So, I finally tried Knoppix today. I’d heard a lot about it and was ready to be impressed, but it still took me by surprise. If you haven’t heard of Knoppix, it’s a full Linux distribution on a CD that is designed to boot straight from the CD, without you needing to install anything and without you having to worry about it modifying the contents of your hard drive.
Getting it running was pretty simple. I had to change the boot order in my BIOS so that my PC would try booting from the CD before the hard drive (not difficult at all: hit delete as the PC is booting up and the option for changing the boot order was pretty obvious, at least on my machine), then all it took was inserting the CD and powering up the computer.
Knoppix auto-detected everything—from my graphics card and network (I guess it used DHCP) right up to the scroll wheel on my mouse. There was a moment of confusion when it came up with a ’boot?’ prompt, but it turned out I just had to hit enter for it to start auto-detection (the prompt appeared to be for advanced users to specify additional options). After that, it booted straight in to an attractively set up version of KDE 3. The ease with which it started up was the first pleasant surprise, but what really impressed me was the huge amount of software that came on that one CD. As well as KDE, Knoppix comes with the full Open Office and Mozilla application suites, all the usual Linux tools and editors, plenty of multimedia software, the GIMP (a photo editing program similar to Photoshop), even Python 2.3. Everything was available through the KDE application menus, and everything Just Worked.
The icing on the cake though was WINE. WINE is an emulation layer for Linux that allows you to run Windows applications. I had heard about it, but always been put off trying it because it sounded so complicated. Knoppix comes with WINE already installed, so I figured there was nothing to lose by trying it out.
Windows notepad loaded up in a new, KDE style window. Wow.
Knoppix mounts your Windows hard drive (in my case as hda2) as read only, so you can play with your existing files without fear of damaging them. I browsed around my Program Files directory and tried to run WINE on various applications. Several failed, including Internet Explorer (hardly essential software, but useful for testing). I don’t know if this is because they do weird, screwed up things that WINE doesn’t yet know how to handle or if they were upset that they couldn’t read the filesystem. Whatever the reason, I was blown away by the fact that any of it worked at all. When UltraEdit loaded under Linux I positively cackled.
I’ve only made one venture in to Knoppix land so far, but it really was everything as good as people had said it was. If you have access to a CD burner and a fast internet connection you owe it to yourself to try it out.