We round up some top small Linux distributions

Slax

For a long time, Slax [4] was the go-to distribution for bootable USB disks. Back then, it was based on Slackware but was still relatively easy to customize. But then, like many one-man projects, it stopped receiving updates and was dormant for several years. Now in its second incarnation, Slax has undergone a dramatic change with its move to Debian, yet it retains all the features that made it stand out from the field of Live USB distros.

Slax is available for both 32- and 64-bit machines, and its ISO weighs in under 300MB. The distribution is getting regular updates and is gradually taking on new features, a majority of which are behind the scenes and focused on improving its compatibility with modern hardware.

Despite the fact that the projects are now heading in different directions, Porteus started out as a Slax remix, and they still share several traits. Slax, like Porteus, has an offbeat procedure [5] for getting it onto a USB disk. You'll have to loop mount it and copy its contents onto an ext4-formatted disk. Instead of the traditional installation process, you need to run a script from inside the USB to make it bootable, and you're good to go.

The distribution offers three boot options. By default, Slax will boot with the persistence option to save any changes made in the Live environment. You can, however, choose to boot into the factory environment by disabling persistence. The third option will run the Live environment entirely from RAM. Running Slax in memory will lead to the best performance, but it will only work on machines that have an adequate amount of RAM. Slax's website mentions that 512MB of RAM is required to hold all the Slax data, so you need about 1GB of RAM for a smooth functioning environment.

Despite its miniscule size, Slax boots to a graphical desktop that sports the lightweight Fluxbox window manager. The desktop runs Slax's homegrown and very minimalist Xlaunch application launcher that weighs only 25KB. The distribution ships with only a handful of apps, and there's no graphical package management app preinstalled (Figure 5). Slax is based on Debian, so you can use the Apt package management tool to pull in any number of apps.

Figure 5: Slax doesn't have a graphical package manager, but you can pull in Synaptic from the repositories.

Another trait Slax shares with Porteus is its modular architecture. Everything in Slax, from the core components to the web browser, is a module that users can enable or disable on-the-fly. The modular architecture makes it fairly simple to customize the distribution to suit your needs. Any changes you make to the distro, like changing the wallpaper or acquiring new apps with apt-get, will automatically be saved if you're running Slax from a writable medium like a USB disk.

On the other hand, if you're running Slax from a non-writable medium like a CD or have disabled persistence, you can still save your customizations by rolling them into a module. A simple savechanges command [6] will save all changes into a custom module (Figure 6). You can then place this module inside the USB, along with the other modules or use it to generate a new Slax ISO. Slax's developer has written scripts to reduce the process of creating a custom ISO down to a single command.

Figure 6: The Slax custom scripts have enough documentation to orient first-time users.

Slax, like Porteus, includes a PXE server that can again be activated with a single script. You can test this feature in VirtualBox by attaching the NIC of the Slax virtual machine (VM) to the internal network. Once the PXE server is running, any other VM that's connected to the internal network and set to boot from the network will boot into Slax by grabbing the Slax modules over the network.

SliTaz

SliTaz [7], which stands for "Simple, Light, Incredible, Temporary Autonomous Zone," has been chugging along for over a decade now. The rolling release distribution maintains two branches and is available in a stable and a developmental version, both of which are available for both 32- and 64-bit platforms.

The recommended image is about 53MB. Besides the official flavors, there are many other downloadable images for SliTaz, because its developers and community provide many variations to address different use cases and system limitations. For instance, there's a low RAM version for systems with as little as 24MB RAM, a version with Firefox instead of Midori, a version with no extra applications, and so on.

The distribution has an extensive boot menu with options to boot into any of the five environments. The gtkonly and the fulldesktop options take you to a graphical desktop, while the base and justx options boot into a restricted environment to help you create your own customized version of SliTaz. There's also the web boot option (Figure 7) that will boot SliTaz straight from its mirrors. First time users should stick to the default option that will take you into a graphical desktop.

Figure 7: The Web Boot option helps you try the various SliTaz editions without writing different media.

The distro uses the Openbox window manager and, despite its size, allows you to enable some desktop effects as well. Its menus are flush with all the regular desktop apps, including web browsers, audio players, media editors, several development tools, and more.

SliTaz is built with a set of home-brewed tools known as Cookutils and uses BusyBox for many of its core functions. The highlight of the distribution are the bunch of custom tools, such as TazPanel, which is the distribution's control center. You can use TazPanel to administer all aspects of the system. It's an all-in-one app that provides access to system configuration, hardware detection, user and group management, system updates, and application installation. You can also anchor SliTaz to your hard disk, and Windows users can run it from inside a directory. The process involves creating a partition in your hard disk via GParted. The installer also enables you to create a separate /home partition along with a non-root user.

The distribution's custom repositories hold about 5,000 packages that you can fetch via the TazPanel app (Figure 8). In addition to open source apps, you'll also find several non-free apps as well, including Skype, Google Earth, Dropbox, and more. If you need an app that isn't listed, use Slitaz's command-line tazpkg package manager [8] to create SliTaz-compatible packages from popular packaging formats, including .deb, .rpm, .tgz, and even from other small distributions, such as Puppy Linux, Slax, and Tiny Core.

Figure 8: SliTaz uses the same installer irrespective of whether you wish to install it inside a dedicated partition or inside a folder in Windows.

Another useful custom tool is TazLiTo, which helps you roll customized spins of the distribution with additional packages and custom wallpaper. TazLiTo and the other SliTaz custom tools are very well-documented and fairly intuitive to operate, even by first-time users.

Tiny Core

One of the smallest distributions in this feature, Tiny Core [9] is available in three flavors. There's a miniscule 13MB Core edition that will help advanced users craft a custom installation. The recommended Tiny Core edition weighs in at 19MB and boots to a graphical desktop. At the top end is the 232MB CorePlus edition that has additional drivers for wireless cards, a remastering tool, and localization support (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Tiny Core Plus has a lot more bootable options and is still relatively tiny as a 106MB image.

Download Tiny Core and transfer it to USB with dd or Ether. Due to its minuscule size, Tiny Core boots blisteringly fast. True to its name, Tiny Core bundles just a terminal, a text editor, and an app launcher on top of the lightweight FLWM window manager. It has a control panel to manage bootup services and configure the launcher. If you need anything else, you'll have to pull it in using the distribution's package manager, including the installer, if you want to install Tiny Core to your hard disk.

Installing Tiny Core is easy, once you download the tc-install or tc-install-GUI application. The distribution offers several installation mechanisms, including a frugal installation to the hard disk, as well as an option for installing within an existing Linux partition. Also, Tiny Core has a unique package installation process (Figure 10). When installing a new application, you can choose between having the package load into the distribution automatically at boot time or on demand. Choosing to load a package at boot makes it available to you immediately after a reboot. On the other hand, choosing to load it on demand will speed up bootup times as the app isn't loaded or mounted in Tiny Core parlance. To use an on-demand app, you'll first have to load it manually.

Figure 10: Tiny Core's sole developer, Robert Shingledecker, was previously involved with the once-popular but now-dormant Damn Small Linux project.

But the distro's stellar performance comes at the price of usability. The distribution is designed for advanced users, and you'll need to spend some time fleshing it out using its package manager, which isn't the most intuitive in the business. You'll also have to browse through the documentation to familiarize yourself with the distribution's peculiarities, irrespective of your experience with Linux. One highlight of Tiny Core is its remaster tool, which lets you create your own remix of the distribution. Like everything else in the distribution, the remaster tool is fairly powerful and feature rich, but it isn't the most intuitive.

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