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 PCFollow @infoworld
SliTaz can execute in 128MB, though recommended memory for the latest version is 160MB. It can run in as little as 64MB, though performance is likely to be awful, and some larger applications -- particularly media players -- probably will not execute at all.
The window manager is JWM, and the SliTaz desktop is as uncluttered as antiX's. SliTaz includes the "Bon Echo" version of Firefox. The Bon Echo version is Firefox built from source. SliTaz's compilation of Bon Echo is smaller than the official Firefox because SliTaz pared back on Firefox features. On the server side, you can run the lighttpd Web server, which includes support for PHP. And, if you want to put a database behind your PHP applications, SQLite is installed. For multimedia applications, SliTaz supplies AlsaPlayer and mhWaveEdit; the latter can record and edit sound files, as well as play them.
The preceding applications are what you'll find in the SliTaz base install. You can add more applications via Tazpkg, SliTaz's own package-management system. As with many of SliTaz's other components, Tazpkg was built from scratch. It is text based, but the commands are easy to navigate, so installing new packages is elementary. SliTaz's online handbook provides all the guidance that new users will need.
Additional packages include the Xine media player; Pidgin instant messaging; and Gimp, ImageMagick, and Inkscape for editing graphics. If you want to use SliTaz as a development platform, you can install the GCC compiler, Perl, Python, or Ruby. All together, there are about 450 packages that can be installed via Tazpkg.
Your system won't boot. You suspect a piece of mischievous software has fouled the hard disk's boot sector. More important, critical files are entombed on the hard drive. So you pop in a CD, boot into a rescue OS, and you are provided with a variety of tools for probing that otherwise inaccessible disk. Such is the purpose of system-rescue Linuxes. Two distributions of this sort are GParted Live and SystemRescueCD.
GParted Live, or GParted LiveCD, is more or less a runtime environment for GParted -- the Gnu Partition Editor. It includes a few additional applications, though only a few. GParted Live has no Web browser, nor is it clear how one would go about configuring an Ethernet card. The GParted Live engineers told me it was possible, and a better Ethernet configuration tool might be in GParted Live's future, but only if it would not add too much to the boot-image size. If you want an editor, you'll have to be satisfied with Vim or nano. (I am a big fan of nano.) But, this is definitely a system with a single goal in mind.
GParted Live is based on Debian Linux. Its ISO image is about 94MB, and it can be run in one of two configurations: normal, or the TORAM configuration. Running normally requires that the boot media (CD or pen drive) be available while running GParted Live applications. Execute in the TORAM configuration, and you can remove the boot media. There's a memory penalty in using the TORAM configuration. Normally, GParted Live can execute in 192MB; the TORAM takes an additional 100MB.