July 17, 2006

Feather Linux: Light is right

Author: Stefan Vrabie

Feather Linux is a Knoppix-based Linux distribution that can run from a CD or a USB pen drive in under 128MB of space. According to its Web site, it "tries to include software which most people would use every day on their desktop."

Feather, which is at version 0.7.5, features useful real-world software, such as Firefox, Gaim, AbiWord, MPlayer with all the needed plugins, XMMS with a handful of plugins, Sylpheed, and a lot more -- all of which are well integrated into the system menu. Under the hood, Feather uses a 2.4.27 kernel, which makes it suitable for use on older hardware; cutting-edge hardware should probably be treated to a more cutting-edge 2.6.x-based operating system, to make full use of system resources. But on a 466MHz Celeron box with 128MB of RAM, Feather makes everything run snappily, and movies play with no trouble. Feather ran for me on a old 200MHz Pentium, and the official Feather Linux site claims it will run on a 486 with 16MB of RAM -- albeit just in text mode.

As a live CD, Feather can accomplish a lot of tasks, such as performing backups of your existing hard drive files or recovering a misbehaving operating system. You can also boot with the "toram" option, which loads the CD to RAM, thus allowing you to eject the CD-ROM whilst improving the overall speed of the system. There are other possibilities as well, such as booting Feather from a USB stick, or from a multi-session CD, which allows you to add more packages to the live CD, in effect creating your own customized Feather CD.

Some live CDs work great, yet you can't install the system on the hard drive. Well, you can install Feather -- the installer is simple and straightforward. Feather gives you two options in regard to installing it on the hard drive -- in effect two scripts -- out of which I recommend the "safer" install script rather than the experimental one. After you have Feather installed, you can use Synaptic to add more packages, which means you may customize Feather to do everything you want it to.

All of this is great, but being small and fast doesn't mean there's no room for slight glitches. For instance, you need to manually mount and unmount CDs, though Rox-filer, Feather's file manager, can handle those tasks if you just point it to /mnt/cdrom. Once you have a CD mounted, you may bump into permission problems when reading files from it, if you try to open then with Rox-filer. You might also bump into some repository troubles, and installing additional packages when booting from a CD or USB drive might fail.

On the bright side of things, if you do have problems, the official Feather forum is active and helpful. On the dark side, Feather development isn't going anywhere -- the last release is pretty old, and while there are plans for a new one, there are no developers.

To make the most out of Feather, you really ought to be an experienced user -- make that a patient experienced user -- since you need to work out the quirks, then customize the OS and install new applications, and finally personalize everything. Is it worth the effort? Definitely -- in the end you will end up with a good USB-bootable Linux distro, or a good operating system for your old PC.

All in all, Feather is ... feather light when it comes to old hardware. It might just be the best way to bring an old system to life, and let you use it for day-to-day activities.


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