March 14, 2006

My desktop OS: Kanotix

Author: Andrei Raevsky

I expect both ease of use and advanced capabilities in any GNU/Linux distro. I am therefore hard to please when using a live CD-based distro, which is necessarily limited to about 2GB of software compressed onto a 700MB CD. I have tested more than a dozen live CD distros. Of all of them, Kanotix comes closest to being the "perfect distro."

Simply put, Kanotix is Knoppix on steroids -- lots of steroids:

1) Hardware recognition: The creator of Kanotix, Jörg Schirottke (a.k.a. Kano), based his distribution on the already excellent Knoppix, but he improved the hardware recognition with his own scripts, which are widely regarded as the most capable hardware recognition scripts currently on any distro.

2) Unionfs: Kanotix was one of the first distros to offer Unionfs, which makes it possible to install more applications even while running in the live CD mode (rather than after a hard drive install). Unionfs merges a filesystem in the RAM with the read-only filesystem available on the CD without ever touching a hard disk. Of course, as with any modern live CD, Kanotix offers the capability to create a persistent home directory and to save all settings (network, printer, desktop files, etc.).

3) Klik: Kanotix is one of very few distros that preinstalls klik, a utility that makes it easy to install applications with one click from within a browser (a newbie's dream come true).

4) Connectivity: Kanotix offers a choice of two firewalls, the Kanotix firewall and Firestarter (both are easy to use and intuitive), and several servers (NX, SSH, terminal server, Samba). Connectivity with GPRS, Bluetooth, DSL, ISDN, Wi-Fi, and modem are all included.

5) One CD for everything: While Knoppix was designed to run primarily in live CD mode, Kanotix is capable of installing Debian-Sid. Not only that, but the Kanotix live CD can even be used to update a previously installed Kanotix/Debian hard drive distribution. Unlike other distros, Kanotix does not have different versions for live CD and hard drive installs.

6) GUI and CLI: Kanotix was specifically designed to run on modern (i586 and above) hardware, but it can also run on older hardware. There are plenty of CLI tools (pppconfig/pppstatus, ogg123/mpg321, lynx, and many others) that make it possible to run Kanotix without X, by using the "Kanotix 2" cheat code.

7) Desktop: Kanotix includes the full OpenOffice.org suite (with the exception of Base), Scribus, the GIMP, Qcad, XMMS, Audacity, VLC, and many others. Kanotix is based on KDE and features amaroK, Konqueror, Kaffeine, K3b, and the rest of the huge suite of KDE tools, with the notable exception of KDE's KOffice suite (which is available in the Kanotix-Lite version). Although Konqueror is the default browser, Firefox is also available.

8) Development: Kanotix includes a plethora of high-quality applications such as Pycrust and Pyshell (for Python 2.3).

9) Rescue: Kanotix makes for a fantastic rescue and data recovery tool. With Kanotix one can create, resize, or delete partitions with QTparted, write to NTFS with the new captive NTFS driver capability, look for a rootkit with chkrootkit, change the admin password on a Windows XP machine with chntpw, check and repair a corrupted filesystem with, in the case of a ReiserFS, reiserfsck, and many more CLI apps.

To go over all of Kanotix's 1,289 packages would take too much time; it's easier to mention what is missing. Unlike many distros, Kanotix has only one game (SuperTux). A number of applications, such as OpenOffice.org, lack full documentation. Databases aren't included; OpenOffice.org Base, PostreSQL, and MySQL aren't on the CD, though they all can be downloaded easily.

Lastly, while Kanotix itself is GPLed, it comes with some proprietary applications, such as Skype. Free software purists might be offended by that.

Beyond the Kanotix CD, there is a lively and active community. One click on the appropriate icon on the desktop connects you to the Kanotix IRC channel (where Jörg Schirottke often appears personally under the handle "Kano"). The Kanotix Web site has good documentation, including a user's manual in PDF format and a forum where knowledgeable contributors answer questions, usually with 24 hours.

The perfect compromise?

Any live CD is an exercise in compromises, and this is also true for Kanotix. Still, Jörg Schirottke has achieved a near-perfect balance of power tools and newbie compatibility. Currently, no other live CD offers a "no questions asked," lightening-fast boot up with almost flawless hardware recognition, an incredibly easy hard drive install of Debian-Sid (giving access to 15,000+ packages), the capability to extend a live CD with the Unionfs/klik combination, and the capability to upgrade the hard drive install with each new release of a live CD.

Kanotix is both "Knoppix on steroids" and "Debian for newbies," combined into one slick package with plenty of eye candy. Best of all, it "just works."

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, and GRML.

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