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 184.108.40.206 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|
|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|
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.
#Hibernate script for 13.37 with Upower, Rworkman @ LQ
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.
|System and hardware information, boot loader, frequency scaling...|
|More links for the initial configuration and installation|
|Vodafone modem was detected and configured|
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.
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.