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=
    DEBIAN Linux
    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 Unix
    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<
        Ubuntu Studio is my Linux OS of choice, since I make videos and run a 
        blog, as well as maintain a website.
        It is the de facto OS of choice if you are into creating online content, 
        videos, graphics, and so on. Most of the existing "artistic" software
        is gathered into this system. And it never did adopt the Unity desktop.
        I am not aware of a better OS for creators and artists.
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.