address book, personal contacts, and daily calendar
                  with Osmo daily
                  organizer
                • Read, write, and burn CD’s, DVD’s, and Blu-ray discs
                • Log in to remote computers with telnet and send & receive
                  files
                • Manage your files and data with file managers, a file finder,
                  and tools for backup
                • Manage your computer and its performance with a full set of
                  utilities for setup, configuration, and performance monitoring and
                  management

                Here’s
                a full list of Puppy’s bundled apps and their version
                numbers. Of course, like any mainstream distro Puppy makes it easy to download and install addtional apps with its package GUI.

                For smooth video, you need a machine running at perhaps 800 ghz or faster. In my experience Puppy runs video fluently
                with a slightly slower processor than larger distros like Ubuntu, where
                you need at least 1 ghz.

                Where Puppy Plays

                The current Puppy release — Puppy 5 or “Lucid Puppy” — boots in 128 M
                ram and runs entirely from memory on
                systems with 256 M or more. The CD download is 130 M.
                (Older
                Puppy releases are about 100 M
                downloads and prior to version 4 Puppy boots in only 64 M).

                Puppy is a performant system for Pentium IV’s, III’s, M’s, D’s, and Atom and Celeron netbooks. Pentium II’s
                work well with many Puppy releases if you can maximize their memory to
                256 M, which allows Puppy
                to
                run entirely from memory and perform optimally. You can actually use a
                P-II for serious work! One important limitation is that
                P-II’s
                can’t run web video because the P-II line topped out at 450mhz. This is a processor limitation rather than a Puppy shortcoming.

                If you have a really old computer in your basement or attic, Puppy
                can help you revitalize it. Puppy also runs on P-II’s with less than
                256 M and P-I’s. But here you forgo the speed advantage that comes
                with
                running the system solely from memory.

                For my purposes — refurbishing older computers with software that
                is user-friendly enough for end users — Puppy presents the right
                balance of
                usability with minimal hardware requirements. As long as you install
                and configure Puppy, end users will be quite happy using it on Pentium IV’s, III’s, and even II’s.

                I don’t want to leave the impression that Puppy is only
                suitable for
                low-end hardware. I install it as one of several operating systems on my state-of-the-art
                computers. It’s a fun alternative to some of the full-sized distros like Ubuntu, PCLinuxOS, or Fedora.

                Puppy makes a handy
                portable “rescue disk” on CD, DVD, or bootable USB pen drive. Just last
                month my friend
                corrupted his disk’s master boot record on a Windows computer. With a
                Live Puppy CD, we fixed this fatal error in minutes. Puppy scanned the disk and regenerated
                the master boot record for us. (My
                friend could also have used the Windows recovery console with commands like fixmbr
                and fixboot but he didn’t
                know how).

                I recently used Puppy to save data from a DOS FAT32 partition on a
                failing disk. I booted Live Puppy CD, then used its tools to
                rebuild the DOS partition’s corrupted file allocation table. After verifying the FAT structure was
                good, I carefully copied files from the failing disk to a good one,
                concentrating on the highest priority files first. Eventually we saved
                all data from the bad disk partition except for two files that had damaged
                sectors. Then we replaced the bad disk.

                Puppy’s Profile

                Puppy makes a nice match for computer
                consumers — assuming a knowledgeable person installs and configures it
                for them. It brings old equipment back to life. But it may not be the best fit for
                corporate users who require software that changes little from
                release to release, or for companies that need a distro with corporate backing. Puppy is:

                Community-developed and supported
                — Puppy originated with one individual, Barry Kauler. A small inner circle adds
                to his
                efforts. No corporation underwrites or directs Puppy. Free support includes videos, wikis,
                how-to’s, online documentation, tutorials, web sites, and active
                forums. With one or two exceptions it does not offer corporate support contracts.

                No “road map” — This is an
                evolving distro. Every
                version differs. There is no
                long term “road map” for future development or set schedule for planned
                future
                releases and upgrades. The community develops Puppy as consensus evolves.

                Version upgrades only — Updates are traditionally
                through point releases. Puppy
                5 adds a push-button for downloadable software fixes like Ubuntu or
                Windows.

                Root user id — Puppy runs as a
                single-user system and this drives its development. The Puppy user
                runs as the Linux root user id.
                In theory this could be a problem — but in practice it presents
                no downside. I’ve never heard of a single Puppy user suffering
                a
                problem due to this.
                If this concerns you, see the discussions
                that explore all angles of this topic
                in this
                forum thread and this
                one.

                How to Run Puppy

                In Puppy version 5.2, the Live CD download file is
                127 M. Once you’ve downloaded the product, burn it to a “boot CD” and
                you’re
                ready to run.

                Given its small size and quick boot time,
                many run Puppy as a Live CD or DVD without ever
                installing it. Puppy allows you to save your session work by asking if
                you want
                to create a Save File the first time you request a shut down. Place the
                Save File
                on any writeable device
                (disk, USB, writeable CD or DVD, whatever). Next time you boot the
                Live CD
                or DVD Puppy finds the Save File to start your session. Ever after Puppy automatically saves your session work in the Save
                File
                without asking.

                You can install Puppy to any
                bootable device — disk (SATA, PATA/IDE or SCSI), writeable CD or DVD,
                Superdisk, USB devices, Zip drive, or whatever will boot your
                computer. You have two options here: a full install and the frugal
                install
                .

                The full install is a
                traditional Linux install. You need to create a
                disk partition for Puppy’s use. Puppy helps you do this with its bundled GParted
                partition manager. Puppy also comes with GRUB for setting up an OS selection menu at startup. A Puppy partition need only be
                500 M, though if you install additional apps, I’ve found 1 G to be a spacious
                round number.

                The frugal install simply
                copies the Live CD files to
                disk. Place these files in a single directory within
                any
                existing partition. This partition can be Windows NTFS or FAT32, or any
                of the
                common Linux partition types, such as ext2, ext3, ext4, or reiserfs.

                The benefits to the frugal install are:

                1. Puppy can reside in any existing partition (assuming sufficient
                  space)
                2. No need to shrink the Windows partition or create a new Linux
                  partition
                3. Easy to upgrade — just replace the older version files with the
                  ones from a newer version


                These advantages make frugal installs more popular with Puppy than
                full disk installs.
                USB boots are also quite popular. Puppy fits on any 512 M USB memory stick with space leftover for your data.

                New in Version 5

                Puppy 5.x presents some
                big enhancements over previous versions. It was created from Ubuntu
                packages through a
                new tool inventor Barry Kauler calls Woof. Woof
                builds Puppy from the package repositories of various Linux distros.
                Right now the supported distros include Ubuntu, Debian,
                Slackware, Arch, T2 SDE, and Puppy.

                The result is that Puppy 5 runs any Ubuntu or *.deb package! This opens
                up the whole word of Ubuntu and Debian applications to Puppy. Prior to
                version 5, you could only install apps from Puppy’s own repository.
                While this repository contains
                hundreds
                of common Linux applications, enough for most people, it does not
                compare to the thousands of free apps now available in the
                Ubuntu/Debian repositories.

                Puppy 5 tweaks the user interface. It boots directly into a
                pre-configured desktop for quick startup. It gives users the
                ability to easily customize the desktop with choices for
                common
                applications such as the browser. The new QuickPet tool makes
                one-click
                installation easy. Wireless and internet configuration are also much
                improved. Barry Kauler’s blog and the
                Version 5 Release
                Notes
                give full details on everything that’s new in Puppy 5.

                You can customize Puppy into your own distro with either Woof or the Puppy re-mastering tool. These are
                so easy to use that they have resulted in an explosion of Puplets,
                customized Puppy-based distros. Puplets address all sorts of special
                interests, including multi-user
                Puppy
                , Puppeee
                for the eeePC notebook, UbuntuStudio
                Puppy, and many more
                designed for gaming, scientific disciplines, religious interests,
                international languages, etc. If you’re interested in
                customizing your own
                Linux version, Puppy is an especially good choice.

                Time to Adopt Puppy?

                Puppy Linux combines a full range of applications and performance
                in an
                easy-to-use
                system. Given its light resource requirements, it works well on older computers, netbooks, mobile devices, and other
                limited-resource systems. It’s a great hobbyist system for revitalizing an older computer. You can make an old Windows ME/98/95
                box useful again with Puppy.

                I like Puppy because it’s the lightest Linux
                distro I’ve found that is still suitable for end users. Install it on
                an old P-III or P-IV computer and your family or friends will use it
                just as effectively for common tasks as any expensive new
                machine.

                At OS News, we’re all computer enthusiasts, so it may be hard to believe.
                But many people see absolutely no reason to pay for
                a new computer
                every few years if their old one suffices. Puppy is a godsend for
                these folks.

                I’ve run Puppy for five years with few problems. Forum support
                is outstanding. And Puppy really flies — when the entire system runs from
                memory, even an
                older computer is responsive. A P-III with adequate memory runs Puppy
                as fast as my dual-core e5200 runs Windows.

                Without advertisements or corporate backing, Puppy has risen to become one of the world’s
                dozen most popular distros. If you’re looking for a lightweight distro you should
                give it a try.

                – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

                Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who
                specializes in
                databases and operating systems. His hobby is computer refurbishing as
                a form of social work and environmental contribution. You can reach him
                at contactfci at the domain
                name of sbcglobal (period) net.

                Puppy Links

                Website
                Overview
                and Getting Started
                Forum
                Puppy 5 review
                and intro
                Another
                Puppy 5 review


                Previous Articles in
                This Series

                1.Smart
                Reuse with Open Source
                How refurbishing defeats planned
                obsolescence
                2.Scandal: Most
                “Recycled” Computers Are Not Recycled
                What really happens to many
                “recycled”
                computers?
                3.How
                to Revitalize Mature Computers
                Overview of how to refurbish
                mature computers
                4.How to
                Secure Windows
                A step-by-step procedure to
                secureWindows
                5.How to Performance Tune WindowsHow to tune Windows (any version)
                6.How Microsoft Missed The Next Big ThingHow Microsoft missed the boat when it comes to the exploding popularity of small portable devices
                7.How to Run Multiple Operating SystemsDescribes and contrasts techniques to running multiple operating systems on a single computer
                8.Lubuntu: Finally, a Lightweight Ubuntu!Lubuntu review — why you should consider it on low-end systems.

                Puppy Linux Screenshots

                The Main Screen

                The icons in the upper-left side of the screen
                are the main
                applications. The optional row of disk icons at the lower left-side of
                the screen shows the mount status of disk partitions. I’ve changed the
                background wallpaper here from version 5’s default to that of an
                earlier Puppy release —

                Puppy Main Screen

                Bundled Graphics Tools

                This screenshot shows Puppy’s bundled graphics tools. Just right-click
                at any open position in the screen to see JWM’s pop-up application
                menus —

                Bundled Graphics Tools

                Using Puppy

                I wrote this article on several of old P-IV and P-III computers with Puppy.
                Here’s a screenshot where I’m researching and writing using tools like the KompoZer HTML Editor, Firefox, the ROX-Filer
                File Manager, and the System Tools menu. I snapped and resized the screenshot with
                mtPaint —

                Writing This Article


                The Package Manager

                Puppy 5 now installs and runs applications from the
                Ubuntu as well as Puppy repositories. You can install any *.deb package —

                The Package Manager (with Ubuntu Repositories)

                Quickpet

                This easy tool allows for one-click app installation and is an
                easy-to-use addition
                to the Package Manager —

                Quickpet Application Installer

                Network Connectivity Tools

                Puppy Version 5 enhances Puppy’s network connectivity
                tools. Wireless and modem configuration are much improved —

                Network Connectivity Tools

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