As I’ve chronicled in “Replacing Windows 98…” and previous posts, I’m always interested in new tools that promise to imbue my mountain of mouldering beige boxen with a glorious desktop experience usable by the modern user. A commenter on that post suggested trying out Porteus, so I’ve been playing with it some this evening. While I haven’t time to work up a serious review, I thought I’d share my impressions of Porteus as a distro for rescuing older computers.
My “beater rig” that I use for testing is an 800MHz Celeron Coppermine system with 256 MB of RAM, which a gracious coworker gave me for free several months ago. Believe it or not, this system originally shipped with Windows XP Home (RTM), and was still running it when I received it. It currently runs Vector Linux 7.0 lite with a custom 3.7 kernel and Awesome WM.
I downloaded Porteus 2.0, 32bit XFCE edition. The “Standard” 32 bit edition uses Razor-qt, which seemed to me from past testing to be a bit heavier than XFCE, so I went for the safer choice.
Porteus is a Slackware derivative, based on Slack version 14. It’s not merely a respin, however, as it boasts some custom configuration tools and its own package format. Porteus is also designed specifically for live media booting, with a design similar to TinyCore Linux where the core OS boots from compressed files and changes (including package installations) are stored in a separate directory or file. A boot menu option allows you to do a “fresh boot” (ignoring the recorded changes), making it always easy to keep a running system even if you muck it up completely.
Apps and desktop
The Porteus XFCE desktop is pretty conventional; it defaults to a panel-on-the-top layout but is otherwise pretty conventional. The default look is simple yet attractive with some nice touches over the conventional XFCE desktop look. XFCE is at version 4.10, which is nice considering that even now many distros ship 4.8.
The application selection is pretty typical of a lightweight Linux desktop:
- Firefox (v.18) browser
- Pidgin instant messenger
- Abiword for documents
- Gnumeric spreadsheet
- Gnome Mplayer and Audacious for multimedia playback
- XFCE applications (Mousepad, thunar, Orage, etc) for most of the rest
Curiously, both XFCE4-terminal and LXTerminal were installed, and LXTerminal was default. The Porteus toolset includes a settings tool, a system information tool, and the Porteus package manager.
Porteus package manager
The Porteus package manager is just doggone cool. It’s actually six package managers tied up in one click-friendly front-end, allowing you to install packages not just from the Porteus repos, but also slackware packages, slackbuilds, Salix packages, RPMs, and Debian packages. Unfortunately my Internet connection on the test machine was down (not Porteus’s fault), so I couldn’t test this feature.
PXE server boot option
There’s an option to boot Porteus as a PXE terminal server, so that other systems on the same network could use it to also boot Porteus. I can’t say that any practical application of this features comes to mind (“QUICK! We have only minutes to turn all these hard-drive-less computers into a computer lab! What will we do???”), but I love PXE booting and I just think it’s cool. I think back in the day Knoppix had this feature too.
Run from RAM
Another boot-time feature allows you to copy the Porteus core to RAM. It requires 320 Mb of RAM for the 32-bit edition, which makes it a no-go for my hardware, or probably for anyone with less than a gigabyte who expects to actually do anything after the system is booted. Still, for making a RAM-endowed system run fast, seems quite useful.
Performance on my hardware
Porteus did OK running from my hardware; I ran it as a live system, which is what it’s designed for. Compared to Vector Linux lite, it’s a bit more sluggish, but that’s probably due to XFCE more than anything else. With IceWM or Awesome installed, performance would probably be comparable to VLL. Overall I’d subjectively put it as heavier than Slitaz, Puppy, and TinyCore, but definitely lighter than any Ubuntu respin.
The only recommended/supported install method for Porteus is a “frugal install”, which effectively makes it a live session running from the hard drive – in other words, the core files remain compressed and monolithic on disk, and changes are only written to a separate location. I’m slightly curious to know how this performs over the long-haul as the system changes more and more.
Is Porteus the long-sought hope for Pentium II relics? No, I think we can rule that application out. For those who want to have a portable install with persistence, it seems like a heavier, yet less squalid, alternative to TinyCore or Puppy.
For those wanting to resurrect old machines, Porteus seems best suited to an 8 to 10 year old machine, maybe that Pentium IV or Athlon XP with 512 to 1024 MB of RAM. There’s a lot of competition in that space (including most mainstream distributions if you pick the right desktop environment), and it wouldn’t be my go-to distro if I had such a piece of hardware to work with.
But in either scenario, the package manager looks to be the real killer feature of this distro; I’d like to spend some time testing it out and seeing what mixing various packages does to the stability, but if it does what it claims, it may just replace Vector on my Coppermine box.