Updated: January 28, 2009
I guess I'm biased, but I have a soft spot when it comes to small-size distros. I like it when developers have the craftsmanship to bundle lots of great stuff into small, highly practical packages, proving that size matters not.
Puppy Linux has proven its worth, time and time again. Despite its modest footprint, it managed to impress me with a dazzling array of applications and great support for wireless, multimedia codecs, including Flash, MP3 and other Windows formats out of the box, NTFS write access, and more. Furthermore, it managed to look good, run fast, stay stable. Not to be bested, it also spawned countless mods, each a unique visual and functional surprise. In this case, Puppy proved that size matters not.
Damn Small Linux (DSL) is another small, minimal-requirement distro, which aims to deliver solid functionality and ultra-fast performance on very-low-end machines, with as little as just a handful of MB of RAM. Alongside Puppy, it's one of the flagships of small Linux distros.
Still, a one-on-one comparison with Puppy would not be fair, because the latest DSL is only about half the size of the latest Puppy. Keep that in mind while reading this article, as this is not a competition between the two. What more, you can have both. Thus, from this moment on, we shall refer to Damn Small Linux as Puppy's small brother ...
And now, let us see what DSL can do. In this article, we'll review the (currently) latest version, 4.4.10.
The boot is lightning-fast. On modern machines, DSL will reach the desktop in as little as 20-30 seconds.
The default 1024x768 desktop is spartan. The look and feel is very much mid-90s and not suited for everyone, especially not people with a developed sense of aesthetics. But it runs with as little as 25MB of RAM taken ...
The application menu can be accessed either via the left or right mouse click anywhere on the desktop. DSL packs an interesting selection of applications. We'll review some of them as we move along.
Overall, there were no bad surprises. The networking was enabled by default and it worked well. A lightweight incarnation of Firefox called Bon Echo is the browser of choice.
The first thing I wanted to see how well Puppy supported Windows media formats. But before I could do that, I had to connect to a Windows machine and copy some files off it. Which brings us to Windows (FAT32 and NTFS) support.
DSL uses smbclient to communicate with Windows machines. To get to a Windows share, you need to fill the five fields below. Domain is the workgroup, if you're wondering.
This will get you to a command-line interface, where you need to use FTP-like commands to work with files. get and put commands will do the job of copy and paste. If you're wondering what subset of commands is available, just type help. Not the most friendly, but will do the job. It works well with both FAT32 and NTFS partitions.
After a while, we'll have the files we want in the home directory of the dsl user.
MP3 files played nicely ...
Unfortunately, this one did not work.
DSL does not ship with a Flash Player, so you'll have to download it.
Unfortunately, DSL did not manage to get Wireless working in my test. First, it did not recognize the Wireless network card on my four-year-old T42. But even if had, it would not have been able to connect to either of my two WPA-protected routers, because the DSL Wireless/Wi-Fi network wizard supports only WEP.
The choice of application included with DSL is interesting. For office work, for instance, you have the Ted work processor and MSDoc Convert/Viewer.
DSL also comes with a rich assortment of network tools. smbclient is just one of them, but there's also Remote Desktop (RDesktop), Telnet, FTP, and VNC Viewer.
Furthermore, DSL offers a range of simple desktop games, a handful of text editors, several simple graphics tools, sound mixing software, and APT for easy package management.
Critical system functions can be easily accessed using the Control Panel:
And although weak in desktop details, DSL does have a few pleasing backgrounds and will let you use transparent terminals.
There were some minor problems with DSL applications:
For example, PDF Viewer did not always work as expected. It would open files, but it would unexpectedly close when browsing large ones or when using the sidebar links to jump between sections. The file manager (dfm) would place file icons one top of another, making it a bit difficult to manage directories with lots of files.
However, DSL was smart enough to locate the existing swap file on the Linux machine it was tested, adding hefty 2GB of space to its available pool. This is a great feature, allowing you to enjoy plenty of breathing space even on machines with little RAM. Although you'll be hard pressed to exhaust your memory sticks with DSL.
DSL is a very nice little distro. It is fast and stable. Its modest footprint makes it ideal for olden computers with antique hardware. And it packs a useful bunch of lightweight applications, good enough to serve a broad range of users. The only problem is: DSL is not very pretty.
Apart from that, there are a few things missing, when compared to Puppy, but, then again, it is half the size. Not that this should dissuade from using DSL, because you can easily replenish missing packages using the superb APT.
If you're more into style and looks and pure desktop functionality, DSL might not be ideal for you. But if you can forgive the spartan, 90s looks and focus on solid and rich performance, DSL should do nicely. DSL is well-suited for backup and recovery, secure banking for ultra-paranoid, and other administration tasks. On top of all that, it will play your music and happily cooperate with your Windows shares.
At the cost of virtually no memory at all and just 50MB of space, DSL is a bargain that you should not pass up.