Test Center review: Specialty Linuxes to the rescue

Six sweet distributions that can boot from a pen drive, run in a sliver of RAM, rejuvenate an old system, or recover data from a dead PC

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GParted Live supports a surprising variety of file systems; I counted 13, though some are supported as read-only. And it does provide some applications beyond GParted. At the top of the list is Midnight Commander, the quintessential text-based file-system explorer. GParted Live also provides TestDisk, a partition-recovery application that can rebuild fouled partition tables and resurrect deleted partitions, depending on the degree of damage to the partition. TestDisk understands FAT, FAT32, NTFS, ext2, ext3, and several other file systems. Finally, you'll find Partimage, a sort of partition-backup application that can copy a partition-image file, enabling you to archive and restore whole partitions.

GParted Live is definitely a minimalist system. For example, the window manager is Fluxbox, but I couldn't find any styles or themes on the Fluxbox menu; you are stuck with the default desktop and menu theme. This is by no means a strike against GParted Live; it makes no pretense of being anything other than a runtime environment for recovering lost data.

If GParted Live is too austere for you, then SystemRescueCD is worth a look. SystemRescueCD is based on Gentoo Linux, and its boot sequence guides you through a number of text-based configurations such that you can elect to run it entirely in text mode, or you can start the JWM window manager and retreat to a GUI.

Like GParted Live, SystemRescueCD includes GParted, Partimage, and TestDisk, as well as Midnight Commander. SystemRescueCD understands most Linux file systems -- ext2, ext3, reiser3, jfs, and xfs -- as well as nonmainstream file systems like reiser4, ext4, and btrfs. Of course, it understands FAT, FAT32, and NTFS as well. (Some of the tools are restricted to file systems that the tools themselves understand.)

But SystemRescueCD doesn't stop there. It also includes lshw (hardware lister), a tool that pours into a multipane window just about every scrap of information an application can deduce about your computer's hardware. It includes data about the CPU, memory, and peripherals. Output is so detailed that you'll want to visit the Hardware Lister Web site to figure out what you’re seeing. You'll also find the Magic Rescue utility, which can scan a block device and determine what file systems are on it. SystemRescueCD even provides thttpd, a lightweight HTTP server.

Developers will be happy to find Perl and Python installed. Those languages are available because SystemRescueCD can be configured to run a series of scripts at boot-up, and those scripts can be written in Python or Perl, as well as shell script.

New applications can be added through the Gentoo Portage system. SystemRescueCD includes the Gentoolkit, a collection of utilities for managing Gentoo packages. Gentoo package management is a bit different from other Linuxes; packages are typically installed from source. Fortunately, SystemRescueCD includes all the needed utilities, plus needed compilers, so that users can download and install new packages.

Lots of choices
Specialty Linux distributions represent quite a smorgasbord. We've chosen only three categories from the rather large universe of Linux variants. Many others exist, and we'll tackle a few more in another article soon. Meanwhile, you might want to explore sites such as DistroWatch to sample the possibilities.

It is difficult -- and dangerous -- to make any hard and fast recommendations, even within a particular category. Linux distributions tend to be works of the heart; each distribution is given characteristics near and dear to its creator. Users of these distributions can be equally passionate about their favorite Linux system. We would no more recommend one Linux over another than we would recommend chicken instead of beef for dinner.

This sort of passion has its good side and bad side. On the one hand, creators are very enthusiastic about their creations; this produces remarkable utility and quality. On the other hand, such homegrown creations can be quirky -- lacking a feature you wish it had but one that its developers considered unimportant. Fortunately, the selection is broad. And remember: This is Linux. You don't like it? Make your own version.

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