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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.

A Well-Behaved Breed

Like pretty much every distro on ever created, you can find Puppy users with hardware compatibility horror stories, especially for things like Wi-Fi adapters, sound cards, and laptop systems. While the number and severity of hardware-related complains seems to be dropping fast, I couldn't begin to guess whether Puppy will play nice with your system's particular components.

Having said that, I'll also say this: I had no problems on my two newest PCs (both Dell desktop systems), nor did I have any real problems on my legacy, mystery-meat PCs. Puppy recognized my hard disks, network adapters, USB input devices, CD and DVD drives, and several fairly common graphics cards. It did have a problem recognizing a USB add-on card in one of my legacy systems, but then again, noting else recognizes it, either. Is this because I'm lucky or because Puppy is good? You'll have to decide that for yourself -- it's not like you're going to need a refund or face a messy uninstall if things don't work out.

The more you work with Puppy and see the tricks its small size allows it to do, the more impressed you'll be. Other Live CD distros run most, if not all, of their desktop apps from the CD itself -- and since most optical disks suffer from relatively slow I/O, that means you'll spend some time cooling your heels. Puppy, on the other hand, loads everything into RAM, which is why a system with even an average amount of memory by today's standards will run with this distro as if something were chasing it.

Loading everything into memory allows Puppy to do another cool trick: If you want to play some music or maybe a DVD on a system with just one optical drive, now you can. Unless you're saving data to a writable-CD configuration, the system won't have to access the Live CD again.

Finally, if a LIve CD is just too late-twentieth-century for your too-hip Linux lifestyle, perhaps using a bootable USB "thumb" drive would be more your speed. This is easy enough to do with Puppy, using an easy, wizard-based setup process.

Works Like A . . . You Know What

One use for Puppy that comes to mind right away is its ability to serve as a flexible, easy-to-use thin client. On a local network, besides working with other Linux systems, Puppy makes it easy to play with Windows boxes, via rdesktop: an open-source version of the Windows NT Terminal Server client. Combined with another open-source product, the Remote Desktop GUI, you can access a remote Windows server (running Terminal Services) simply by firing up an X Window session and entering the IP address of the remote system. It's all drop-dead easy on a local network, and just a bit harder to access a remote system outside your firewall. And once you log in, rdesktop allows you to use any Windows NT/2000/XP/2003 server exactly as if you were sitting directly in front of it.

With the addition of CDW support, Puppy also allows you to travel with a ready-to-run version of Linux that you can tailor to any number of special tasks. If you wanted to take along your favorite tools for staying in touch, for example -- email, IM, Web access, even VoIP -- you don't necessarily have to take along a laptop PC. Puppy gives you an easy way to carry the same tools, fully configured and customized, and even with some of the data available, all on a single CD. Like I said: The more you play with Puppy, the more you find to like about it.

Free To A Good Home!

Where else would a reliable, well-built, extremely compact Linux distro like Puppy earn its keep? Given the number of resource-constrained computers popping up all over the place, from PDAs and smartphones to routers, wireless print servers, and home entertainment components, it's not hrd to think of places where Puppy, or a distro that looks a lot like it, might find a good home.

That's just fine, because Puppy is a distro that deserves a good home: It won't leave a mess, it has an impressive roster of tricks for a distro with such a small footprint, and maybe it can even help you get rid of those oversized dogs on your company's systems. Take a look, you won't be sorry -- but you might be hooked.

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