Joe’s Window ManagerDSL 4.4 was just released on June 9th, so this past weekend I installed it on my Compaq Deskpro Pentium III 800 Mhz machine. It only has 256 megs of RAM, so a lightweight distribution like DSL is a good choice for it. Their site claims you can run DSL 486 DX with 16 megs of RAM, so even my old Compaq should fly with what it’s modest specs. A link to the release notes is here.

DSL is an incredibly small distribution, hence the name. According to their site it started as an experiment to see how many useful applications they could fit on a 50 megabyte live CD. Even though DSL is a live CD you still have the option of installing to a hard drive or a USB pen drive. They even have an installation that lets you run DSL virtually using QEMU on a Windows host machine. I chose to install DSL to my hard drive using the frugal install. This creates a Grub menu for you and puts the compressed DSL CD image onto your hard drive. I found it cut the boot time to about 1/3 what is was with the CD.

There are a couple of things done differently in DSL than an Ubuntu or OpenSUSE to get the ISO under 50 megabytes in size. For instance, DSL uses an older 2.4.31 Linux kernel and Gtk1 applications. These use less system resources than a newer kernel and Gtk2 apps do . If you need a 2.6 kernel and Gtk2 applications they have a spin off of DSL called DSL-N.

To save system resources in DSL there is no Gnome or KDE here, either one would use to much memory and computer cycles. Instead you have the choice of Joe’s Window Manager or Fluxbox, either which is a decent windows manager in my opinion. Unfortunately, you will have to look elsewhere if you need spinning cubes or wobbling windows. There is no Compiz in either window manager.


When I booted off the CD I was given a prompt with a number of cheat codes that I could use. You can put things in like having DSL load entirely into RAM to increase speed, having the DSL CD copied to you hard drive, or choosing which window manager you would like to use. A list of the cheat codes available are at this wiki. For my first boot I just went with the default and did not use any cheat codes.

Next I was given a choice of what X server I wanted to use, Xvesa or Xfbdev. I chose Xvesa since it supposed to be faster. I used the default resolution and color depth 1024×768x32 and I got a desktop with some funky colors. Fortunately, I could see the screen well enough to navigate to the control panel icon on the bottom. After I clicked the Panel button and then the Xvesa button, I saw that the highest setting I could use was 800×600x16. Once I selected this setting my desktop was normal looking.

I’m going to have to dig around for a better driver for my graphics chipset, the Intel 82815. DSL has other X servers available in MyDSL testing, but I didn’t think any of them would work with my chipset. In both Ubuntu and Puppy my graphics chipset was working at 1024×768 out of the box, but they were using Xorg, not Xvesa.

I booted the DSL CD on my Athlon 3800 X2 System with an Nvidia 7600 card to see if I would get a better result with Xvesa. With the Nvidia card I had a whole range of choices for resolution. The default 1024×768x32 worked right out of the box, so your mileage with Xvesa will vary depending on what graphics card you use.


Now that I could see the screen I was presented with a nice simple green gradient background with the DSL logo in the center. DSL uses a program called Torsmo, which gives you some handy system statistics in the top right corner of the desktop. How much memory you are using, upload/download speeds, number of processes, CPU usage, and file systems mounted. I was stunned to see that I was using under 20 megabytes of memory while I was running a window manager.

On the bottom of the desktop you get 5 buttons that will give you a control panel, a terminal, the emel file manager, the lightweight browser Dillo, or Firefox 2.0. Your also given 4 virtual desktops in the center, a DSL Windows-like start button on the left, and and a digital clock on the right. You can set the time on this clock automagically by clicking the DSL>Setup>DateTimeSetup>ViaInternetTimeServer.

Even with it’s small size, DSL has a wide range of applications available. You have a word processor (Ted), spreadsheet (Siag), PDF viewer (XPDF), Calendar (XCalendar), paint program (mtPaint), 4 editors (Beaver, VIM, Nano, and Notepad), an audio player (XMMS), FTP client (AxY FTP), Email client (Slypheed), File manager (emelFM), 3 browsers (Firefox, Dillo, and Netrik), a Web server (Monkey Web Server), and a host of other applications.


First thing I checked was to see if my Ethernet was working. I opened up Firefox and tried to do some browsing. Fortunately, this was working right out of the box. I’ve got a Compaq EtherExpress 82801 network card. I went to youtube to see if Flash was installed. No luck. Flash is not included out of the box.

Next up I tried sound. I went to emelFM and picked an MP3 and clicked on it. Xmms opened up and it played with no problems. I also mounted a NTFS Windows partition on my hard drive and tried playing a MP3 from it. Again, it worked with no problems so I could read NTFS out of the box too. While working with the sound issue, I did notice one problem with the Dmix sound mixer. It has a drop down box where you choose what device you want to adjust. The font they use is so tiny you can’t see what the device is that your adjusting.

Last thing I tried to get working was my printer. It is a Samsung Ml-1430 printer. To get printing working in DSL you need to go and click DSL>System>Printing>ConfigurePrinter. They use a program called apsfilter to setup your printer. In the setup they had a number of printer drivers available, but mine was not one of them. Since I did not know how to add an additional printer driver to apsfilter, I went to MyDSL and pulled down CUPS. I just got my printer working with Puppy 4.0 last week using CUPS so I thought this would work with DSL the same way. Even though my printer is not included in the default install of CUPS, I was able to pull down the .ppd file for my printer from the site. I placed the .ppd file  in my /usr/share/cups/model directory. I started setup and typed that directory in the box where it says location. Setup showed that it was using the ML-1430 ppd file so I tried to print a test page. No luck. I didn’t even get a data light blinking on the printer.


To add applications go to the MyDsl browser by clicking on DSL>MyDSL>MyDSLBrowser. There is quite a range of selections here. Here you can install the files necessary to get Gtk2 applications. You can get the library by downloading and installing the  gtk2-2.10.9.dsl package. Although this will let you use newer flashier Gtk2 applications, you will be using more memory doing so.

I found a small bug with Joe’s Window Manager while using DSL. As I added packages to the system, JWM would sometimes put double entries for the application in the menu. I went over to Fluxbox to see it was doing the same thing. It was listing each installed application once, not twice. I also had a weird problem with Mplayer. I installed it via the MyDSL browser and it locked up running under JWM, but under Fluxbox it looked loaded fine. I had the same problem in Puppy 4.0 with JWM, so it is a problem with JWM and not something specific to Damn Small Linux.

Since DSL is based on Debian, one of the cool things you can do is use Synaptic to download from the Debian Woody repositories. First, you need to go to MyDSL Browser and install dsl-dpkg.dsl. Next, you will need to pull down synaptic.dsl. Now you can go to DSL>MyDSL>Synaptic and you will find a huge range of packages available.


For an icon based file manager, DSL uses the DFM. To mount file systems in DFM you right click on a file folder and go to mount, then click on the square radio button of the file system you want mounted. It’s just my opinion, but I would go with the better looking Rox for a lightweight icon based file manager. The icons in DFM look pretty bad. Rather than use DFM, I took a liking to the included emelFM file manager. It’s a simple two pane old school file manager with a command line at the bottom. I find it’s setup to be the fastest way to get file management done.


In conclusion, I think DSL is a cool little distribution. DSL is one of the two lightweight distros of choice, the other being Puppy Linux. DSL has the advantage in the range of packages available when you consider you can add Debian Woody repository to the mix. DSL also uses slightly less system resources. It also is a multi-user operating system, so your not running as root all the time. If I were going to run a server I would definitely pick DSL over Puppy.

In Puppy’s favor, you are using GTK2 apps, a Linux 2.6 kernel, and Xorg. The use of Xorg and the 2.6 kernel made Puppy alot easier to run on the systems I have tried. For instance, for better Wi-FI reception I like to use a Hawking USB Wifi Dish that needs a zd1211rw module to work. This module is included in the 2.6.18 and above kernel. Flash was also working out of the box with Puppy. Lastly, I also preferred the Arctic Ocean wallpaper and icon set of Puppy over DSL.

The obligitory screenshots:

Joe’s Window ManagerFluxbox DesktopFirefox20DSL Control PanelEmelFMLowMemoryMyDSLofficeapps.jpg

6 Responses to “Damn Small Linux 4.4 Review”

  1. ch=ll says:

    Is it supported the ntfs writing?

  2. Modem Lover says:

    DSL is by far the best Linux distro for dial-up modem users!!!

  3. kuhle says:

    Is it supported the ntfs writing or not , or must i install ntfs-3g and others ?

  4. patta says:

    I am using it now. It is great, supper light, runs like a mint with 64m ram and 500 piii cpu.
    have not tried, but do not think it supports ntfs by default.

  5. gregorydearth says:

    I have DSL running on my 166 MHz Pentium MMX Digital HiNote VP laptop with only 92 MB of ram. Runs incredibly fast. I did a full install to hard drive with a swap partition, primary partition and a separate home partition for persistence. Runs perfectly. Makes this old laptop my main laptop.

  6. Pax says:

    There was a time when 50mbs was awesome. It still is if the intent is to support modern hardware and get back a system that’s highly optimized for speed. I love DSL, don’t get me wrong (using it now as I type this), but there’s a new market in town now in the form of netbooks. Low-powered cpus (green), up to 1.6ghz, wireless options, webcams, small and lightweight.

    DSL would be perfect on these machines! While some of the hefty distros out there are struggling to get their systems on these new mini-laptops (including Microsoft’s attempt to optimize the next version of their OS and another Ubuntu derivative), a distro like DSL is essentially ready. From what I understand, their now defunct DSL-N might have been a perfect drop-in replacement for these smaller computing devices because of its’ use of a more up-to-date kernel.

    Perhaps another lightweight distro might come in and get itself primed for netbooks but I like the way DSL is put together. There’s a nice portable framework to the distro, including it’s own package system with support for the larger debian archive.

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