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Sunday, 13 November 2011

Puppy 5.3 "Slacko" - Slackware With Added Woof

On 17/10/2011 a new version, or edition if you prefer, of Puppy Linux was released, this time based on Slackware, and it is appropriately named Puppy "Slacko", because we all know that Slackware users are lazy, right?

I haven't used Puppy before, in part because I felt no need considering the many distributions out there and in part because some things like its Ubuntu roots did
not appeal to me, but a Puppy based on my favorite Slackware needs to be checked out.

In this edition the default user still has easy access to mount all partitions in the computer, which is good for repair tasks but bad for security. Having one all-powerful user with automatic login policy is not unique to Puppy and was practised by Slax for example as well a few years back. Its successor of sorts, Porteus, has changed this behavior with their first stable 1.0 release earlier this year though.
This new edition also means a minor version bump but at least the look is otherwise identical to their previous offerings, and it seems the tools are as well.
"Slacko" has been built with help of the 'Woof' build system which can assemble a distribution from the binary packages of any other distro, and it is is pre-configured to use the well known Slacky.eu and SalixOS repositories, as well as Slackware 13.37, thus making good use of available resources and then slapping on a plethora of utilities that make a Puppy distrolet. The 2.6.37.6 kernel has been re-compiled with Aufs layered file system support.

If you can get past the cutesy image after you’ve gone to vomit into a corner my first impression was that this is actually a really quite usable and nice distribution – with reservations. But let’s take it step by step.
I tried "Slacko" on my current trusty testing machine, an Acer 5551 laptop with ATI/AMD HD 4250 graphics, an AMD Phenom X3 and 4 GB RAM. The image is only 124 MB in size and makes for a quick download even accessible to those on limited bandwidth, but is only available in 32-bit for the aging i386 denominator. You can find the release notes here or get a quick overview on Distrowatch.
I tried this Puppy from live CD, on USB stick, in VirtualBox, in VMware Player and also installed it, that is copied, to hard drive. It performed well in all these circumstances, that means it loaded in well under a minute and was exceedingly fast in operation, as you would expect from such a nimble distribution. When installed, it even booted in 18 seconds and shut down in less than 5.
Upon booting you get to choose options when hitting F2 or F3 which give access to cheat codes and influence the type of session you're booting into. If you have previously saved settings to various differently named save files for example you can specify them here, and their location and partitions. If no need for all this you can just hit Enter, and it will unpack entirely into memory so you get one speedy system.



After a few seconds you'll be asked if you want it to probe your video card, and whether you want to go with the recommendations or specify a different screen size and color depth. This process worked well for me and both in live mode and installed detected my screen resolution every time.

Once the boot process has finished we are presented with the desktop which is using Joe's Window manager (JWM). A message at the top appears almost immediately, urging us to move the mouse cursor over it which starts the post-configuration for your desktop session.  After a few seconds a notification box appears, with the picture of a cute puppy barking at us, woof woof. Did I tell you it's so sweet it's making me sick? Supposedly this is to tell us we're home and make us feel welcome. We're then prompted to change keyboard layout, resolution and language among others and restart the X server if necessary. This well-meant first configuration prompt can pop up several times after every change that was made and makes it feel stuck in a loop, and there's quite a bit of clicking to do to get past several introductory screens.

Configuring settings after a fresh boot
Upon login you notice a bunch of desktop shortcuts and all your internal and mountable drives lined up at the bottom. The panel sports access to the menu, a task bar, and several applets in the tray in the lower right, indicating network activity, a lovely retro style volume slider, a clipboard, free personal user space, and of course that mainstay, the clock.
The system tray

JWM is not that dissimilar to the much younger LXDE in layout and style, but with way more options than the latter. It looks decidedly Windows 95'ish. The sheer volume of application entries in the menu seems at first overwhelming, and it's hard to believe you could find all this into such a small image. The only gripe I'm having with the default selection is the use of ROX file manager, the only one installed by default, which is hardly intuitive and needs some getting used to with its constant resizing.

Overall the choice of applications is smart. Mostly light weight applications like mtPaint are bundled, and the Seamonkey suite makes for a good solution as it covers several jobs, i.e. browsing, email and newsgroups, rss feed reader, chat program and web site building with Composer all in one. Abiword and Gnumeric are the other more full-featured applications, and Xchat is around as well if Chatzilla is not your thing. Homebank is also included, as is Transmission for torrenting needs, and these are only the bigger and more well known applications included. It's really quite impressive what you get here, highly compressed.
The plethora of programs and utilities is really too much to list, suffice to say most needs should be covered from the start, even Geany is here for some quick code editing.

A most complete selection of multimedia codecs and Adobe Flash are also installed by default, in fact more than I can remember to have seen in any distribution before.
You get the mplayer geckomedia-plugin which supports all the free formats plus Windows Media, as well as RealPlayer, QuickTime and DivX support in Seamonkey.
You also get a nice selection of Puppy themed backgrounds and JWM themes in case green is not your thing.
Alternative background and theme
There are only two issues I encountered: Fonts in the browser could be better, and my touchpad was disastrously slow when running on the real hardware. I had to set the slider for mouse movement up to 7, from the default 3, for it to become responsive enough for my liking. This was not a problem when virtualised.
A small flaw I found is that there seems no way to suspend or hibernate from the menu, but I can forgive that in the light of this being primarily a distribution intended to run live. Puppy does not seem to use upower, so trying this following script did not achieve the desired effect either, but I'm posting it in case somebody might find it useful.


#!/bin/sh
#
#Hibernate script for 13.37 with Upower, Rworkman @ LQ
dbus-send \
  --system \
  --dest=org.freedesktop.UPower \
  --type=method_call \
  --print-reply \
  /org/freedesktop/UPower \
  org.freedesktop.UPower.Hibernate

There is a tool for literally everything, or two, or three, accessible by themselves in the menu or grouped together as per task in some custom control panel style. For example, Slickpet is a tool for downloading a choice of browsers and other select important applications in the native PET format, a bit like the software center in some other distributions but more basic and without the star ratings, in addition to the regular package manager. There are several ways and tools to set up a network connection, including the Frisbee wifi manager and the SNS scripts known from Slax, a small script that automatically generates a iptables firewall, and that is only scratching the surface.
At times it is truly bewildering what they managed to cram in, and it's beyond the scope or intention of this review to list every utility in detail, but have a look at the menu yourself in the screen shots.

Desktop configuration
This choice may be helpful, but you'll need some skill and familiarity with Linux distributions in the first place to find your way around and not be put off by the need for searching. Basically, you already need to be a geek, at least an aspiring one. Many options are hidden several layers deep and no-one could accuse JWM of being the holy grail of ease of use either.

System and hardware information, boot loader, frequency scaling...
I can't really see this being a good introduction to newcomers, although no doubt Puppy is supposed to be user friendly. The reminders popping up on every new start to ensure you get the best experience and the handy jumping off page that serves as an introduction when opening Seamonkey for the first time are a testimony to this aspiration. Overall though, it feels thrown together and way too busy.

More links for the initial configuration and installation
In friendly Puppy manner a means of easily adding and removing running kernel modules is also provided, as are scripts to download and install the appropriate proprietary graphics drivers for your video card. Ditto for wireless drivers. My Broadcom 4322x wireless chip did not work, but I noticed kernel modules for several older models. [Edit] I later found there is a broadcom-wl driver plus firmware in the repository, but trying to install them via the package manager yielded a "repository not found" error. I ended up searching for the package in my web browser and downloaded it manually from a repository at ibiblio. There you'll also find the brcm80211-firmware package which is also needed but did not show up in the package manager for me.

Vodafone modem was detected and configured
My Huawei USB modem on the other hand was detected and configured correctly as soon as I plugged it in, and I found the necessary firmware blobs or modules for many USB chip sets are on board. Once I had found the necessary details on the internet to set up a Vodafone connection, the part that their proprietary software handles for you on Windows, I only needed to enter access point name, user name and password into a tool called PGPRS (found under Network). You can then launch the connection with PGPRS Connect and monitor wireless activity with Frisbee, a connection manager similar to Wicd, in the system tray.

To end on a positive note there is a lot to be said for Puppy, but its qualities apart from the assortment of software are only apparent once you dig deeper. When shutting down the user is prompted to save changes to a file or another partition, and to name the save file. I think this is a great idea, and automating it takes the hassle out of manually extracting or creating save.dat files. Puppy can also be extracted to a FAT or NTFS formatted partition, or reside on a partition sharing space with another Linux distribution and of course on USB. Upgrading can be as easy as extracting the newer SquashFS file over the old one, as opposed to the traditional upgrade methods other distributions are putting you through. All in all I'm quite impressed.

Conclusion

Like I said, I have no previous experience with Puppy, but it seems to be the same distribution as the other releases, only using a different underlying base and package format. Contrary to what it might have seemed like, I like Puppy "Slacko" very much and think it's a great offering for those low-end computers you have standing around as well as the powerful machines of today. I had no problems settling into this spartan yet amazingly fully-fledged set up that the developer is presenting us with to get started, and the longer I played with it the more I liked it. Puppy just flies on a one year old laptop like mine. Somehow the icons and the whole assortment of software and chosen style purvey this retro feelgood factor, and there is nothing difficult about Puppy if you know where to look.

Simplifying Slackware in this way and making it more accessible to people who might not even know they're using it is one of its strengths, but also the only weakness I can find with "Slacko". That is, too many control panels, too many small tools and in general too many places to configure just about anything from the GUI in this lovely ensemble. Before finding your way around "Slacko" as a newbie you might as well install Slackware proper and configure it with editing a few files, the way it's supposed to be done, and it may turn out to actually be easier.
Or you might want to look at that distant relative Porteus, which is not so overwhelming and already supports my wifi from the start but does not come with the plethora of small utilities like drag and drop file encryption (which did not actually seem to work for me due to password entry fields being unresponsive), that may or may not sway you in favor of Puppy "Slacko".

(Edit: Updated quite substantially 15/11/11, added information on 3G dial-up modem 21/12/11)

If you care for getting a good look at what's squeezed into the 124 MB image, go to the Puppy Gallery for more pictures showing the entire menu.

Read my Part 2 of sorts, A New Appreciation for Puppy.

22 comments:

  1. Slacko is the fastest, easyiest to learn, complete for my needs distro I have ever tried - and I have tried a lot of them.

    ReplyDelete
  2. NOT user friendly

    ReplyDelete
  3. Historical note. Although Puppy has used Ubuntu packages in the recent past, its origins are not in that distro. It was based on Slackwarefor a long time and seems to be returning to its roots.

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Stephen
    Thanks Steven, I -obviously- didn't know that.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for this great info also I'm student of networking.....

    ReplyDelete
  6. I tried Caldera and Redhat back in 1997. Both were too hard.

    I had DSL running from a CD in 2003, but couldn't break from software I needed running under 98 and XP.

    With the advent of cloud computing and such great tools like GOOGLE DOCS, there is little need to remain stuck looking at the Internet through dirty Microsoft Windows or overpriced windows with an OS X blocking the view.

    Slacko Puppy Linux gets one up to speed fast to access the cloud, leveraging GOOGLE Chrome extensions.

    True, if one wants to get under the hood, the user must know how to do a few acts, but this would be true about any Linux.

    Puppy Linux gets a user past some of those blocks, such has mounting. Simply clicking a drive icon to mount the drive lets a Puppy Linux user then use that drive with ease from any save dialog box with.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I've always wanted to like Puppy more than I do ... have tried many versions, generally like it ... but getting connected to the internet has always been misery, even for a wired connection.

    The menus are usually a cluttered mess, too.

    I went with AntiX instead. Very light as well, great hardware detection. Uses ICEWm instead of JWM.

    ReplyDelete
  8. @Stephen: Well, Puppy's 3-series releases were largely Slackware-compatible, and the 5-series Lucid releases were built from the Ubuntu repositories, but a few really, really early versions were Red Hat-based. To make it a bit more complicated to keep track of, most of the others releases were built on T2, based on no other distribution, and version 430/431 used T2-compiled packages, but was built using Woof.

    Easily the best use for Puppy is as a persistent USB-drive installation. The built-in installer works nicely, no need for Unetbootin or some equivalent.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This is one of the best blogs I have ever come across.!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  10. I love puppy.woof! woof! windows vista and 7 are out of here! nothing but prob, put puppy on hard-drive full install on both machines have not had a prob ever since, no more windows update, Bsod, incompatible software/hardware.yaa, now if i can figure how to get puppy to sleep :(

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thanks for a very helpful blog answering my questions about downloading browsers; gecomedia; where save; compatible packages, not answered in forums or my other searches. Linux/puppy newbie (one month +). After I changed monitor from Viewsonic P95f to Phillips 170S LCD and scroll mouse to 'plain' Logitech one Slacko 'live' works well and I can't wait to make custom sets for specific tasks. Cheers

    ReplyDelete
  12. I liked your review it helped me decide to download Slacko. I've actually used puppy since i started using linux, it was actually the first Linux distribution i successfully installed. Can i just say that even though many may not consider Puppy linux very user friendly or appealing, you can actually install Xfce, Lxde, And Kde (Trinity not 4.x). If thats not enough you can also install Compiz and emerald if you have the right graphics driver.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Puppy.
    Best. Distro. EVER.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Puppy is unique in linux world, is going its way and is great!It's perfectly running on 2 old pc of mine

    ReplyDelete
  15. It has been always fastest thats why I love Puppy

    ReplyDelete
  16. Puppy is so fast, I love it for internet browsing. There are some quirks, but once you get some experience, it's an excellent distro. Icyos on youtube has a great series of tutorials on Slacko, and I recommend it if you are new to Puppy. It's the Puppylinuxworld channel on youtube.

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  17. best... distro... ever...and im no geek... abtw it has rescued my ubuntu system soooo many times.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The more time I gave it the more I liked its approach, root or not it's very simple computing. One sour point is default packages don't get updated much. ?@Unknown Maybe you should change to a system that does not need rescuing so often.

      Delete
  18. I know this is an older post, but I still felt like chiming in. Puppy was the ideal choice for me after getting away from Win. A couple things that are important...

    Puppy is extremely and easily customizable, even for noobies as I was when I started. You mentioned JWM and Rox, both of which perform very well and are extremely lightweight, but you are by no means stuck with them. I have XFCE with Thunar on my Pup and it's all of one download, a couple clicks, and restart the X-server to switch to your manager of choice. There are numerous managers available including Icewm, Fluxbox, and more.

    Also, as far as learning, Puppy is very community oriented. I relied heavily on the forums and was treated to every courtesy by people who seem to truly understand the concept 'spirit of community,' unlike the rude-a$$ treatment I received at the Ubuntu forums when I gave their distro a look.

    I've been using Puppy for about 6 years now, and frankly, I can't imagine using anything else.

    P.S.
    There are a few 64-bit Puppies... Fatdog and Lighthouse are two I am familiar with.

    ReplyDelete
  19. how to install slackware repositories? not via the puppy package manenger, i suppose? :/

    ReplyDelete

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