November 2, 2006

Knoppix 5.0.1: A solid live DVD

Author: Stefan Vrabie

Debian-based live CD distribution Knoppix is widely known as a distro with excellent hardware detection. The latest 5.0.1 version, released in June, builds upon its legacy and continues to improve.

Knoppix comes in both a CD and a DVD version. For the purpose of a live Linux system, a DVD makes more sense, because there's much more room to fit software -- a whopping 9GB of compressed packages and applications, translating into more than 2,600 titles. The Knoppix 5.0.1 live DVD includes KDE 3.5.2 (the default environment, though it also has GNOME), OpenOffice 2.0.2, KOffice 1.50, Firefox, Gaim 1.5.1cvs, GIMP 2.2.11, Thunderbird, and hundreds of other packages. You name it and chances are Knoppix has it, with everything running on a 2.6.17 kernel. Not every package comes in the latest version, but because it is Debian-based, Knoppix makes use of the great APT package management system, so upgrading anything is a cinch.

In the changes department, users of older Knoppix releases will appreciate the newer kernel, newer Xorg, even better hardware detection, newer KDE and GNOME, newer (and better) installer, and, generally speaking, newer everything.

The amount of included software really can't be quantified in just words and figures. You get bundles of software for every KDE menu category, ranging from Education/Edutainment, Games, Toys, Multimedia, and Internet to Graphics, Development, Utilities, and System Tools. If that's not enough, you also get exclusive Knoppix configuration tools, handy for configuring your TV card, network adapter, hard drive DMA mode, and more. And while you're exploring the Knoppix Tools, if you're always traveling on the go and using different computers, you could use a USB flash drive to store your /home folder so you would always have your settings and files.

On the minus side, having so much packed into a single live DVD means that the booting takes a bit of time, and running the live system is anything but fast. Yet there is a cure for this -- install Knoppix to your hard drive! The installer is straightforward and simple to use, gets the job done fast (as fast as possible considering the amount of included software), and gives you your own Knoppix system, which outperforms the sluggish live DVD.

Before you run the installer, you should manually partition your hard drive. You may do so using QtParted, included with Knoppix. While doing so, take into consideration that you need a root partition of at least 10GB, because the installer will install everything on the DVD, with no opportunity for users to select or deselect packages.

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While Knoppix's KDE menu is well laid out and neatly organized, it has no link to the installer, so you need to run sudo knoppix-installer from a console. When asked for the type of system you wish, go with Debian (which is also recommended by the installer) and not Knoppix. Choosing Knoppix will result in your system having a single sudo-enabled knoppix user, just like the live environment has, while choosing Debian will result in the installer asking you for a default user account and a root password, which is closer to a regular Linux setup.

Knoppix is a great distribution to use as your desktop operating system, but part of its appeal comes from being a great live Linux system -– yet this is where the latest version, especially in DVD form, comes up short. To improve its performance, Alpha Systems, a Japanese company, has developed a live CD Acceleration Toolkit (LCAT), a great tool which optimizes the cloop filesystem used by the live CD. It works by first profiling which files would be accessed on booting the live system, and in which order, and then rearranging the files at block level accordingly, aiming to place them in a continuous fashion. Without this, your CD/DVD drive has to do a lot of seeking for individual files that are needed in the boot process. Having them all neatly arranged in an orderly fashion almost eliminates the seeking and greatly reduces boot time. The result is an Accelerated-Knoppix distribution. Unfortunately, it's pretty difficult to get your hands on a copy of Accelerated-Knoppix. What's more, the English version of the Web site isn't very informative or up-to-date. The Japanese version shows a video of two identical laptops booting Knoppix and Accelerated-Knoppix.

Accelerated or not, after Knoppix boots you will be treated to arguably the best hardware detection system in the Linux world, which though not perfect comes close, and ahead of most other Linux distros. Perhaps that is one reason why there are so many Knoppix-based distros, such as Damn Small Linux, to name the most popular one. DSL and Knoppix are like David and Goliath: if you need a small, fast, light rescue system, use DSL; but if you don't need to run on really old hardware and can use a DVD, use Knoppix.

All in all, Knoppix is a sure bet -- a great Linux live CD/DVD and a great desktop distribution as well.


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