I’ve burned and tried about a dozen Linux distributions that run on live CDs, meaning you don’t have to install them on your hard drive until you want to. They boot directly from CD (if your system can handle it). On This Old PC, I had to go into the BIOS settings and change the boot order to look at the CD-ROM drive first, the hard drive second. Actually, it checks the floppy first, but that’s another story. On the newer Dell, I can hit F12 and change the boot drive for that session only, or go into the BIOS and make a permanent change in boot order.
Anyhow, in the month that I’ve been doing this, I’ve tried:
Knoppix (granddaddy of bootable Linuxes)
Damn Small Linux
Damn Small Linux-n
Hey, that’s only nine … but it’s still a lot.
Both are wildly popular (Ubuntu being the most popular, according to distrowatch.com) with extremely active user forums — there’s plenty of help available to get started.
The dirty little secret of Linux is that it can be murder to configure your system. They’re called “distributions,” because they include a bunch of applications along with the operating system — and the applications are often “tuned” to the type of hardware the distribution is meant for.
For older, smaller systems, the biggies are DSL and Puppy. But when it comes to actually getting things to work, Puppy has been better. On the Dell, which is newish (only about a year or so old), everything works — sound, Ethernet, printing. At home, I haven’t been able to get my old ISA soundcard to work, or wireless, but I can get Ethernet. So it’s a mixed bag, even for Puppy. With DSL, I’ve had trouble getting even Ethernet on the Dell. But either one of these “small” Linux distros can make an older system come alive again, especially Puppy, which is designed to boot from CD and then run entirely in RAM (preferably 128 MB, better with more — and remember, old RAM is cheap).
I’m going to do my best to make either Puppy or DSL work on This Old PC, but for now, I much prefer Puppy. I can easily save to a Windows directory or a USB flash drive, printer setup is straightforward, as is Ethernet setup. If you’re using DSL (as in Digital Subscriber Line, not Damn Small Linux) for your home connection, you’ll probably get Internet automatically with just about any Linux disc — they’re set up for DHCP.
As I said, Ubuntu is king of the Linux distributions at present, as it is blessed with financial backing from some South African bigwig, a fast-growing user base and a blissfully easy-to-configure front end. I’ve been able to get just about everything working on both the Dell and This Old PC. In fact, I’ve almost got wireless working — it sees the routers, but I’ve yet to actually get Internet through the box. Now Ubuntu is a bit too much for a 333 MHz processor, and there are lighter “flavors” of Ubuntu for older PCs — Xubuntu and Fluxbuntu. I like Xubuntu, especially its Xfce window manager (as opposed to the GNOME used by Ubuntu). But the setup programs are not as easy to use — Ubuntu is much more accommodating. I think I will try Ubuntu with a Xubuntu-like desktop, switching over after installing (yes, you can do that). Then I can switch at will. That and installing the Abiword word processor and SeaMonkey browser (used in Puppy and DSL) to further lighten the load.
Still, when the going gets tough, it’s off to the forums for long lists of esoteric things to type into a terminal window … and I don’t like it one bit, but that’s often the way with Linux, at least at this point.
I had a pretty good experience with MepisLite, the “lite” version of SimplyMepis, But I tried to load it again, and it wouldn’t work at all … so it’s back to the ‘Buntus and Puppy for now.
So my recommendation is to figure out how to burn your own ISO images to CD (if you have Nero, it will do it, or you can download one of the free Windows add-ons suggested at the various Linux distro Web sites) and start downloading. I’d get Ubuntu, Puppy and DSL and start playing around. The best news source for Linux is Lxer, which will lead you to any number of other sites at which you can keep up with what’s happening in the fast-paced world of Linux, where new distributions crop up like dandelions in spring.