Tiny Core: Ultralight DIY distribution

When reviewing a lightweight distribution, the term Swiss Army knife is sometimes employed to indicate that it's packed with features despite a diminutive size. However, at 11MB for the ISO, Tiny Core is more of a blank-slate distribution, as when booted from a CDROM or a USB stick, it presents the user with a simple desktop consisting merely of a task launcher and a package manager. It contains some good ideas and it's already perfectly usable, but I think it needs a few more refinements in order to become great.

Tiny Core can be installed to a HD like a traditional distribution but the process is relatively complicated and not the main focus. Instead, a typical Tiny Core installation would be portable and booted from a device such as a memory stick. The end result is a kiosk-like environment.

When booting the base install ISO, once you get over the speed at which it loads up, the next surprise is the sparseness of the desktop. At the bottom of the screen there is a zooming application bar with four icons that correspond to the package manager (called App Browser), a command line terminal, a link to the GUI for the custom utility scripts and a power button to shut the system down.

Launching App Browser, one can't help but be impressed by the thousands of packages in the repository. The packages use a custom format and range from major applications such as Firefox and OpenOffice to tools and system components such as the GParted drive partitioning tool and the ALSA Linux sound system. By default, nothing you do is persistent as everything operates from a RAM disk.

App Browser works well and the package list is impressive.

Feeling unimaginative, I had a go at installing Firefox 3. App Browser got to work, fetching and installing the Firefox package along with all of its dependencies, and after about two minutes, a Firefox icon appeared on the application launcher bar. Firefox loaded very swiftly and worked as expected. I was impressed. The system also comes with some GUI tools that launch the configuration scripts for customisation of things such as the language settings and the X display mode.

After the initial experiments with the ISO, the first thing that most people are going to want to do with Tiny Core, is to install it to a USB stick and begin to customise it. Unfortunately, this is the point at which the relative weaknesses of the distribution begin to show. Most of the system is extremely intuitive, but the actual installation and configuration lacks polish and involves a considerable change of approach as it means leaving the GUI tools and hitting both the command line and the rather fragmented documentation on the website.

The distribution has a number of modes that govern the persistence of the installed applications and that of the user file area and home much of the system is run from the RAM disk. For example, some installation scenarios might require a setup where the applications stay in place after each reboot but that the /home directory is never committed to disk. However, how you actually select between these modes is buried in a somewhat disjointed body of documentation that is split between guides linked to on the main website, the forum, the FAQ and the wiki. The wiki is extensively populated, but like most wikis, to get the best of it, you have to have an idea of what you're searching for. It's a shame, as the front page of the website links to some useful step-by-step guides aimed at the Tiny Core newcomer, that even take the time to explain things like how to burn an ISO to a CDROM. The end result is that the most complicated part of using the distribution is the least well documented.


Conclusion


Most people having a go with Tiny Core will see the potential for fashioning lightweight kiosk-like installations while marvelling at how efficient and flexible Linux can be. Unfortunately, to live it up to its full promise, in my opinion, it needs more comprehensive documentation and the GUI setup tools need to be extended to handle the installation and selection of operational mode. If the devs could pull this off, Tiny Core would be accessible to people who aren't Linux experts. As it stands, the level of expertise required to put together a complete system means some might decide to customise a more conventional distribution rather than using Tiny Core.

The Tiny Core website

______________________

UK based freelance writer Michael Reed writes about technology, retro computing, geek culture and gender politics.

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Just Chill, Peoples!

Martin Warren's picture

Hell, this board is a bit passionate. Forgive me if I sound scared.

Just Chill, Peoples!!!

Anyway, I want my LINUX to be as basic as possible, which is why I run the rudimentary (as opposed to 'rude') BasicLinux 3.5 on my ancient but loveable 486dx2. What a beautiful distro! Since I started using computers in the early 1980's, around the time Ghostbusters was released, 'I ain't afraid of no command line!'.

Tinycore

Anonymous's picture

I think it was a fair review of Tinycore. As others have pointed out, TC has a different target in mind than just the average user. The ease of customization and "build it your way" is what the appeal is about. I myself, find it an incredible, lightweight and fast booting distro (the fastest I've seen so far.
Personally I use in a recovery partition for Windows on my company's computers to re-image partitions with partimage. Plus, I can quickly boot up TC livecd and clone hard drives with dd as well as use the appbrowser to pull down any app I need on the spot to troubleshoot something. Its like having a swiss army knive with any blade you might need. Of course, most of these things can be done with other distros, but not for the size, speed and flexibility.

Good conclusion

Daniel B's picture

Most people having a go with Tiny Core will see the potential for fashioning lightweight kiosk-like installations while marvelling at how efficient and flexible Linux can be.

Reading the posts on the Tiny Core forum will show many examples of this. Users of TC love its flexibility.

Unfortunately, to live it up to its full promise, in my opinion, it needs more comprehensive documentation and the GUI setup tools need to be extended to handle the installation and selection of operational mode.

Reading the forums will also show many examples of this. There are numerous instances of people asking the same questions or asking questions covered by the wiki or other posts. What this means is these people either did not find or did not understand the documentation to answer their question (if it exists). This is something that can be improved.

If the devs could pull this off, Tiny Core would be accessible to people who aren't Linux experts. As it stands, the level of expertise required to put together a complete system means some might decide to customise a more conventional distribution rather than using Tiny Core.

I find this to be true as well. The reason is that most of the Tiny Core energy is going into evolving the base and creating extensions. No one has taken up the "documentation" banner, and it is not stable enough to merit serious documentation. Things change rapidly, and the documentation is not always up to date. Keep in mind, it is a young project compared to SUSE, Debian, or Red Hat, all of which have been around much longer.

Be patient. It will become more user friendly over time.

Port this to the ppc.

Adam___'s picture

Port this to the ppc.

Microcore he forgot!

Terminator3000's picture

Reviewer forgot to mention Microcore which is the 'headless' version.
From that you can add for eg, LXDE desktop(inc file manager and window manager)and Chromium and Epiphany browsers (no need for Firefox)and you are up and away.These are all available from Appbrowser as are many other apps making it highly customizable.

Optimal use of performance?

Ove's picture

I am a big fan of lightweight and efficient distributions. But one thing that always seems to be the issue is the end result. In the article, the author talks about Firefox and OpenOffice that surely aren't lightweight applications and that will bring a hefty overhead with their dependencies. What (big) difference does it make what foundation you build your conventional office desktop on? I know that the author also says it was the result of lack of imagination, but I see these types of articles about most distributions. Like what's the point of comparing *buntus with each other when they only come with a different set of non-buntu default packages? It has nothing to with the distribution which default desktop environment is being used, when they are all accessible through repositories. My personal opinion is that the average Linux-kid is far from the tech-savviness of the Linux-kid in 2000 for instance, not to mention 1995. I would argue that 80% of Linux users are not any more geeky than their counterparts of other operating systems. The command-line is seen as a bad thing, or the fact that you need to read and understand stuff before acting. And too much focus is put on the applications that essentially have nothing to do with Linux. Last time I checked, Firefox and OpenOffice, just like KDE and Gnome are not linux-related per se; they are external projects that run on many operating systems.

This particular distribution, like already mentioned in other comments is not geared toward the Linux-rookie, and it most certainly should not be. There are plenty of distributions for those who want an easy start with Linux. Who on earth would run Tiny Core and then do something as dumb as install and launch GParted?

Never thought I'd see the day

Anonymous's picture

Never thought I'd see the day when "leaving the GUI tools and hitting the command line" would be considered a bad thing in a Linux publication.

My point

Michael Reed's picture

The point that I'm making is that a lot of what this distribution offers is polished and easy to use for people who aren't Linux experts. For example, a Windows admin or a school IT teacher could look at the live boot experience and think, "this looks great". Unfortunately, the actual deployment involves a change of approach, and this excludes a whole class of users who could make a lot of use of something like Tiny Core.

As someone else said, if someone is already a Linux expert, they might be better off starting with Debian netinstall and customising from there.

UK based freelance writer Michael Reed writes about technology, retro computing, geek culture and gender politics.

Times have changed

Doug.Roberts's picture

If we want to move Linux on the desk/laptop into the mainstream (as compared to having it exist mainly in the Linux Geek Camp) we have to make its use for the "average person" as easy as possible.

--Doug

RE: Times have changed

Anonymous's picture

The effort for making GNU/Linux usable by the "average person" should not be at the price of lowering the standards in the "Linux Geek Camp". In fact since the Linux Journal is one of the corner stones of the camp it should turn it attention to the CLI-lurking geeks that are not afraid to dive right in the trenches. In this particular article the "DIY" garbed my attention and I was a bit disappointed by the overall focus.

Thumbs UP for the writer keep up the effort Michael your article just wasn't my cup of tea.

--Cheers, Petyo

"Tiny Core would be

Anonymous's picture

"Tiny Core would be accessible to people who aren't Linux experts."

People who aren't interested in linux have little use-for or interest-in this Distro.
It's goal is not to be noobie friendly but instead provide a clean slate for people needing a custom solution.

Every distro does not need to be compared to Ubunutu.

Every distro does not need to

Anonymous's picture

Every distro does not need to be compared to Ubunutu.
The article does not say "Ubuntu," it says "more conventional distribution[s]". In the context of small distributions that means for example SliTaz (recently reviewed).

Get used to it

Doug.Roberts's picture

Every distro will be compared to Ubuntu, because Ubuntu owns about 48% of the total Linux desktop market.

Comparing another distro to Ubuntu or Debian or RHEL is not an unreasonable thing to do; I'm surprised you object to it.

--Doug

The logics of conclusions...

tinypoodle's picture

Eat shit! 50 million flies can't be wrong!

Where do you get that % from?

FreeBooteR's picture

I don't believe your claims of 58% market share of GNU/Linux. Do you have reputable sources of proof?

The comment does not say

Anonymous's picture

The comment does not say "58%," it says "48%". A reputable source is here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_%28operating_system%29

See the second paragraph: "Web statistics suggest that Ubuntu's share of Linux desktop usage is about 50%".

Several observations

Doug.Roberts's picture

1. You're rude. But, don't let that bother you: We've sorta come to expect such behavior from Anonymous contributors.

2. You're lazy.

3. I said 48%, not 58%

4. Here's a 2007 survey that shows Ubuntu having captured 30% of the Linux desktop market. Do your homework and find this year's numbers yourself.

http://hackerthedude.blogspot.com/2009/10/which-linux-to-choose.html

5. Oh, never mind, I know you won't look it up yourself. Here's one survey result showing Ubuntu currently sitting at about 57%

http://linuxtrends.com/linux-distribution-popularity-trends/

You're welcome.

--Doug

On how conversation works

Anonymous's picture

1. You're rude.
FreeBooteR was not rude, s/he was simply sceptical. That is an important difference.

2. You're lazy.
Pot - kettle - black.

2. You're lazy.
No. You, Doug.Roberts, made the statement, therefore it was your obligation to provide the evidence.

Misquoted

Anonymous's picture

2. You're lazy.
Pot - kettle - black.

I misquoted here. Please accept my apologies. I did not mean to say that you were lazy. I meant to say that you were rude.

Apology Accepted

Doug.Roberts's picture

;-}

you cannot argue that tiny

Anonymous's picture

you cannot argue that tiny core, slitaz, slax, and DSL have entirely different user base then RHEL, Suse, Ubunutu.

I love it

jed's picture

im writing this cooment from this distro and loving it its the distro that lests me coustimize it to EXACTLY what i want with no frills

UNE For me

Doug.Roberts's picture

For a USB boot distro I think I'll stick with UNE 10.04. Customizations to the boot environment are automatically saved -- I like that.

--Doug

meh, I'll just stick to

Anonymous's picture

meh, I'll just stick to Debian netinstall

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