You may not know about Knoppix, but before there was Ubuntu and before there was Mint there was a time when Knoppix was among the few distros that hardly needed introduction. Linux enthusiasts knew about Knoppix in the same way they knew about Debian. While Debian was the largest distro on planet (in terms of number of packages), Knoppix was the first Live distro based on Debian. Although it wasn’t the first Live distro, Knoppix popularized this concept and became the face of Live CDs. At the time when Debian was still difficult to install, especially by inexperienced or new Linux users, Knoppix gave people a way to “test” a Debian-based system before actually installing it. Knoppix even encouraged users to always use it as a Live CD, which made it popular as a rescue system that people could use to quickly salvage important files from their hard-drives and even fix their systems in the event of boot failure of the installed operating system.
My last tryst with Knoppix was 4-5 years ago, when it had just recently made the move from being a KDE-based distro to featuring a relatively new (at the time) desktop environment called LXDE. This new DE was in its infancy and lacked many features I had come to feel at home with in KDE as a result of a size-speed trade-off. But it showed promise. Of course it didn’t immediately strike one as an improvement over Xfce—a lightweight implementation of GNOME—in terms of maintaining a perfect balance between size and speed, it did feel a bit more responsive than Xfce. LXDE felt like something lighter (and uglier) than Xfce but way good looking than and as efficient as IceWM and JWM. And Knoppix came out loudly supporting this new DE, replacing everyone’s favorite KDE with a feature-incomplete yet light LXDE. I threw my Knoppix disc back into my college library’s CD rack and moved on.
A couple days back I found my Editor, Swapnil, excited about Knoppix’s latest 7.2 public release. He insisted I took the all new Knoppix out for a spin, and saw for myself how it felt like using it after a long time. So out I went to fetch a copy from a nearby mirror, and once it was on my hard-drive, I burned it to my trusty old rewritable CD. I decided to review the CD edition so to see how the bare-bones Knoppix fared among today’s competition. The DVD image comes with a huge lot (8.7GB) of software and applications compressed into half the size, but I believe that the best way to judge a distro is to see what’s in its base. And what better to test-drive a lightweight distro than a six year old Dell Inspiron 6400 with a 1.7GHz dual-core CPU (with no dedicated graphics) and a mere 1GB RAM? As a matter of fact, my laptop happily runs Linux Mint 13 (MATE) in the most satisfying way possible.
The first thing you notice on booting from CD is the isolinux-based colorful bootloader that takes you to the classic Knoppix boot process. Knoppix’s is a very different boot process as compared to the graphical ones you might be used to seeing in Ubuntu. The boot is text-based and verbose, yet easy for users to understand, unlike the geeky text messages that appear in RedHat derived distros, like openSuSE, Mandriva, Fedora, and so on. Upon the completion of boot, you hear a steely, robotic female voice saying, “initiating starting sequence”; another thing that hasn’t changed since my Knoppix days.
Historically, my Dell has been able to run Linux distros without much tinkering, and so I booted Knoppix in its default configuration. But there’s a complete cheat sheet you can refer to if you get into trouble while booting or want to try an alternate boot configuration. In my case, Knoppix booted straight to the graphical desktop (runlevel 5). The whole process took under 90 seconds, which is an impressive feat considering the 2-3 minutes that Ubuntu usually takes on my laptop.
Knoppix 7.2 greets you with simple, plain looking LXDE, with a neat, uncluttered desktop. It uses the ClearLooks GTK+ theme, and the GNOME-default icon-set. So if you’ve ever used GNOME, you’ll find yourself in familiar territory. The default, and only available, wallpaper is dark, but I’ve yet to see a rescue live system without a dark wallpaper. Perhaps it’s a symbolic of hope in dark times. Who knows? The first thing I noticed on clicking the Menu icon was that Compiz Fusion (3D effects & compositing) was enabled, and along with it all its effects (far too many, in my opinion), which was surprising to see working smoothly on my age-old laptop. Even more surprised was I to see Compiz still around, with compositing having been integrated into KDE’s Kwin and GNOME’s Metacity a long time back. Talk about nostalgia.
The next thing I noticed was that my touchpad wasn’t working flawlessly. Tap-clicking didn’t work, and so didn’t scrolling. LXDE’s default mouse settings dialog didn’t have the options to configure my touchpad correctly. But this is just a minor issue and can be easily gotten past by installing the gpointing-device-settings package through a simple apt-get install or via Synaptic Package Manager, which by the way is simply the best package manager out there.
Knoppix 7.2 comes bundled with a carefully selected set of applications in every category. I liked the approach of keeping things simple by including only the most essential of apps.
The “Accessories” section includes a file manager (PCManFM), an image viewer (GpicView), a text editor (LeafPad), an archive manager (Xarchiver) and a handwritten note taking app (Xournal). Xarchiver comes bundled with plugins to handle all popular archive formats—tarballs, gunzips, zip, rar, 7z. Xournal is a weird inclusion as I don’t see much utility of a handwritten notes app on a live CD. Who would want to do a lot of hand exercise just to scribble some notes using mouse in this age of touch screens? LeafPad is a very basic text editor in league with the classic Notepad. A bit more advanced-yet-light editor that supports syntax highlighting and tabbed editing should have been there. SciTE or Geany would fit well.
GIMP (image manipulation), the usual suspect, is present in the “Graphics” section, which also includes ImageMagick GUI (another image manipulation app), PDF readers (gv and Xpdf) and a scanner app (Xsane). In the presence of GIMP, ImageMagick felt like a redundancy. ImageMagick is a powerful command-line image library, and I understand it might have been included to satisfy the hardcore IM aficionados, but at least its GUI front-end could have been left out, especially when it’s quite difficult to use anyway. gv is another ugly-looking GUI frontend for reading postscript documents (.pdf and .ps files), but it works. I had a hard time getting Xpdf to open a PDF files; apparently the only way to open files is to right-click on a pdf and choose Xpdf. Xournal and LibreOffice Writer can also open pdf files, and you can even edit them in Writer.
The “Internet” section has just what you need to get connected—a browser (Iceweasel) and an IM client (Pidgin). Iceweasel is a community-based browser derived from Firefox. It’s present as version 21, and comes with Ad Blocker Plus and NoScript extensions pre-installed. It’s a novel idea to include both so as to make web surfing a safer experience, but NoScript can be irksome at times, so much so that I completely turned it off for some of my frequently visited sites like YouTube and Gmail. The default set of fonts makes for a decent browsing experience, which is a good thing as I didn’t find badly aliased or ugly fonts on any website that I visited. NetworkManager, as always, makes is super-easy to get connected to the Internet. I had absolutely no problems in connecting to my WiFi connection. If you have difficulty connecting to a GPRS/UMTS/ISDN net connection, check the specialized app for the purpose inside Menu → Knoppix.
While checking my mails I was suddenly reminded of a documentary on quantum entanglement I saw in the morning. I found it on YouTube, and it was very well presented by the famous physicist and String Theory proponent Brian Greene. To quench my urge of watching a couple more documentaries by Greene, I headed straight to YouTube in Iceweasel and, as expected, found it complaining about missing Flash player for viewing videos. Fortunately, Knoppix has a simple, little tool in Menu → Knoppix → Install components that allows for a quick and easy installation of non-free, but essential, apps like the Flash player. Using that tool I installed the latest available (in Debian’s repositories) version of Flash. I restarted my browser, and YouTube worked!
The “Office” section is populated with an essential portion of the LibreOffice suite—Writer, Calc, Draw and Impress. And then there’s Wordview MS Word document viewer capable of opening only .doc files in plaintext mode. I again wondered about inclusion of yet another redundant app. LibreOffice Writer can do the same in a far better way.
Sound & Video
“Sound & Video” section is where you’ll find all the multimedia stuff, though there isn’t much in the CD edition. There’s the one-player-to-rule-them-all GNOME Mplayer, a sound mixer/control app (Aumix), the no-nonsense CD/DVD burner Brasero, and a nifty little command-line utility for playing DAISY audio books.
Multimedia capabilities are good. GNOME Mplayer was able to play all videos and music files I threw at it—mp4, avi, mp3, ogg, etc. Thanks to the versatile mplayer back-end. There’s no specialized audio player, but there really isn’t a need for one as the default media player is more than sufficient for the purpose. And you wouldn’t anyway be using a rescue system as a jukebox, would you?
Universal Access and System Tools
Orca, an on-screen reader, and xvkbd, a virtual keyboard, are two handy utilities in the “Universal Access” section. Very few apps are included in the “System Tools” category, where I sorely missed a graphical system monitor, although HTop does a pretty nice job about it. System Profiler can come handy for quickly digging up your system’s hardware information.
Putting my laptop to sleep (Suspend mode) worked fine the first time, but resulted in a kernel panic the next time I tried to resume after sleep, forcing me to power-off the laptop. Although not many people would actually want to suspend their systems while operating in live mode, this is something that needs to be looked into. Another serious issue I found was with Gparted, the universal partition manager. Firing it up resulted in my Knoppix CD popping out because of which Knoppix went into “zombie” state where it didn’t respond to new commands. This despite the warning message Knoppix gave while booting, “Do not eject the medium until shutdown!”
Finally, the “Knoppix” and “Preferences” sections contain some system tools and settings for configuring various aspects of your Knoppix system. I was not completely happy with the inclusions here. I couldn’t find a straight-forward way of setting my timezone or even modifying the time. Then, there’s no way to change the window decorations of LXDE’s GTK+ theme, although you can configure stuff like icon theme, widget looks, etc. I strongly feel that rather than including some redundant applications and even Compiz, the devs over at Knoppix should include more essential things like apps for settings as mentioned above and, maybe, a more complete LXDE experience.
During my two days spent exploring the various aspects of Knoppix 7.2, I found it to be a partially satisfying experience. It does what it’s supposed to—give a basic rescue system and a responsive overall live experience. You can get an even faster experience by running Knoppix live off of a USB flash drive; I didn’t have one spare around, and so had to stick with my CD for testing. Still I feel if the nuances that I highlighted above are removed and replaced with more desirable apps, Knoppix can offer a more fulfilling experience. But there’s always the DVD edition to play around with, which contains a ton of more software and two extra full-featured desktop environments in KDE and GNOME. There is also a special edition called ADRIANE, which is designed for specially-abled people with hearing or vision impairment.
If you are an old Knoppix user, go ahead and give this one a try; you’ll not be disappointed. New users may want to explore other options such as Slax and Puppy (or Lxpup) for a similar CD-sized light-yet-featureful experience.
Update: As Klaus Knopper, Knoppix’s creator, himself explained in one of the comments below—
- Compiz provides certain aids (and effects) that augment accessibility and usability. You can anyway start Knoppix with all effects disabled by using the boot option “knoppix no3d” at the start.
- ADRIANE, an environment designed to increase accessibility, is included in all Knoppix’s editions. You can enable it using the “adriane” boot option.
- Some of the duplicate bundled apps are for use by ADRIANE.
- Tap-to-click is deliberately disabled, and can be turned on through a minor change in xorg.conf.
- “Suspend to disk or RAM is likely to crash any live system, since USB devices and CD/DVD drives are often not powered up in time before they are accessed again.”
- A dark wallpaper generally helps save energy