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Knoppix Pulls a Lot More Than Its Own Weight

By Jack Germain
Apr 17, 2013 5:00 AM PT

Knoppix is a lightweight Linux distro that is anything but light in its features and functions.

Knoppix Pulls a Lot More Than Its Own Weight

It equals or exceeds the performance of all the desktop varieties I run in Ubuntu and Linux Mint. It also could easily replace the portability on a stick I get with Puppy Linux.

Knoppix, much like Puppy Linux, provides a fully functional Linux distro that boots from a DVD or USB drive. Both save user settings and downloaded software added to the mix.

This persistent memory feature, unlike regular live distro sessions, lets you carry a complete Linux desktop with all of your files and special application settings in your pocket to run on any computer. You also can run Knoppix as your primary operating system as if it were installed on a hard drive.

Knoppix runs from a Live DVD or USB boot that is not designed for permanent hard drive installation. Its speed results from its temporary installation into a RAM drive created during the booting process.

You can also run Knoppix from a tricked hard drive installation -- either internal or external -- if you do not mind a bit of fiddling. However, do this with caution. Even the developers warn against installing Knoppix to the hard drive with the intention of running it there permanently.

Knoppix is based on Debian Linux. Knoppix, however, is not a Debian distro per se. Once the Debian trappings initiate the boot process, Knoppix takes over with its own portable environment. While several portable Linux distros now exist, Klaus Knopper developed this original concept.

Getting Started

Setting up Knoppix to run from a DVD drive is no different than burning an ISO file in any distro. Just pop the live DVD into the optical drive bay and fire up the computer.

Running Knoppix from a USB drive requires an additional one-time step from the menu when you run the DVD live session. You will find the options to install Knoppix onto a USB drive or hard drive in the Knoppix menu.

Whether you run Knoppix from the CD/DVD or the USB drive, you get a slight sluggishness as the data is read from storage and delivered through the pipeline. The amount of sluggishness depends on the speed of the optical device and whether you have USB 2 or USB 3 hardware.

I ran the identical Knoppix configuration on five different desktop, laptop and notebook computers and had solid performance regardless of the hardware. Knoppix even ran well on an older computer with minimum installed RAM.

At first blush, the documentation hints that Knoppix runs in RAM rather than from the USB drive. That only happens when you follow the directions on the cheat codes page of the Knoppix web site.

These cheat codes allow for several dozen modifications and workarounds to solve loading problems on various hardware configurations. You enter the codes -- such as knoppix toram -- at the boot prompt on the initial splash screen of the booting process.

Knoppix Basics

Version 7.0.4 of Knoppix uses kernel 3.4.9 and xorg 7.7 (core 1.12.3) for supporting current computer hardware. It also has an optional 64-bit kernel via a boot option "knoppix64".

The default Knoppix install is the LXDE Lightweight X Desktop environment. Use the Knoppix desktop window manager application in the Knoppix menu to select the other option -- LarsWM. This is a minimalistic window manager for X11 that uses small system resources.

You can also run other more memory-intensive desktops on a hard drive installation and load the desired command at the initial splash screen. Out of the box, howver, only the LXDE environment is installed.

Inviting Interface

Knoppix uses the Compiz OpenGL compositing manager. This gives you nice window effects and some eye candy. Compiz also produces a nice spinning cube effect and Expo view for switching virtual workspaces.

Push the mouse pointer into the upper left corner to see an expo view of the virtual workspaces. Push the mouse pointer into the upper right corner to see a thumbnail view of all open windows. In either case, click on the desired window to access it full screen.

The software footprint is very minimal. You can add what you want to use. However, you do not get an excessive amount of default applications installed with Knoppix. But all the basics are there, so you can really be up and running on the initial boot.

Only the Iceweisel browser is installed. This is a Mozilla community project and has much of the simple/basic features found in Firefox. You also get Pidgin Internet Messenger and the Terminal Server Client. The LibreOffice suite is installed. Several audio/video and graphics applications, including GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), are included by default.

Unusual Updating

Knoppix is not built around its own distro package manager. It also does not thrive on software and system updates. You want an update? Burn a new ISO image when the next release is available.

Instead, you have full access to adding and removing software packages from the included Synaptic Package Manager. This is actually a very good arrangement, and it eliminates any resident repository software biases or distribution lags.

Only one background image is included, however. But you can drag any JPEG image into the Knoppix folder and select it with a right click on the desktop.

Unifying Uniformity

One of the usability factors I really like with Knoppix: Just like Puppy Linux, I could install the programs that I use in the other Linux distros. This gives me full access to my regular computing routines, including access to the cloud storage depots.

For instance, I downloaded the Google Chrome web browser as a .deb package from the Google website. This specialty software is not distributed via Synaptic. Knoppix has no deb installer utility pre-installed.

I used Synaptic Package Manger to get and install the gdebi package. This automates the process of installing .deb packages. Look for it in the Knoppix menu after you install it. When the application loads, use its open dialog box to pick the .deb package you downloaded, or right-click on the .deb package file in the download folder with PCManFM file manager and select the Open with Gdebi Option.

I store my essential files on a separate USB drive and in the cloud. Whether I use my computers or somebody else's, I can run my own distro -- either Knoppix or Puppy Linux -- without doing a hard drive installation, and have my working desktop and all my files with me in my pocket.

Switching Places

If I had to decide between Knoppix and Puppy Linux just on the basis of access to virtual workplaces, Knoppix would lose. In Knoppix you switch workplaces with the Ctrl-Alt + arrow keys.

The Panel Settings option would not let me set the number of workplaces on the switcher app. The number selections are grayed out. This problem does not exist when I run LXDE in other Linux distros.

Knoppix gives me access to 12 virtual work places using the Ctrl-Alt + arrow keys from a hard drive installation or from a DVD live session. However, when I run Knoppix from the preferred USB boot into RAM, only two workplaces are available.

This is one major difference from Puppy Linux, which has no restrictions on setting and accessing any number of virtual workplaces.

Knocking Knoppix

Knoppix can be a bit balky when using the toram boot. For instance, I had no trouble running Knoppix in RAM booting from the DVD on a variety of desktops and portable computers. However, booting into RAM from the USB drive on several of the same computers hung up and failed to boot.

I had to modify the cheat code to fix the stalled boot. For example, on some gear I needed the command: knoppix ram=512M. On other gear with more memory installed, I could improve functionality by using the boot command: knoppix ram=3072M, or whatever available memory the system had.

Knoppix's boot quirkiness was a bit of a disappointment for me. By comparison, Puppy Linux boots any computer from a DVD or USB drive without fiddling. Puppy Linux also automatically runs in RAM without resorting to quirky cheat sheet commands.

Timid Clock time

Another hiccup with Knoppix is its lack of a clock or time-setting control. Other distros include such an admin tool in their versions of the LXDE desktop. Nowhere in the Knoppix documentation or on any user forums for Knoppix could I find how to correct the six-hour time (and corresponding date) errors caused by the uncorrected reading of the hardware's UTC codes.

I applied a solution for earlier versions of LXDE on other distros, and fortunately it worked. Here is the cure, but first you must use the Knoppix system tool to set a super user (SU) password.

In a terminal window enter this command: SUDO dpkg-reconfigure tzdata. That solved the problem.

Bottom Line

Knoppix is a very impressive and easy-to-use Linux distro. It is speedy when run from a USB boot and even faster when copied to RAM.

Its coolness factor is high, thanks to the futuristic voice that announces Knoppix is starting or a Knoppix shutdown has initiated.

Want to Suggest a Linux Application for Review?

Is there a Linux software application you'd like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?

Please send your ideas to me at jack.germain@newsroom.ectnews.com, and I'll consider them for a future Linux Picks and Pans column.

And use the Talkback feature below to add your comments!

Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear.

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