January 5, 2005

Distribution Review: Knoppix Games

Author: Preston St. Pierre

Games Knoppix is an entertainment-oriented version of the popular Debian-based LiveCD known as Knoppix. The idea behind Games Knoppix is excellent -- a LiveCD that you can give to your friends to show them some of the more frivolous aspects of GNU/Linux. Disappointingly, however, many of the games on the CD do not work, many more are duplicates of the same game, everything is in German, and there are driver problems with both the 2.4 and 2.6 kernel options.

Games Knoppix offers over 100 entries in its games menu, all of them being free software. There are no proprietary games such as Unreal Tournament 2004, Quake 3 Arena, NeverWinter Nights, or any other GNU/Linux-compatible commercial entertainment programs. This is quite a disappointment, as these are some of the best games available for GNU/Linux, although they would probably have a great deal of trouble running from the CD.

Many of the games are duplicates. There are, for instance, 4 different varieties of Nethack, and some games offer separate server, configuration, and client programs. I didn't test every entry in the games menu, but I did find a significant number of programs that didn't work at all on three test systems -- FreeSCI (a free replacement for the old Sierra On-Line DOS interpreter), the ZSNES emulator, Hack, and bzflag all refused to start or operate properly.

How fast the games will run from the CD is dependent on several factors:

  • The speed of your optical drive
  • The DMA mode the drive is using
  • The amount of RAM in your computer
  • The availability and size of hard drive swap space
Click to enlarge

If you have less than 1GB of RAM you're going to experience some pauses and slowdown in the general operation of the OS, and you'll need at least 256MB of RAM to use the system meaningfully. Usually once something is loaded into memory it runs quite nicely, but on systems that have no predefined Linux swap partition and a small amount of RAM, operation can be pretty choppy. This is one instance where a faster CPU will not significantly impact performance, although, as with any graphical environment, anything below a Pentium 3 or Athlon Thunderbird could be somewhat sluggish.

A big mess

Nvidia drivers (version 1.0.6111 -- a little old) are provided and if you're using an Nvidia-based graphics card, the startup procedure asks you if you'd like to use it. The alternative is the VESA driver, which does not offer hardware 3D acceleration. With the default 2.4.27 kernel, the Nvidia driver consistently interfered with my network card driver. So if I wanted 3D acceleration, I had to do without networking. I tried the 2.6.9 kernel, but the Nvidia driver failed to load with it. ATI drivers are also included, but were not tested for this review.

The boot screen uses dark grey lettering on a black background, which is nearly illegible. If you want to try nonstandard boot options, you'll have to traverse help menus written exclusively in German. The default language setting is German, so at very least, English-speaking users will have to use the lang=us boot option.

The fonts are improperly configured in X.org, so the font rendering is jagged and painful to read. Further visual annoyance is added by the xsnow program, which makes it look like it's snowing in your desktop background. It looks cool at first, until you realize that this superfluity is taking up limited resources while causing your desktop icons to slowly disappear (see screen shot). It would be nice if there were an intuitive way to turn this off.

The operating system failed to pull the date from the BIOS, so I was not only in the wrong time zone, but the wrong month as well.

A different kind of Knoppix

Later versions of standard Knoppix don't seem to be as buggy on my test systems; I'm not really sure why Games Knoppix did so poorly. Aside from the technical difficulties listed above, you'll find that Games Knoppix is not all that far from its more versatile parent.

The knx2hd installation program is provided with the distribution, but it is not listed in the KDE menu. This utility installs Games Knoppix to your hard drive, should you decide that you like it enough to keep it as a permanent operating system. Also provided on the CD (and in the KDE menu) is a LiveCD program installation script, which attempts to install new programs through APT. It is listed as experimental, only offers a dozen or so programs, and the two I tried to install ended up failing. It's a good idea, but it's not properly fleshed out at this point.

You won't find OpenOffice.org or The GIMP, or some of the other behemoths that you're accustomed to getting with standard Knoppix. Games Knoppix is focused not just on games, but multimedia as well: XMMS, Xine, K3b, KsCD, and Audacity are included with the distribution. The standard system utilities and a handful of text editors are also provided, and you'll have Konqueror; Mozilla 1.7.3 with the Java and Acroread plug-ins; Gaim; and Xchat2 for Internet connectivity. Although ZSNES didn't work properly for me, the DOSbox emulator is included and seems to work quite well. KDE is the only desktop environment included with the distribution, and it's at version 3.3.1.

Other than the trouble with the network card and the Nvidia driver, Games Knoppix didn't have much trouble with my hardware. The sound didn't work on my Intel D915GUX motherboard, but there is little in the free software operating system world that will properly support that board's peripherals. My MSI K8T Neo2 is a newer motherboard, but Games Knoppix loaded drivers for the sound and LAN. On my old Dell Inspiron 3800 laptop system, the only driver I had to do without was for the Linksys wireless card, but there is no native driver for it in Linux yet. It is supported through ndiswrapper, but I did not test that for this review.

Try, try again

The first release of Games Knoppix is, to be quite frank, not very good -- it doesn't work as well as standard Knoppix, the video driver has problems, and many of the games fail to start or run properly.

The next release is slated for January 6, 2005 (a month after the initial release) and will include songs created by volunteer contributors as a way to increase the multimedia aspect of Games Knoppix. I hope to see this splinter project turn into something exciting and useful in the next few releases. For now, skip Games Knoppix and save your CD-R disc for standard Knoppix.

Purpose Operating system
Developers Martin Ohler and others (see the project homepage for details)
Architectures i386
License GNU General Public License; some portions of the distribution are under proprietary licenses, such as the Nvidia and ATI drivers
Market Desktop users new to GNU/Linux
Price (retail) Free to download
Previous version N/A
Product Web site Click here
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