Damn Small Linux returns after a 12-year gap

DSL 2024 is not as svelte as it used to be – but who is?

Seventeen years after its last major version, an old favorite, Damn Small Linux, is back with a new 2024 release.

An alpha-test version of a new release of Damn Small Linux appeared at the start of the month. The last major release, DSL 4, appeared in 2007, and the last point release, a development preview of DSL 4.11, was in 2012.

Now, the new version is based on antiX Linux, which we looked at last September, but is cut down even further.

DamnSmallLinux 2024 with its default Fluxbox desktop.

DamnSmallLinux 2024 with its default Fluxbox desktop. - Click to enlarge

DSL is no longer the super-lightweight that it once was, but it's considerably smaller than most contemporary distros. The new release is x86-32 only, and is intended to fit onto a single CD-ROM. The initial release is a 681MB download: a little bigger than the 503MB "Core" edition of antiX, which lacks any GUI at all, but smaller than the 0.9GB "Base" or 1.5GB "Full" editions. It's based on the variant of antiX that uses the runit init system.

Since DSL first appeared in 2005, it was one of the go-to distros for testing recalcitrant PCs. The original DSL was a bootable business card – it was designed to fit onto these miniature CD-ROM media, which held about 50MB. DSL squeezed in as much functionality as it could into that space. The new release comes from the original creator, John Andrews, and the long delay in a new version may be due to the departure of long-time collaborator Robert Shingledecker: according to a 2009 interview on DistroWatch, they parted ways after a disagreement. Shingledecker went on to create the even smaller Tiny Core Linux.

One of our criticisms of antiX was that it provides an embarrassment of riches, and DSL 2024 goes some way to simplifying this – but not as far as it could. For instance, it retains two of the four window managers in antiX: Fluxbox and JWM. It also provides a choice of very simple graphical web browsers: the graphical BadWolf, which can run Javascript, and Dillo, which doesn't.

DSL includes a selected set of lightweight tools, which are detailed on the project homepage. For the size, it's a good selection, with everything from office productivity, media players, text editors, and a few tiny games. We prefer this approach to the bundle-everything one of antiX.

DSL 2024 takes about 3.3GB of disk space once installed, and idles at about 270MB of RAM. It's impressively small, but not to the point of being too obscure for the average techie who isn't a Linux expert. All but a few English-language locales have been removed – and most online help and documentation, although there's a menu entry that points to a script that reinstalls these. Also, unlike the DSL of old, it has the full apt command of its Debian parent, so it's easy to update and install anything else you might desire.

DSL 2024 is still in alpha, and we saw a few rough edges. Some were corrected once we updated it, but then others appeared: pre-update, the "Web browsers" entry on the application menu was spelled "brawsers". While the update fixed that, the menu and taskbar entries to open a terminal or browser no longer worked, although they ran fine from a the command line.

The other desktop on offer is JWM, which sticks slightly more closely to the time-honored Win95 model.

The other desktop on offer is JWM, which sticks slightly more closely to the time-honored Win95 model. - Click to enlarge

There are a few niggles with DSL 2024, but we like what we see, and it's only in alpha. The download is less than a quarter of the size of the Reg FOSS desk's go-to lightweight distro, the Raspberry Pi Desktop, although that does have a more conventional and customizable desktop in the form of LXDE. It's about one-third of the download size of Crunchbang++ and BunsenLabs, and takes half their RAM, although we do prefer their OpenBox desktop setup. As it's based on a distro that in turn is based on Debian, it should prove more compatible and need less manual effort than more niche distros such as Alpine or Void.

DamnSmallLinux 2024 may be an order of magnitude bigger than DamnSmallLinux 4 was, but sadly, that reflects the bloat of Linux in general over a decade and a half. This is a strong comeback: even with the increase in size, it's still one of the smaller modern distros. When Ubuntu launched in 2004, it had so much space left over in its CD image, it included installers for Windows versions of all its standard apps, to help smooth out the transition. Times have changed, and today, it's remarkable to see a complete, fully functional desktop distro that fits onto a single CD. It's good to see it again. ®

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