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7/5/2005
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Review: 'Puppy' Takes A Bite Out Of Linux Distro Bloat

This new Live Distro has an apt name -- it's quick, nimble, and full of interesting tricks, including the ability to run off a CD-RW disk. But when it comes to the innovative thinking behind this hand-crafted Linux release, Puppy definitely is not content simply to follow the Linux pack.

I've always wanted to start an article by saying "This puppy really works!" Now I can.

Recently I spent some time playing with Puppy Linux, one of just a few distros dedicated to the idea that bigger is not better when it comes to desktop software. A lot of people seem to agree, since Puppy is currently romping around No. 25 on the DistroWatch rankings -- a pretty good showing, given the fact that it's just a few months out of beta and a very different critter than your average desktop Linux distro.

The Gang's All Here

I grabbed the "full" Puppy Linux distro, going for the gusto, as it were: The full ISO image came to a whopping 60MB. Barely 30 minutes later, I had finished downloading the current Puppy 1.0.3 release, burned a bootable Live CD, and was ready to go. The sheer speed of this process is likely to strike many people as a pleasant surprise.

You're in for another nice surprise, however, when you realize what Puppy seems to be missing -- namely, nothing. There's so much software available with Puppy right out of the box (yes, it is also available on a pre-burned, boxed CD) that some of those hefty, multi-CD distro behemoths should seriously think about going on a diet.

If you heard that Puppy relied too heavily on obscure, oddball desktop software, don't worry: That's no longer a problem. In fact, I think Puppy is the first distro that a Linux geek can give to a Windows-enthralled friend without having to make any apologies or excuses. I used Mozilla and Firefox, along with Macromedia Flash, for Web browsing; ABIWord and PlanMaker as more-than-worthy Microsoft Word and Excel work-alikes; and plenty of other software that will keep you working -- or playing, if you prefer, since there are games here, as well.

Of course, Puppy offers a windows manager to run on top of its X Window System. In fact, it offers three: FVwm95, designed to mimic the Windows desktop, JWM, and iceWM. These aren't the usual suspects, and although they're all usable with Gnome and KDE environments, you admittedly won't find the same bells and whistles in these window managers that you'll find in a full-fledged desktop environment. But all three of these managers are built with size, speed, and simplicity in mind, which means they're the right choices for Puppy.

The Making Of A 'Puppy'

The name "Puppy" fits this distro well in many ways, but there's at least one big exception to the rule. When it comes to the innovative thinking that went into creating Puppy, this distro definitely does not follow the pack.

Barry Kauler, the retired Australian university lecturer who built Puppy, didn't trot out another Debian clone or Knoppix knock-off. Instead, he built his distro file by file, looking for the best performance and the most desirable features without encouraging bloat. In some cases, such as Puppy's printing system, Kauler completely rebuilt the software to get what he wanted. Kauler was also extremely careful about his software development choices; after trying initially to use only GTK 1.2 and C applications, he later relented, adding GTK 2, C++, and the Qt3 library, allowing him to expand his application options quite a bit. In other areas, however, Kauler still held a firm line: Perl was (and is) out, while Tcl/Tk is in.

Puppy's unusual origins also reveal an interesting statistical kibble. Out of the 350-odd active distros listed at DistroWatch.org, less than 30 qualify as "independently developed," with significant kernel modifications and other major original contributions. Puppy is part of this short list, alongside familiar names such as SuSE, Debian, Fedora Core, and Slackware. Kauler has made an important and highly original contribution to the Linux family tree.

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