February 17, 2004

Newbies take on LiveCDs; everybody wins

Author: Joe Bolin

With Linux appearing more frequently in the press and on TV,
people are becoming more curious about it. They are still reluctant
to leave their comfortable Windows world, but they are curious. Enter
LiveCD Linux -- a CD with a full Linux operating system that runs
completely from the CD without the need to install anything on the
hard drive. Taking ten people who never used Linux before and who
have only basic computer skills, I set out to run several LiveCDs
through some informal tests.


The test PC on which I timed each distro's load time was a Gateway
with 384MB of RAM and an nVIDIA GeForce2 video card. The
boot times reported here include time to start the desktop but not
BIOS runtime. Additional peripherals included an Epson Stylus 440
printer, Olympus D-390 digital camera, and Lexar 128MB USB JumpDrive.
For hardware compatibility testing we also used 10 additional PCs,
ranging from 233MHz Pentium IIs to 800MHz Pentium IIIs, with various
components and peripherals.

We began with a group of nine LiveCDs. Six didn't make the final
cut, mainly due to subpar hardware detection. Most failed to boot
into graphical mode on about five of our test machines without some
tweaking or a boot code. All could be tweaked or given a boot option
that made them workable, but that's not something you'd expect new
users to do.

We chose to test Knoppix,
MandrakeMove, and Slax based on
their hardware detection, applications, aesthetics, usability, and
the ability to allow a non-technical person to operate without the
need to tweak settings.


The most well-known LiveCD is Knoppix.
Knoppix didn't create the genre, but it made it famous. Named after
its creator, Klaus Knopper, Knoppix is based on Debian.
Since its inception in 2001 Knoppix has been touted by Linux
evangelists as revolutionary. It is what all other LiveCDs strive
to be, though few have succeeded. It is popular among academics for
demonstrating Linux to new students.

Knoppix desktop -- click to enlarge

Knoppix boot time was very good at 2:58 with a non-graphical boot
process. Hardware detection was excellent, with all the removable
devices available as desktop icons. All devices were mounted
read-only with the exception of the diskette drive, which
frustrated a couple of people. Since they were using the hard
drive or USB key to save notes, it was a bit of a burden. On the
desktop the testers found their way around easily. Knoppix offers a
wide range of KDE and non-KDE applications, including OpenOffice.org
and an extra Knoppix menu that contains some useful, albeit simple,
utilities. Application speed was about the same as running an
application directly from a hard drive.

The group's opinion of Knoppix was a bit mixed; they liked its
speed but disliked the default menu arrangement. This was a common
complaint for the KDE menu. The group felt that the default desktop
lacked polish and gave them a Windows 95ish feeling. Knoppix failed
to load into graphic mode on only two machines tested.

The verdict: Knoppix makes a great starter distro for users just
getting to know the Linux desktop, especially those using older


The most recent addition to the LiveCD genre, MandrakeMove
is developed by commercial Linux distributor Mandrake Linux. MandrakeMove allows users to
take Mandrake Linux with them everywhere. Although we used the free edition of MandrakeMove, the company also offers a boxed set with more advanced features that costs about the price of the USB key that it includes.

Mandrake desktop -- click to enlarge

MandrakeMove boot time was a slow 4:35, but to be fair, this was
the most interactive boot of any we tested. The software asks for a
language selection, acceptance of the license agreement, a user name
and password, and gives a prompt for printing services. Users
appreciated the graphical boot, but all the pit stops seem a bit
unnecessary for this free version since it doesn't allow you to save
your settings as the MandrakeMove boxed set does.

Hardware detection was excellent. Everything was detected
perfectly. The USB key and camera were detected correctly but the
operating system failed to display a desktop icon for the USB key.

MandrakeMove has a wide selection of software, including
OpenOffice.org and the company's standard "Drake"

We noted one bug. When KDE first loads you're presented with a pop
up "Welcome to MandrakeMove" window. The link to load
"This Computer" failed to load drakconfig and gave an error
about a missing file.

The testers found MandrakeMove's default desktop to be the most
appealing of those we looked at. The operating system's ability to
let users remove the LiveCD to listen to a CD had some taking a music
break. Don't expect your DVD to play, though -- there's no libdvdcss
here. Everyone liked MandrakeMove's menu system, with its
what-do-you-want-to-do phrasing. Most of the applications are
contained off the top-level under "All Applications."

Everyone felt that this was the best LiveCD for getting to know
the Linux desktop. One person even said it felt more comfortable than
her "other operating system." It has to be the most
user-friendly interface of any we tested. The biggest complaint was
the lengthy boot process, and I saw a few shortcomings inherent to
Mandrake's utilities. Overall though MandrakeMove outperformed the
others with its hardware detection and pleasurable, user-friendly


Slax, the most unlikely
finalist, is based on Slackware
Linux. Slackware is often perceived as the no-nonsense, geeks-only
distribution, and Slax remains true to its roots, providing the same
no-nonsense approach that purists will appreciate. In spite of
invoking a little culture shock, Slax was surprisingly well received
by my team of novices.

Slax desktop -- click to enlarge

Slax blazed through the boot process: 58 seconds to get to the
console prompt; 1:05 total to Fluxbox, a minimalistic desktop based on Blackbox;
and 1:38 total to KDE. The non-graphical boot lands you at a console
prompt with a few options. This was a bit of a shock for most of the
mild-mannered testers. After logging in as root with a password
everyone typed "gui" from the choices available and all
were quickly swept into KDE 3.2 (beta2). They were unanimously more
comfortable with KDE than the command line.

Slax's choice of wallpaper, theme, and icon set made everyone
smile. Most liked the clean yet fun feel of the icons and theme, but
the wallpaper
drew the most attention with a resounding "Aww, he's just too
cute." There were no desktop icons except for Trash Bin and we
couldn't seem to get any enabled. A bug? Slax ran applications nearly
twice as fast as those of any other LiveCD we tested. Slax doesn't
include OpenOffice.org, but KOffice is available as an alternative
and there is a very wide selection of other software.

Speedy performance and the look of KDE 3.2 (beta2) made Slax very
popular with the group. The distro failed to load graphically on only
one machine without tweaking boot settings. Test subjects complained
only about the console login -- not about the console itself, but
most wanted to see a graphical menu. Everyone said that if it weren't
for the console, Slax would be the number one choice. Alas --

I fell in love with Slax. I swear I saw my current paperweight, an
IBM Thinkpad 360CSE running Slackware 3, smile. I missed not having
Frozen Bubble, but
otherwise I was hooked. This return to Slackware made me giddy.

The consensus

Overall the test group agreed that MandrakeMove was their favorite
LiveCD, followed by Knoppix. All but one person said they felt very
eager to put Linux on their home desktop.

As for me, Slax was my favorite, hands down. My second choice was
MandrakeMove, for its overall performance and enhancements.

Et al.

The six other LiveCDs we looked at that failed to make the cut
included Adios, Cool
, Freeduc,
Gnoppix, Mepis,
and Morphix. They are
all worth trying, but three really stand out.

Gnoppix is a refreshing change of scenery and will be popular for
those who enjoy the Gnome Desktop. Most of my testers didn't like the
feel of it as compared to KDE. Bruce Perens, are
you listening

Mepis should be watched closely. I'm not quite as impressed with
it as Joe
was, but I think it is headed in the right direction and is
worth the download.

Freeduc is worth noting for its goals and direction. It is geared
around nothing but educational software for kids, which is refreshing
in a world full of self-righteous commercialism. It has the worst
desktop interface, xfce,
which made my daughter go "Eewww!" Everyone, and especially
the three mothers among the testers, was very excited to see
something of this genre. Consider donating some time to help make
this great project better.

SUSE Live-eval was originally
included in this test but was dropped for a couple of reasons. It had
a horrendous boot time, ranging from 7 to 15 minutes; it installed
over 100 MB worth of files on the hard drive; and you can't use it to
perform a desktop install without shelling out some cash. I really
like SUSE's YaST administration tool, but everyone, myself included,
felt jilted with the boot times and wanted the experience over before
it began. I'm just glad I didn't hand them this CD first.

Final thoughts

Which LiveCD should you use? For new Linux users I suggest
MandrakeMove. For more experienced Linux users, Slax and Mepis are
good choices. But take my opinion with a grain of salt. Download,
burn, and try them all for yourself.

Regardless of which distro you choose, LiveCDs are the best way
for new users to safely explore the world of the Linux desktop. So grab a CD-R and go forth to convert your boss, friends, and family.

Joe Bolin is an independent network engineer and consultant and open source developer in Alabama.


  • Linux
Click Here!