What’s Your Favorite Flavor?
This is by no means a popularity contest, and the distribution you choose should be dependent on your needs—unless, of course, you just want to see what the big deal is about Ubuntu (Figure 3) or Enlightenment (Figure 1). Most Linux fans have their favorites, and I’ll probably offend some of them by either neglecting to mention their favorite or by giving it a less-than-positive spin herein, but the point is to find the best distro for the job, or to get hands-on experience with Linux without having to install it. Not to mention rescuing your files from a crippled system.
Figure 3 Ubuntu Linux.
Arguably the best known live Linux distribution, Knoppix has a lot to offer. It comes in both CD and DVD format, and many other live distributions use Knoppix as their foundation, including several of the distros explored here. Knoppix is based on the Debian GNU/Linux system, popular for its stability and powerful APT package management system. Linux software is available as "packages," containing all of the files necessary to run the software. APT takes care of the package dependencies, ensuring that necessary libraries and supporting files are downloaded alongside the packages you want. A graphical front end named Synaptic is available for working with APT.
The CD version of Knoppix doesn’t include Synaptic but apt-get is available from the command line for installing extra packages. First, open a console (similar to opening a command prompt in Windows) and type sudo apt-get update. Install Synaptic by typing sudo apt-get install synaptic, then type sudo synaptic to launch it. Search on the phrase "anti virus" and install clam or another anti-virus program from the resulting list if you want to scan your system for viruses. Remember to update the virus scanner’s database before you run the scan.
The DVD version of Knoppix includes Synaptic and also has 11 window managers to choose from if you’re feeling adventurous and are already somewhat familiar with Linux. Both versions include the Knoppix Firewall, which is found under the K menu (somewhat like the Windows Start menu), then Knoppix, Services, Knoppix Firewall. In the main menu, double-click on Firewall Active? (Figure 4), then select Start Firewall Now and click OK. Knoppix had no trouble recognizing and mounting my USB drive, making the act of transferring files or even storing Knoppix desktop settings a breeze. It also recognized my scanner and installed the appropriate drivers, and almost got my TV card working, which is an impressive feat in itself.
Knoppix uses the KDE desktop environment and has a look and feel that’s similar to Windows in many ways. Whether you want to experiment with what Linux has to offer or burn files to a CD with the K3b CD and DVD burning software, Knoppix has a lot to offer.
Figure 4 The Knoppix firewall.
SimplyMEPIS is one of those distros built on Debian. On boot-up, it loads the SpamAssassin mail filter daemon, indicating it might be used as an email server. The fact that it runs with a firewall enabled backs up this theory. SimplyMEPIS includes KDE, the Firefox browser, the GIMP graphics software, and K3b, among others. It also has an "install to hard drive" feature, in case you want to make it your default or secondary operating system. Software updates and new installs are handled by Synaptic with no need to open a console. My only issues with SimplyMEPIS were that it couldn’t mount my USB drive, and it changed the time on my system clock, setting it to Eastern Standard Time.
Figure 5 Running Synaptic under SimplyMEPIS.
I had a lot of fun with Ubuntu because it was the only live CD I could get to run properly on my Mac mini, complete with audio support. Like SimplyMEPIS, software installations are handled via Synaptic. Unlike Knoppix or SimplyMEPIS, Ubuntu ships with GNOME as its default desktop environment. It also automatically mounted my USB drive. However, while many of the live CDs covered here automatically recognized and mounted my computer’s hard drive, Ubuntu saw the Mac’s hard drive but didn’t mount it. This shortcoming is remedied by a couple of lines entered in a console, as shown in Figure 6. To access your Mac’s drive from Ubuntu, open a terminal and enter the following:
sudo mkdir /mnt/macosx sudo mount -t hfsplus /dev/hda3 /mnt/macosx
sudo is used in place of a root password, because as a regular user you can’t mount a drive, and in Ubuntu you’re not logged in as root. You can mount the hard drive with any name you want. Here I called it macosx, but if steve floats your boat, then go for it—as long as it makes sense to you. You can use the GParted drive partitioning software to see the name of your Mac’s drive. In my case, it was /dev/hda3. After your drive is mounted, you can use the Synaptic Package Manager to install a utility like k3b to burn copies of your Mac’s files to a CD. You can also use Nautilus, GNOME’s file manager, to drag and drop files directly to CD or DVD. Many computers have a CD-ROM drive in addition to a CD/DVD burner so it’s easy to copy files. Several of the live distros featured here (including Puppy, DSL, and INSERT) may be loaded entirely into RAM, making the CD drive available for writeable media. Some, like Puppy, can be installed on a DVD and use the remaining space on the disc to write files and settings. Otherwise, it may be necessary to copy your files to a USB drive.
Figure 6 Mounting a hard drive in Ubuntu.
SLAX is a live distro based on Slackware. There’s no firewall installed by default, but you can download a firewall and many other modules here, as shown in Figure 7.You need to pay attention to the dependencies of the modules you download, because these extra files are necessary for these modules to run. I had some problems with modules and even creating a new ISO for the version I was working with (5.0.6). Once I got the ISO compiled, it didn’t automatically load the new modules on startup, and because the GUI seemed to lock up when I tried to load a module by running the uselivemod command from the console, I found the best way to get the modules loaded was to simply double-click them in Konqueror, which is kind of KDE’s version of the Windows Explorer.
Speaking of KDE, SLAX uses mostly KDE tools for email, word processing, web browsing, and so on. Unfortunately, SLAX didn’t see my USB key and automatically mount it, which is important for novices attempting to rescue files. After the aforementioned GUI lockups, Windows also went into a scan disk upon rebooting.
Figure 7 Browsing for SLAX modules.
Elive and LG3D
I’m grouping Elive and Looking Glass 3D together because they stand out quite a bit from the other distros mentioned here. Elive uses Enlightenment. Looking Glass 3D uses Sun’s 3D interface. Enlightenment 16 has a toolbar reminiscent of OS X’s aqua look, as shown in Figure 8. One of the things that appealed to me about Elive, apart from its use of the Enlightenment 16 and 17 desktop environments, was the fact that it includes a Super NES emulator. Using game ROMs is legal if you either own the original game or delete the ROM after 24 hours, which is a given because you’re running a live CD. I had some fun playing old NES games on my PC.
Figure 8 Elive with the Enlightenment 16 desktop.
I included Looking Glass 3D partly because it has a special place in my heart. I was first introduced to LG3D while working on an article on 3D under Linux. LG3D approaches the desktop interface differently than most operating systems. It’s possible to navigate around a virtual sphere representing the desktop, and to rotate windows in three dimensions, even parking them at an angle off to one side. Icons are 3D and animated. Although it’s not obvious from Figure 9, the desktop background moves as though the cliffs in foreground are actually closer to you than the canyon behind them, adding to the 3D effect. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get screen captures while booting from the actual CD, and the captures from VMware don’t do LG3D justice. You really need to experience it yourself or to see a video of the desktop in action to appreciate it. While the look and feel could use some modernization, this 3D desktop environment has a lot of promise.
Figure 9 Looking Glass 3D.
Puppy and Damn Small Linux
Again, I’m grouping these two together because they’ve been created with size and speed in mind. Both distros will fit nicely on a business card-sized CD or a USB thumb drive, and both are capable of loading into memory and backing up your data to CD. The added advantage of using a USB drive is the fact that you can write to it, which will allow you to save your settings and offload files from the system’s hard drive. There’s a version of Puppy meant for DVD. It burns your session and any files you may want to rescue directly to DVD. Unlike any other distro here, Puppy, shown in Figure 10, was built from scratch, it isn’t based on Debian or Slackware, and it uses JWM (Joe’s Window Manager). It also includes the Morizot Firewall Wizard for security and its own package manager, PupGet. Email is handled by Sylpheed, and browsing is done via Dillo. It’s a fast, no-frills Linux distro.
Damn Small Linux uses Fluxbox, helping this distro remain small and fast. DSL is also based on Knoppix, and uses Synaptic to manage packages. Launch Synaptic from the main menu to install it. Start Synaptic, install Firestarter, as shown in Figure 11, then run sudo firestarter from the console for full firewalled protection.
Figure 10 Puppy Linux.
Figure 11 Enabling a firewall in DSL.
INSERT (Inside Security Rescue Toolkit) is, as its name implies, a live distro intended for virus scanning, data recovery, and sniffing out rootkits, among other uses. Like Damn Small Linux, INSERT is based on Knoppix and uses the Fluxbox Window Manager. Weighing in at a mere 49MB, INSERT is another mini distro but it packs a lot of punch. Through the use of Captive, INSERT claims to be the "first Linux mini-distro with full NTFS read/write support," meaning you can use it to not only read files from your hard drive but write to it as well. Many distros, including Knoppix, warn against using Linux to write to an NTFS-formatted drive, but if you’re desperate you may want give it a try, especially if a virus or hard drive glitch has rendered your Windows installation unbootable. Figure 12 shows ClamAV being updated in preparation for a virus scan.
Figure 12 Updating ClamAV under INSERT.
Live Nude Distros!
OK, maybe not, although there’s probably someone out there who’s currently developing some sort of "adult-friendly" live CD. As you’ve learned, live Linux CDs have a myriad of uses. At least two live CDs are made to run MAME, the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator. There are also live CDs for medical applications, video editing and playback support, rescue CDs, servers, MythTV, security (including SmoothWall, Sentry Firewall, and Devil-Linux firewall), and regional uses with versions in almost every language imaginable. Most enable you to listen to audio, watch video, and play games. So whether you have a special use in mind, want to try Linux for the first time, or just want to check out a new distribution you’ve heard about, Linux live CDs are worth a look.