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Tiny Core 3.5 review – a blend of the brilliant and the infuriating

by Michael Reed

Tiny Core is a light and modular Linux distribution. Its main purpose is to allow the easy construction of simple but powerful appliance-like desktops. Michael Reed tests the latest release…

This article is due to appear in issue 99 of Linux User & Developer magazine.Tiny Core 3.5 review - a blend of the brilliant and the infuriating Subscribe and save more than 30% and receive our exclusive money back guarantee – click here to find out more.

Contemplating a distribution that can get you to a basic, empty desktop by booting from a 10MB ISO (you read that right), you’d be forgiven for wondering how comprehensive a Tiny Core system could be. On further investigation it turns out that Tiny Core owes its slim stature to a careful choice of lightweight components and the fact that it isn’t derived from one of the mainstream distributions. This decision by the developers brings with it both advantages and disadvantages. Tiny Core offers a very fast experience overall, with a boot time that none of the major distributions can touch. On the other hand, if something goes wrong or you couldn’t find a runnable application that you needed, the remedies that work on other Linux systems may not work with Tiny Core.

Once up and running, you are plonked into a blue desktop courtesy of the FLWM window manager with an icon-based application launcher at the bottom of the screen. By default, there are icons to access settings, add packages to the system, mount disks and to launch the file manager, but there are no substantial applications at this point.

Tiny Core 3.5 review - a blend of the brilliant and the infuriating

Tiny Core uses its own package format, but rest assured, the package repository is huge with thousands of applications that are ready to go. Adding a medium-sized application such as Firefox, for example, takes only a couple of minutes. When you install applications, using the GUI package manager, they are downloaded and then added on the fly, automatically popping up on the application bar.  During the boot process, the user specifies the location of a directory to be used for settings and application packages, and on subsequent boots, Tiny Core automatically locates the files that it needs. Here again, we glimpse some intriguing technology as there are options for loading the application files into RAM or fetching them from the disk when needed.

After having participated in a user experience that had been polished to a high sheen, I found actually putting Tiny Core into operation to be somewhat frustrating. Deployment is the area that had me scratching my head, and it highlights the uneven nature of the distribution.

Tiny Core 3.5 review - a blend of the brilliant and the infuriating

There are a few ways of using Tiny Core, but the approach favoured by the developers is to combine a medium such as a CDROM with writable storage such as a hard disk or USB stick. The developers cite the advantage that this makes system files incorruptible, but the problem is that I don’t think that many people will want to boot from a CDROM every time they switch the computer on. Neither will many people be interested in carrying around a CDROM and a USB stick in order to get the system working. Compounding the awkwardness of this approach, Tiny Core doesn’t support NTFS partitions for the user files folder.

A USB pen drive installation is a good compromise, and an automated script for carrying this out does exist. The script isn’t very flexible, however, and it wipes the entire drive, setting up separate partitions for the system files and user data and applications respectively.

Tiny Core 3.5 review - a blend of the brilliant and the infuriating

The least well supported approach is to boot from the hard disk, and yet I suspect that this would be the most popular amongst potential users. It can be done, but the installation is far from automated and involves manual partitioning, formatting, file copying and setting up of GRUB. Bafflingly, the developers indicate, on the Tiny Core website, that they don’t see the demand for hard disk installation.

Our advice: try it, fall in love with it, and then log onto the forum to tell the developers how much you would like an easy hard disk install option.

Vertidct: 3/5
An intriguing but inconsistent mixture of the brilliant and the infuriating. Once the thing has been setup by someone with expertise, the the system could serve as a great advertisement of what Linux can offer on the desktop. It’s a shame that it’s a couple of scripts away from being an absolute corker.

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    • http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/JonHubertBristol Jon Hubert Bristol

      Well this is a fair enough review of Tiny Core but one should also note that Tiny Core isn’t the only distribution that is a proponent of NOT installing to the hard disk, for instance Puppy also recommends a live CD or USB install. But the ability to choose whether or not to load apps into RAM at boot could make this particular distribution fly, but once again I think Puppy is also entirely loaded into RAM… Good review.

    • klhrevolution

      As someone who recovers files, does clean installs of unable-to-use-ware upon request of said idiots I’m enjoying tinycore more and more. And if you use the package manager correctly you will find ntfs support is in there. The package manager is what makes it so powerful, it’s quicker then synaptic when searching for a package and the dependencies are handled as well. While tinycore may not be a full fledgling distribution it is very light weight, attractive to experienced end-users and makes for a perfect platform to build off of to do what you need it to do.

    • Guy

      The easiest way to install tiny core to USB is with unetbootin ( http://unetbootin.sourceforge.net/ )

      I have also successfully installed it on a hard drive of an old laptop. This was done by installing grub with a Puppy CD, copying the files from a tiny core USB, then pointing grub at it. This is brilliant if you want to turn an old underpowered machine in to a simple web browser.

    • Jon Wright

      > “Adding a medium-sized application such as Firefox, for example, takes only a couple of minutes.”

      What are you trying to say? With other distros did you find that adding a ‘medium-sized’ app took much longer?

    • none

      @Jon Wright

      Maybe he was trying to say that you can add a medium-sized application, such as Firefox, in a couple of minutes.

      That’s the whole quote:

      > Tiny Core uses its own package format, but rest assured, the package repository is huge with thousands of applications that are ready to go. Adding a medium-sized application such as Firefox, for example, takes only a couple of minutes.

      Where do you see any mention to other distributions?

    • on4aa

      You may want to try out the http://slitaz.org/ distribution.
      I installed it last week on the hard drive of a 12-year old Pentium II 233MHz with only 156MB RAM.
      Base installation is only 30MB and I found it to be more responsive than Puppy Linux.
      I use this machine now primarily as an internet radio, although I can easily simultaneously browse the web with Opera. And oh yeah, it boots up in 9 seconds to the desktop. Try that with any version of Windows. Truly amazing!

    • http://tinycorelinux.com Mike Lockmoore

      Hi. I’m a TinyCore LInux developer. It’s pretty common for TinyCore users to set up a “frugal” installation where the TC kernel and the compressed file holding the base set of files are are stored on a hardrive and loaded into RAM by GRUB. Then, unless you want to reload your apps from the internet each time you boot, you need a place to store your installed applications. You probably also want a place to store personal data files (your /home/… stuff). TC makes it easy to use a hard disk partition for either or both of these storage areas. You can also use a USB flash drive or SD memory card. There are many options.

      I use TinyCore Linux on several laptops using the hard drive in the “frugal” manner described above, with persistant storage of apps and files on the hard disks. There is also a script to do a full “native” installation of the base system into a hard drive, so the base system files are not loaded from the compressed set of files any longer, but as individual files as any other traditional Linux installation.

      Anyway, it is very flexible and extremely fast (light apps, everything in RAM) the way I use it. I love it. It is also more Do-It-Yourself oriented than many distros, which I appreciate and take advantage of. However, this is not a “newbie-friendly” Linux. That is, it is not a good choice if you are brand-new to Linux and want to try installing and using it yourself (I’d suggest Linux Mint if you have a newish PC or Puppy Linux otherwise for beginning Linux users). It could be a good base for an “appliance” computer that a knowlegeable person sets up for someone else.

      The user forums are frequented by the core developers and whole forum community is fairly friendly if you need help. At least if you don’t show up demanding TinyCore to work out-of-the-box just like Ubuntu or something. ;-)

    • http://LinuxLatitude.blogspot.com fstephens

      I second Slitaz. Very nice little distro. I always liked it better than DSL, TinyCore or Puppy. Problem is , releases are very slow.

      http://linuxlatitude.blogspot.com/2010_03_28_archive.html

    • Jon Wright

      @none

      It’s supposed to be a review (see title). Reviews are supposed to be informative *and* useful. Any Linux distro is inevitably going to be compared against its peers – esp if the benchmark is something as everyday as installing a web browser.

      Thanks for highlighting the sentence in the review that preceded the sentence I quoted: To be honest, I didn’t read the sentence I quoted with the emphasis on the previous sentence.

      But the basis of the question still remains: “In which distro did you not find that adding a medium-sized app (such as a web browser) took significantly less than a couple of minutes?”. Either a distro is completely awkward or, (such as in 99% of cases) you use the command line or gui tools and do it “in a couple of minutes”. It depends (for a medium-sized app) on the bandwidth, surely?

      Some bloke telling us that a linux distro can install a web browser – using the package manager – in 2011 – in 2 minutes – wow! With a little adjustment in emphasis the author could have said that this 10mb distro includes (wow!) a package manager that can install a medium-sized app in just a few clicks …

    • beerstein

      Hi there:
      I am using Tiny Core since about 2 years and I think the work from roberts (founder & admin) is outstanding. In his descriptions roberts states that” Tiny Core is not for every one” This is partially true.
      One must understand the underlaying “philosophy” of this product. It is different from any other distribution.

      Just one thing here: Booting from CD/DVD and having the extensions (not applications) on a stick is the ultimate tool when you f. i. connect from hotel -wireless lan networks.
      After shut down – chances are very low that you have catched something which might harm your system.
      This is just one aspect of TC.

      You only install what you want!! Some users just want an editor, a file manager and a browser – here you go – make yourself a frugal and you are finished booting within 10 seconds!

      I have red two or three issues of you magazine and I think your reviewers should go back and take a closer look at this juwel. It is worth it.

    • Joe Rabinsky

      To accomplish a no hassle hard drive install, all you have to do is a Frugal install. Simply copy the two files: bzImage and tinycore.gz into another partition, and point your bootloader to it.

      Tiny Core can live peacefully with other installed distributions. There is no need for a dedicated partition for Tiny Core. Also, there is no need to even setup persistency for downloaded application extensions.

      Simply use a one time boot code of ‘tce=hda1′. On subsequent boots, Tiny Core will
      auto load the extensions without the need of that boot code.

      As far as comparing with other distributions, Tiny Core offers full packagage management, with dependencies in a 10MB GUI.

      As far as runtime options, Tiny Core offers: OS only in RAM, both OS and applications in RAM,
      and Tiny Core also allows user selectable applications to run in RAM, mount overlays to RAM, or traditionally installed.

    • http://www.unmusic.co.uk/ Michael Reed

      (article author)

      Thanks for the comments guys.

      I’m a long time admirer of TC. However, I stand by my point that the amazing technology that it contains is being kept away from the masses by the lack of a couple of scripts and an HD install icon on the desktop. TC could offer something pretty unique in terms of the convenient creation of Linux desktop appliances.

      I just don’t understand why it mixes such amazing ease of use with such a complex approach if you want to do a HD install. Even the USB install isn’t up to the same level of polish as the rest of the distro.

      TC could be a great way to introduce people to what Linux has to offer.

    • Dave H

      Having just successfully used TC as a starting point, I think you’re missing one of the popular uses: embedded systems. It provides an ideal framework for starting with a minimum base set of files on a USB stick or compact flash, to which can be added a few specific applications to tailor the system. No need to mess around with a GUI, just boot and run, and communicate via the network. There are some small x86-based systems for which it’s ideal.

      If I want a desktop environment then I’ll use a more mainstream distribution unless size/power are an issue, or having a read-only boot image is an advantage.

    • chris

      tiny core is a very fast linux distro, the fastest so far I have tried.

      the good thing about it , you get to choose only the apps that you need .

      i have also used slitaz and puppy. nowadays whenever i use linux, I prefer to use tiny core as I want a truely minimalist distro.

      the other advantage from booting from a cd (especially a read only cd drive) is you get a better protection from malware. I use this approach, I have a machine with no hard drive but only a CD drive, and use it to surf the web, and email. there is no way under this configuration for some malware to hide in a persistent way. once you reboot, you start fresh again.

      sure it’s not 100% foolproof, but it eliminates 98% of the malware problems. the 1% is taken care of by being one user among millions of users and the last 1% is unknown.

      I normally use windows and I can tell you a lot of the problems with malwares ;-)

    • Penguin

      TINYCORE Linux is ……………. Brilliant ………. Great …………… Fabulous …………….. Ingenious ……………

      Whilst it provides Simplicity with functionality, this is a taste of the future features in terms of hot boot and building on demand systems.

      A LIVE Linux derivative providing a FRESH uncorrupted system each time you boot up. You are in control, No Viruses, No Spyware, so long as you trust the source.

      LIVE Linux is a god send …………………………………………… Tiny Boot is Inspirational ……………….. Try it and see !!!

    • Penguin123

      TINYCORE Linux is ……………. Brilliant ………. Great …………… Fabulous …………….. Ingenious ……………

      Whilst it provides Simplicity with functionality, this is a taste of the future features in terms of hot boot and building on demand systems.

      A LIVE Linux derivative providing a FRESH uncorrupted system each time you boot up. You are in control, No Viruses, No Spyware, so long as you trust the source.

      LIVE Linux is a god send …………………………………………… Tiny Boot is Inspirational ……………….. Try it and see !!!

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    • Jerry Amos

      Tiny core can reside in a directory on an existing hard drive partition example /dev/sda1 where I have a directory tinycore. cd to that and create a directory boot and a directory tce for tiny core extensions.

      Next download the tinycore .iso from tinycore. Using Ubuntu linux, in this case 11.04, selecting the .iso will allow you to extract bzimage and tinycore.gz which copy to the /tinycore/boot directory.

      Note here updating to the next tinycore release just involves replacing the tinycore.gz file.

      Within the tce directory make a folder optional and a file mydata.tgz.

      To boot tinycore create within Ubuntu linux:
      sudo gedit /etc/grub.d/40_custom
      Edit as follows. The initial # lines are already there leave them as is::
      #!/bin/sh
      exec tail -n +3 $0
      # This file provides an easy way to add custom menu entries. Simply type the
      # menu entries you want to add after this comment. Be careful not to change
      # the ‘exec tail’ line above.
      menuentry ‘TinyCore on /dev/sda1′ {
      set root=(hd0,1)
      linux /tinycore/boot/bzImage root=/dev/sda1 tce=sda1/tinycore/tce quiet
      initrd /tinycore/boot/tinycore.gz
      }
      #! exit
      save
      sudo update-grub
      At this point reboot and select the tinycore entry …..

      Better be reading the tinycore website at this point for how-to install extensions such as the Minefield browser, flashplugin, ….

      Do note when logging out tinycore gives you the option of saving changes or not.

      Running from a directory on an existing hard drive is not exactly for a newbie but for me a lot simpler than an Ubuntu install to a separate partition ….

      Enjoy.

    • http://gnrsu.com G.N.R.S.U

      Only 10 MB, make the Minimal Desktop Linux

    • linux

      Hello Ijust want to know if tiny core is the safest or at least one of the safest linux distrubution out there. I am not %100 sure waht it is base on . I know it is unix and it is not slackware,debian nor rpm.

      Is this a good version for safety on the internet?(safer than debian,slackware and rpm.

    • http://www.refdesk.com smilin bob

      Not being a fan of bloated installs filled with many things I did not choose to be there, I find a tailor made, fresh and clean os on boot every time, awesome.

      I am not a noob but I struggle with linux yet. I will not let my lack of skills prevent me from mastering what I see as the answer. Tinycore fits the bill nicely. Learning is fun and it empowers you to make better choices.

      No more macro softie for smilin bob. :)

    • truck driver

      “there is no way under this configuration for some malware to hide in a persistent way. once you reboot, you start fresh again. ”

      Unless your BIOS is not write protected and a virus from the net now dwells within your BIOS on the mobo, or taken over firmware of an AGP/PCI device(s). These trojan/viruses EXIST for Linux, so use NoScript and AdblockPlus and configure them correctly, watch what you download from the web, especially executables, but even images or javascript/java files can poison the BIOS/firmware.

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    • Юрий Константинов

      TinyRus is NOT infuriating – much of the “tinycore” extensions is already in, all I had to do to make it complete for me was to load Xorg-7.5, Opera 11, Opera 11 locales, Flash, ALSA and ALSAconf. Now the only downside is adjusting sound on every boot.

    • Юрий Константинов

      You can make Tinycore always boot into most recent build by doing this: Download Tinycore, copy “onboot.lst” file and “optional” folder out of the ISO to a folder named “tce”.
      In your /boot (or c:boot, if Windows is used), place a copy of iPXE.
      iPXE needs to be given a set of commands via GRUB.
      Note: following code should be IN ONE LINE:
      kernel /boot/ipxe.lkrn dhcp net0 && initrd http://distro.ibiblio.org/tinycorelinux/4.x/x86/release/Core-current.iso && chain http://mirror.slitaz.org/pxe/memdisk iso

      Also note that this only works for the “kinda infuriating” English builds. And “dhcp net#” only works if you have a LAN that’s always connected to the Internet, else more complex iPXE trickery may be needed, and you may even want to embed the tricky script into iPXE when using ROM-o-matic to build it.

    • Юрий Константинов

      BIOS malware is now starting to use COM (direct-machine code) format to execute itself on any 32bit-enabled machine (even 64bit with 32bit compat layer). So you better use a 64bit machine with a 64bit OS (TinyCore64) if your BIOS isn’t write-protected. Most EFI machines have write-protected firmware data, though – so EFI machines are less prone to this malware type. Often, such COM-level 16bit code injectors are compiled into native code by Java, or otherwise directly executed by some plugins. So here we are again… x86-64 Linux build without 32bit compat and with Dillo-64 becomes the safest combo, calling us to use TinyCorePure64!

    • Юрий Константинов

      as I’m Russian, I find TinyRus to be less infuriating. It has Xvesa already in, so wiping “tce” folder is not that much of a catastrophe compared to regular TinyCore. All I have is a better graphical display, a copy of Opera with locales, Flash, and ALSA/ALSAconf for sound. No f!ing 3D garbage, flipping windows and other nonsense. This is all I need from an OS at this moment – to run a browser. Typing this comment on TinyRus. :)

    • Юрий Константинов

      You could also reflash your network card firmware with iPXE to always boot off latest tinycore to eliminate the CD drive – less moving parts, less energy used. :)

    • Юрий Константинов

      aha, TinyCore + JWM + Wbar + Firefox + Flash + ALSA + ALSAconf = ideal kiosk OS!

    • Юрий Константинов

      Slitaz is a butt on a stick. However, one can use Slitaz’s web-hosted Memdisk alongside TinyCore’s official link that always leads to latest build to get a fresh TinyCore whenever the system boots up!

    • Юрий Константинов

      Easiest way is to install it the iPXE way – using unetbootin to bootstrap iPXE to the pendrive so when you boot off said pendrive the system always boots into latest stable TinyCore build. (see above)

    • Юрий Константинов

      tce-load -wi Xorg-7.6 opera-11 gparted ntfs-3g rox-filer – prepares a recovery-and-partitioning environment with Opera for online lookup.