Updated Linux Distros in VMware Player

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I’ve written before about running Linux under Windows XP using the free VMware Player. It works really well. Even though I’ve done it before, I don’t really have much of a need, so other than making sure most big-picture features work, I don’t really exercise the distribution.

Recently, I’ve had two reasons to crank it up just a drop (literally, just a drop, I’m not yet using VMware Player for anything serious). First, the possibility (however distant or unlikely) that my next laptop may be running Linux as the primary OS. Second, there have been a flurry of new (updated) Linux distros released this month, some that I have had a long curiosity about.

In the past, I’ve had little more than glimpses of Ubuntu releases (6.06 and 7.04). I didn’t really give either a whirl, but my initial impression was less than enthusiastic. The color scheme alone (I know, easy to change) was muddy and boring looking. On a more important note, I have always struggled (with little information!) as to whether there is a material difference between choosing a Gnome-based distro, or a KDE one.

To my eye, KDE looks better, but as much as I enjoy eye candy, it’s not the over-riding reason for me to select an OS (or I’d be happy with Vista, or I would have run to a Mac). If Gnome is more functional, or has a more likely future, I’d happily put up with a less-pretty UI, and even put up with less user friendliness.

Recently, I read a review of a late beta of Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron). The guy raved about it. In the past, I noticed that it took a day or two for KUbuntu (and other derivatives) to be released after the main Ubuntu distro, and that made me feel that they were step-children, possibly not as robust or integrated.

This time around, all of them were released on the same day, including a KDE4 version of KUbuntu as well.

So, in April alone, I downloaded and tested the following Linux distros:

  1. Sidux 2008.01
  2. Ubuntu 8.04
  3. KUbuntu 8.04
  4. KUbuntu-kde4 8.04
  5. DSL 4.3 (Damn Small Linux)
  6. SystemRescueCD 1.02
  7. CDLinux 0.6.1

Sidux (last year’s flavor) was one of my favorite distros. It’s based on Debian (as is Ubuntu) but it is tied to the unstable repository so you get more frequent updates (of things like Firefox for example). The 2008.01 release is a DVD iso, all of the other ones mentioned above are CD isos.

While it booted up fine (in Live mode, under VMware Player), it was not able to run in any resolution other than 800×600 (the default). That’s not entirely true, it could be made smaller, not larger). I hand tweaked the xorg.conf file and tried a few other things, none of which worked, and I quickly gave up. Remember, I don’t really have a short-term need, so struggling wasn’t appetizing and I had other distros to check out anyway.

I have installed every version of DSL for quite a while, so adding 4.3 to the mix wasn’t a surprise. It’s a good distro for getting small jobs done. One thing to keep in mind (not necessarily a downside) is that it’s still based on the 2.4 kernel branch. Anyway, this one works just fine. If it wasn’t for the next distro I am about to cover, this one would get some use from me whenever I needed an X Server on my desktop.

CDLinux 0.6.1 is the latest version of CDLinux (Compact Distro Linux). I hadn’t heard of it before this release. It’s a little larger than DSL (about 10MB bigger), but it still clocks in at under 60MB. What intrigued me was that it is significantly more modern. It uses the latest 2.6 kernel, Xorg, XFce (window manager), the latest Firefox (2.0.0.14), etc. I have to say that I really like this one for quickie jobs. It’s clean looking.

I am writing this post on CDL (under VMware Player) running Firefox. I scp’ed over a certificate for Firefox and I am using OpenID to log in as me to WordPress. I’m running the Live CD image, so my disk drive is ram. It’s working delightfully well. My only semi-complaint is that at the resolution that I’m running it (1400×1050) the fonts aren’t all that attractive. I don’t know if that’s a CDL issue, an XFce one, a resolution only one, etc. I don’t really care at the moment, but I thought I’d mention it.

A quick mention of SystemRescueCD. That’s another one (like DSL) where I download each version, and have been doing so for quite a while. It’s a very nice emergency CD, and while I rarely need one, this is the first one I turn to on those rare occasions. The only thing I do when I download a new version is check that it functions correctly under VMware Player, then I burn a real CD, as this one is for real emergencies, not for playing around in a virtual machine.

Now the Ubuntu family. My first impression (also not detailed in any way) is also extremely positive. Even the less-attractive main Ubuntu (Gnome-based) is reasonably nice. The KDE one and KDE4 one are both more attractive. While the KDE4 one looks very nice, I’m not sure that I don’t prefer the look of KDE3. I have no problem with KDE4 and could easily get used to it, and perhaps the only reason I prefer KDE3 is that I’m already used to it.

As opposed to Sidux, the rest of the distros mentioned above all resize easily and flawlessly to any resolution I like. Cranking them up to 1400×1050 was trivial, and worked immediately. My native resolution is 1600×1200, so I have plenty of room to run a 1400×1050 sub-window for Linux.

One curiosity. All of the Ubuntu distros automatically release the mouse at the borders of the VMware window. This is a default behavior that I prefer, making the Linux window feel like just another app on my XP desktop. The only theoretical downside is that alt-tab doesn’t cycle between the windows within Linux. The other distros (including CDL which I’m currently using to write this) trap the mouse at the borders, and force me to press Ctrl-Alt to release the mouse. It’s not that big of a deal, but I am curious as to what each distro is doing, as none of them knows about VMware.

Anyway, all are fine distros and may see more time on my desktop over the coming months. Like I said above, while it’s still not likely, there’s a possibility that my next laptop will be Linux, and my primary distro will either be one of the Ubuntu flavors or Sidux.