I have started a little investigation into tiny Linux distributions and our first look will be on Porteus. I have always been an admirer of everything minimalist. From architecture to Linux distributions. As such I have a fondness for developers trying to keep their distro as light as possible while still offering the functionality and comfort we need to get our work done.
Porteus Linux has been around for quite some time with their current release being version 4.0. I decided, however, to go with their latest available download: RC2 of upcoming version 5.0. They offer a large selection of light weight desktop environments to choose from: LXQt, LXDE, Xfce, MATE, Openbox, KDE and Cinnamon. I went with the MATE edition, a desktop I have always appreciated for being a good compromise between features and resource usage.
The ISO download was a mere 350MB and once booted up it only uses a bit more than that to run. Ram usage came in at about 400 MB. I tried it both in a virtual machine and on a USB stick. Porteus, as the name suggests, is meant to be portable. So, the main idea is to have it burned onto a USB stick or for older hardware on a CD-ROM. It boots up fast and is very responsive, even in a virtual machine. In order to boot from the USB drive, I had to switch my system to Legacy mode.
Technically, this is a very different kind of a distro and not meant to be fully installed onto a system. It is based on Slackware and is supposed to be launched from it’s compressed state. When it is fired up, it creates a Linux file structure on the fly that resides completely in RAM. This makes it very fast and responsive. Software is added in modules and if you’re using writable media, these can be stored in a specific folder that will retain these modules for future reboots of the system. So we get a kind of persistence but the system itself can be rebooted into a completely fresh unaltered state every time.
The MATE edition comes with a traditional panel at the bottom with a regular system tray on the right hand side. For the menu on the left, Porteus uses the Brisk Menu. The theme used is Arc-Blue and one can choose between light, darker and dark themes. We get a simple blue wallpaper with the Porteus logo in the centre.
My download came with the following small selection of software included by default: File manager Caja, document viewer Atril, image viewer Eye of Mate, and three apps for sound and video: Audacious, Celluloid and MPV Player. There is no office software and no email client or even web browser. The user is meant to choose his/her browser of choice and there is a little tool to help install any of the following: Firefox, Chrome, Chromium, Opera, Pale Moon, Basilisk and Netsurf. I went ahead and installed Basilisk. When the download finished I was prompted to move it to the “Modules” folder so that it would be retained after a reboot.
Installing further software beyond the browser does not seem very intuitive though. There is mention of a Proteus Package Manager but it didn’t seem part of the system I was testing. So, being based on Slackware one can also search and download software using the “slackyd” command in the terminal and then convert it to a Porteus module using the “txz2xzm” command. This puts the distro more into the advanced user territory.
The menu shows a Proteus Settings Centre which when clicked had no effect. After some research I discovered the tool only works with root privileges but since I was running in Guest mode it would not launch. It is a crucial system tool giving us options for installing and updating the system, configure some settings like language, time and sound and the all important “save settings”. These make the system “persistent” in the Porteus kind of way.
As you can see, there is much more to Porteus than initially meets the eye. I felt I barely scratched the surface with this quick look and curios users will need to bring some patience with them in order to fully discover and appreciate this system. It is not intuitive and not really suitable for beginners but advanced users might find it’s unique offering very interesting. It has a different take on portable Linux systems and being based off Slackware makes it even more intriguing.
I’d be interested to hear from people who have used the system for longer. Head to the comments section below and share your experience with us.