Searching for a small Linux

Yesterday’s and today’s grueling ordeal with a sluggish Mint installation got me to thinking: Mint isn’t really for small-scale installations. It’s meant to install on a normal PC, on the native hard drive. So, then what Linux distros are out there that could be booted from inside a USB stick? That’s when I went to the DistroWatch website, and found a “top 100” list of currently popular Linux distros.

As an asside, missing from the Top 100 are the ones that are dead and gone. The ones that I am aware of are Yggdrasil, and Corel Linux. I was surprised not to see Xandros, the OS that powers the Asus Eee mini laptops and mobile devices. I would have imagined that they would be big. It is hard to say how big, since they are not publically traded.

Back the the main subject, I decided to get a list of the most popular distros in the past 12 months including August 2012. I made notes of some scattered distros, and I thought I would share these notes with you in case you are new to Linux and wanted to know which distros are popular and why, as well as knowing some other trivial facts I found about them. I have found many distributions that promise to fit the bill for my small installation over Mint, enough of them that I was happy to just leave the list partly annotated, since I have no time to be totally thorough.

The Top 100 Linux Distros, according to DistroWatch (Aug 2011-Aug 2012)

1 	Mint 	3698>
        MINT Linux
		an offshoot of Ubuntu, which is an offshoot of Debian.
		Based in Ireland, currently the most popular distro.
		Idea was to have a desktop that users felt comfortable 
		with on a standard PC.
		It owes its popularity to its having Ubuntu's strengths
		while rejecting Ubuntu's mistakes in design, notably the
		Unity desktop, which Mint never adopted.
2 	Ubuntu 	2130>
        UBUNTU Linux
		an offshoot of Debian. Idea was to have a simple desktop
		and installation, but the controversial UNITY desktop
		only makes the most sense on a tablet with no keyboard.
		Desktop is also criticised for being too inflexible in
		configuration. Based in South Africa, and part of a
		philanthropic initiative by Mark Shuttleworth, owner of
		Canonical, an IT company which is leading the development of
		Ubuntu, now having 500 employees in 30 countries.
		A uniqe remark about Ubuntu is that upon a successful
		installation, users were greeted by a video of Nelson
		Mandela explaining the word "Ubuntu".
3 	Fedora 	1662<
        FEDORA Linux
                This is the non-commercial version of RedHat's official
                distribution. Red Hat is likely credited with inventing
                the highly configurable RPM package management system of
                which YUM is a wrapper application (YUM comes from the
                SUSE distro).
                Known for being "easy to install" while not
                disappointing more expert users.
 4 	Mageia 	1539>
        MAGEIA Linux
		The French Mandrake and Brazialian Conectiva begat Mandriva
		which begat Mageia. Mageia is the free version of
		Mandriva, also based in France.
5 	openSUSE 	1418=
	openSUSE Linux
		This is the free version of the German commercial
		distro, SUSE. openSUSE is currently getting corporate
		sponsorship from Novell. The design philosophy for SUSE
		has been similar to that of another RPM distro, RedHat.
		In my opinion, openSUSE has been been more thoughtfully
		engineered than RedHat, historically.
6 	Debian 	1343=
		This is the largest and most stable of all Linux
		distributions, and very nearly the oldest. It originated the
		DEB packagaing system, to which Ubuntu and Mint owe a
		debt. It began in 1993, a year after Linus Torvalds
		uploaded his first kernel. American founder Ian Murdock
		named it by combining his own name with his girlfriend's:
		Debra + Ian = Debian while attending university in
		Debian derives its popularity from its versatility and
		stability. But this comes at the price of users having
		to make do with older packages, which have had time to
		be debugged. 
7 	Arch 	1192<
        ARCH Linux
                A Canadian Linux distro, in development since at least
                2002. Uses a strange tarball *.tar.xz which its package
                manager, pacman, understands. Not for beginners, but
                also reasonably laid out.
                This is for those seeking a minimal installation, which
                is often useful for some machines and situations.
                Noticeably gone from this list are the other Canadian
                distros that once had their heyday: Corel Linux, and
                even Xandros are both gone. Both of these were based in
8       CentOS 	978= 		
                CentOS was developed as a Poor Man's RedHat Enterprise
                Linux. The goal is to provide an Enterprise-level Linux
                distribution to those with little or no money to afford
                such a system. So, unless you want a large-scale
                computer system for a business you are running, maybe
                you should look elsewhere. 
9 	Puppy 866=
        PUPPY Linux
                As the name might suggest to you, this one is for
                small-scale distributions. That is, the kind of
                distribution where you can boot from a USB stick or even
                a re-writeable multisession CD or DVD. It can also use
                the old-school ZIP drives, and even floppies.
                The operating system is meant to load into RAM, making
                programs run very fast. Development started in Australia
                since 2006. 
10 	PCLinuxOS 	812>
		An American Live CD distro, is Debian-based, with most
		sound cards and video configured out-of-the-box. Has
		been active since 2005.
11 	Lubuntu 	710=
		Another UBUNTU offshoot, which has been developed
		jointly in France and Taiwan. Made to run on systems
		with low resources, such as netbooks, mobile devices,
		and older computers. In active development since 2010.
12 	Ultimate 	647=
		Ultimate Edition is the offshoot of Debian and Mint,
		aimed at creating an easy to install, feature-rich
		operating system, with support for a wide range of
		recent technologies.
13 	Sabayon 	632=
14 	FreeBSD 	627>
		FreeBSD is not a Linux system, although both derive from
		the original UNIX developed at AT&T labs around 1970.
		While BSD is not the biggest or the smallest or the
		easiest to work with, BSD UNIX and its freely available
		FreeBSD Unix have won wide acclaim for being the most
		secure and stable UNIX distribution ever built. It must
		be said quickly that FreeBSD and GNU/Linux (pick any
		distro you like) have different licensing, but yes, both
		are free for anyone to use.
		BSD is also known as Berkeley Unix, and is arguably the
		oldest surviving traditional UNIX system in existence.
		It is widely used as the operating system for Internet
		servers such as websites and mail servers. 
15 	Chakra 	606>
16 	Slackware 	585>
		And Slackware is the only surviving GNU/Linux distro that is
		older than Debian. Slackware, another American compilation
		from Subgenius Church Member, Deadhead and Homebrewer
		Patrick Volkerding, who now works as the sole full-time
		employee of the Slackware Distribution (although there
		are several volunteers). 
		Slackware, named after the "Slackers" from the Church of
		the Subgenius used to have many slacker references such
		as images of J. R. Bob Dobbs showing up on screensavers,
		and the pipe-smoking cameo of Dobbs printed on some of
		the early CDs. 
		Volkerding also makes his living from several books he
		has written on Linux. He is a widely-respected writer.
		Slackware is likely the only distro that has no real
		package manager. All software packages in Slackware come
		in traditional UNIX "tar" archives known as "tarballs",
		which, if they are not initially installed, must be
		installed using gunzip piped through a tar command as in
			gunzip (package_name).tgz | tar xvf -
		on a command line.
		This means that if you want to install software, you
		must read through all the documentation and configure
		much of the installation by hand (you ought to be doing
		that anyway, but in Slackware this is ciritical). This
		might require several trials, and several trips to forums,
		websites and blogs. Also, the command line, and not the
		windows system, is your friend. And if you survive that, you
		have earned yourself the right and privelage to call yourself
		a true UNIX guru.
		All that said, I can still say that, even in the 21st
		century, the minimum system requirement for a Slackware
		installation is still an 80486 computer, probably the
		most modest requirement I have seen for any distro in
		this age of quad-core Pentium processors. In addition, I am
		given the impression that you still need a floppy to
		boot into the installation (but not into an installed
17 	Zorin 	577>
18 	Bodhi 	566=
19 	Mandriva 	473<
                Mandrake became the subject of a trademark dispute with
                Hearst Corporation (owners of Mandrake the Magician (King
                Features Syndicate)) resulting the subsequent move to acquire
                Conectiva and call themselves Mandriva in 2005.
                A French-based RPM Distribution (Conectiva was
                Brazilian). Mandriva Linux is now a commercial distro.
20 	Gentoo 	473=
        GENTOO Linux
                An American distro that has been around for some time. It
                uses a unique package management called Portage which
                seems to require an extensive pre-existing knowledge of
                UNIX commands. Also, the package files are in tarballs,
                but at least you have Portage. 
21 	Fuduntu 	460=
                So, what do you get when you cross Fedora with UBUNTU?
                Fuduntu! This American alternative distro is an attempt
                to find a happy medium between the two more famous
                distributions. In case you're wondering, it comes from
                Fedora, so it uses RPM packages. It purports to be
                optimized for portable computers, netbooks, and
22 	Pear 	455>
		If you want your PC to look like you're running MAC OSX, then
		you need this French flavour of Linux. Also has multimedia
		support out of the box.
23 	Pinguy 	423=
24 	Vector 	418>
25 	PC-BSD 	414=
		Headed by Kris Moore, this BSD alternative is an attempt
		to make the installation of BSD more user-friendly,
		something which is badly needed for the BSD community.
26 	CrunchBang 	412=
		A live CD Linux distro from the UK, made to be small and
27 	Xubuntu 	397=
		Another Ubuntu descendant which uses a lightweight
		windows system and is made to run on low-end equipment.
28 	Kubuntu 	393>
		Ubuntu for fans of the KDE Desktop.
29 	Scientific 	381<
                This is actually a re-compiled version of RHEL, used by
                the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the
                European Laboratory for Nuclear Research (CERN). This
                distro is downloadable and installable. It also uses the
                Andrew Filesystem (OpenAFS). As of this writing, it is
                unclear what the licensing is, due to its connection
                with RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux). 
30 	Tiny Core 	380=
                One of the smallest distros I've heard of, the American
                TinyCore boasts a memory space of 10 MB for its desktop,
                and can run a variety of window managers. 
31 	ArchBang 	375>
		ArchBang Linux is a lightweight version of ArchLinux.
		Made for desktop and portable systems, and uses OpenBox
		as its window manager.
32 	KNOPPIX 	342<
                KNOPPIX is a bootable CD, perhaps the first of its kind
                since Yggdrasil Linux, (the latter no longer exists). Great
                for people who want to see what Linux does and to try things
                out without installing.  Not so great if you want to do 
                meaningful work on it, since it is a read-only filesystem
                (namely your CD or DVD). Debian-based, but it doesn't matter,
                since you are not changing anything on your computer.
                Distribution is based in Germany and is headed by Klaus 
                Knopper. There have been many live distros since. 
33 	Snowlinux 	338>
		A German subset of Debian.
34 	Red Hat 	332=
        This American distro is the granddaddy of the RPM managers, and
	has fallen from favour since now you have to pay for this
	distro. People wanting free stuff have to download Fedora.
35 	BackTrack 	328<
36 	ClearOS 	315=
37 	GhostBSD 	300=
		The first BSD I've heard of that boots off a live CD.
		Also, this is the second Canadian BSD distro so far.
		Ghost descended from FreeBSD and uses GNOME as its main
		desktop. In development since 2010, led by Eric Turgeon
		and Nahuel Sanchez.
38 	Salix 	288<
39 	antiX 	281=
40 	MEPIS 	271<
41 	Commodore 	266=
                Linux for Commodore Enthusiasts. It is 64-bit, so it 
                won't run on an actual Commodore computer. American. 
42 	Dreamlinux 	264= 
43 	Peppermint 	262= 
44 	SolusOS 	256>
45 	Frugalware 	253=
46 	Ubuntu Studio 	250<
47 	FreeNAS 	249=
48 	Dream Studio 	249< 
49 	Unity 	247= 
50 	Tails 	247= 
51 	ROSA 	228>
52 	Parted Magic 	227=
53 	SliTaz 	221=
54 	ZevenOS 	214=
55 	Clonezilla 	209=
56 	wattOS 	208>
57 	Oracle 	208< 
58 	BackBox 	208= 
59 	Porteus 	196= 
60 	Macpup 	189>
61 	Solaris 	187=
		Solaris UNIX is the last of the 3 UNIX clones in this
		list, the other two being Linux and BSD. Solaris
		predates Linux by about 5 or so years, but BSD is older
		than either one. Solaris was free for a while but became
		proprietary again when Oracle bought the rights to it in
		2009 from Sun Microsystems.
62 	Netrunner 	184=
63 	AriOS 	184=
64 	Kororaa 	183=
65 	Deepin 	182=
66 	siduction 	178>
67 	Zenwalk 	176< 
68 	OpenBSD 	174=
        OpenBSD UNIX
                This has been active since 1995, and is based in
                Calgary, Alberta. Descended from BSD Unix, the
                insistence of project leader Theo de Raadt was on code
                correctness, high-quality documentation, and open-source
                licensing has made it a stable and secure alternative to
                Linux. OpenBSD has been compiled for 17 different
                processors, spanning PCs, Macs, PowerPCs, SPARC
                stations, and VAX machines.
69 	Semplice 	168>
70 	OS4 	166>
71 	DragonFly 	165=
72 	AV Linux 	164=
73 	Absolute 	162=
74 	SalineOS 	161>
75 	aptosid 	161=
76 	PureOS 	159=
77 	Calculate 	157=
78 	Linpus 	156=
79 	SUSE 	154=
		Germany's SUSE's offering for enterprise-level,
		mission-critical operating systems. Uses RPM and currently
		has the stuffing knocked out of them by Red Hat, which uses
		the same RPM system. 
80 	Joli OS 	154=
81 	SystemRescue 	153=
82 	Super OS 	152=
83 	Mythbuntu 	148=
84 	TinyMe 	147=
85 	MINIX 	146=
86 	Legacy 	144=
87 	LPS 	139=
88 	Fusion 	139=
89 	Toorox 	137=
90 	linuX-gamers 	131=
91 	DoudouLinux 	131=
92 	ALT 	130=
93 	Alpine 	130=
94 	Trisquel 	129=
95 	Parsix 	129=
96 	LuninuX 	129>
97 	Yellow Dog 	127=
		I wouldn't bother with a Linux OS that has been
		relegated to #97, but Yellow Dog is notable for being
		intended specifically for Mac users, specifically those
		macs that use a PowerPC processor. Since that is a
		fairly limited audience, that would be a compelling
		reason why it is ranking so low in popularity.
		For the record, they have now included a second target
		processor: the PS3, aimed at X-boxes and Playstations.
98 	DEFT 	125=
99 	Lunar 	123>
100 	KahelOS 	123=

Installing Linux Mint 13.x on a USB stick

Right now, I am struggling with an installation of Mint which is slow and clunky. Of course, I am expecting a lot. I want this thing to run on a 32G thumb drive, entirely from the thumb drive, with 2Gigs of swap also on the thumb drive. I am doing this because the solid state drive on my laptop is fairly small, and there’s not really enough room to squeeze in a Linux distro.

So, I have had to put up with the installer crashing (twice), forcing me to start from scratch. But I was third time lucky and finally had a working installation. The reboot was what was expected (after telling my BIOS to look for a USB drive before looking at the internal hard drive for a boot image).

Booting into the thumb drive is slow. I should have known the bandwidth over a USB 2 connection is probably a lot less than for the internal hard drive. But in fact, everything was slow to respond to mouse clicks and the like. Even the login screen had a few seconds delay. The panel properties for the desktop, which one would think is a simple point-and-click affair, took a matter of minutes to respond when wanting to turn on or off the autohide feature for the taskbar. Getting an xterm also takes time. The most responsive part of the installation was the virtual ttys you get when you press an CTRL+ALT+F# key combination. Xterms run okay once they are running.

I was optimistic in that Mint recognized most of my hardware on my HP Thinkpad TX2, something which was a problem in the past. It even recognized my finger touch on the screen, and my webcam. And one thing I really wanted to try out was Oracle’s virtualbox, a GPL’ed vmware clone which promises to allow me to run Windows 7 from inside my Linux session.

But the setting up of virtualbox was slowed greatly due to its attempt to create a virtual disk. In fact, that pretty much made the computer useless during the setup, to the point where I gave up and rebooted. Maybe creating a 14 GB virtual disk on my thumb drive was a bad idea, but it was still about 8 gigs less than the recommended size. I think I would need to move up to at least a 64GB thumb drive and increase my swap, before I would consider making a go of that.

YouTube worked in Mozilla Firefox out of the box, but was sluggish. I dismissed the browser, and still had sound several seconds after the program terminated. Running the update manager was also worrisome, since it seems as though only a handful of sites had the requested files in the expected places, and even then, the update manager updated only slowly.

Mouse behaviour is erratic using the mousepad on the TX2, and even more so using your finger as the pointing device on the screen.

Anyway, a host of problems. If you are in my situation, best not to think of Linux unless you can afford a very large hard drive, or if you think you can get away with blowing away MS-Windows altogether.