The true power of Linux is in its near-infinite variety: no matter what your particular requirement, the chances are that you can find a distribution tailored to your needs. There are Linux distributions aimed at power users, programmers, gamers, people moving from Windows and those with older hardware that just isn’t powerful enough for many modern operating systems.
It’s this last market that Puppy Linux, a lightweight distribution created by Barry Kauler, targets. Unlike more ‘mainstream’ distributions like Ubuntu or openSUSE, ‘Wary’ Puppy Linux is designed to work on as wide a range of hardware as possible, regardless of its age or specification.
In addition, the Puppy Linux project creates various other distributions including Slacko Puppy – based on Slackware, and compatible with that distribution’s binary files – and Lucid Puppy – based on Ubuntu, and again compatible with Ubuntu-derived packages.
The first thing to notice about Puppy Linux is its size: this latest release of Wary Puppy, version 5.2, is just 123.6MB. With many mainstream operating systems having to move to DVDs due to growing bloat, it’s certainly a refreshing thing to see – and means that Wary Puppy can be installed onto a USB thumb drive as small as 128MB.
The other thing that makes Puppy Linux special is that, while distributed as a live CD, it’s not reliant on having the disc in the drive during use as the small size of the distribution allows it to reside entirely within memory. The system can also create ‘save files’, which can be written back to the live CD – if a CD-RW is used – storing changed settings and created or downloaded files.
For those who want to keep the distribution as a main operating system, it has an in-built install process which is quick and easy. Setting Puppy Linux up in a dual-boot system is slightly more complex, but still not difficult.
The whole ethos behind the Wary Puppy Linux distribution is compatibility with older hardware. The system requirements are as lightweight as possible, with the result that Wary will work on almost any x86-compatible machine from the last few decades.
In practice, that’s handy – but it also means that Wary Puppy has a secondary use: making a modern system feel lightning-fast.
As well as a minimal desktop environment, Wary Puppy chooses to preinstall lightweight applications that are significantly faster than the defaults in many other distributions.
LibreOffice, as an example, is replaced with the much slimmer AbiWord for word-processing work, while vector artwork can be created an edited by a lightweight version of InkScape which loads in a fraction of the time of the full-fat version.
If you’ve found your old hardware struggling to keep up with the demands you make on it, Wary Puppy is certainly worth a try.
Despite its small size and lightweight feel, Wary Puppy is impressively full-featured. Software for word processing, drawing, audio and video playback, voice-over-IP, instant messaging, web browsing, and even a few games.
Sadly, there is a catch: unlike the other Puppy Linux variants, which are based on a more mainstream distribution, Wary Puppy is its own beast. As a result, software needs to be compiled from source or installed as a PET package from Wary Puppy’s own repositories.
While those repositories are small compared to the likes of Ubuntu, they include much of the common software that you may want to use on an older system.
A rather more serious problem is Wary’s use of X.Org 7.3, a somewhat outdated version of the X.Org graphical user interface system.
While X.Org 7.3 ensures the broadest compatibility with older hardware – Wary’s primary focus – its age means that certain modern graphics processors aren’t well supported. Although the generic drivers work, accelerated video is a no-go area – which can, ironically, mean that Wary runs worse on faster hardware than it does on older, slower equipment.
Kauler is aware of this issue, and has a few fixes in the works: a video upgrade wizard, included in Wary Puppy 5.2, can download updated drivers and X.org packages for Intel and Nvidia hardware, with an AMD version planned once some bugs are ironed out.
There is also talk of upgrading X.org to 7.6, offering users the chance to choose at boot time whether they want to run Wary on new or old hardware.
There’s no denying that Wary Puppy is a great piece of software. Thanks to its lightweight nature, it’s an excellent choice for getting some extra use out of discarded or near-forgotten hardware.
It’s true that Wary isn’t as ‘shiny’ as Ubuntu, Mint or openSUSE – but it’s not meant to be. If you’re looking for an operating system for a system that just won’t run the latest builds, or want a dual-boot option that offers lightning-fast load times, it’s definitely worth investigating.