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Damn Small Linux 3.0.1 - a damn simple review

Date/Time Permalink: 11/30/06 01:18:07 am
Category: Reviews

Once upon a time in the kingdom of Tux, there ruled a distro fairer and mightier than them all. This distro was Debian, and it's power was great.

And Debian lived long and was fruitful, and begat many offspring. Because Debian was endowed so mightily, the fruit of Debian's loins were as diverse as all of Linux itself. So came Knoppix, and Ubuntu, and grml, and Damn Small Linux. And none of them looked the least like the other, each to it's own strengths and weaknesses, beauty marks and blemishes. Nay, verily, it could be sung again by many a bard in the purplest prose, but it be time to quit dinking around and write the review already.

Damn Small Linux screen shot

Damn Small Linux is currently in a development release, 3.1 Release Candidate 4, so this review might be a version back, but I'm specifically choosing this to go on the kid's box as an installed system (!) so I picked the last stable one. Also, my needs here are simple; I don't have to fuss with running it embedded inside Windows or on a laptop with a USB thumb-drive or anything. A plain old desktop PC drive is all we're concerned with. And I'm aiming more at a Debian starter-kit than Damn Small for itself - we'll see how that goes.

Damn Small Linux - you can't help but compare it to other distros in ways that shouldn't be fair. Speed: The CD, running live, from "boot:" prompt to GUI desktop with Dillo snapped open to the welcome page: 49 seconds! FORTY-NINE SECONDS!!! Somebody check Guinness, because I do believe this is the fastest PC operating system on the planet. Tom's root-boot floppy even takes a few seconds longer.

As fast as Damn Small comes up, there's no waiting around while it finishes loading stuff in the background. It's ready to work right now. Open Firefox and there's your Internet connection already found - you're ready to surf right now! Open any program in the field of desktop icons or in the surprisingly extensive menus that open from a right-click to the desktop, and the system snaps to attention and the program jumps onto your screen as if spring-loaded like a jack-in-the-box.

With each release, the installed base of programs shows a cleverer usage of the thrifty 50MB of disk space this distro will always limit itself to. It's fast to download and burn to CD, too. Yet the economical usage of this space shows quite an impressive cache of software. Of course, even though I'm loving the install choice, I still don't know why they put two web browsers on it (Dillo and Firefox), because ditching one would give them more than enough room to put some other worthy programs on there, such as the Emacs that I'm not going to mention because I spend too much time harping about it.

Onward: Damn Small has it's own package management system. Clicking the "MyDSL" icon opens a simple interface of categories, and you select what you need extra and it installs the package for you. This works whether your system is installed to hard drive or not, though in running live with a couple of extension packages in RAM can get hairy, and you can create a persistent home directory on your hard drive to install the extensions to. Anyway, MyDSL package installation at least equals apt-get, yum, or urpmi; if it doesn't then it beats it. The speed is limited only by the hosting server, and when it's installed it's loaded right into your desktop menu under MyDSL at the top. Gramma could do it with one eye closed.

Now, before we get too excited, a few cautions: One, don't even come here expecting a full system. It's a micro-distro, and that's that. Programmers won't find much here to do without installing a heck of a lot of stuff, there's no full office suite in sight, and you may be able to work a DSL install into a KDE or Gnome system, but I've yet to hear of that happening. Another caveat is that many versions of programs are old beyond belief; the kernel is 2.4, Firefox is 1.0.7, and other programs show similar age. The constraint on space prevents both too many programs and new versions of programs with too much bloat from being included.

I should also say that Damn Small definitely puts its own unique stamp on the whole Linux experience - that's either a plus or a minus depending how you look at it. You won't find much to do from the command line, and before you have it installed, you'll be surprised to hit Ctrl-Alt-F2 and not get a console - it's desktop terminal or nothing. Damn Small has its own way of doing things, and some of those ways change the way you're used to doing Linux.

As an installed system, in the week I've been running it as such, it's been a well-behaved little distro. I am relegating the computer formerly known as "Crash Test Dummy" exclusively to my kids' use, and part of the reason I chose this distro is because even a ten-year-old can handle installing and using more software on it. You literally never have to look at a command line on Damn Small Linux, from install to daily use. My only tick with the install is that I was surprised yesterday to discover that it creates no swap partition for itself!

I might be sharing some further experiences with extending the system later, time and winged monkeys permitting.

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