IBM, among others, have declared 2004 the year of Linux. Many companies and organizations are switching workstations from proprietary operating systems such as Microsoft Windows to Linux, including the City of Calgary.
Formerly, such transitions took substantial time and expertise, discouraging many home users from trying the free operating system, now in its second decade of life. But a new generation of "live" Linux distributions have made the process a lot easier. These distributions each fit on a single CD, which can be booted directly without affecting any data or other operating systems on the computer hard disk.
FrozenTech lists 174 live Linux distributions, with primary functionality including bioinformatics, computer clustering, desktops, education, firewalls and security, forensics, gaming, home entertainment, medical, computer rescue and diagnostics, and servers. Over 60 of these live Linux distributions are intended for desktop use.
Some users might also want to keep a bootable Linux handy to recover files from Windows computers rendered inoperable by viruses, a growing problem in recent months. Live Linux distributions can access data stored on the hard disk and allow users to transfer the data to another computer on the Internet, via floppy disks, and recordable CDs or DVDs in some cases. As a bonus, a live Linux distribution burned to CD-R cannot get infected with viruses.
The size of live Linux distributions ranges from a few megabytes up to 700 MB (a full CD), which can take up to an hour to download on a broadband Internet connection. Some distributions are mirrored at the U of C, and all can be downloaded speedily from computers on campus.
All live Linux distributions reviewed here must be recorded to a CD before use, although there are Linux distributions that will fit on USB memory keys and other removable storage.
Most live Linux distributions are built to run on even modest computer hardware (original Pentiums), and are downloadable for free in the form of CD images. Most CD-recording software will support burning CD images (.ISO files) with the "Record CD from image file" command, which may be titled slightly differently depending on the recording program. Live Linux CD images can be burned to either CD-R or CD-RW media.
The publishers of the Adios bootCD live Linux distribution (see below) provide a free downloadable tool to record .ISO image files to CD from computers running Windows XP.
Using a bootable live Linux CD is a simple process. The first step is to configure your computer to boot from its optical CD or DVD drive (instructions to do this vary by model, and can be found in the computer manual). The second step is to restart the computer with the burned live Linux CD in the appropriate optical drive.
The computer will automatically boot from the live Linux CD.
On startup, a number of ominous-looking error messages may appear, as computer peripherals and hardware are detected and configured.
To support a wide range of models, a normal part of the startup process involves an attempt to detect devices that do not actually exist in any particular computer. Detection and configuration may take a couple of minutes, and may require user intervention in some cases.
After successful detection and configuration, most distributions reviewed here will load a graphical user interface that more or less works like Windows. From there, programs, documents and the Internet may be accessed, as with Windows.
Knoppix 3.3 (700 MB)
Knoppix 3.3 is a very slick live Linux distribution that forms the basis for a
number of other live Linux distributions. The KDE graphical user interface is
intuitive and provides and easy access to all physical drives on the computer,
multiple desktops, the Mozilla web browser, and the OpenOffice productivity suite.
Network connections are configured on startup, which requires no user intervention. USB storage is also supported, and Windows file systems are automatically made available on the desktop.
Knoppix uses the familiar Start menu paradigm from Windows, rooted in the KDE logo in lower-left corner of the screen. A large assortment of applications fill out Knoppix CD. Included are Internet, productivity, multimedia applications, the GIMP image editing program, games, the bochs emulator, a Samba server, a number of text editors, and the KPilot and JPilot PalmPilot tools.
USB support is mature. The included USB View tool shows information about connected USB devices, and USB storage is configured automatically.
Compared to other GUIs, the taskbar is somewhat cluttered, with access to four desktops, an English/French/German language selector and a clock.
Knoppix also makes a good data recovery CD, with the ability to share files over networks with other computers running Windows (or any other network-connected computer).
LINUX 9.0 Live-Eval (650 MB)
SuSE LINUX 9.0 Live-Eval is based on the popular desktop version of its Linux
distribution. However, the conversion to a bootable live CD is disappointing.
The startup sequence take a while to detect devices and decompress the compressed program and data packages into memory, Much of this process happens in the YaST setup tool.
Though YaST implies it will install SuSE to the hard disk, it only changes the contents of disks in memory. We chose English as the install language and pressed install to continue.
The broadband network connection was configured automatically before KDE was loaded.
The KDE 3.1 GUI was automatically configured with working sound, and comes with OpenOffice installed.
As configured, the GUI uses the familiar Start menu paradigm, but Icons launch their associated applications on each click of the mouse. At times, the GUI was painfully slow and generally not as slick as others we tested, especially when the Konqueror 3.4 web browser and OpenOffice were open simultaneously.
SuSE automatically makes the first hard disk partition accessible on the desktop,
but cannot read NTFS file systems used by many WindowsÂ XP installations. SuSE
is installable directly to the hard disk.
live-Puppy 0.8.4 (46
live-Puppy is a live version of the Puppy Linux distribution, based on Red Hat
live-Puppy supports USB devices, but not the NTFS file system used by Windows XP.
The very rudimentary fvwm95 GUI dates from the last century, and live-Puppy lacks newer tools found in other distributions. In addition, live-Puppy feels somewhat slow and unresponsive compared with other live and installed Linuxes.
LindowsLive! is a very polished, professionally maintained live Linux distribution
designed as a Windows replacement.
The startup sequence is entirely automatic, with the option to invoke diagnostics programs at boot. LindowsLive! supports a wide variety of hardware, detection of which makes the startup sequence take a couple of minutes. LindowsLive! supports all Windows files systems, many sound cards, USB storage, CD burning, wireless network connections, and comes with OpenOffice, the Mozilla web browser and a number of media players.
By the time the intuitive GUI loads, network, sound and almost everything else has been configured automatically.
Obtaining LindowsLive! is a pain as it is only available from a list of sanctioned peer-to-peer networks, or as a US$29.95 mail-order CD.
Adios 3.01 bootCD (700MB)
The Queensland University of Technology publishes Adios bootCD as "a complete
Linux OS on a bootable CD with documentation," and looks impressive on their
web site. However, we failed to get the GUI to load on any of our test machines.
On startup, we selected option number one to run Adios from RAM, and were able to start the system to the point where the GUI endlessly crashed and attempted to reload itself.
The network, USB storage and local hard disk drives were and accessible from the command line.
The option to use local file systems for temporary as a startup option is useful, but only if the computer already has a Linux file system installed.
Adios is based on Red Hat linux's Fedora Core, which is an excellent desktop Linux in its original form.
Slackware 9.1 disc 2 (657 MB)
The ten-year-old Slackware Linux distribution is known for its sparseness. As
a clean slate on which to build, experienced Linux users can customize it very
easily to use almost any Linux-compatible software available. The Slackware 9.1
live CD (CD 2 of the Slackware distribution) is just as sparse as its installed
counterpart, and requires some experience to use.
Slackware's long startup sequence--due to its exhaustive attempts to detect and configure all system hardware--is less friendly and less interpretable than the other distributions. Fortunately, it will likely detect and configure more devices than any other distribution reviewed.
Once booted, instructions are given in a text-mode terminal. Be sure to follow the instructions carefully, and launch "dhcpcd" to configure network connections as soon as you log in.
Slackware does not boot directly into a GUI and there is and no obvious way for novices to start a GUI from the command line.
Support is present for USB storages devices and all Windows file systems on hard disks, but users must manually create mount points and mount drives manually to access those drives.
Slackware contains many utilities and programs, but most are based on the command line. Installing this version of Slackware as a desktop operating system is not recommended.
Feather Linux 0.4.0 (63 MB)
Feather Linux is a compact and slightly difficult to use remaster of Knoppix.
Coming in at 63 MB in size, it includes an amazing list of features and supports
sound, wireless networking, CD burning, and USB devices.
The startup sequence configures most common hardware correctly, but requires user intervention to set monitor resolution and refresh rate (it's safe to select the default 'Xvesa xserver' option and any screen resolution supported by your monitor).
Feather fails to recognize some USB input devices if they are not connected to the primary USB port, and may require reconnecting such devices to different USB ports.
Once the GUI has loaded, right-clicking the desktop reveals a hierarchal list of applications in addition to those given cryptic names and icons on the desktop.
To configure network connections, right-click the desktop and choose: "Apps | System | Network card configuration tool" or "Apps | System | Wireless card configuration tool." The menu spawned from the desktop also provides easy access to commonly-used Open Source software programs. The shutdown and restart functions are also hidden here.
Feather Linux lacks large programs such as Mozilla and OpenOffice but comes with the links-hacked web browser, PPP configuration tools, a basic web server, telnet sshd daemons, and is able to read files from Windows file systems and USB storage. Users can install Feather Linux to the hard disk, or save and load configurations via a floppy or hard disk.
The one significant drawback of Feather Linux is the non-obvious means of accessing storage devices and hard drive partitions. To do so, you must launch the Emelfm application on the desktop, navigate to /mnt, and right-click a mount point to mount hard disk partitions. Access to the floppy disk is similarly available from Emelfm.
Hopefully the release version of Feather Linux is somewhat more user-friendly.
FrozenTech’s list of live Linuxes (including distributions for Macintosh) is at: http://www.frozentech.com/content/livecd.php
Some live and installed Linux distributions are available at http://mirror.cpsc.ucalgary.ca