Linux, the Confusion and Fear
So you’ve read a bit about Linux, and you want to give it a try. Then you notice that the typical install requires an empty and sizable partition on your disk, has risks that you might clobber your current operating system, and even if that’s avoided, you might clobber the boot partition and not be able to boot your current operating system. That sounds bad.
Then you find out that there are a dizzying number of Linux distributions out there. Which one do you use? Does it make much difference? Are any of them simple to install and use?
Will you be able to find many applications to do what you like to do — if you try Linux?
Tough questions, all.
As to the many versions of Linux, I certainly haven’t tried all of them, that’s for sure. However, I have worked with Linux for perhaps 20 years or so and have used more than one version. I started with the Slackware version, one of the oldest distros out there. In fact, the version I had then didn’t include X windows, the graphical interface. So it was just a text terminal interface, kind of like Microsoft DOS. Yet it still supported multiple logins, and multi-tasking.
Then I moved to Redhat Linux. I was drawn by the RPM package management system and X windows. I used that for a few years, then discovered Debian Linux. I used it for many years, and was mesmerized by the unimaginable number of software packages it contained. Debian includes (or did when I was using it) a simple command line package installer called apt-get. I even made a t-shirt design that’s a play on the Rocky Horror Show movie and the Debian apt-get utility:
Linux Dreamer Gifts
Debian has grown so large in its package archive that several versions of Linux out there are derived from it. You may be more familiar with Ubuntu Linux, a bleeding edge Linux version that itself is the base for other derived versions of Linux. Yet Ubuntu is derived from Debian.
For a time, on my home computer, I used Mepis, another Linux distro derived from Debian. I also used the Mepis smaller offshoot Antix, for which I wrote a review at Antix Review, though the review is a bit dated now. For a time I tried gNewSense, an effort to provide an easy to use Linux similar in many ways to Ubuntu, yet having only open source software. I’ve also used Salix, which is a simpler to install version of Slackware.
The ones I’ve used are all good versions, and when I was doing software as a profession, they were all useful. They usually have some particular thing they emphasize, so once you get into Linux, you may find a version that has its emphasis where you most need support.
I found at the time though that they were all a bit challenging to install and maintain. When I had more of a daily interface to them, I wasn’t deterred. And now they all have interactive install software to make installation easier than when I was using them. But it seems there’s always some arcane question to answer during install that you don’t exactly know how to answer. You wonder what will happen if you answer wrong. It’s especially daunting if you are just dipping your toe into the mud for the first time.
If you happen to have an extra computer around somewhere, a likely situation if you’ve been into computers for very long, you may have the option to experiment with Linux on a machine that isn’t your main device. It may still be difficult to get a Linux system up and running, but the risk of hurting your everyday computer is eliminated.
But you might wonder if there isn’t simply an easier way. Just some way to try Linux out and see how it feels without setting up an entire computer system, or risking the setup you already have. One that doesn’t require an official geekdom certificate of graduation.
Puppy, the Simple Way
Yes, there is a way — a way to try Linux out with no install at all. No disk partitioning, no risk to your boot sector, no need for a second computer just for Linux. In fact, you may never have to install Linux at all, yet use it regularly.
I refer to Puppy Linux, available directly from puppylinux.org, or if you don’t want to download it, from Amazon on the Puppy Linux Variety Pack – Slacko, Racy, Wary, Lucid, and Macpup on one CD.
So you’re thinking: “What’s the deal? Why so many distros on one CD when all you want is Puppy Linux? The answer is that Barry Kauler, the genius behind Puppy Linux, created a tool that allows Puppy Linux to be created from most any other Linux distro as a base. The different variations tie Puppy Linux into the respective base system’s software archive. The above listed CD has several versions of Puppy Linux, each generated from a different base or for a specific purpose.
I use Slacko, which is on the CD. Slacko is derived from Slackware, and thus makes available additional software from the Slackware archive. It happens to run well on my computer, where some versions seem not to like my video hardware. Wary is designed by Barry to run on older equipment. Racy is described as Wary on steroids — derived from the same Linux kernal but for newer equipment. Lucid and Macpup are derived from Ubuntu, and thus make available additional software options from the Ubuntu archive.
I know, you’re thinking that I said Puppy Linux is a simpler package, then start throwing multiple Puppy’s at you. But each is easy to use, so don’t fret.
Runs Perfectly from CD
Puppy Linux is designed so that you can just use it from the CD, and never really have to install it if you don’t want to. If you’ve tried some other “live” Linux distros that boot from CD, you probably have doubts. That’s because most live boot Linux CD’s run as if they are install on disk, and repeatedly load things from the CD as referenced, just as they would repeatedly get them from disk if they were installed to disk.
But by referencing the CD for each thing you want to run, these live CDs tend to run very slow. So you get no sense of the flavor or usability of a distro if the live CD version is so slow. And if you want to install it to get a better sense of how usable it is, then you are back to the partitioning problem mentioned before.
Puppy Linux is different. It is small and efficient. The entire operating system and utilities load into memory (you need about 500MB for this). Then, if you wish, you can literally remove the CD from the CD player while Puppy Linux is running. Puppy runs entirely from memory, which makes it very snappy. That also means that even though you booted it from CD, you can actually still use the CD for other things while Puppy is running. It’s all in memory, and has no further use of the CD until such time as you turn off the computer and reboot later.
Puppy Linux, even though it’s booted from CD, sill allows you to create files and install additional software. It does this by creating a save file on your disk. It doesn’t matter if your system currently has Linux or Windows installed, Puppy can make its save file. It appears to your other installed operating system as just a data file. Yet when Puppy Linux is again booted from the CD, it finds the file and “attaches” it to its file system. To Puppy, the save file looks like a bunch of directories and files.
So when you boot Puppy, you are in a snappy operating system that can make use of your hard disk (or USB drive, whatever), without any interference with your regular operating system. You can boot it from CD forever if you wish, and it will run probably faster than whatever else you use. You never really need to install it. And talk about virus protection — there’s no way a virus can invade your read-only boot CD of Puppy Linux.
Install it to USB
You can also install Puppy Linux onto a USB drive or stick. I just tried it while taking a break from writing this blog entry, and it was easy to do, the USB booted quickly, and Puppy ran fine. If you install to a USB stick, then next time you can boot from the USB instead of CD, and Puppy can have its entire disk support be just the USB. How’s that — a totally portable, self contained operating system you can carry around in your pocket.
The USB install can be to a USB thumb drive (or stick) or a USB disk drive. I installed to a 16GB thumb drive. Incredibly, that’s easily big enough to run Puppy Linux for a long time. The system takes less than 500MB, so the rest is just for data files you create or additional software you install. Of course one thing to remember is that thumb drives only get so many reads and writes.
To protect against that, you can instead install Puppy to a USB hard drive. This would let Puppy Linux boot faster, though it boots quite fast from a thumb drive. It would also give you virtually unlimited space for data and/or additionally install programs. Something like 100GB is common now, and a really big space for Puppy Linux to rattle around in. And it would be quite isolated from your hard drive where your other operating system(s) are installed.
The Frugal Install
If you do want to install Puppy Linux to your hard disk after trying it, you probably want to do the Frugal Install. You’re likely thinking: “What the heck is a frugal install?”
A frugal install is to me part of the magic of Puppy Linux. With most Linux distros, you have to devote a disk partition to the operating system, which the install will then quickly fill up with 2 GB or more of files. But Puppy Linux can be install into a directory just by copying the CD contents for your particular distro into the subdirectory. It’s only a few files, a few hundred megabytes. They are in a packed format, and remain so on the hard disk.
Then you can use the Grub4Dos utility in the Puppy Linux menus to set up a boot record that will find your current installed operating system(s) and the “frugal install” of Puppy Linux. Upon rebooting, you’ll see your old operating systems listed, as well as the frugal Puppy Linux install.
Isn’t that the neatest? I love that. I can have multiple installs of different Puppy Linux versions all in the same partition — just in different sub-directories. It lets me try them without any disk contortions. If I have some I don’t like, I just delete the subdirectories containing them then re-run Grub4Dos.
But is Puppy Linux Useful?
Linux Success Gifts
You betcha! I use Puppy Linux exclusively now. I do install it on my hard drives because there’s little else except data on my hard drives. I found that plenty of document, media, Internet, graphics, and office software are already in the distro. I found that most of whatever else I need is in the Puppy Linux archive.
I do all of my Cafepress Store development in Puppy, and my website support of Astronomy Hints and Linux Goodies. I do my programming experiments and math studies in Puppy Linux. Whatever I did before in any other Linux distribution, I now do in Puppy Linux.
I’ve gravitated to Google Docs for my document and spreadsheet work because my work is thus available on any of my computers from wherever I’m at (a subject for another day). I found that my beloved math programs, like Yorick, PDL, R, Octave, Scilab, and Euler Math Toolbox are all available and fairly easily installable into my Slacko Puppy Linux.
So with all of that available to me such an easy to use Linux distro, I’ve found I have no need for anything else. Maybe you won’t need anything else either.