Explore Desktop Linux Through LiveCDs

By: Daniel Koepke - Posted: 2009-03-10
Linux has been a buzzword for several years, but usually only with IT folks working with servers or the hardcore computer hobbyists.  The recent popularity of netbooks and some notable computer manufacturers offering Linux pre-installed has made the Linux buzz a lot more mainstream and is beginning to give the casual computer user a viable alternative to Windows and Mac OS.  Although specialized computers showcase Linux, there is no reason why anyone wanting to see it in action can't just start using it on their own computer.  With the popularity of LiveCDs, you can run Linux on most computers without messing with a single file.
Linux LiveCDs allow a user to start your computer from a CD, completely bypassing your hard drive and use a Linux distribution without risking anything on your machine.  Now the focus of this article is on some sample LiveCDs I have used, so if you don't already know how to burn an ISO file to CD and set your computer up to boot from the CD Drive, you will need to research that on your own or send me an E-mail at deek@deeksworld.com so I can point you in the right direction.
Today, I am going to look at three LiveCDs: Knoppix (http://www.knoppix.com), Slax (http://www.slax.org) and DSL (http://www.damnsmallLinux.org).  I chose these three because they give a good cross-section of what is available out there as LiveCDs.  For more options and good general discussions on Linux, visit http://www.distrowatch.com.  Its a great site that tracks the hundreds of Linux distributions out there, upcoming releases and has great weekly column that will keep you in the Linux world news loop.
The first LiveCD I looked at was Knoppix 6.0.1.  It is the largest one of the three, weighing in at 645MB.  Knoppix is considered one of the earliest LiveCDs and is known for its automatic hardware detection.  This is good, because one of the biggest frustrations for a first time Linux user is getting into your system and noticing something, like your sound, not working.  After booting my test machine (an old IBM T23 laptop with built-in wi-fi) and watching a few screens pop up, I am staring at a nice looking desktop and ready to compute!
Now I'm not going to go into all the ins and outs of each distro.  Looking at the plethora of applications that are packaged with each distro is an article or two by itself.  What I am going to do is get you started by taking a quick look around the desktop, open some basic programs and see if there are any major challenges with the distro.  With Knoppix, the first thing I noticed was that my wi-fi card wasn't detected.  So much for great hardware detection!  This isn't a show stopper, as your computer may have better supported hardware than mine.  But, I looked around for some network settings anyways and tried to enable my wi-fi, but had no luck.  So, I plugged my network cable in I was promptly connected to the Internet.  In my experience, wi-fi is one of the biggest issues with Linux. I'd think in another year or two, it won't be, but just be aware that you may have problems with a wi-fi card being detected automatically.
Now that I am ready to hit the web, I first hopped onto FWM and noticed that the web browser didn't have a couple plug-ins needed to view the Flash on the front page or load the music player.  That's two issues already and I'm just getting started!  I was able to log into the forums and browse some posts.  So things were looking better.
I bounced around to a few more websites and things looked good, but I didn't get anything that needed plug-ins.  There were options to install the needed plug-ins, but I really didn't want to spend a lot of time configuring software.  Outside of the browser, looking around at the application menus, I found plenty of programs for audio, productivity and chatting.  I was surprised that OpenOffice was pre-installed, as that is a pretty big productivity suite.  With 645MB on the CD, there is plenty to explore.  The desktop looked really nice and it was natural to navigate around.  Overall, I was a bit disappointed that my wi-fi wasn't detected and I was missing some web plug-ins, but there is certainly still a lot going for it and worth a test run.
My next LiveCD was Slax 6.0.9.  This one was only 190MB.  Because of the smaller size, it booted quicker than Knoppix and after less than a minute, I was at the desktop.  I also had an option to run the entire system from memory, which would also free up my CD Drive once I was at the desktop.
The first thing I noticed was a start up sound and I also noticed my wi-fi was configured and active.  Very cool!  I opened up the browser and went to FWM and much to my surprise, the front page was fully loaded and the media player was playing music.  I bounced around to a few more sites and everything looked really good.  This is what you want to see when you try out a LiveCD, hardware gets detected, everything seems to be working and you simply go without worrying about needing to install or configure a thing!
Much like Knoppix, there was a good selection of applications ready to use.  Not as many as Knoppix, but there was a word processor, media player and popular chat software.  Overall, I was very impressed with Slax.  It looked just as good as Knoppix, had plenty of functionality and the big plus was that nothing seemed to be broken or missing.
DSL (Damn Small Linux)
My last LiveCD was DSL 4.4.10.  As the name states, it is most known for being small.  Its only 50MB and one of their goals is to never go above that size.  It used to be the smallest full distro, but I've found some others, my current favorite, Slitaz, which is only 20MB.  The nice thing about these micro-distros, is that you can actually carry them on a USB stick.  DSL had an ISO just for that purpose, so if you are interested in trying that out, there are instructions on DSL's site.
DSL is based off of Knoppix, so I was curious if I would have the same issues.  As I expected, my wi-fi card was not set up, but after looking at the networking settings menu, I clicked an option to configure wireless and everything started working.  Very odd that I couldn't do that in Knoppix.  Maybe I just wasn't looking in the right place.  One huge benefit to almost any Linux distro is the amount of help you can find on their websites and through their community messageboards.  So, when you do come across an issue, there are normally plenty of folks that are eager to help you find a resolution in exchange for continuing to use their favorite distro.
So, after doing a quick configuration, I noticed that DSL's whole look and feel was very minimalistic.  An unfamiliar user to Linux could have a little trouble finding the menus and some apps.  Now this makes sense to me, as DSL's goal is to pack everything it can into 50MB, but for someone used to Windows, there may be a bit of a learning curve. 
Logging on to FWM, much like Knoppix, the front page didn't load correctly due to the lack of plug-ins.  I did have options to try and install them, but, just like with Knoppix, I didn't want to mess around with it.  If was going to use this on an everyday basis, I would spend a few minutes and get everything configured, but my focus was just to test things out-of-the-box and really do as little configuring as possible.
Looking back at these three LiveCDs, all booted up without error (which a few years back, was not as common) and each got me to a usable desktop.  Slax won out, as my wi-fi, sound and web plug-ins all worked without me having to do anything.  I know that both Knoppix and DSL could do that with a little extra effort and on a different computer, the wi-fi might work immediately.  Knoppix and Slax had a lot more productivity apps than DSL, but if you have an old computer or just want you Linux quick and dirty, DSL might be the best option for you.
What still amazes me about LiveCDs, is that without permanently installing a single thing, I can boot up a computer and have it functioning in less than a couple minutes.  I could actually use a computer without a hard drive!  Now that isn't too likely these days, but it is still kind of cool when you think about it.
So, for those of you that are interested in checking out Linux, finding a distribution with a LiveCD is really your best, worry-free option to begin with.  You don't have to install anything on your hard drive and if something doesn't work or you get frustrated, just remove the CD, restart your computer and you will be back in Windows.  It really makes Linux accessible to anyone that wants to give it a try.
This was just a quick intro to Linux.  There is a huge selection of different distributions for almost any kind of computer user, which is what makes Linux so great.  If you have any questions or just want to chat more about Linux, you find me on FWM.com, start a topic or send me a PM or E-mail.  I'll enjoy the discussion or any feedback you have about this article, a previous one or even ideas for a future article.
Next month, I'll be looking at a some of my favorite web applications.  There's a lot of great apps out there that all you need is a browser to use.

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