Tiny Core Linux 2.1

They say that good things come in small packages and so it is with Tiny Core Linux, a diminutive but powerful distribution. TCL weighs in at an incredibly petite 11MB when you download it. Yes, it really is that tiny. Tiny Core Linux is based on Busybox, the Linux 2.6 kernel, JWM, Fltk and Tiny X.

Before I get into this review, it’s necessary to explain a little bit about how Tiny Core Linux works. Here’s some background from the TCL site about the four different modes it operates in:

The First Mode: Cloud/Internet

The first mode of operation is the default boot mode of Tiny Core Linux. It is what I call the Cloud Mode, or the Internet Mode. Tiny Core boots entirely into RAM. Then using the internet and the Apps icon, a shortcut to our appbrowser GUI, one can begin to explore our application extension repository.

The Second Mode of Operation: PPR/TCE

The second mode of operation is the use of the boot option tce=hdXY, i.e., specifying a writable persistent storage partition and using our TCE repository of applications. This will become your Persistent Personal Repository (PPR). Upon further booting all TCE extensions will automatically be loaded into RAM. Any further downloading of TCE type extensions from the appbrowser (Apps) will persist in this specified location.

The Third Mode of Operation: PPR/TCZ

When using a PPR one has the choice of TCE or TCZ extension types. To maximize memory usage Tiny Core offers the TCZ extension type. These extensions are mounted from your PPR and therefore use significantly less RAM. TCZ extensions are cramfs or ziofs compressed mountable images of an application directory, which become symlinked into the root filesystem.

The Forth Mode of Operation: PPI/TCE

The fourth mode of operation literally installs extensions into a Linux partition or a loop back file. This provides a hybrid type of installation, where core is in RAM and the extensions are installed onto a persistent storage device. I call this mode of operation of Persistent Personal Installation or PPI.

For the purposes of this review I went with the first mode as that worked well for downloading apps and seeing how they worked in Tiny Core Linux.

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New In This Release
Here’s a list of some of the new features from the changelog:

* New modutils results in much space savings.
* New changed from using initramfs to tmpfs for better support of df and mount bind option.
* New squashfs module to prevent spurious squashfs errors upon boot.
* New aterm for better interaction with appbrowser.
* New waitforX eliminates WM timing issues, update your .xsession.
* New busybox to 1.13.4 – command line history set to 150.
* New usbinstall, a command line tool to install to pendrive, usbhdd, usbzip, or usbext.
* New upgrade_tce.sh command line script, an extremely conservative batch upgrade script.
* New added modules hwmon & rfkill for better support of laptops.
* Deleted memdisk and mbr.bin as they are available in extensions.

As usual, I fired up Tiny Core Linux in VMWare to check it out. I had no problems loading it at all. Took less than a 30 seconds to get it going and running in VMWare.

I should be careful here to point out that running it in VMWare in first mode does not mean it was really installed. Rather it was simply running in RAM and apps were downloaded as I needed or wanted them.

Tiny Core Linux is not a distribution that you need to install in the same way that you’d install Linux Mint or Fedora or other, larger desktop distro. Think of TCL as a portable Linux that can be taken wherever you need to go so a traditional installation really doesn’t apply for this review. You can run it right in RAM and it will work beautifully for you.

I hope that clarifies this section a bit as I don’t want people to download it and try to install it quite the same way as some of the larger desktop distributions.

Desktop & Apps
The Tiny Core Linux desktop will never be confused with other rather bloated…er…feature filled… environments like KDE or Gnome. It’s bare-bones and that’s exactly the way it should be. TCL uses the JWM Window Manager for its desktop environment.

You can simply right-click anywhere on the desktop to access a menu with a list of choices including:

Apps Browser
Control Panel
Run Command

When it first loads you’ll notice a Dock-like panel (wbar) at the bottom with icons that get larger if you pass your cursor over them. An odd touch for such a minimalist distribution. I liked it though so no complaints. It reminded me of Mac OS X in a weird way which is not what I would have expected from Tiny Core Linux. Let’s face it, Mac OS X is not really known for being…er…lightweight at all.

The panel only has Aterm (terminal app), a control panel icon and an app icon on it. Clicking the Aterm icon launches a terminal window. The control panel icon gives you access to various important functions including:

Mount Tool
Mouse Tool
System Stats
Select Mirror
SSH Server
Swapfile Tool
tclocal Tool

Clicking the Apps icon launches appbrowser. From there you can click the Connect menu to download apps over the Internet. Once you start installing an app a busybox window will popup that will show you what you’re downloading and what the status of your downloaded file is. Once your app download and installation is complete you’ll see a small window popup and your app will now have an icon in the panel on your desktop.

I opted to install Abiword and it took just a couple of minutes for it to load up over the internet and when it was done I had an Abiword icon on the panel on my desktop. I clicked it and voila! Abiword was running on my Tiny Core Linux desktop.

I also installed Firefox with no problems and had no problems loading this site in Firefox running under Tiny Core Linux. The version of Firefox included with this release is 3.0.11 not the newer 3.5 release. That didn’t bother me though as sometimes it’s better to be a version or so behind and let the developers work out the bugs in some apps.

At the top of your desktop you’ll notice that you actually have multiple desktops available to you. The JWM window manager is not flashy or fancy but it certainly provides a lot of useful functionality. You can navigate between open apps and you also have the option of opening a terminal window from the panel at the top of your desktop.

Here’s a sample of what you’ll find available for apps:

Abiword (word processor)
Audacious (media player)
Audacity (audio editor)
Are You Talking To Me (instant messaging)
BashBurn (text mode cd/dvd burning)
Chimera (web browser)
Filezilla (FTP)
Firefox (web browser)
Fluxbox (window manager)
GIMP (images)
GParted (disk partitioning)
IceWM (window manager)
Java Runtime
MPlayer (video)
MTPaint (graphics)
Ogg Vorbis (audio)
Opera (web browser)
Super Tux (game)
Sylpheed (email client)
XCD Roast (cd record)
XChat (irc client)
Xine (multimedia)
XMMS (multimedia)

For such a…er…tiny distribution, there’s actually a fair amount of software available for TCL. There’s pretty much enough here for you to do most common computing tasks without having to have gigabytes of software installed. It just goes to show you that perhaps less really is more sometimes.

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Problems & Headaches
One thing that I absolutely detested was scrolling through the list of apps for TCL. They desperately need to be broken down into categories that are easier to browse. Right now it’s just one long list and it’s not easy to find what you are looking for at all. Ugh.

Beyond that I don’t have much to complain about. I didn’t encounter any real problems using TCL or installing apps on it or running them. While it won’t win any awards for most beautiful desktop environment of the year, I found that TCL did exactly what it was supposed to do – provide me with an incredibly lightweight version of Linux that is easily portable and that has access to enough software to make it useful.

Where to Get Help
Please take a moment to register for the DLR forum (registration takes less than a minute and you can login with your Facebook account if you want); everybody is welcome. You are welcome to post a message in the Linux Help section and we’ll do our best to point you in the right direction. The forum contains discussions about Linux, but also many other topics. Please stop by and say hello when you have a chance.

Drop by the forum to get help, talk about Linux or just hang out.

Final Thoughts & Who Should Use It
Clearly Tiny Core Linux should not be compared to Linux Mint or any of the larger desktop distributions. But it most definitely has its place. It should be considered by anybody who needs a small, portable version of Linux for whatever purposes.

I know a lot of regular desktop users might not fit that category but it’s still a good idea to know a little bit about Tiny Core Linux as you never know when you may need it. Stick it on a portable type device or medium and take it with you wherever you go.

Hey, it might just come in handy when you least expect it.

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Summary Table:

Product: Tiny Core Linux 2.1
Web Site: http://www.tinycorelinux.com/
Price: Free
Pros: Extremely small, lightweight and portable version of Linux.
Cons: Scrolling through list of software apps is annoying. They need to be categorized to make it easier to find apps.
Summary: TCL is a superb portable version of Linux that packs a lot of punch in a very tiny package.
Rating: 3.5/5