The Year Of The Small Distro

by Caitlyn Martin

Articles about Linux and mainstream Linux news tends to be dominated by the big Linux distributions, those with large corporate backing and/or large development teams. I'm primarily talking about Red Hat Enterprise Linux and it's free clone CentOS, Novell/SuSe, and Ubuntu on enterprise servers and Ubuntu, Fedora, Linspire, and Mandriva on the desktop. Throw in two venerable and widely respected distributions, Debian and Slackware, and you've got about 90% of the industry chatter covered, maybe more.

These distributions also have something else in common: with the exception of Linspire/Freespire, which I haven't tried, they have all frustrated me on one level or another. I've found recent Fedora, SuSe, Mandriva, and Ubuntu releases all to have more bugs than I would expect, often very annoying and obvious ones. All of the above mentioned distors except Slackware are unimpressive in terms of performance. Most tend to be bloated and full of all sorts of cruft that I don't need that gets installed by default. The notable exceptions are Ubuntu and Mandriva One which both come on a single CD and install a stripped down, clean OS which you can then build on. However, in the case of both Ubuntu and Mandriva One they seem to get a whole lot less useful stuff on that single CD than some other distributions seem to manage.

In the past year a number of medium sized and small distros have leaped past the big players among Linux distributions, offering single CDs with lots of apps, excellent hardware support, speedy performance, and relatively few bugs. Some are also far more user friendly than distros like Ubuntu and Mandriva, often touted as the best place for a newcomer to Linux to start. When I say medium or small I'm referring to both the developer community and user community around each distro. In some cases the developer community is just one or two people.


2007-08-10 12:08:08
Whats with all these slackware distros? I like apt :)
Gray Wolf
2007-08-10 12:17:51
I, too have tried Wolvix & Vector with great surprise, considering their Slackware heritage.

My new wunderkind favorite is Klikit, a new home for Xandros ex-pats. Great distro thus far.

Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-10 12:40:33
lassegs: The Slackware based distros perform better (as in they run much faster) than the Debian based ones. The three I picked on are also very user friendly.

slapt (Slackware apt) works much as apt does and gslapt works much as synaptic does. slapt-get and gslapt are used by both Vector Linux and Wolvix and work very well ineed.

2007-08-10 12:48:13
Finally someone else recognises "small" distros are becoming increasingly significant. My favourites are Tmxxine and Kanotix.
2007-08-10 15:22:13
My reccomendation for a small distro is Pardus. The community is not huge, nor is the package repository, but it is growing daily (escpecially the contrib repository).

Smaller distros seem to be more welcoming, especially to would be contributors.

Give Pardus a try if you are not looking for one of the mainstream distros. The main devs are working on some pretty good projects and is an independent distro, not based of fedora or ubuntu etc.

2007-08-10 15:39:09
If you're into small distros, you should give sidux a spin. Small, friendly community, and they actually manage to make debian sid stable
2007-08-10 20:01:34
You might want to take a look at DreamLinux. Built on debian stable using a custom xfce wm. It is an installable live cd. Can also be customized and saved as an iso to roll your own. Most codecs are installed by default. Icons and color scheme are beautiful. I just remastered a cd for our local non-profit recycle group.
Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-10 20:52:09
I'm actually not looking for more small distros. I still think most of them are, at best, half-baked. I had a specific purpose in mind with the ones I looked at.
Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-11 16:44:59
The last comment needs some clarification as it, in retrospect, seems a bit harsh. When I discovered some of the distros I referred to I was looking for one that met a specific set of critera that none of the big distros met. What I found in the distros I tried is that for every small distro that really shines there is one that is truly awful and probably three or four that are OK but are nothing special. Many small distros seem like copies of other distros with little if anything to distinguish themselves. I often wondered why anyone even bothered. What was the point?

I think Darrell made an important point, though. Small distros are becoming increasingly significant for a couple of reasons. First, in may ways the big distros have let us down. They aren't responsive enough to the user community or are focused only on large paying customers. They often seem to release buggy or backdated code. That forces people to look for alternatives. The big distros are often slower than the small ones at embracing new technologies.

I still don't think Linux needs or is well served by 500+ distros.

2007-08-12 12:02:10
I had written a blog similar to the "So Many Distros, So Little Time", at

And While I don't completely agree that THIS is the year of the small Distros, I definitely think that the 12 CD Distros (and soonthe more than 1 DVD Distros) will be out too !!!

2007-08-12 12:51:59
Don't forget ArchLinux:
Richard Steven Hack
2007-08-12 15:18:00
I agree that small distros frequently are not interesting except to the inveterate distro collector - and there are many of those.

However, Caitlyn does get the important point: the best way to get a distro that is NOT full of QA problems is to pick one that is based on a major distro, but then did the extra work to "polish" it and make sure it works.

PCLinuxOS as an offshoot of Mandriva is a case in point.

These small distros are not suitable for corporate use since the level of support is going to be inadequate in most cases. But they're perfect for home users. More importantly, they're perfect for new users - unlike the (x)buntus that have QA problems. I simply cannot recommend Ubuntu for new users - it's too likely to have a problem that sours the new user on Linux.

The three things that absolutely MUST work in order for a new user to learn to like Linux are: 1) installation must be easy and flawless; 2) hardware detection must be adequate; 3) package management must be rock solid.

Kubuntu released an installer that could not exit the mount point change screen - which meant the entire install process was never adequately tested at all. This is a showstopper.

Kubuntu released a wireless management app that didn't work well with WEP and didn't support WPA as well. This is completely irresponsible. Anyone using wireless needs at LEAST WEP and preferably WPA.

Ubuntu is known for trying to be both cutting edge and also to be for new users. You can't do that - it's not possible.

openSUSE released 10.1 with a serious bug in the package management system that made updating the distro almost impossible. Incredibly stupid.

I used Kubuntu for quite a while until its defects irritated me sufficiently to dump it. I now run openSUSE 10.2 which has only irritated me with two factors - one of which I solved the other night by dumping KNetworkManager and replacing it with Kinternet. The other irritation - having to wait for catalog refresh just to install a piece of software - is being addressed in version 10.3. Both problems should have been caught in QA and not allowed to be in the final release.

The major distros seriously need to improve their QA and stop releasing packages that are not ready for primetime. In the meantime, try a distro that takes their work and corrects their mistakes.

But be warned: a small distro might also have a very small package repository, so enhancing your system might be difficult unless it also supports the base distro's repositories.

2007-08-13 01:16:28
Debian proper is actually just as snappy as Slackware. It's Ubuntu and its derivatives that, for some strange reason, seem to suffer from sluggish performance. For an easy and up-to-date Debian-based distro, try Sidux.

However, I agree with the previous anonymous poster that ArchLinux is definitely worth checking out. ArchLinux has already become the distro of choice for hard core Linux geeks. Archie (an ArchLinux-based live-cd that attempts to make ArchLinux more newbie-friendly) has just released a new beta version. When Archie gets a proper release out the door, ArchLinux will storm the GNU/Linux universe!

Tim O'Brien
2007-08-13 06:43:07
I think that virtualization is going to increase the need to smaller distros (and by smaller I mean a smaller footprint). And I think that this translates to distributions with specialized audiences and smaller development teams.

I agree that the big OS-killer distros like RHEL5 have given me a fair amount of trouble. I'll likely stick with a brand name for a host machine - run a RHEL5 dom0 in Xen, but it seems silly to run RHEL5 guest domains only because I'm looking for the most stripped down, specialized guest I can find. I don't know, maybe I'm just making it all up.... I hate computers.

Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-13 07:41:05
@Laika: Doesn't Debian proper come on 12 CDs? Even with high speed internet access that's an insane amount to download just to do an install.
2007-08-13 15:03:39
for a true suprise for ma small distro you should try puppy or one of its deritives Very good hardware recognition and very easy to update and modify and ITY JUST WORKS
2007-08-13 21:35:47
All I can say is that GNU/Linux is about 'freedom' of choice. So people can go with the 'big' or the 'small' or the 'in between' if they want. They also have the 'freedom' of choice to come up with one that is their 'very own'.
Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-14 07:59:51
@hteoneandonlyyt: I've tried Puppy Linux many times. It never "just works" for me. I didn't like it at all. Also, wasn't there an issue of some of it ending up under a proprietary license? Thanks but no thanks.

@kmashraf: I think we can all agree that choice is a good thing. However, often too much of a good thing can be toxic. We have so many half-baked, ill-conceived, poorly executed distros that a newcomer to Linux who tries a few might think Linux is just plain not worth it. The last thing we need is more poorly done distros out of somebody's garage. Yes, there are some outstanding small distros out there and that is what my article was about this time. It also was about how large distros are falling down on the job.

2007-08-14 08:49:13

You missed the "largest" small distro out there. PCLinuxOS is getting ready to overtake Ubuntu on the distrowatch HPD meter for a 6 month time span. It's already #1 at 3mos, 30days, and 7days.

So...I was a bit surprised that you didn't mention it :)

Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-14 15:01:48
@devnet: I didn't mention PCLOS because I haven't tried it and Todd Robinson didn't mention it. There is no way I can try every distro out there, even fashionable ones.
2007-08-14 19:35:51
Good article Caitlyn, I'll be linking to it in the first newsletter for Wolvix (which I am the editor of).

I've been using Wolvix since v.1.1.0 Beta, and followed both RCs until I got the the final/stable release, which has been a really great experience. Wolven is always very friendly if I can catch him in my morning time on IRC, and has helped resolve all the problems I have had. Its just such a fast distro, especially on a hard-disk install, with everything loading up very quickly. A lot of the software included is what I commonly use, too, and anything else usually can be downloaded from the repository if needed. I really encourage any users looking into it to come over to #wolvix on Freenode or the forums on the site and ask some questions. If people are active on IRC (I always am if you see me) it'll be faster, but if not topics on the forums are usually answered within a day.

Just thought I'd add as well that Debian 'proper' (which I use myself, along with Wolvix) doesn't -need- all the CDs. I installed with just 1 CD (the Xfce version), which came with a lot of things I used, and virtually nothing I had to remove. Also, many people use the net-install method, which makes sure nothing is installed you don't want. If you are going to upgrade to testing/unstable, its much easier to use the net-install method, or 1 CD, to cut down on waste download. Anyway, enough off-topic stuff.

I'm looking forward to your upcoming reviews, since usually these small distros really lack them, and it makes it a lot harder see if you'd like the distro without downloading it. This problem is made bigger for me, since my internet plan's download limit is very small, and downloading distro (apart from DSL/Puppy sized) puts a really big dent in it.

2007-08-16 06:01:12
Hi all,
My favorites distros are Vector, Zenwalk, and Slax, Wolvix for live distro. I started with Mandriva, and after Debian. But my favorites one are the Slackwared based distros. I like Slack.
2007-08-16 11:52:39
I used DSL, Slax, Berry, Wolvix, Olive, DeadCD [this one's really dead now], Puppy. I prefer Puppy and Slax as they are the simplest, easiest and fastest. They're pretty much uncomplicated, reliable and has usually enough features for newbies and experienced people. Also they can be more readily customized for Asian languages too.
2007-08-17 04:31:37
Nice article!! I'm really exciting about how our small distros are become more known. My friend Kenneth is really improving Wolvix. Mauricio (Zariweb), another friend, is helping Zenwalk with its Zenlive. Tomas still is the master of Slax and Linux live... and we help each other, without secrets.
This is the nice part of the distributions build by using linux live scripts, Slax, Wolvix, Zenlive, GoblinX help each other everytime we can.
Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-17 07:38:26
@Grobsch: Additional distros that were built with the Linux-Live scripts include Vector Linux Live and AliXe, although the scripts have been modified for Vector Linux. Tomas certainly has done a great service to the Linux community by creating the scripts.
Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-17 07:41:41
@alisou: You've created a fine little Live CD distro yourself with AliXe It's kind of a bilingual Slax-lite that can still run in 512MB with the toram option. Very nice. I've just downloaded 0.11rc1 myself.
2007-08-17 10:12:08
@Caitlyn: The AliXe's goal to introduce new users to the wonderful world of Linux near the French-speaking person of Quebec. Look this post. It is a list of Live CD's that are based on Slax or were created using Tomas's linux-live scripts. Tomas from Slax make a good job. :-)
2007-08-17 13:27:36
When I started to build GoblinX, a long time ago, Tomas even had a forum only for help linuxlive build distros developers... Now we have a forum where we can share information and more.


2007-08-18 07:56:33
What about Puppy?
2007-08-19 07:21:59
re Puppy & myth of "proprietary" license

Puppy creator Barry Kauler released earlier versions of Puppy with just a simple copyright notice for the parts created by him (he was just coding in his free time, not a groklaw specialist), later he got round to clarifying that it's GPL. (FYI for software to be GPL it HAS to be copyrighted in order to impose license conditions on others).

Some people saw just the early copyright notice and then made their own assumptions that Puppy was "proprietary". It's not. You can tinker, redistribute etc to your heart's desire; all Barry asks it that you make clear the difference by using a different name. Just ask people who've created 'puplets' (Puppy-derived distros & remasters) like Grafpup, Hacao, TeenPup etc.

2007-08-19 13:31:40
This is not a review or justification for the small distro's you disdain as "half-baked" or have yet to evaluate. This is just an alphabetized and somewhat categorized list of some of the liveCD's that you and others have already suggested above :

Linux-based liveCDs that fit on a full 700MB CD
- AliXe
- ArchLinux
- DreamLinux
- GoblinX Standard
- Kanotix
- Pardus
- PCLinuxOS, a.k.a. PCLOS
- Sidux
- Wolvix, - Zenlive

Small Linux-based liveCDs that fit on an 80mm/180MB mini-CD
- DamnSmallLinux
- GoblinX Mini
- Puppy Linux and its direct offshoots
- Slax

Also, not mentioned to date are
Non-Linux liveCDs that fit on a full 700MB CD
- FreeSBIE
- Minix 3.1.3a
- OliveBSD

You can check these off as you wish, if you have not done so already.
Note that many of these "small" liveCD distros may very well NOT live up to your or other's expectations upon their being subject to more critical evaluation.

Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-19 13:41:11
@davec51: If you read the comments that preceded yours you'd see that I tried Puppy Linux on several occasions. I've had issues with it and generally didn't like it.

@alisou: Je comprend. However, by making AliXe bilingual and offering two different locales (Canada and France) for AliXe en français menas you've reached out to more than just Québec and attracted a wider audience. The fact that you've done a really nice job with AliXe from what I've seen so far helps too. FWIW, I'm playing with 0.11rc1 at this point. Unfortunately it, like Slax 6rc6, no longer will run entirely from RAM on a 512MB machine. I may have to consider remastering if I end up using AliXe rather than Wolvix for a project I'm working on.

@oakheart: Actually, it was Carla Schroder who first termed a large number of distros "half baked" and I quoted her in a previous article. I don't know how many distros I've tried that either don't work as they should or are just plain a pain to use. It isn't just me, though...

2007-08-19 20:34:46
I am glad that you at least tried Puppy but you must realize that Puppy is a VERY community oriented distro and among the friendliest around. If you have had issues with puppy why have you not reported them? If you would report them then your issues would likely be fixed by the next release. also you may find it interesting that puppy is gearing up for a big overhaul and if you have issues with the latest version the now is the time to speak up.

Puppy Linux -the fun distro

Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-22 08:34:28
I honestly found almost nothing in Puppy to like. There's no sense in reporting that, is there? Community? Lots of distros have a good community. I don't know that Puppy's is better or worse than any other.
wild bill
2007-08-24 15:58:37
Caitlyn, what are your impressions of the latest Zenwalk, as compared to Vector or Wolvix?

from my unscientific impressions, Zenwalk seems to have world record speed + stability on older hardware.

2007-08-27 10:59:53
I've introduced my friends to Ubuntu, and they just love it. Then after they got around Ubuntu and knew the system, I showed them how to install Debian. Setup was a minimal system with X (so not really minimal :D), but still quite small. Then they all installed their own packages and they loved it!

I've been using Debian for quite some time now and really like it. Ubuntu is great too, but I like Debian's setup better. Ubuntu is really great for beginners, just order a free cd, (and recieve some stickers :P) and run it as a LiveCD if you only want to try it out first.

You mentioned Wolvix, and it looks quite cool and stuff, but I don't know if I like the way it is set up. Just going to try it out, and thanks for this list.

Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-28 11:20:38
@wildbill: I haven't tried Zenwalk yet. I did try to download it on a couple of occasions but the FTP server kept resetting and I couldn't get a full iso. I may try again.

I've honestly read very mixed reviews of Zenwalk. Some folks swear by it while others swear at it. It's Slackware based and that usually means speed and reliability but not always. SaxenOS 2.0 ran slower than molasses for me, for example. Anyway, I'll reserve judgment on Zenwalk until I've tried it out properly.

Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-28 11:37:35
@redPidgin: I'm glad both you and your friends are happy with both Ubuntu and Debian. There was a time not too long ago when I would have ranked Xubuntu (Ubuntu with an Xfce desktop) as my favorite distro. No more. Feisty Fawn, both Ubuntu and Xubuntu, was terribly buggy on any system where I tried it. I could make it mostly work with effort. Debian's once in a blue moon release schedule (or lack thereof) doesn't suit me at all. I certainly don't like having to run unstable in order to keep up with recent releases of applications. Indeed, it is my experience with both Ubuntu and Debian that caused me to look elsewhere.
2007-08-28 19:03:00
I'll second the recommendation to try Zenwalk. Using it has pushed me over the brink to ditching Windows altogether (other than a bare-bones installation in Qemu, just to run SPSS).

I run it on an old 1.2G Compaq notebook with 512M. On this machine Zenwalk runs extremely quickly. It's also rather elegant in its simplicity, and gives me no trouble.

2007-09-16 10:11:28
Ive been experimenting with diffrent Distro's Fedoria,Linspire, Madriva, Ubunta, have all been slow on My P-III, and not as easy to use.
Disto's that worked well out of the Box were Puppy,Mint Linux , and Knoppix.
Puppy being smallest and Fastest but still did all I needed. I like saving files to the cd/dvd and taking eveything with you.
I Plan to try Slack ware and Vector soon. Its really fun to play with all of this software and thanks to all the Linux Disto people
2007-11-02 04:28:32
GoblinX Mini 2.5 is released... Try it out!!