GeekTech: Run Linux Without Installing It

After running "The Linux Experiment" in the February issue of PC World, we received a deluge of letters from readers interested in trying out the Open Source operating system. Lots of you were apprehensive and wanted to know what it's like to run Linux, how to install it, what it looks like, and whether your hardware will work.

Of course, some folks would rather endure a root canal than face the prospect of installing a new operating system, let alone one as geeky as Linux. The good news is that you don't have to actually install Linux to try it. Impossible, you say? Not if you're using Knoppix, a Linux distribution that runs on a CD.

I won't bore you with too many gory details of how Knoppix came to be, but the abridged version is that some German dude named Klaus Knopper wanted to know how bootable CDs worked under Linux. After a bunch of work, he created a whole distribution that fit onto a single CD.

After three years of development, Knoppix does all sorts of amazing things, including automatic hardware detection and read-write access to NTFS partitions (something no other Linux distribution does out of the box)--and it can serve as an emergency rescue disc.

Booting Knoppix

To use Knoppix, you need to download a CD image file (.iso) and burn it onto a disc.

To get started, download the file. Be sure to grab the latest version; a new Knoppix .iso file appears monthly. The file names contain a version number followed by a date and the language, and look something like this: KNOPPIX_V3.3-2003-12-31-EN.iso. (Be sure to download a file with "EN" in the file name, so you get the English version.) Once you've downloaded the file, just burn it onto a CD and you're ready to use Knoppix.

You don't need any fancy hardware to run Knoppix. Your PC needs only a functioning CD-ROM drive (a fast system will work better, of course). To run the operating system, just set your BIOS to boot from the CD drive and you're off to the races. When the little penguin appears on the left-hand side of your screen you'll know that Knoppix is starting its hardware detection magic. When I used it, the OS flawlessly figured out my processor, graphics card, monitor, and sound card--to name a few components.

As the hardware detection runs, you'll see black-on-white text scrolling down the screen. Don't be alarmed. If you watch the text roll by, you can witness hardware detection-on-the-fly in action--which is pretty neat if you're a geek like me. You can also spot which hardware isn't working so well.

Once Knoppix is done with that, you'll get to a "boot:" screen where you'll either type in your language choice or just press Enter. Next, the K Desktop Environment loads and you're at your Linux desktop.

All told, it took my machine about a minute and a half from the time the hardware detection started to the desktop loading. Your results will vary--and will most definitely be faster than mine because the system I used is a dirt-old Dell Dimension T700 that I abuse on a regular basis. (Yes, that 700 denotes a measly 700 MHz.)

Let the Fun Begin

What other cool stuff can Knoppix do? Well, if you're in a bind and Windows won't boot, or (and this actually happened to a coworker) your Windows password stops working, you can boot from Knoppix and get read-write access to your Windows partition. This lets you back up your important files before you reinstall Windows for the thousandth time. To access your files, simply click the icon on the desktop for the partition you'd like to access and browse your directories. Nifty, eh?

Should the need arise to burn a CD, Knoppix is there. To test this feature, I accessed my Windows XP partition, right-clicked the icon of the item I wanted to burn onto a CD--in this case it was a Knoppix .iso file--and selected "Create data CD with K3B" (a CD-ripping application) from the menu. The program that loaded looks as good as any CD ripper you'll find for Windows. I set it to create a disc with my external USB TDK CD burner and a few minutes later, it was done.

Of course, Knoppix has the usual assortment of quirky Linux apps; those can be overwhelming to someone who doesn't know what Emacs is and has no need for anything called QT Designer. But new users will find useful tools like the office suite Open Office 1.1, the Mozilla Web browser, and the instant messaging client GAIM. All of the applications are conveniently organized into categories in the "K" menu on the far left side of the taskbar.

There's a lot more to say about Knoppix, such as the fact that it detected my Internet connection without configuration. But I'll stop droning on about the wonders of this OS-on-a-CD and let you prove to yourself that you can browse the Web, check your e-mail, write and print a letter, and browse the local network with Linux.

If you like what you see and want to install Linux on your hard drive, you can download a free distribution; there are plenty of easy-to-use distributions available. No Novocain will be necessary, I promise. You can find information on Linux distributions, and other interesting stuff, in Matthew Newton's "Free Agent: Life in Linux Land."

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