This article is a quick roundup of “best picks” for Linux Live CD’s.
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.
_My favorites and why_
On machines with 256 megs or more:
PCLinuxOS (www.pclinuxonline.com) is an offshoot of Mandrake. The work of Texstar and friends, PCLOS is a Live CD that has it all: polish, configuration tools, a KDE desktop that seems designed for someone who wants to work, not just show off the software.
The best part is that it’s all preconfigured: it has the most complete list of browser plugins I’ve seen. Although rpm based, it uses apt-get/Synaptic for software management. The community is smart and helpful.
The repositories are surprisingly rich. You get even more current software than Mandrake. The difference is, PCLOS is more tightly integrated, and in my experience, more stable. PCLOS is what I run on my home machine — after the Live CD assured me that everything worked. (And then I installed Gnome, which works beautifully.)
Ubuntu (www.ubuntulinux.org) is Gnome-based. It doesn’t come with the pre-configured thoughtfulness of PCLOS. But providing you first install it on your hard drive, one 35 minutes session with apt and the online Ubuntu Starter Guide (ubuntuguide.org) packs in everything else you need, from browser plug-ins to Microsoft-compatible fonts. The founder is Mark Shuttleworth, the African dot-com millionaire who bought his way into space — and now focuses his attention on providing affordable computing for the masses.
Ubuntu closely tracks the latest Gnome, and Gnome’s new utilities for setting up network and printers make Ubuntu a breeze to use.
BeatrIX (www.watsky.net) is a sleeper. It’s Knoppix (for hardware recognition), then Ubuntu, with one more cycle of focus and distillation. Pop in the Live CD (which fits on a mini-disc), and put it in front of a computer user who has never seen Linux. They won’t know or care. Stripped to nothing but core apps and a kernelized Gnome, Ubuntu is quick, uses industry standard applications, and is synched to the gold mine of Ubuntu repositories. This is the CD I carry around with me. The website bills this gem as “Small, Simple, and Elegant.” It’s true.
Caution: BeatrIX doesn’t mess with multimedia stuff. Again, with a hard drive install, you can add whatever you want, but it’s target is internet and office use.
Mepis (www.mepis.org) is the home user’s upgrade to Knoppix. It is KDE-based. I’ll admit it: I prefer Gnome. But Mepis has just enough user utilities (to install to hard drive, to set up your wireless network, and more) to convince me that it really wants to do the job. Caution: a “dist-upgrade,” as opposed to just apt-get upgrade,” can (and in my case, did) break the whole installation, as it actually moves you to Debian SID. But Mepis is responsive and comprehensive, with another great community.
_On machines with 128 megs_
When you step down to a 128 meg machine, the choices change some. In general, the window manager determines the speed. Window managers with small footprints — Blackbox, Fluxbox, Xfce, Icewm — are quick and robust. The tradeoff? You get fewer utilities to set up the network and printer. Too, you tend to get a collection of unrelated programs, rather than a consistent interface.
A more full-fledged desktop environment — KDE or Gnome — slows things down. In exchange for the demand on system resources, you get more utilities. Again, I happen to prefer Gnome 2.8’s remarkably straightforward guides to setting up a network connection or printer. It’s hard to do the wrong thing. By contrast, KDE wizards offer too many options, all of which seem strangely equal, and most of which are incorrect.
But both of them have a logic. Both of them work. Moreover, both have other bundled applications that make the computing experience more predictable and therefore comfortable. KDE has the edge on integrated programs: Konqueror, KOffice,KMail, and KOrganizer are far more seamless than Abiword, Gnumeric, and Mozilla (or Firefox and Thunderbird or Evolution).
Openoffice.org runs on all of the above, of course, but is the gorilla at the dinner party — you can dress it up, but it still looks a little out of place. On the other hand, PCLOS uses KDE integration for OOo, which does help.
If speed is the primary desideratum, the best of the Live CD’s ranks as follows:
Damn Small Linux (www.damnsmalllinux.org). It’s a little scary, this fluxbox-based distro is so fast. It took a little noodling around, but I got it to find my wireless. It’s printer config program baffled me. I liked its hell-bent-for-leather approach — but DSL is a hodgepodge. What goes into DSL is clearly governed by these two rules alone: it’s fast, and it fits. I haven’t seen such a mishmash of interfaces and programs since my old DOS computer. It drove me crazy.
Next would be Luit (luitlinux.sarovar.org)– a distro based on Xfce AND DSL. Xfce is an up-and-comer, a low-resource window manager/desktop environment that lends coherence to a distro. Luit feels better than DSL to me, but it doesn’t come with a hard drive install or, as near as I could discover, any way to print. The idea, I gather, is to install Knoppix, then grab Xfce through apt-get.
In the second tier, all about as fast as each other, are,
* SAM (www.sam-linux.org). This plucky German distro has character. It’s an Xfce/Mandrake combo, which means it’s pretty, and comes with great noob-friendly configuration tools. It has another twist: it includes Textmaker and Planmaker, free versions of commercial office programs. It’s snappy and it makes you happy. Printing was missing, though.
* Morphix (www.morphix.org) has a new Light GUI version that impressed me. It loads fast, from boot to application. To get it to use wireless, I had to type these commands from a terminal window:
sudo iwconfig eth0 essid linksys
sudo iwconfig eth0 key  xxxxxx
sudo dhclient eth0
It worked, but I don’t know which is worse: that I finally learned all that, or that I needed to. Moreover, printing involved starting up cups, and configuring it all blind. That’s just harder than it needs to be. But Morphix has promise, too, a modular Linux that just needs an “Ubuntu Starter Guide” clone to be a hard drive install that would wring another year or two out of an “end of life” machine.
* BeatrIX (www.watsky.net), as noted above, is Ubuntu, minus 25 pounds, and in training. Gnome, Firefox, OpenOffice.org, Evolution, GAIM. The breakfast of champions.
* SLAX (slax.linux-live.org) surprised me. It wasn’t the fastest. It wasn’t the most modern. KDE-based, it nonetheless looked great to me. It took a second or two to load things, but then ran tight and clean. I begin to see the Slackware appeal. SLAX feels like a distro that stays close to its origins. I couldn’t get it to talk to the wireless network, and couldn’t get it to print — just a little too stripped down for this non-programmer (but because of that, it also fits on a mini-CD). It’s not an install disk, either. But I liked it anyhow.
* Ubuntu (www.ubuntulinux.org), with 256 megs of memory, has become my work machine distro of choice. But it runs at 128 megs, too, if a little sluggishly. Again, it feels complete and polished.
* Mandrake Move, on my 128 meg machine, was slow to get started. But after that, like SLAX or PCLinuxOS, it felt thoughtfully woven together, a complete environment.
* Knoppix/Kanotix/Mepis. All good choices, but Mepis feels more home user oriented.
* Xfld (ww.xfld.org/Xfld/en/index.html). This one is worth a look. Knoppix hardware detection; Xfce window manager. This is another one I could live in.
PCLOS and SUSE don’t run on 128 meg machines.
For the best “experience” on an older or underpowered machine:
Ubuntu and MandrakeMove are, I think, roughly equal on a slower machine.
But what’s the one live CD to carry around with you, not only to wow your friends, but to do actual work quickly and efficiently: BeatrIX.
A couple of quick comments on the distros I don’t recommend.
Basilisk, based on Fedora, was so excruciatingly slow in getting to a GDM login screen, and even slower beyond that, that I can only hope I had a corrupted download. Unusable.
Berry Linux, also based on Fedora, wins the prize for the most entertaining CD start-up routine. First you get a marijuana leaf, then a jackhammer, then a heart, then … A KDE distro, it too looks good. But it also felt sketchy, and if it had any package management tools installed, I couldn’t find them.
FreeSBIE, based on Free BSD and bundled with Xfce, is intriguing, but I couldn’t get it to talk to the wireless network, or to print. It also crashed my system twice. But I’d be willing to check it out again sometime.
Kanotix and Knoppix. Nothing wrong with them at all, and both have rich communities. Just not to my taste. But they do run on lower-capacity machines.
SUSE. I’ve had trouble on every computer I’ve ever tried it on. Sometimes it locks, sometimes it hangs looking for a printer. Who needs it, with so many other choices?
Finally, I’d like to thank all of the Live CD producers for their work, their obvious passion for their products, and for the low-risk opportunity to test their vision, before committing it to the hard drive. I spent a happy couple of weeks with their work, and I’m grateful to them.
About the author:
James LaRue is a public library administrator..
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