Two-thousand-and-ten is almost over. I’ve done more than my share of distro-hopping this year, and not because of a fickle character, but because of a curious streak.
This year's judge and jury.
That curiosity is bent toward very low-end computers though, and it’s not enough to me to just show a pretty desktop at 150Mhz if the overall experience feels like your head is being pressed through a bowl of mashed potatoes.
To that end, some distributions stick out in my mind more than others this year, as good options for low-end machines. A few more I tried are just good options, for any kind of machine.
And some I mention because they are ingrained in my lifestyle now. Maybe I didn’t discover them this year, but in 2010, they became essential to my workflow.
So I have a few end-of-year “notes.” These are not awards so much as recommendations, since I am hardly qualified to award anybody anything.
The wake-up call: KolibriOS. In a world of multi-DVD distros, of thousand-dollar operating systems in a half-dozen flavors, of operating systems that require multiple processors and double-digit gigabytes of memory to use, KolibriOS hits you like a ball-peen hammer squarely in the forehead.
KolibriOS: Pocket-sized powerhouse.
It’s hard not to find something to like about a full-featured desktop replete with games, applications, hardware tools and even networking support that sits in a meager 1.44Mb of space.
And thus it’s hard not to include it in a list of things to love about 2010, considering that KolibriOS in its latest rendition is a stern lesson in software design and how to put together a truly ultralight desktop.
Granted, this is minimalism to the nth degree, lightweight to the point that you can’t conceivably pit this against any other “modern” desktop without feeling almost foolish.
But let’s be frank: Why is lightweight and conservative software such a crusade — in Linux and in other operating systems — when KolibriOS stands as such a stark counterpoint?
Why does the search for a lightweight operating system begin and end with racks and racks of desktop environments, window managers and alternative desktops, and page after page of lighter upon lighter applications, toolsets and support libraries?
Why is it such a carnival to say out loud, “I have a machine that dates back a decade, but still works great and I’d like to find modern software that will run on it”?
I’ll let you decide, but deep down I think we all know that software demands push hardware upgrades, and upgrades in turn allow for bigger, fatter software. In that way, everybody makes money.
It’s a vicious circle, but it’s hard to reach any other conclusion when I can hold up a decades-old floppy with a complete operating system on it. It’s not for lack of skill or ability or time or even desire.
KolibriOS is proof that it’s possible. Just as much as it is proof that perhaps everyone else is going about things the wrong way. Probably so they can take your money.
A chicken in every pot: Slitaz base. I’d love to say that I have a Slitaz CD perched at the ready, any time I need to jump into a live environment on any machine in the house.
But that would be a half-truth, since I don’t use the standard Slitaz ISO to do that. I stick to the base version.
Slitaz base: What it looks like inside your computer, with the lights turned off.
You won’t like it. You’ll be dropped at the command line without a stitch of help from a mouse or a pointer, and feel rather cold and naked and alone. Welcome to the underbelly of your computer.
But you’ll get there on a meager 12Mb of RAM or less, meaning that this disc can get almost anything with a working CD drive up and running and with a minimum of resources. It’s amazing.
And what you do from there is up to you. Install Slitaz, or use that hovering OS to transfer files across a USB port (or entire operating systems), or repair or recover a dying hard drive.
True, there are other distros that offer these same tools on bigger and better and more complete CDs, but the resources they will demand and the time it will take to get them moving is likewise bigger. And not necessarily better.
So for a lightweight tool that I keep coming back to, and for a full-featured console environment that will fit inside a sliver of memory, it’s tough to beat the Slitaz base version. I can think of no higher praise.
Knight in shining armor: Clonezilla. Clonezilla is crack for the distro hopper.
Clonezilla: So yummy, it should be illegal.
Clonezilla is going to eat your life away in small pockets, leaving you with dozens of archived systems, waiting on an external hard drive.
Clonezilla will save your life, when calamity strikes.
Clonezilla makes it too easy to backup and restore entire systems, and isn’t afraid of anything.
Clonezilla turns on a dime, needs less than the average memory available to a Pentium III to get started, and even comes in a i486 flavor, for weirdos like me.
Clonezilla boots from USB, boots to memory, boots to anything with a keyboard and an LCD attached, and won’t quit until you tell it to.
And what it does is free up your life to think about other things. New things. Fresh things. Knowing full well all the time that you can always go back to your old way of thinking.
Technically it’s not an operating system, so you can throw stones if you want. But if you’ve tried it, and you know it, you won’t make that big of a noise if I include it here. You’re a believer. You know you are.
Tried and true: DSL. When I peel away the frustration and dismay, I have to admit a solemn reverence for a distro that manages so many convolutions in setting up this computer, and doing it so well, and being about a year or two out of development.
DSL, even at this late date, does things for ancient hardware that my best efforts still can’t. Maybe I’m just not well educated enough (no CS degree on my resume, pal). I am more than willing to admit my ignorance.
DSL: The ghost of Christmases past.
But the 60 seconds it takes this 5-plus-year-old distro to start, configure and announce its presence with authority are more than enough to spellbind me. Audio, video, network and peripherals, all moving at a good clip and with no sense of weariness.
It’s almost infuriating. I’ve been inside and out of the machine, probed its inner recesses and researched everything I can think of in terms of arranging and configuring. And an out-of-service, 50Mb distro beats me, with one hand tied behind its back.
Touche, sirs. For that, a small tip of the hat. I wish I could do as well, left to my own devices.
Service with a smile: Debian Lenny. I haven’t mentioned it much, but the Debian server I built to run at 133Mhz has convinced me to keep an otherwise superfluous computer and a network card I thought unworking. And that’s saying something.
Debian: The magical stuff that binds us all together.
Given the chance, Debian will perform back flips at the snap of a finger, and provided you don’t overwhelm a machine — of any architecture — you’re more or less assured of top-shelf performance.
Even so, combining a 13-year-old 133Mhz Pentium with only 32Mb, a RaLink-based PCMCIA network card and a gift-from-god 120Gb 5400rpm hard drive sounds like a recipe for disaster.
But like the rug that pulls the room together, Lenny makes it all work as a file server and torrent slave … with only a small bump in software for complete and perfect usability. No hiccups, no flukes, no spotty hardware performance.
And with uptimes in double-digit days, it shows no sign of stopping. You want a reason not to throw out an old machine? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Debian Lenny.
Not for the faint of heart: Crux 2.7. Source-based distros are not for everybody. That should go without saying.
But of the ones I’ve tried, Crux — and most recently in its 2.7 version for the i586 — is by far my favorite.
Crux 2.7 i586: You too can be an Internet hero.
Linux From Scratch is educational, but becomes esoteric for me. Gentoo seems overcomplicated, when compared with Crux’s spartan arrangement. Of the others … well, I should probably look a little more before saying anything.
Suffice to say that Crux has just enough automation by default to keep it from becoming obtuse. But it also skimps on a lot of other points, which keeps you on your toes.
I mentioned the other day that I learned more about Linux from a 450Mhz K6-2 running Crux than I ever did with any more powerful machine. That’s very true.
But you could probably substitute almost any hardware for that rotten little K6-2, and still learn heaps and mounds more than what Ubuntu or other distros have to offer.
I’m no expert, and your way is always the right way. But if your goal is to figure out what makes your hardware tick, I can think of no better suggestion than Crux.
And best of all, I can guarantee with 99 percent assurance, that any speed improvement you might remember if you moved to Arch from Ubuntu, you will see again if you move from Arch to Crux. Believe you me.
Up and coming: ConnochaetOS. It’s probably not fair for me to highlight a distro so recent in my mind, because there is an observation bias that can’t be avoided.
But let’s be honest. I have a half-dozen computers I’ve used in the past year, and the majority of those predated the Pentium II. What do I really want out of life? An Arch Linux for i586s.
archlinux-i586.org dried up more than a year ago, but the DeLi Linux project morphed into the latest i586 effort built on Arch. And I am 100 percent on board with that.
ConnochaetOS: A promising future on the playing field.
Any Arch veteran who has an old machine in the house is going to wipe a tear from her eye if there’s a living, breathing version of i586 Arch out there. Time saved in compiling is the first reason.
Simple ease of use, a minimal starting point and an easy-peasy configuration system are others, and are all hallmarks of Arch proper. All three of those are gold to an antique computer enthusiast.
So while there might be a curse attached to i586 renditions of Arch Linux, I’m hoping ConnochaetOS can ride it out, in part with its history as DeLi Linux, but in part because it’s got what Arch users are used to.
My fingers are crossed for this one.
Big toys for big boys: Linux Mint Debian. What I’ve mentioned thus far all has the potential — if not the promise — of running on extremely low-end machines. Pentiums. Maybe even i486s.
But if you were born after 1992 and you think a single-core machine is sluggish, then your idea of “antique” is quite different from mine.
No matter: I have one more candidate for you, and this one should run on anything from a Pentium 4 up, and suffer no setbacks at all.
And heck, you can even strip the machine down to (a no doubt frightening) 256Mb and still get plenty of use out of it. Put in those hours at Free Geek, because your reward will no doubt perform with Linux Mint Debian.
LMDE: All of the flavor, none of the fat.
Distros like this one should put fear into the hearts of big-name projects like Ubuntu or Fedora or OpenSUSE. Why? Because all the flash (dare I say “Flash”?
), all the glitter and all the goodies are instantly available for us peons suffering with leftover machines.
How can LMD be doing things so right, and all the others be doing things so … not right? I don’t know.
But spend a week with LMD and you’ll probably never walk back to Ubuntu. And you’ll probably never walk into another computer reseller either, because the machine you use now (I feel safe in saying) is powerful enough to run it.
And Mint’s reputation for making Ubuntu even easier … ? Well, what can I say. Back in August I dropped Mint into a neighbor’s Celeron, with the hopes that it would be easier and cleaner to manage than — but just as speedy as — Arch.
And it ran without a complaint — no, really: without a stitch of attention from me — for three full months. What do you make of that?
P.S.: Get yourself some floppies. What is life without floppies?!
(All right. You asked for it, you got it. )