By Rossi Fernandes Published Date
01 - Aug - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - Aug - 2007

It's extremely rare to have Windows preinstalled with all the software you need for, say, multimedia authoring. Then again, for a half-hour's work, you don't want to scour the Net hunting for software, so we turn our attention to Linux. The large number of open source tools available for it makes Linux a very good base to build a purpose-built operating system on. There are a lot if you look for them.

We've decided to take a look at distributions that have been created specifically for certain purposes and filling gaps left by most of the Desktop distros. They've been creating waves on the Internet for their functionality, though they aren't recommended for regular Desktop use. We have divided them into categories that should cover the majority of your computing needs outside of basic Desktop computing.

Most of these distributions are Live CDs, so you don't need to bother with installation-just boot off the CD or DVD to try them out. In the odd case that a distribution needs to be installed, you can first test it in a virtualised environment like VMWare or the free VirtualBox. Refer to the 30 Minute Expert to VirtualBox in our July issue for more. Once you're comfortable with the installation process and have decided on a distribution, go ahead and install it.

Linux On A Stick

Portable Linux Distributions are compact operating systems meant for users who would like to carry their operating systems along to work or wherever they need to go. They need to be as feature-packed as possible without going overboard on the resources and storage space front.

Damn Small Linux 3.4

Site: www.damnsmalllinux.org
Size: 49 MB
Damn Small Linux (DSL) is what first comes to mind when you think of portable, compact Linux distributions. The Live CD loads up without any issues into a Fluxbox-powered interface. You can switch to the jwm window manager if you don't like Fluxbox, but it isn't as nice looking. The interface is minimal and clean. A transparent panel on the right of the Desktop shows you statistics for system resources, network speeds, and so on. This adds to the geek factor that most people generally associate with Linux.

A very compact distribution with the bare necessities

Functionality-wise, there's a lot stuffed into DSL, considering it's just short of 50 MB. There's almost everything from browsers like Firefox to PDF readers to the remote access programs Rdesktop and VNCViewer. There's even a command-line-based CD/DVD burning software, cdw. Instant messengers are limited-there are text-based AIM, IRC, and Jabber clients, but nothing for the more commonly used MSN or Yahoo!. A utility called DSL Control Panel allows you to change settings and turn services on and off quickly using buttons on the interface.

As for entertainment, audio playback shouldn't be a problem with xmms around. A video player could have been included, though, without sacrificing much on space. Moving on to games, you'll only find card games in DSL-other than a Tetris game here and there. Fortunately, extensions can be added to Damn Small Linux through the Internet using a program called MyDSL Extension Browser. You can also install extensions downloaded to the local drive using the same application.

Let us put it this way-Damn Small Linux is pretty damn small as its name suggests, and it packs in loads of features despite its constraints. It is the geek's Swiss Knife, and can be carried about on portable USB drives. Its compact size is what makes it stand out, and also what cripples it by not letting it be a complete Desktop. The lack of a video player or even a proper word processor is proof of this. Still, you can do almost everything you would on a Desktop with DSL. It's an adequately functional Desktop replacement for those who travel a lot.

SLAX Standard Edition             

Site: www.slax.org
Size: 192 MB
At 192 MB, SLAX doesn't come close to Damn Small Linux in terms of portability, but with 2 GB USB Drives available for under Rs 1,000, portable disk space isn't an issue any longer. Also, at 192 MB, it has many more software packages than DSL does.

The Live CD boots into the console, after which you are required to enter the root username and password. You then need to type startx to load the X Window System-this could all have been automated, but that tiny bit of disappointment ends here. SLAX looks a lot better than DSL-much more like a proper Desktop operating system.

The first thing you notice when you go through the menus is they seem to have everything made for KDE in it. That means no Firefox, no Abiword, no xmms, nothing. Those who love KDE shouldn't have any problem, but GNOME fans might find it a little hard to digest.

That aside, the distribution has components out of KOffice for word processing, spreadsheets and presentation. Konqueror automatically becomes your browser. Unlike with DSL, you can play video-they've included a media player called Kplayer (it comes pre-installed).

SLAX doesn't allow you to install programs, but there are ways to configure the ISO to add modules. The command-line RPM (Red Hat Package Manager, though the term is rarely used) module is installed, so you can also add programs using RPM packages.

A complete Desktop in a compact package

Games don't seem to figure anywhere in the list of priorities for the creators of SLAX-the same old set of card games on most distributions can be found on SLAX as well. Since it's based on KDE, customising and setting up the OS is really simple using the KDE Control Center.

When you think of DSL and SLAX as portable operating systems, SLAX doesn't feel like one-it feels more like a full-fledged OS. Anyone wanting the smallest OS with the bare necessities should blindly opt for Damn Small Linux, but if you want anything more, SLAX is your best bet.

The Media Centre

These are distributions meant to take the place of your entertainment centre-playing music and movies and providing some image viewing features, to be specific. The distributions will allow you sit back on your couch and use a remote control or a wireless keyboard to control all your entertainment content.

GeeXboX 1.1

Site: www.geexbox.org
Size: 8.8 MB
The distribution we had to try was GeeXboX. The size of the distribution is shocking-with a download size of close to 9 MB, we were wondering if this was even a real distribution! The interface is colourful with a simple menu, and fonts like the ones you would find in cartoonish games like Worms 3D.

GeeXboX can play movies and music, and display images and slideshows if you wish. Once completely loaded into memory, the Live CD is ejected, so you can put in your CDs or DVDs. There is no mouse control whatsoever, so you have to depend on the keyboard's direction keys or a remote control.

This is a tiny Linux-based, dedicated media center

We had some issues with slideshows switching to next and previous image-we couldn't navigate to them, and had to jump back and forth to the index for this. But movies and music playback worked perfectly-GeeXboX plays back everything from AVIs to MP4s encoded in H.264 or QuickTime. It even played WMV files and Flash video clips-all this through the Live CD, without having to install any third-party codecs or players.

You don't always have to use the Live CD-you also have the option to install GeeXboX on a hard drive, which speeds up its already quick startup time. This distribution is perfect for those who have fairly old machines with some life still in them. Plug in a card with a TV-out function, and you have yourself a media playback centre for free! Check out our October 2006 issue to find out how.

Media Authoring

Content designing and digital media creation has become a common hobby the world over, not to mention a growing business area. Taking advantage of this trend are distributions aimed at all sorts of media creation and editing-perfect if you have multimedia leanings but don't know where to start.

dyne:bolic 2.4.2
Site: www.dynebolic.org
Size: 654MB
Multimedia authoring distributions often conjure up the idea of a software suite that extends into the gigabytes, but dyne:bolic fits on a single CD. The distribution starts up to a pretty-looking interface-clean with colourful icons. You can customise it by changing to one of the many themes to suit your taste. The interface comes configured with six virtual Desktops-useful when you have plenty going on: drawing, 3D, animations, compositing, communicating with other members in your team, etc. Programs are well-categorised according to the tasks you want to perform-whether it's viewing video or creating music. There is also software for streaming media over a network or the Internet to create your own live performances. It features tools for print media, such as Scribus for Desktop publishing, and vector imaging tools like InkScape. The good thing with a distribution like this is that you get to choose from a variety of software for each task depending on which one you like.

Now here's a well-customised distribution with media creation in mind!

The distribution also has the now-standard set of software like Firefox, Thunderbird, XChat, and a few P2P applications. There's even VoIP software like Kiax and Iaxcomm, and VNC for remote access.

All this functionality stuffed onto a 655 MB Live CD distribution is just amazing, and very good for anyone interested in computer graphics. When you're done with your work, you can save your data on either a USB drive or a hard drive using a tool called Nest.

Dyne:bolic is a great way to go for anyone wanting to get
their hands dirty with CG-related tools

We're rather pleased with Dyne:bolic overall. It seems like they've thought of almost everything by putting useful tools not for just for the multimedia authoring, but also for general Desktop use. Like we said earlier, Dyne:bolic is a great way to go for anyone wanting to get their hands dirty with CG-related tools.

Ubuntu Studio 7.0.4

Site: www.ubuntustudio.org
Size: 867 MB
Ubuntu Studio is another highly-spoken-of Linux distribution. This isn't a Live CD like Dyne:bolic, so you're going to install it on your drive or use VirtualBox. The installation is rather sad with no GUI-much like distributions from the '90s-though it still is easy and straightforward; it's just poor presentation.

The interface doesn't look anything special, and is very similar to that of another multimedia authoring distribution called ArtistX (which you'll find on this month's DVD). There are no virtual Desktops in sight, and unlike Dyne:bolic, applications aren't sorted and categorised into menus; this can be very confusing. The only distinctions made are between still graphics editing and audio/video tools. A lot of emphasis seems to have gone into the audio recording and editing components.

The software in Ubuntu Studio is more or less similar to that in Dyne:bolic. There are quite a few interesting applications, like terminatorX, which acts like a virtual turntable and allows you to record tracks as well. Another interesting application is Synfig Studio, which is animation software for vector images; it can be used to create 2D cartoon animations.

A content-creation distro based on the well-known Ubuntu

Ubuntu Studio does not give any emphasis to streaming media over the network-everything is for the local machine. Quite a few other desktop applications are missing as well-of the OpenOffice suite, you'll only find the word processor, and Firefox and GAIM bring up the rear. There aren't any mail clients or games either, but you can install all the missing software using the Add/Remove Applications tool.

At 867 MB, Ubuntu Studio forces you to use a DVD, but the size disappoints-they could have put many more applications into the distribution, or made it a CD-size distribution like dyne:bolic.

We expect Linux distributions to select only the best software, instead of simply packing all the available applications and calling it a distribution-which is what Ubuntu Studio tries to do. Any Ubuntu fan inclined towards digital media creation and computer graphics would be interested in trying Ubuntu Studio. It must be said this is the first release and it's doing pretty well already-things can only get better, and it won't be long before it matches the might of other distributions in its class.

Communications And Networking 

What do you do with an old PC that you can't sell? Linux is a perfect operating system for network servers. Here are some distributions that take your scrap-worthy machine and turn it into a network server or a telephony box.

eBox 0.9.1

Site: www.ebox-platform.com
Size: 205 MB
eBox is a really unique distribution with a lot of potential, not just for home users, but even small offices, and can scale to much larger networks. It acts like a router with a dozen additional features like proxy, firewall, routing, VPN, and many others thrown in-things a router normally can't do. It's a full-fledged, remotely controllable network server. eBox is a 200 MB distribution that boots off the CD without any trouble.

Your all-in-one network server!

There is no user interface-no taskbars, no menus, nothing! It directly loads an elegant page on Firefox which is, in fact, the Web interface from where you control all the features of this operating system. This means you can remotely access the server over the network too.

There is a lot this distribution can do: you can  add multiple network interfaces and gateways. You can then set it to load-balance requests to the gateways. Traffic shaping allows you set bandwidth limitations. The HTTP proxy can be configured to block files of certain extensions, MIME types, or entire sites altogether. Easy switching of strictness for the proxy can be done by changing a single setting called Content Filter Threshold.

The firewall in eBox can be set up to block ports and also for port forwarding. eBox can also route data from one network to another.

The VPN capabilities here are very interesting indeed. OpenVPN is a free, open source application that comes with eBox; it allows multiple users from all over the network or the Internet to connect and form a virtual network. There is no limit to the number of connections.

There is an option to back up settings to a drive, but we found no option to install the OS. The eBox site has a separate installer image for download for that purpose.

You should be able to run eBox on pretty much any machine. The highlight here is that it's easy for non-technical people to use, thanks to the Web interface.

AsteriskNOW Beta 6

Site: www.asterisknow.org
Size: 447 MB
AsteriskNOW is a Linux distribution that turns your computer into a mini PBX (Private Branch Exchange)-a mini phone exchange-for both telephone and VoIP calls. It is not a Live CD, so you'll need to install it to disk. Upon boot-up, you'll see just a text-based interface, and there's nothing that can be done here.

To get to the most functional part of the OS, you need to connect to the AsteriskNOW machine through a browser from anywhere on the network. The setup Wizard helps you set up the system the first time you log in, and the Web interface is well-laid-out.

You can set up multiple phone providers and then assign them to different users-not only can you use your regular analogue phone line, you can add online VoIP providers as well.

Connections can be set up in a manner such that numbers starting with certain codes can be routed through different providers, and calls coming from a particular provider can be automatically sent to particular extensions. It also supports conferencing in addition to the standard three-way phone calls. In addition,

there are voice menus to interact with callers, and you can assign functions to a number of keystrokes.

AsteriskNOW gives you reports of system information such as CPU loads, network interface information, system logs, and even a text console for executing direct commands to Asterisk. It's claimed that a machine with a 3 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM will be able to sustain up to 15 simultaneous connections. You can monitor all active connections using the Web interface, and back up and restore all your settings and data as needed.

This can be your personal telephone exchange

You obviously will need some hardware to act as an interface for the telephone lines for Asterisk to function. Digium is a company that uses and works closely with Asterisk as software to run their hardware. Digium hardware can be found through a couple of distributors in India, too. Visit http://asterisk.pbx.in for more. The software works fine with other manufacturers as well, though. They make PCI cards that allow many phone lines to be connected to a computer.

It is clear that AsteriskNOW isn't meant for home users, but for a SoHo setup, it's a very cheap solution.


It's pretty hard to put "Linux" and "education" in a single sentence. This category is for school-going children who can use Linux in their daily academic life and also as a regular operating system in their free time.

Edubuntu 7.0.4

Site: www.edubuntu.org
Size: 695 MB
Edubuntu, like Ubuntu Studio, is based on Ubuntu and is targeted at the young ones. Unlike Ubuntu Studio, this distribution comea as a Live CD, and has a GUI for its installer as well.

Edubuntu isn't just for schoolkids-there are quite a few applications meant for very young children as well. Tux Paint, for example, is a drawing application for children, much like MS Paint. The interface is stacked with large, colourful icons. Another educational game that should be fun for kids is called GCompris, a collection of many simple math games and puzzles. There are also some simple games and quizzes that ask the user to find colours, as well as some reading games. They're all meant to teach kids real stuff while keeping it fun.
For the slightly grown-up, there's an application called KTurtle, a KDE clone of the old programming language called Logo, where you use text commands to draw. There are some maths programs as well.

KEduca by itself is a program that allows students to take tests, and marks are given accordingly. KEducaBuilder is a program that accompanies it, and lets you design tests that can be run on KEduca-really useful for teachers and parents alike. Kalzium is a program that shows the periodic table of elements and a lot more information like chemical data, history details, and more. It even shows photos for quite a few of the elements, which makes it more interactive and interesting.

Learning and fun together on a Linux distribution. But make sure they learn

Edubuntu doesn't throw out the standard software package, though-you get the OpenOffice suite, some media players, instant messengers, Firefox, and Evolution for your mail. You can also add and remove programs with simplicity similar to that of Ubuntu.

This operating system meant for kids could have been designed to be a lot more colourful and interactive to make it even more appealing-something like the software in it, like GCompris. They also could have given the user a choice of choosing between a couple of different layouts and schemes, each suited for a different age group. All in all, it's an operating system with lots of fun things to do, with bits of educational value added.

The Indian Flavour 

A few enterprising Indian groups have decided to make Linux easily accessible to non-English speaking public by creating distributions for them.

IndLinux-Rangoli 1.0b

Site: http://www.indlinux.org/
Size: 688MB
IndLinux is one of the more prominent Linux distributions we came across, and we had to look at it. It's a Live CD based on Morphix, which in turn is a derivative of Debian.

When you first boot from the CD, you can choose from seven languages. You can also choose to use KDE or GNOME if you select Hindi. The other languages boot up into the GNOME desktop environment.

Not all menus and programs are translated into the regional languages, though, and this differs from language to language. You can switch between languages for typing using a menu in the KDE taskbar, though you can't do so in GNOME.

This is no scaled-down operating system-a large number of programs are included. There's everything from browsers and text editors to games and even videoconferencing tools. A couple of very important programs are missing, though-there's no Firefox, but you will find the Mozilla Web browser. The KDE documentation, for those who need it, has topic names in Hindi, but the text is all in English. Translating it all would be a mammoth task, we'd imagine.

A Linux distribution with support for Indian languages-marking a step ahead

People who are used to English versions of Linux as their Desktops might find using the regional languages a little confusing, but newcomers to computers and to Linux might find this a lot easier.

IndLinux sets out in the right direction-it's really good for people who want to use computers but don't have good command over the English language. It doesn't have support for all the regional languages in our country, but the IndLinux site links to teams developing and translating programs to other languages. Perhaps future releases will implement more languages.


A lot of people hesitate from using Linux because of the lack of games, not to mention the trouble of hunting down the few games that do exist, and then set them up. A lot of distributions, however, do all the dirty work for you, so all you have to do is play!

live.linuX-gamers.net 0.9.2

Site: http://live.linux-gamers.net/
Size: 2.36 GB
The Linux Live Game Project is a compilation of games for Linux, and requires no previous knowledge on how to set up Linux and all its applications. It's a Live DVD that's based on Arch Linux, so there is no need to create space and partition drives, either.

Depending on your hardware, you'd be well warned that some of your drivers may not be open source. We ran our tests on an NVIDIA-based motherboard. This can be a little irritating to see every time you boot up: you need to agree to continue, and once you do, the drivers are loaded and the GUI boots up. There's not much to see here other than a thick bar with a list of games there.

3D games from most of the distribution

Now the games on this distribution aren't your typical low-end-card games you find on your Windows and Linux Desktops. These are full-fledged 3D games, including FPSes like Warsow, Tremulous, and World of Padman.  Sauerbraten is another pretty good-looking game that makes use of some fancy-looking shaders.

It's not all FPS mayhem either-games like Foobilliards (a pool game) and Blobby 2 (a 2D ball game) will appeal to casual gamers. Real-time Strategy (RTS) and Role-playing Game (RPG) fans can always try out Warzone 2100 and The Battle for Wesnoth. For those with a need for speed there's TORCS (The Open Racing Car Simulator)-a fairly decent-looking car racing game, and gl-117-a rather bad-looking flight simulator.

A distribution for less-than-casual games

The performance of the games on our test machine-an AMD64 3800 with 1 GB of RAM and the onboard NVIDIA 6150 graphics-was more or less satisfactory. What is irritating is the amount of time games take to load off the DVD. You can save your settings on a USB drive if you wish.
Unfortunately, other than playing games, there's nothing much you can do with this distribution. If that's all you want, then Linux Live Game Project has a decent collection of games where you can spend a lot of free time.  

Rossi FernandesRossi Fernandes