April 11, 2006

My desktop OS: Damn Small Linux

Author: Brandon Egbert

I'm a student who does freelance PHP coding and pixel art. I've always wanted a dedicated computer for my work, but that would take a considerable investment on a student's income. I found the perfect solution in the pairing of an older Compaq Deskpro and Damn Small Linux (DSL).Damn Small Linux is a great match for older hardware because it's loaded with lightweight software. My machine has a 166MHz Pentium CPU with 32MB of RAM and a 1.2GB hard drive, and it runs extremely well with DSL. I've always favored simple applications that do one job and do it well, so the stripped down nature of the programs included with DSL doesn't bother me. However, if I need the extra power of more complex programs, they're a breeze to install.

The best thing about Damn Small Linux is that it flat out flies. I use Joe's Window Manager instead of the default Fluxbox, but they both give a great amount of functionality in a small footprint. The only application I use that lags at all is the memory-hungry Firefox. The rest are more responsive than most of the programs I use on Windows on my much more modern other computer.

Despite being a live CD distribution, you can install DSL and run it from a hard drive easily. The whole process of installation was so painless that it surprised me. DSL asked me which partition to install to and whether I would like to use GRUB or LILO. I chose LILO, and it did the rest for me. DSL autoconfigured all of my hardware without incident, including a network adapter that usually gives me fits. My computer boots in one minute and 40 seconds, despite the inefficient method of autoconfiguring all hardware at each bootup. Compared to my much newer computer running Windows 2000, my ancient DSL box boots faster.

You have two choices for extending the software in your hard drive installation of Damn Small Linux. One option -- and the one I use -- is the fantastic MyDSL service, which lets you choose from an impressive list of programs that are guaranteed to work with DSL. You can also use the popular APT program to install Debian packages.

Office software

I do a decent amount of writing, so I need a good word processor. I've always favored Windows Wordpad and the rich text format (RTF). RTF includes most things that a typical document needs, and is compatible with nearly every word processor from the last decade. Damn Small Linux includes Ted, a capable application that can handle RTF and plain text documents and can export to HTML. If you must use Word .doc files, DSL includes a program that can read and convert them to other formats.

Damn Small also bundles Siag, a fully functional spreadsheet program. However, it can't handle Excel documents, which limits its value considerably.

If you don't mind the added weight, Abiword and Openoffice.org are available from the MyDSL service.


I need a good source code editor, and the GTK-based Beaver is adequate. Beaver is a simple editor that uses a tabbed interface and has some support for syntax highlighting. Also included are the command line editors Vim and nano.

Pixel art

I work with a lot of pixel art, so I need a graphics editor that lets me work with the individual pixels easily. Xpaint fills my needs well. It includes all the basic features I need, while being lightweight, fast, and simple. I don't want to have to load up the GIMP every time I want to do some minor pixel work, so Xpaint is great. It's very similar to Microsoft Paint, which I use more than I'd like to admit, but has some features that I really like. For instance, Xpaint shows you an x1 thumbnail while you're zoomed in. There are a couple of formats that Xpaint cannot export to, so I used MyDSL to install the Imagemagick tools. You can also add the GIMP and Inkscape from MyDSL.

File transfer

I like to use FTP to move files to and from the file server on my local network. Damn Small includes a great graphical FTP client, AxY FTP. Also included is SMBclient, so you can access your Samba shares as well.

Other included apps

DSL also comes with the Sylpheed email client, XMMS for playing multimedia files, and clients for AIM, ICQ, and IRC. There are a lot more useful programs in the default install; grab a copy of the live CD and check them out.

Damn Small Linux might not be the best choice for everyone. It takes a fair amount of work to give it all the power and functionality of more complex distributions, but it's a complete and slick little distribution that shines on older hardware. I'm doing most of my work on a computer that would crawl under the weight of a recent version of Windows. I'm extremely happy with Damn Small Linux, and I recommend it to others.

What desktop OS do you use every day? Write an article of less than 1,000 words telling us what you use and why. If we publish it, we'll pay you $100. (Send us a query first to be sure we haven't already published a story on your favorite OS or have one in hand.) In recent weeks, we've covered SimplyMEPIS, Xandros, Mac OS X, Fedora Core 3, Ubuntu, White Box Enterprise Linux, Mandriva PowerPack 2006, Slackware, SUSE, GRML, Kanotix, Gentoo, VectorLinux, and CentOS.


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