Praising Knoppix

Thursday, July 21st, 2005 @ 11:44 pm | Gadgets

Knoppix is freaking brilliant.

There, I’ve said it.

My brother called me last night to say he could no longer launch IE and AIM on his HP laptop last night and he wanted to know whether I could take a look at it. Actually, he said it wasn’t working and he was bringing the laptop over to my apartment, but that’s beside the point. When I started working on the system, my first thought was “Just reboot.”

Blue screen. Uh-oh. Reboot into Safe Mode. Blue Screen. Uh-oh. Run BIOS Hard Drive test. “Read Failure.” Oh, crap.

I figured we were pretty much screwed at that point and I started thinking about how to salvage some of my brother’s content. At first, I was ready to borrow a 2.5″ drive to USB adapter from a friend, but then I remembered a former coworker raving about Knoppix allowed him to salvage somebody’s spyware-ridden PC.

I downloaded the latest ISO onto my PC laptop and burned it using the included burning software. For some reason, that resulted in a blank disc, so I downloaded the Nero 6 demo and followed the instructions for burning ISOs posted on — I wasn’t sure if there was anything special you needed to do burn bootable discs for Intel-based machines.

Along those same lines, does anybody know if Toast 6 Titanium will burn a bootable Intel CDs from an ISO? I didn’t feel like taking the time to find out.

Once I burned the CD, I decided to try it out on my PC laptop to get familiar with the environment before booting up the system with the flaky hard drive. I had to reconfigure the boot drive order of the laptop, but once I indicated it should try booting off a CD or DVD before trying the hard drive, pretty much everything worked fine.

When I plugged in my USB2 drive, the single partition just appeared on my desktop. Knoppix, however, didn’t recognize the HFS+ file system — no shock there. Using Disk Utility, I reformatted the drive as Unix Format (UFS, I assume), but Knoppix also failed to recognize this file system. Giving up, I booted back into Windows to reformat the drive as NTFS. I might’ve been able to format the drive from within Knoppix, but I didn’t bother trying. Knoppix was able to mount the drive and recognize the file system. However, I discovered that Knoppix (and apparently Linux in general) has trouble writing to NTFS partitions (don’t know if this is still accurate), so I flipped back to Windows, created a 20 GB partition on the drive, and formatted the partition at FAT32. Boot back into Knoppix, mount the drive, and make it writable.

Once I was satisfied about how to proceed, I shut down my PC and booted up the damaged computer.

I tried pulling a bit over 2 GB off the damaged drive and I was able to salvage all but 14 files of those that seemed important. 7 files were songs that I’ll grab off my brother’s iPod with PodWorks. The other 7 files were digital photos, 6 of which my brother posted to Webshots (think Flickr for college students, I guess).

Since this drive wouldn’t boot when I got it, I consider saving all but 1 file a definite victory.

Getting back to Knoppix, I was extremely impressed. It seemed to recognize everything except my widescreen display (I believe I saw that a standard screen resolution was selected) and the scrolling portion of my trackpad. I didn’t play with much beyond the file management, but I was able to run Konqueror, Mozilla, and OpenOffice. I wasn’t able to access my PowerBook over the network, but I’m not sure if I was doing it properly.

That said, I wouldn’t want to use Knoppix full-time. The UI’s a bit clunky and it eats up your CD/DVD drive (unless you install it on your hard drive, of course). As a rescue environment, though, it’s damn useful. For now, my Knoppix CD has a place in my toolkit. When I get a DVD burner, I plan on replacing my CD with a Knoppix 4.0 DVD — just in case.

There are two things I’d like to do before attempting something like this again, though. I’d rather connect the backup drive via a 4-6 pin FireWire cable because I suspect it’ll be faster than USB2 and because I have three FireWire drive interfaces and only a single USB2 drive interface. Also, I’d have a FAT32 partition ready to go instead of creating one as needed — if I’m trying to repair my only Windows system, it wouldn’t do any good for me to have a bunch of unreadable-by-Knoppix drives.

Fortunately, fixing the laptop doesn’t fall into my domain. When collecting my the assorted goodies that accompanied my brother’s laptop, I found the Best Buy extended warranty. When I dropped the system off and told the tech what I’d already checked, he simply said that he wasn’t going to bother testing it and he’d just send it back for service.

The only catch is the turnaround on service time — 9 days to 3 weeks. By the time the laptop gets back, I’ll probably be down in Virginia, so I’m trying to figure out how to get my brother’s laptop back to “normal.” If this info is accurate, simply replacing the hard drive shouldn’t be enough to cause product activation to fail, so installing the XP Professional upgrade, Office, and Publisher shouldn’t be problematic. My other concern is getting the backed-up data off the backup drive and back onto the laptop. Maybe I’ll try and find somebody around here who can handle it.

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