Three floppy-based distros

This might sound strange, but I generally don’t endorse the floppy distros that are still available here and there on the Internet, and as a general rule, still work fine. I don’t hold any prejudice toward them, but I find that they’re out of date, intended for specific hardware arrangements, or just a bit too … personalized.

I can vouch for two or three as possibilities though, if you’re working with hardware that is terrifically old, or extremely underpowered. Usually these are offered as solutions to machines with very, very little memory (4Mb or 8Mb) , and if that’s the case they will probably be lifesavers.

muLinux is mentioned quite often as a possibility for older machines, and actually, if you have a working CD drive, this might be a better solution for you.

I had to use the ISO version of muLinux 14.0 because the installer scripts packaged in the floppy version wouldn’t run for me on an Arch-based system. The ISO version was no disappointment though, and technically you’ll probably get more in that 68Mb than you would from floppy after floppy.

muLinux has several versions with an array of add-ons that will get you closer to what you want the machine to do. Everything is text-driven from the startup, but there is support for an early graphical desktop, and the console system has a lot of software that you’ll probably find useful. Once it’s up and running, it can clone itself to a hard drive, and if you cross your fingers, it will boot up into a native system.

It’s still rather old though, with the 2.0.36 kernel and gcc If you install it you might have some luck bringing everything up to current, but that might be a huge, uphill task.

For a strictly floppy-based distro, BasicLinux is a good example. One floppy boots the system, and the other is a compressed file tree. Memory use is trivial, with only about 4Mb or so taken up.

Amazingly this also has a graphical desktop that will give you JWM and a few utilities, to include (of all things) a slideshow presentation tool (works great on this machine, too). So if you really want to score some geek points, you can boot this up on the dual-core laptop in your office, and give the budget report on the overhead projector with BasicLinux. 😯

It’s still quite a bit out of date though, so it’s usefulness beyond budget meetings, troubleshooting or data recovery is shaky … and considering that much has changed in file systems and hardware, a 2.2.26 kernel might not be able to get to that hard drive like you want.

On the other hand, this one has strong PCMCIA support, so if you’re riding the information wave on an old NE2000 network card, like I am, then this will be great for checking e-mail or looking up technical specifications.

Probably the one floppy distro that I would consider keeping around is blueflops, and it’s for that same reason — hardware support. Another two-floppy adventure, this one lists quite a few network cards as options, particularly for desktops. And since blueflops has the 2.6.18-ck1 kernel, I would almost consider using that as a jumping-off point for upgrading to a current kernel. Almost.

blueflops says it will run on an i386 with 8Mb and swap, and I’ve tried it on machines with only 16Mb and gotten fair results. The software list isn’t as long as some of the others, but it will probably get you online and from there, you can decide on your direction.

For my own part, I have had much better luck getting older machines running with customized, transplanted systems built with newer software, than by bending someone else’s floppy-based system to my will. There’s no reason not to try these things though, since it could possibly be what keeps a machine out of a landfill. And hey, maybe a current, up-to-date floppy-based distro can be my next project. … 🙄


8 thoughts on “Three floppy-based distros

  1. Luca

    Nice roundup, I assumed the last major release of any floppy distro was 1999 😛 It’s good to see this sort of thing is still being worked on.

    In terms of creating a floppy distro, using uClibc and busybox as a base should do the trick. There is an LFS guide of how to do this, however when I last tried it around two years ago it wasn’t great… and even then I don’t think it had been updated for a couple of years (and from the looks of it, it still hasn’t). Either way, I for one would be interested to see this!

  2. Pingback: Links 2/6/2010: KDE SC 4.4.4; Firefox 4 Previews | Techrights

  3. theologian

    I have MS-DOS 6.22 & Windows 3.1, with Word 6.0, MathCAD 4.0, Ami-Pro 3.0, F-PC FORTH, etc. running on a 4MB RAM, 80MB HDD laptop from 1992: guess what – it works very well indeed, with plenty of room to spare.

    This raises two points:

    1: This fairly complete OS/desktop/App combination, which is about 50% bigger than the current Linux kernel alone, all works in well under 4MB RAM. What does this say about Linux?

    2: How is it that there are very few systems contemporary to 6.22+3.1 which will actually run in as little RAM? A ‘tiny’ Linux/Unix distro that needs a minimum of 8MB RAM is little more than a featureless base.

    Linux seems to have been bloated from the start.

    BTW, I use LinuxMint & #! as my mainstays & am looking at SliTaz & Slax, both of which are very accessible, so this isn’t a ‘troll’, or a ‘gnome’ for that matter.

    1. chris-l

      That is really an oversimplification. A linux system that is ACTUALLY contemporary to windows 3.1 and msdos 6.22 would have, among other things a linux kernel version LOWER than 1.0 (kernel 1.0 came out in 1994) NONE of the distros mentioned here are contemporary to windows 3.1/msdos 6.22. Actually, if you want to run a linux that is REALLY contemporary to 6.22+3.1, you would need to use SLS linux (first version is from 1992, last version is from 1993)

      You have to remember that linux started as a geek project to create a unix-like system that uses the 386 protected mode (among other things) for geeks, not with end users in mind. So even if you use SLS linux, you wont be able to do the things you can do with a dos machine. Also, ms-dos is a real mode operating system, and therefore it require WAY less resources.

      Basiclinux, which is probably the older of the distros mentioned here, was created on 2000 or 2001. All this distros were created using kernels that are way newer than 6.22/3.1.

      Is unfair doing a comparation between a real mode operating system created in early nineties with a 386 protected mode operating system created in early 2000s. If you want to do a more fair comparation of that dos/windows setup with something free, open source, then compare it with freedos + opengem, using gem based apps from back then.

  4. AgentOss

    I tried BasicLinux on my 16Mb Thinkpad 365X and was impressed to get X working on it! (although in monochrome mode)

    And my soundcard was working too. Unfortunately the provided mpg123 was too old to play recent mp3 files 😦

    In the end, those kind of floppy distros are more useful for learning purposes I think


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