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Linux Live CDs: All the Linux with None of the Commitment

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Nervous about installing Linux on your machine? Fear no more, because Live CD enables you to run the operating system without installing it. Bryan Hoff tells you what cool things you can do with Linux Live CD, and evaluates some great distributions such as SimplyMEPIS, SLAX, and Knoppix.
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If you’ve been itching to try Linux but have been wary about partitioning your hard drive or otherwise afraid to commit the time and space to another operating system, the good news is you don’t have to risk anything to experience Linux. For quite some time, Linux distributions have been made available in live CD format, decompressing data on-the-fly and running entirely from memory. Not only can you try different flavors of Linux, but you can often use the live CD to install the software if you really like it.

And if that wasn’t enough, specialized live distros can run from business card-sized CDs, USB thumb drives, and some that are intended as rescue CDs for virus-ridden PCs. There are even live routers and firewalls in case you want to use an older PC as your main connection to the Internet. You can also just boot a Linux Live CD to try out the games, OpenOffice.org, or the GIMP image editor without installing them. Because OpenOffice.org and the GIMP are both available for Windows, it’s a great opportunity to see whether you like them before you install them on your Windows PC. And in the event your Windows installation goes bad, you can even use a Live CD to rescue or otherwise back up files from your hard drive.

There are plenty of reasons to try a Linux live CD. In addition to the above, it’s a great way to experience a different desktop environment like Enlightenment, shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1 The Enlightenment 17 desktop environment under Elive.

Unfortunately, I can’t cover everyone’s favorite distro because I’d end up with a text book rather than an article, but I’ll be looking at several popular distributions including SimplyMEPIS, SLAX, Damn Small Linux, Knoppix, and Puppy, and on the Mac side of things, Ubuntu. I’ll also take a quick look at LG3D (Looking Glass 3D) and INSERT (Inside Security Rescue Toolkit). This should give you a good overview of just what’s out there, as well as some of the cool things you can do with a live Linux CD.

Setup

The setup process for live distros varies almost as widely as the selection of Linux flavors. Some are completely automated, where your video card and optimal resolution are set for you, while others require you to choose your default language, resolution, or even enter a login name and password.

Many live distros, such as Knoppix and Damn Small Linux (DSL), include automatic hardware detection and just require you to press Enter to begin setup. SimplyMEPIS has a dropdown menu to choose the resolution I wanted for initial setup, but once the GUI had started, it defaulted to 1600x1200 instead of the native 1920x1200 for my display. That’s still better than the stretched out 1024x768 Knoppix defaulted to. MEPIS also gives you a choice of logging in as demo or root, with the passwords matching the login names. SLAX requires you to enter the root user’s name (root) and password (toor), then asks you to type startx or xconf. Running xconf will attempt to auto-configure the X window system and choose the best settings for your video card. Once xconf has finished, you type startx to run the X window system and KDE, launching into a GUI. It’s not very complicated and it’s also a nice little introduction to the Linux command line for new users.

Ubuntu has a similar setup where you need to select your country and language, then tell it your optimum resolution, as shown in Figure 2. The benefit here is being able to run my display at its native resolution.

Figure 2

Figure 2 Setting your resolution in Ubuntu.

With Puppy, you need to choose your keyboard and mouse type and determine if it has a scroll wheel. PS/2 is the safest choice for your mouse. Puppy Linux has a Video Wizard where you can set your resolution. Simply choose More to get a listing of possible resolutions and enter the address that corresponds to your desired resolution. For example, a resolution of 1280x1024 is set by entering 0x0144. Elive offers several boot options including a special Old Graphic Card setting. Knoppix, INSERT, and Damn Small Linux just require you to press Enter. As I mentioned above, though, I ended up with a resolution that was less than optimal in Knoppix. You can enter arguments at the command line to set your resolution and enable the mouse wheel, but for new users this is neither immediately apparent nor intuitive. Still, if you want to rescue some files, the last thing you’re going to be worried about is a stretched-out display.

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