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An Old Dog Learns Some New Tricks With Puppy Linux 4

By Jack M. Germain
Aug 7, 2008 4:00 AM PT

The latest release of Barry Kauler's Puppy Linux version 4.0 has a lot to bark about. Installed directly on a hard drive, it lacks some of the bells and whistles found in more popular Linux desktop versions. But run it from a USB (universal serial bus) drive in RAM (random access memory), and Puppy growls impressively.

An Old Dog Learns Some New Tricks With Puppy Linux 4

The ability to carry an entire operating system (OS) on a flash drive and run it with all my files and settings intact is a powerful lure. Running Puppy Linux in RAM from any computer is one of this distro's best features. And because the entire OS lives in at least 128 MB of RAM once booted, Puppy Linux is lightning fast.

Filling a Need

I first tried the previous version of Puppy Linux about six months ago when looking for a Linux distro to run on my HP Pavilion laptop. I still needed to run Windows XP and did not want to partition the 80 GB hard drive or otherwise put my needed files at risk with a dual boot configuration.

I run Ubuntu Linux on one of my desktop computers. But booting and running Ubuntu from a live CD is terribly slow on the laptop, or any computer for that matter. So I needed an alternative to buying another laptop just to run Linux.

Several Linux distros can be configured to boot from a USB drive and share hard disk space. But setting that up took more effort than I had to devote to such a project. I tried Damn Small Linux, but I found it lacking in performance and ran into configuration issues.

The Preparation

To get started, download Puppy Linux here. Then use a CD/DVD burning program in your OS of choice to burn a bootable installation disk from the downloaded ISO image.

There are two ways to install Puppy Linux onto the hard drive. The Puppy Universal Installer offers to do a full install, which uses the entire hard drive partition; or you can do a frugal install, which installs only the four main Puppy files.

Actually, the frugal install option uses the same four files that the live CD copies to the USB drive if you opt not to do a hard drive installation. These files are vmlinuz, initrd.gz, pup_400.sfs and zdrv_400.sfs.

Each time you boot Puppy from the CD, Puppy files load off the CD into RAM and run totally from RAM. At the first shutdown, Puppy offers to create a file on your hard drive, writable CD/DVD or USB drive for storing all your personal data. The next time you boot up, all your personal settings and data are still there.

OS to Go

Puppy Linux lets you do what most other Linux distros and OS platforms do not. You can carry the CD and the USB drive and run your own personalized version of Linux on any desktop or laptop computer. No installation is needed. Just boot from the CD.

Puppy uses Joe's Window Manager (JWM). More traditional Linux distros use a less compact desktop interface such as GNOME or KDE. By comparison, JWM is much simpler with fewer user options. It is configured with a clock, sound, a battery level indicator for laptops, a memory indicator and a CPU utilization graph.

Unless it is installed on a hard drive, the Puppy Linux OS runs piggyback on the host computer. This gives it easy access to user files from other platforms or other inserted USB drives. In addition, since the operating files are copied onto the USB drive and into memory at each bootup, you can remove the boot CD and get full functionality out of the CD/DVD drive for other purposes, such as playing music files, viewing movies or burning files.

What's Inside

The look and feel of Puppy Linux 4.0 is mostly the same as earlier versions. The enhancements are found inside.

The ISO file is 87.1 MB and contains nearly all of the applications typical users would want. Ample additional packages are available from several sources, including the Petget utility.

Version 4.0 is smaller and has more functionality over the previous binary-package-based Puppy 3. Unlike previous versions, this latest Puppy distro is compiled from a Slackware 12-based source.

New features include the SANE (Scanner Access Now Easy) scanner application and digital camera support with Gtkam. All totaled, Puppy Linux 4.0 comes with 122 applications pre-installed.

Standard Fare

Puppy Linux comes with a collection of typical applications. These include the SeaMonkey Web suite, Gnumeric spreadsheet, AbiWord word processor, Leafpad text editor and Geany IDE/editor. Other standard apps are ROX-filer file manager, the default Gxine media player, and CUPS (Common Unix Printing System) support for printing.

AbiWord is the only office-class word processor bundled with Puppy Linux. The absence of a presentation program can be a drawback for serious business and school use. The Calc spreadsheet, Paint and Draw applications provide basic graphic tools.

Alternative application packages are available for download at various Puppy-related Web sites. These provide specific programs such as the Open Office suite and are called "Squash File System" (SFS) files.

I downloaded a Puppy package that installed an earlier Firefox browser version, called "Bon Echo." I added all of the add-ons I use on my Windows XP and Ubuntu computers with Firefox 3 to give me identical browser functionality regardless of which OS I use.

A Few Drawbacks

Admittedly, Puppy Linux is designed to balance function against bloat to allow it to run from a USB drive and RAM. Some trade-offs are to be expected.

Puppy Linux does not support touchpad tapping. Scroll bars work fine, however. In the previous Puppy version, the touchpad tapping feature would start to work later in the post-bootup session. But it does not work at all in version 4.0. Of course, using a mouse minimizes that inconvenience.

Another big annoyance is the lack of hibernation and sleep mode support, even though the host computer hardware supports those functions. And the screen saver feature is barely there.

Shutdown options offer rebooting the OS, powering off, restarting the X video display, restarting JWM or exiting to prompt.

Final View

Puppy Linux is not the ideal Linux distro for all users and all purposes. But its compact structure gives it the ability to run fast on any computer on the fly. It has enough applications to handle the computing needs of most users.

In my view, this portable Linux distro is a very good solution to interoperability needs. For instance, I can boot any computer in my own office, or computers belonging to my associates, and have complete access to files on the hard drive or USB drives. The installed apps allow me to load and save files in all of the standard formats.

Puppy Linux is an excellent alternative to the restrictions and costs of the proprietary Mac OS and Windows platforms. Plus, it does not have the installation and maintenance overhead of full-bodied Linux distributions.

Puppy Linux does not require routine patching and updating. To upgrade to a new version, all that is needed is a fresh ISO file. All the saved files and settings automatically integrate from the Puppy_save file on the storage medium.

What could be easier?

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