One of the things I hear when talking to people about Linux is that they would like to try it out, but aren’t sure if they want to completely wipe out Windows and everything that goes with it.

The new crop of Linux startup CDs provide people with a good chance to check out Linux, to kick the tires, and to see that it’s for real. (In Linux speak, startup is called boot. Learning the Linux words for everything is one of the things that’s taken me the longest. Go figure.)

Like most everything related to Free Software, you can download these free from the Internet and burn them using your own CD burner. Then you pop the CD in the bay, restart, and pow! You’re using Linux. And all your Windows stuff remains intact.

These CDs include the entire operating system, as well as applications to use once you’re in Linux. This includes things like Mozilla Firefox for web browsing, OpenOffice for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, and a choice of several different e-mail programs.

I’ve had good results with all of the Boot CDs I’ve tried: Knoppix, Slax, and Dynebolic. Each of them is pointed at a different group of users. They work great with old hardware, too – including a couple of older laptops I have sitting around the office.

Slax is cool because it’s designed to be small. In fact, it’s made to fit on one of the small CDs that are frequently used for CD singles. This adds immeasurably to its cuteness factor. But it’s also practical. With one of these, plus a cheap USB memory card, a person could take their entire “computer” – including all their documents and applications, anywhere they go.

For me, Dynebolic is the most interesting and radical of the boot CDs, because it is intended for use by media activists. There are many geek-cool things about Dynebolic, including the fact that you can boot it on an Xbox, which essentially turns an Xbox into a very cheap, but very powerful PC. Plus it supports clustering out of the box, so if you have several Xboxes (hey! they’re cheap!) you can link them together to do things like rip and convert DVDs into DivX. Dynebolic is definitely the real deal for the Digital Underground.

As you’d expect from a CD intended for media activists, Dynebolic includes a number of cool programs for working with multimedia, including Audacity, which is a sound editing program similar to SoundForge or Vegas. There are programs for editing video, burning CDs and DVDs, and in one of the coolest features, you can stream to a public streaming server, essentially creating your own Net radio station.

The biggest complaint I have about Dynebolic is its old-school Unix windowing system, which took some getting used to. You have to right-click a lot. I can understand why they used a system like this, though: it’s a lot less demanding on the machine, and that’s important if you want to run on older equipment. Plus it frees up more system resources for the things that really count: the applications.

For me personally, I’m currently using a dual boot computer, one that runs Windows 2000 or Mandrake Linux 10. But thanks to Dynebolic, I’ve downloaded and installed many of the applications they include, so that I get the same effect.

With Linux, I can do aaaalmost about all the same things I do in Windows, with one big difference: my beloved DJ software – PCDJ FX and MixMeister Pro – are written for Windows. Dynebolic includes some DJ software, including the excellently-named TerminatorX, but I haven’t had a chance to play with it yet. I’ll check in about that in a future post.