Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Slitaz Linux

I have been using Slitaz Linux to build a "lite" version of my Rescue & Recovery Linux, so I eagerly awaited the release of version 3.0 this last weekend. I had been experimenting with the last "cooking" release for a few weeks and was really impressed with it's speed and overall polish. I had played with Slitaz since it's first 1.0 release, so I was familiar with it's main strengths; very small size, speed on older hardware, lots of included applications, and good looks.

One reason I liked Slitaz was that they had chosen some of the same applications I had for my Ubuntu-based rescue CD (that I am struggling to keep under 650MB!). Of course mine has many more apps and tools that come in handy in a system crash or data recovery scenario, but Slitaz is a great lightweight desktop or rescue live CD. It can also be installed to a USB drive or hard drive. In fact another great benefit is the included applications to create your own custom versions. Just boot the live CD, customize, then generate an ISO, or USB image including your preferences, modifications, installed applications, ect. The web site also provides many different "flavors " of Slitaz for specific uses or preferences. I have also done a "frugal" install, that boots the compressed file system into RAM from a GRUB menu. Since it boots and shuts down very fast on modern hardware, it is a great alternative to your usual OS for times all you need is a quick check of email or web search. Doesn't hurt to have it setup just in case your usual distro fails either.

At only 30MB, it is incredible what the developers have managed to do, compared to the 700MB "big guys". Of course there are limitations that come with that size and simplicity. The chosen applications are very light weight, but with 2000+ more in the repository, the choice is not too limited if you need something else. The package manager can even convert packages from other distro's to use in Slitaz, though I haven't tested that. Slitaz uses it's own tazpkg package manager, apparently inspired by Debian, and it works very well, handling dependencies and installing packages quickly. The GUI front end though, is very slow to resume once a package has been installed, removed or even viewed. It is one of the many custom applications, including Control Box system control center, Burnbox for burning CD/DVD's, Mount Box for mounting devices or partitions, and a few others. All are pretty slick, but I haven't had much luck with the network configuration GUI, having to fall back to the command line to setup networking.

Openbox is the window manager, and some of the applications are borrowed from LXDE, including lxpanel for showing the menu and running apps, etc. Also included are Leafpad text editor, GParted partition editor, Transmission bittorent client, mtPaint image editor, Viewnior image viewer, LostIRC for chat, applications for viewing PDF's, playing audio, ripping CD's, and organizer, even an audio editor!
One complaint I have is that some of the menu items do not actually start an installed application, but initiate an installer that downloads and installs a group of applications and their dependencies. This may be handy, but I would rather know what is going to happen when I click the button. I think they should be clearly labeled as installers, and the installation process should give you a summary of what is to be done and the total size of the packages to be installed before continuing. The menu items Edit Images, Chat, Watch Video and Write Documents fall into this category

Of course a light distro needs a light browser. I had looked at many lighter-weight ones for inclusion on my own live CD (I finally kept Firefox), and apparently the Slitaz developers have also had trouble finding a decent option. They had previously used Netsurf, but Midori is the present choice and I am coming to like it's speed and simplicity. It supports user scripts (like Greasemonkey ), extensions and styles, though not nearly as easily as Firefox. There is a package for Flash, though I haven't tried it. Midori does have an irritating habit of consuming 100% CPU on my old Thinkpad with 600MHz Celeron and 256MB RAM. It also just crashes once in a while, and sometimes locks up if you accidentally drag an element on the page while clicking. I'm not sure if that is an issue only with the vesa Xorg driver, since I have not taken the time to install the ATI driver and configure a higher resolution than the default 800x600. It could be a problem in WebKit , the underlying html rendering engine. There is a "flavor" that includes Firefox if you have to have it, though some apps are removed to make room.

The text-based installer is very simple and fast, but I have had it fail to upgrade a system from cooking to 3.0. You must also do any partitioning prior to using it. Installation only takes 5-10 minutes, and GRUB is configured as the boot loader, but I don't know how well the installer handles including other operating systems in the menu.
Slitaz seems to be very "hacker friendly" with most of the custom apps consisting of shell scripts and a GTK dialog if they are graphical. I was able to easily fix a link to the help file in the burnbox CD burner, for instance, and edit the Openbox menus to my liking. Combine that with a very useful website and good documentation and you have a great little distro. It may not be suitable for new Linux users, but with a little effort it will revive an old system to usefulness again. In fact I am having so much fun working on Slitaz I forgot why I looked at it in the first place!
Oh, right, to use as a boot option on my rescue CD...