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Tiny Core Linux 2.1

July 1, 2009
By

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.

Installation
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
Apps Browser
Control Panel
XShells
Tools
Help
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:

Backup/Restore
Mount Tool
Backgrounds
Mouse Tool
System Stats
Select Mirror
SSH Server
Swapfile Tool
Netcardconfig
tclocal Tool
Date/Time

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)
GFTP (FTP)
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.

Picture 9

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.

Picture 11

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

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15 Responses to Tiny Core Linux 2.1

  1. Enthused on August 29, 2011 at 6:14 am

    This is the natural follow-on to the superb Damn Small Linux. The ability to roll-your-own install makes it a natural for x86 thin clients and older PCs, but it's also FAST on modern machines.

    Most Linux distros are, sad to say, "bloated". TinyCore doesn't have that problem.

  2. G.N.R.S.U on February 2, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    Tiny Core is almost the smallest Desktop Linux !!!!

  3. deitrick on February 18, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    Does everything you do save to the computer abd stay?@ tlmck:

  4. Tuna on October 5, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    I loaded TinyCore Linux 2.3.1 on an old notebook today. It found the Ethernet, and grabbed a DHCP address for me. I was immediately able to ping domains. We were off to a good start. Next I clicked on the "Appbrowser" on the menu, when that program fired up, I clicked on "Connect/TCE", it went out and connected to Iblibo. The menu lists dozens of applications to install, and happily it shows a friendly description, the size it will consume, file names, and dependencies — very nice, thank you. I started out by loading 2 or 3 applications, no problem, they show up on the menu, plus an icon at the bottom of the screen. Pretty cool! I wish the installer provided some 'entertainment' as it progresses during the installation, but it does provide a "Finished" popup box.

    Then I went for the downs. I chose to install FireFox 3.5.3, which is the current release, as of this date. Some guy named Jason W has shipped 8 updates since April of 2009, through today in October 2009. Every release number is listed, with the date. This built my confidence that the next release of FireFox will be put there too. It's a 10MB download, I click on it, a few minutes later FireFox is installed over the Internet, the current release — and it works. I think, it can't be that easy, can it? So I loaded a couple of FireFox plugins, and they work too, as expected. I've surfed the web for a few hours, no hitches, no crashes, FireFox works like a million dollars. In fact I'm typing this message into TinyCore Linux and FireFox, right now.

    So maybe I'll figure out all this TCZ/TCE mumbo-jumbo and fight with a local hard drive, which I don't want. But what I REALLY WANT — RIGHT NOW is to be able to burn my 'entire' RAM disk to an ISO CD option. Similar to Puppy Linux's "Multimedia/Burniso2cd burn iso file to CD/DVD". It should probably leave out my hardware specific changes, so the CD will work on other PCs. And it should omit my FireFox cache files, and so on.

    The TinyCoreLinux.com web site's "core concepts" page talks about booting up with a "pristine" system. And I agree with those principles. But what could be more pristine than a clean TinyCore Linux install, followed by installing the latest release into a "Distro" of my own.

  5. Gnobuddy on September 18, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    I teach in the public education system, with essentially zero computer budget. I managed years ago to scrounge up ten Pentium II 300 MHz systems, with a glorious 64 MB of RAM in each, and subsequently to scrounge up enough extra RAM to double that to 128 MB of RAM in each PC.

    I have tried at least twenty different Linux distributions on these machines over the years, from Antix to Zenwalk, trying to find one that was easy to install and able to run at usable speed on this slow old hardware. All I needed was a functional Web browser and an interface easy enough for my students to use. Without going into boring details, let me just say that I NEVER found a distribution that met all my preferences; Puppy Linux came closest, but the icon-encrusted desktop confused my students and the intermittent refusal to remember critical system settings on boot-up frustrated me and wasted a lot of my time. Running as root all the time was another major issue.

    With Tiny Core Linux I think I may have finally found what I have been looking for all these years. I booted up Tiny Core 2.3.1 from a CD on one of these old PC's, and was shocked to find myself staring at a configured and working graphical desktop in a few seconds, complete with a working Ethernet connection. No long game of "twenty questions" as with Puppy Linux, no outright failure to configure the ancient hardware as with many other distributions, no five-minute boot time as with Mepis Lite. A few mouse clicks was all it took to get the Firefox 3.5.x TCE downloaded and installed, and there it was, the bare-bones Linux + browser combo capable of running in 128 MB that I had been searching for for so long. Bliss!

    Tiny Core 2.3.1 is now installed to the hard disk of that machine, and the Firefox 3.5 TCE saved to a file on the drive. I'll let my students stress-test it for a few days, and if all goes well, the other nine machines will soon be running Tiny Core as well.

    My hat is off to Robert Shingledecker. Robert, THANK YOU for your wonderful little Linux distribution!

    -Gnobuddy

  6. Jeremy I on August 9, 2009 at 5:14 am

    I am just a casual user and I have a slow modem, i.e I I have dialup (56kb modem) . will I be able to use tiny core, out of the box ?

    I would like to give it a try, as I am looking for a small distro. Slitaz is no good for me , I have been asking for them to add dialup out of the box since it started, but they don't seem interested. (see nubie1234 at their site).

    cheers.

  7. Geert on July 18, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    I use a tweaked version of Tiny Core as my primary operating system since three months now and generally I'm very satisfied

    Pros

    - extremely customizable. I gave it a XP-like look with desktop icons, background picture, fast launch buttons, start menu… Even my wife can use it.

    - runs at the speed of light. On my four year old system it boots to the desktop in ten seconds. Firefox (with Flash plugin) starts in less than three seconds and is extremely responsive, most smaller apps like media player, picture viewer etc. start instantaneously.

    Cons

    - newbies will not get the max out of this distro

    - hardware support somewhat erratic – seems more oriented to desktops than to laptops

  8. Brian Masinick on July 15, 2009 at 9:44 pm

    I spent some time with Tiny Core RC 1 in a Virtualbox. My comments are that the packaging tool is a bit erratic – maybe the download mirror was not performing consistently, maybe it was because I was in a Virtualbox, but I doubt it. Response was good once I did get packages going.

    I found Firefox to be broken in RC 1, but Seamonkey works well, so I used it, since I generally prefer it anyway. I used Geany to do a bit of small editing, and fooled around a bit.

    Tiny Core is just right for just that – a tiny core of stuff. I would not use it for more than browsing and basic stuff since I can do what it does and more with lots of other distros, but it was just right for simple browsing. I agree with Jim, the packaging arrangement is pretty basic; it would be nice to have some categories or something to break it down at least a little bit. Synaptic and the way it works would be a good model, but hey, what is there is simple, fast, and it gets the job done.

    I am inclined to give this a 3 – OK, but not great. On the other hand, as a really tiny, basic core, it hits the mark pretty well, so I may give it a near perfect score on reaching its target objective. That it does quite well, and it is pretty fast, too.

  9. Brian Masinick on July 15, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    I am getting TC 2.2 RC 1 and will try it out in a Virtualbox. Looks pretty cool to me, so it is about time to try the new RC – which is dated July 8.

  10. masinick on July 3, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Hey, thanks Subline Porte! I did not grab the software yesterday, so maybe my delayed timing worked to my benefit; I got to read your feedback. I'll have to take a look, thanks!

  11. Sublime Porte on July 3, 2009 at 5:31 am

    To the reviewer,

    If you had've waited about another 5 minutes before downloading firefox, you woulda seen 3.5 is in the tce repositories :)

    I actually installed 3.0.11 the other day and then a few minutes later, 3.5 was there. Bad timing.

    Brian,

    TCL has perfectly good wireless support, it's just in an extension, that's all, you need to load it up.

  12. Brian Masinick on July 2, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Jim, clearly the idea with a Tiny Core is to provide just that – the Tiny Core, and then allow each individual to tailor it to their specific needs. I think you did a good job of explaining the various ways you can set up the system initially. Either I did not see that the first time I gave this a look or they've added quite a few features since the initial version.

    I'd like to see how you believe that Tiny Core stacks up against SliTAZ – which was previously the smallest Live CD out there, and DSL, the classic one that people go for.

    Based on my earlier criteria, I considered SliTAZ to be about as small as I wanted to go; neither Tiny Core, SliTAZ, nor DSL, seem to have much to offer in the way of wireless support (though DSL may have some minimal support. IF you need that, Puppy seems to be about the smallest Live implementation that has a pretty powerful Live setup, and in release 4.2.1, they FINALLY got it right, fixing some of the bad drivers that they included in 4.2.

    Moving up the chain, I am actually not that big a fan of SLAX, though others are. The modules I see don't tend to do what I am interested in doing – which is typically to browse the Web remotely and with Wireless – SLAX does a lousy job, in my opinion, with wireless.

    Further up the chain, TinyMe and antiX both do an excellent job of providing really solid hardware support — and — they get wireless right, especially antiX.

    I'm going to give Tiny Core a shot in my Virtualbox and see how it goes. Meanwhile, something you may consider as you build up your repertoire of distros is to categorize them, contrast them with others in a general category, and list where each one is strong and weak. I've just given you a light taste of some quick impressions on some of the Live distros I've used, going from the tiniest, Tiny Core, up to the midrange TinyMe and antiX, ignoring the really big ones like PCLinuxOS, SimplyMEPIS, or the classic, KNOPPIX.

  13. davemc on July 2, 2009 at 9:05 am

    This distro could be interesting given further development. I am not sure how it would work out in a server or netbook environment given your review. While it ~sounds like~ its intended to fit that mold, what are the current state of the repo's, and what repo's does it use for that matter? Can you use the regular Debian repo's?.. If thats the case, then this distro is indeed ready for the prime time.

  14. Jim Lynch on July 2, 2009 at 6:02 am

    Hi tlmck,

    Perhaps it's just that I am a browser more than a searcher? I like to poke around and see what's in there without necessarily having a particularly definitive idea in mind of what I'm looking for.

    I think it might have to do with being a reviewer as I'm checking to see what my readers are going to find so categorized apps are very helpful so I can pull out this one or that one and include them in the list so people know what's available.

  15. tlmck on July 2, 2009 at 5:52 am

    "Let’s face it, Mac OS X is not really known for being…er…lightweight at all."

    Surely you know that now that Steve Jobs is back, he will send the Goon Squad over to properly flog you. :devil:

    But seriously, you did see the "search" box in the apps list. I found that it works much the same as the search box in Synaptic.

    I too have only tried TCL in a VM, but have it in the to do pile for further study.



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