The Linux Newbie

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Monday, August 21, 2006

How to Pick a Linux Distro: LiveCD Edition

I will admit that one of my favorite features of certain Linux distributions is the Live CD capability. I was captivated as I searched around the net and found many distros including this feature as a separate download or actually integrated into the install CD. My very first Live CD was Ubuntu 6.06 Dapper, and I was impressed. It recognized every piece of hardware I had except for my wireless card, and as the Desktop came into view, a very nice "tinkly-strings" sound introduced me to the Ubuntu world. I was hooked! Sure, it took extra time to load programs, but I could play around with a variety of new and intriguing things. I would highly, highly recommend anyone thinking about Linux to make downloading a LiveCD a priority.

As a way of making the choice easier you can go to Zegenie Studio's test, and make sure you select the Live CD option when given the choice, and it will probably give you choices, primarily from the Ubuntu line of distros. However, as I have skipped around web, I have discovered numerous choices beyond Ubuntu that are top quality Linux distributions.

Here is a list of pros and cons, as I see it, from 11 of the more popular Linux distros. (No, this list is not exhaustive, nor shall it ever be. I hear that every 7 seconds, there is a new Linux distro created somewhere in the world!)

The Test Subject:

Compaq Presario R3038CL
2.8ghz Processor
CD/DVD Drive (Toshiba DVD-ROM SD-R2512)
1280x800 Screen Resolution
1.25 Gigabytes of RAM
Wireless USB Mouse
ADI 1981B Audio <-- I guess this is my sound card?
512MB Sandisk Cruzer Mini USB Drive

Some Subjectively Objective Tests:
I thought I would give some "benchmarks" to give an idea of the LiveCD performance.

  • Boot time is pretty self-explanatory. I timed from the point the LiveCD started loading until I saw either a desktop, a login menu, or a setup screen.
  • With Hardware detection, it is VERY important to note that if this test included a Microsoft Windows LiveCD, it would utterly fail to detect much hardware at all. The vast majority of Linux distributions put Microsoft Windows to shame in the hardware detection area.
  • Lastly, Some Programs were tested for startup time. Not every distro has the same applications, but I tried to pick more recognizable apps for someone coming from Microsoft Windows.
  • I used Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" MP3 to test-drive the media player.
  • None of these distributions recognized my Wifi card. #&%$ Broadcom!
(No, these are not perfect scientific benchmarks but it gives you some idea of the load times for a general comparison.)

The Players: (Click for review)
Top ^

Damn Small Linux 3.0.1 | Features | Screenshots
Load Time:
  • 75 secs
Hardware Detection:
  • It did not seem to recognize my USB drive (or at least I couldn't access it)
  • It detected my wireless mouse, but this "Workspace" context menu kept following my cursor around. I figured it wanted me to click it so I did, but it wasn't satisfied. It kept coming back and never went away! I rebooted just using the touch pad on the Compaq, and it was all fine.
GUI:
  • Fluxbox - simple and fast
Some Programs:
  • Firefox loaded in 7 seconds.
  • Ted (Text EDitor) I think it loaded before I let my mouse button up!
Installer:
  • There is no installer per se. Damn Small Linux is meant to be used on the run, not installed permanently on a hard drive.
Pros:
  • Fast
  • Low memory footprint
  • Damn Small
  • Nice, simple suite of functional programs
Cons:
  • Did not detect my native screen resolution (1280x800).
  • Not intuitive for someone new to Linux.
  • Mouse Problems.
  • No USB detection that I could find.
  • Could not access Microsoft Windows drive.
Newbie Rating:

3 out of 5 Newbies

If you are a semi-experienced Linux (or a Fluxbox) user, DSL may seem intuitive, but other than clicking on icons, there was not much I could figure out. I used my mad command-line skills, which consisted of "cd"ing and "dir"ing all over the place! (In other words, I just looked in some directories...) I'm sure the power of DSL is completely untapped by my deficient Linux skills. However, on the bright side, WOW 48 megs! Though it didn't make much sense to me, I respect DSL for being a damn small OS that is very functional and fast.

Top ^

Freespire 1.0.13 | Features | Screenshots
Load Time:
  • 230 secs
Hardware Detection:
  • Everything was detected except for my native screen resolution (1280x800).
GUI:
  • A very "Freespired" version KDE
Some Programs:
  • Firefox loaded in 20 seconds.
  • OpenOffice Writer loaded in 35 seconds.
Installer:
  • You cannot access the installer from the LiveCD desktop, you can, however, boot into the installer when you first boot from the CD.
Pros:
  • Setup options at the beginning.
  • There is a “Terminate Programs” tool in the start menu. That is handy to kill apps that go awry.
  • Familiar folder names with “My Documents”, “My Music”, “My Pictures”, etc.
Cons:
  • Did not detect my native screen resolution (1280x800).
  • Could not access my Microsoft Windows files.
  • I could not boot the LiveCD with my wireless mouse on.
  • Urged to purchase a CNR Membership.
  • Gnarls Barkley "Crazy" was shaky/choppy.
Newbie Rating:

4 out of 5 Newbies

Freespire is free to download, but the distro encourages you, with blinking icons and such, to TRY CNR free for 15 days! This is not my kind of distro... 20 bucks a year for the basic service and 50 bucks for the GOLD, ooooooooo, gold. ;) However, there is a free version of CNR with a whopping 5 programs!
It is true, I'm making light of Freespire; however, I do respect a company's desire to make money. If they provide good service and it is worth the money for you, then this might be the distribution for you. As a LiveCD, it's okay, there are better ones out there.

Top ^

Gentoo 2006.0 LiveCD | Features | Screenshots
Load Time:
  • 124 secs
Hardware Detection:
  • It recognized everything well except for my screen resolution (1280x800).
GUI:
  • Gnome
Some Programs:
  • Firefox loads in 8 seconds.
  • OpenOffice Writer loads in 29 seconds.
Installer:
    I was very, very disappointed in the installer. Not only was it over my head, but there was no documentation on it. In fact, in the FAQ there was a line that said, "Gentoo is too hard to install and I feel like whining." To which the answer was "Please see /dev/null". Being the newb I am, I had NO idea what this means. So I wikipedia'd it, and discovered that /dev/null is a process that basically disposes of unwanted output. Moreover, it has become a "technical" joke, which in this case means your "whine" is unwanted output so dispose of it.
    This is the kind of junk that irritates me about some Linux users; you will not find me making the effort to install this distro. There are great (if not better) distros out there that are at least a little more helpful about the installation process.
Pros:
  • For "Pros" consult /dev/null.
Cons:
  • It did not recognize my native screen resolution (1280x800).
  • Could not access my Microsoft Windows drive.
  • It did not recognize my USB drive so I could not play my test MP3.
  • Poor installation help
  • Not Newbie friendly
Newbie Rating:

3 out of 5 Newbies

If you are not new to Linux, this might be a good option to try. All "jabs" aside, here is the section on installation for Gentoo. However, I would not recommend this to anyone wanting to make the start into Linux.

Top ^

Knoppix 4.0.2 | Features | Screenshots
Note: I tried 5.0.1 but neither the CD nor DVD would load on my laptop (or desktop for that matter). 4.0.2 is a great version and I was completely impressed. If I were able to try 5.0.1 I'm sure I would be impressed as well. If...

Load Time:
  • 147 secs
Hardware Detection:
  • It detected my USB drive just fine.
  • Wireless mouse worked.
  • Did not recognize my native screen resolution (1280x800).
GUI:
  • KDE
Some Programs:
  • Firefox started up in 10 seconds.
  • OpenOffice Writer started in 42 seconds.
Installer:
Pros:
  • Sound worked, "Crazy" sounded great.
  • Many cool programs to try out.
  • Microsoft Windows drive was recognized easily.
Cons:
  • Always hangs on restart or shutdown.
  • Could not get version 5.0.1 to work.
  • Not installable, you will have to download something else if you want to install.
Newbie Rating:

5 out of 5 Newbies

I was quite impressed with the load times for both the LiveCD and some of the programs. There are tons of different programs to try out, though many are out dated because I could only try 4.0.2.

Top ^

Kubuntu 6.06 Dapper | Features | Screenshots
Load Time:
  • 189 secs
Hardware Detection:
  • It was not able to play any sound, much less MP3s.
  • It detected my USB drive just fine.
  • Wireless mouse worked.
  • It recognized the correct screen resolution (1280x800).
GUI:
  • KDE (K for KDE in Ubuntu ;)
Some Programs:
  • Konqueror (no Firefox) loaded in 6 seconds.
  • OpenOffice Writer opened in 38 seconds.
Installer:
  • Relatively intuitive. You need some partitioning knowledge, if you are installing on top of a Microsoft Windows you already have on the computer. (This is true of many distributions.)
Pros:
  • After the long initial load time, program load times seemed to be fairly quick.
Cons:
  • Could not read my Microsoft Windows drive.
  • The sound did not work at all.
  • There are fewer applications to try out.
Newbie Rating:

4 out of 5 Newbies

This is actually the distro I am using right now on my Dell. It was a bear to get this OS set up as I like it. It was good to learn, but it was also very frustrating to me. I would not recommend Kubuntu to someone unless I was there, hands on, to help. (And yes, I know about Automatix and EasyUbuntu, but they are not the end-all for every problem.) It is a good LiveCD, but I believe there are better.

Top ^

Mandriva One 2006 | Features | Screenshots
Load Time:
  • 92 secs
Hardware Detection:
  • It detected everything great, even my screen resolution (1280x800).
  • It detected my USB drive just fine.
  • Wireless mouse worked.
GUI:
  • KDE
Some Programs:
  • Firefox loaded in 21 seconds
  • OpenOffice Writer loaded in 38 seconds (This is tainted because on start-up, OpenOffice asks if you would like to default to Microsoft Word format or the OpenOffice format.)
Installer:
  • The installer seemed very intuitive. It gives you ample warnings and helps if you are about to do something bad like erase all your data on your Microsoft Windows partition.
Pros:
  • Nice groovy music to get things started right!
  • Recognized my mouse, screen resolution (1280x800), sound, you name it!
  • It even played my "Crazy" MP3!
  • Many programs to try out.
  • It has preset folders in the documents that will make a converted Microsoft Windows user a little more at ease.
Cons:
  • Could not access my Microsoft Windows drive.
Newbie Rating:

5 out of 5 Newbies

For a newbie coming from the Microsoft Windows world, trying out a LiveCD, this is a great option! However, one drawback comes in the actual installed-distribution itself. Though Mandriva One has many free things, to get the full benefit of Mandriva (as the website says), you have to purchase a membership. The prices range from $66 a year for the standard membership, to $1320 a year for Platinum! Ouch! I better be getting a friggin' new computer in the mail once a year with that membership! If money is no object for you, and you like spending 1.3 grand on memberships, then go for it. As for me, there are fully functional FREE distros, needing no memberships that work fantastic! But hey, this is about the LiveCD...

Top ^

OpenSUSE 10.1 Live DVD | Features | Screenshots
Load Time:
  • 210 secs
Hardware Detection:
  • It detected everything great, except my screen resolution (1280x800).
  • It detected my USB drive just fine.
  • Wireless mouse worked.
  • Could not get sound to work.
GUI:
  • KDE
  • Gnome
  • Very nice that it includes both.
Some Programs:
  • Firefox came up in 30 seconds. (20 secs till page load, which could have been caused by a lag in my internet connection)
  • OpenOffice Writer loaded in 33 seconds
Installer:
  • The installer comes on a separate disk that you must download.
Pros:
  • DVD - Lots of applications to try out.
  • Can try both KDE and Gnome GUI.
Cons:
  • Did not recognize native screen resolution (1280x800).
  • Permission denied to access my Microsoft Windows drive.
  • Must download separate installer. (5 cd's, 1 DVD, or net install)
  • Sound would not work, sorry Gnarls.
Newbie Rating:

5 out of 5 Newbies

Other than the sound issue, I was very impressed with this LiveDVD. I thought programs might load slower, but overall they loaded normally. For the number of applications to try, I like this version a great deal. However, if you lack sound as well, you will miss part of the Linux experience.

Top ^

PCLinuxOS .92 | Features | Screenshots
  • Note: You may ask, "Why didn't you try .93a Junior or Minime?" Well, I did, but both froze on both versions no matter how I tried to run it. The MD5sum even came out fine, but I could not install it on either my laptop or desktop. So I used .92 and it worked great! Here's the stats.
Load Time:
  • 111 secs
Hardware Detection:
  • Everything detected fine, except it did not detect my native screen resolution (1280x800).
  • It detected my USB drive just fine.
  • Wireless mouse worked.
GUI:
  • KDE
Some Programs:
  • Firefox loaded in 16 seconds.
  • Kword (No OpenOffice) loaded in 10 seconds.
Installer:
  • The installer seemed pretty straightforward, though it did not seem as easy to me as the Ubuntu line or Mandriva One.
Pros:
  • MP3 support. It played my Gnarls Barkley MP3 easily.
  • It mounted my Microsoft Windows drive easily (through Storage Media). I could access everything.
Cons:
  • Did not detect my native screen resolution (1280x800).
  • PCLinuxOS.93a Junior or Minime did not work for me.
Newbie Rating:

5 out of 5 Newbies

You cannot download .92 from the main site (as far as I could tell) so here is a link if you want to try .92. I think that this is one of the better LiveCDs for trying Linux out. It is similar to Microsoft Windows so you are not feeling too out of place. If you decide to try this distribution out, know that when you get to the login screen it is not clear what your username and password should be: It's "guest" and "guest".

Top ^

Slax Standard Edition 5.1.7b | Features | Screenshots
Load Time:
  • 181 Seconds
Hardware Detection:
  • Detected everything except for my screen resolution (1280x800).
  • It detected my USB drive just fine.
  • Wireless mouse worked.
  • My MP3 played, but not well.
GUI:
  • KDE
Some Programs:
  • Konqueror (No Firefox) loaded in 9 seconds.
  • Kword (No OpenOffice) loaded in 10 seconds.
Installer:
  • There is no installer per-se. This is intended to be a LiveCD only. As a matter of fact, they suggest this, "If you really wish to install something, install Slackware, it's far better!" (Slax is based on Slackware.)
Pros:
  • It's one of the smaller downloads, which is nice if you are short on time or patience.
Cons:
  • This is for LiveCD purposes only. If you wanted to try out Linux in order to install, you would have to download a different distribution.
Newbie Rating:

4 out of 5 Newbies

Top ^

Ubuntu 6.06.1 Dapper | Features | Screenshots
Load Time:
  • 180 secs
Hardware Detection:
  • Can play Ogg Vorbis files, will not play MP3s.
  • It detected my USB drive just fine.
  • Wireless mouse worked.
  • It recognized the correct screen resolution.
GUI:
  • Gnome
Some Programs:
  • Firefox loaded in 14 seconds.
  • OpenOffice Writer loaded in 39 seconds.
Installer:
  • Relatively intuitive. You need some partitioning knowledge, if you are installing on top of a Microsoft Windows you already have on the computer. (This is true of other installers as well.)
Pros:
  • Nice layout. Personally, I like the brown layout; it is a refreshing look to me.
  • Ubuntu Gnome desktop is growing on me. It is simple fast and efficient and very versatile.
  • Recognized native screen resolution (1280x800)
Cons:
  • Cannot access Microsoft Windows drive.
  • Cannot play "Crazy" MP3. (Cannot play MP3s)
Newbie Rating:

5 out of 5 Newbies

If you want to try something from the Ubuntu series, I would definitely recommend this over Kubuntu and Xubuntu. It is well developed and highlights the Ubuntu line well.

Top ^

Xubuntu 6.06 Dapper | Features | Screenshots
Load Time:
  • 151 secs
Hardware Detection:
  • It detected my USB drive just fine.
  • Wireless mouse worked.
  • Recognized my native screen resolution (1280x800).
GUI:
  • Xfce
Some Programs:
  • Firefox started up in 14 seconds.
  • Abiword (No OpenOffice) started in 28 seconds.
Installer:
  • Same basic installer as Ubuntu and Kubuntu. It's nice, simple and to the point.
Pros:
  • Clean interface.
  • Low memory footprint.
  • Showcases Xfce
  • Recognized native screen resolution.
Cons:
  • Could not play MP3.
  • Could not access Microsoft Windows drive.
  • GUI not as powerful as Gnome or KDE.
Newbie Rating:

4 out of 5 Newbies

This is Ubuntu with Xfce, which is nice because it runs with a lower memory footprint. It still is not a slimmed down as DSL, but has a nice balance.

(And yes, I have an uncontrollable urge to download stuff...)

Top ^

So How Do You Choose the Right One?
So how does one choose the "right" LiveCD? Some would say it is a matter of personal taste, and to a degree, they are right. Many of these distributions offer similar programs and a similar interface. However, I do believe that some distributions are better than others. If you do not agree with my conclusion, that's fine, there are more to try and definitely more LiveCDs than those I listed here.

I do have a recommendation for a LiveCD as a newbie. Because of its "intuitivity" and its hardware recognition, I would recommend Mandriva One 2006. It did everything I wanted in a LiveCD and more. For a Microsoft Windows user trying out Linux, it seems the easiest "cross-over". Lastly, there are ample programs to try to give any newbie a feel for what Linux is like.

I do, however, have a secondary recommendation. It was a close match for second between Knoppix and OpenSUSE. I recommend Knoppix over OpenSUSE because it is a smaller download with nearly as many programs (if not equal or more, I didn't count). With the number of programs to try, it will give anyone new to Linux an even better idea of the functionality and versatility of Open-Source software. Though I was not able to install the latest version of Knoppix, it is a well-known name in the Linux world and will probably work on your computer. In addition, if you are curious and want to try a GUI other than KDE, I would recommend Ubuntu. The idea of change can be scary, but it is definitely worth a try. You can at least say you gave it a run!

Go ahead and take the Zegenie Studio's test, Google "LiveCD" and check out all the sites, or look through Distrowatch.com. If you see something I did not pick, read up on it, find more info on it at Wikipedia and Distrowatch, and take a look at the screenshots from OSDir. It will save you time and bandwidth, and you might even learn something you didn't know! It is totally worth your time to give Linux a try. It is superior to Microsoft Windows in many ways, and as each distro develops, Linux could perhaps surpass Microsoft Windows in compatibility and user-friendliness.

Until next time,
The Linux Newbie

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