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KNOPPIX 6.0

February 11, 2009

This article was contributed by Susan Linton

Forget everything you ever knew about KNOPPIX because 6.0 is different from anything you've ever seen before. KNOPPIX was once a complete desktop distribution featuring KDE, lots of applications, and superior hardware detection. It was even one of the first to be delivered as a bootable live CD/DVD. Back then it was one of the most popular distributions available, but with the ease of making live CDs came lots of competition and KNOPPIX lost many of its users to the likes of MEPIS, PCLinuxOS, or Ubuntu. However, KNOPPIX developers are innovating once again, this time with a lightweight distribution offering accommodations to those with visual impairments.

The accessibility goals are being met through ADRIANE, the compilation of programs designed to help those with visual challenges navigate a system by sound-directed keyboard input. With ADRIANE, individuals with diminished visual skills can surf the Internet, read and write emails, text message, listen to music or videos, read and construct office documents, and more.

The Accessibility Interface

The changes are apparent from the start of the CD. The default boot brings the user to a plain text menu with items such as WWW, Multimedia, File Manager, Graphical Programs, and Setup. ADRIANE reads these items in a robotic British voice to the user as the cursor is moved up and down. <Enter> opens various programs such as Links for Web navigation, Mutt for e-mail, or Midnight Commander for file management. Graphical Programs will bring a submenu for OpenOffice, Iceweasel, or start the full LXDE desktop environment.

The screen reader seems to do an admirable job of reading off menus, window titles, bash prompts, key inputs, web pages, documents, or just about anything that appears on screen. It did have some difficulty keeping up with fast typing and at times just cut out all together. It can be customized for several preferences such as default language, function keys, Braille devices, and to start at login.

Using Iceweasel is an exercise in patience as the NoScript plugin output preempted anything on the web page. With today's CMS software, every web site has a ton of headers on every page which is kindly re-read with each click. Same holds true for multicolumn sites whose first column is static and chocked full of links. Due to this there may be only a very few sites that people with visual impairments might find enjoyable.

Menu navigation is confusing at first as well because the screen reader recites "Menu, Menu-Item, Sub-menu Item, Program, keyboard shortcut" for each move of the cursor or highlight. A certain amount of self training may be required before one can tune out the repetition.

The reader didn't seem to have much difficulty translating text to speech. Some words are pronounced unconventionally, with the accent on the wrong syllable or literal reading of some letter combinations, but very few words were skipped or botched completely. It actually did a very good job on a computer with lots of processing power and memory. It stopped speaking on a machine with lower resources much more often. It was also a bit unstable, especially on the slower machine. Iceweasel crashes and OpenOffice.org freezes were not uncommon and root applications were excluded altogether.

The Desktop and Applications

KNOPPIX
with LXDE

KNOPPIX is now shipping with the lightweight but capable LXDE. It strives to be a pretty, fast performing, customizable, and energy saving desktop. It is being seen in more and more distributions lately as an alternative GTK+ 2 interface due to its lower system requirements and dependencies.

KNOPPIX isn't just for the visually impaired. It can be used by anyone wanting a light desktop with a few popular applications. GMPlayer resides in the menu for audio and video playback, The GIMP manipulates your images, and GPicView provides basic image viewing. Iceweasel, Icedove, ELinks, and Pidgin network for you and the OpenOffice.org suite puts you back to work. There are a several system accessories such as Leafpad, Xarchiver, and PCMan file manager. A few system configuration tools have made it into this release such as Network card configuration, Wavelan configuration, and Synaptic software manager. Multimedia codecs are present but Flash isn't. Ironically, KNOPPIX also ships with Compiz and Compiz Fusion plugins enabled by default on supporting hardware as well as several nice screensavers. Linux kernel 2.6.28 and Xorg X server 1.4.2 form the foundation and GCC 4.3 is installable.

Missing from this release is the KNOPPIX hard drive installer, although it does have a script for installing onto a USB memory stick. Many tools and utilities that didn't make into this release are being planned for the next and hopefully the installer is on that list. Live CDs are nice, but without a hard drive installer KNOPPIX may not be feasible for daily use.

Hardware Support

Hardware support with this release is very good for devices known to work well with the standard Debian kernel. A basic DHCP network connection is available at boot with supported hardware. Graphics detection and configuration is good, even with an antique 13 inch monitor saved from the refuse pile. Without proprietary drivers, most NVIDIA and ATI/AMD graphic chips will not be able to utilize the Compiz screen effects.

The screen resolution was correctly configured on the 15.4 inch widescreen LCD of an HP Pavilion laptop. However, KNOPPIX doesn't ship with any proprietary drivers or Ndiswrapper, so some wireless network devices may not work such as the one on this laptop. The wired network card worked fine as did most of the other common devices.

Tests here showed that, despite a light desktop environment, the system requirements are a bit higher than one might think. The ADRIANE applications in combination with many of the graphical programs seem to require a recent processor and approximately a gigabyte of RAM. Although KNOPPIX did function on slower machines, more instability surfaced.

Closing Thoughts

This release of KNOPPIX 6.0 "ADRIANE" is an admirable first effort. Although ADRIANE has been in development since 2007 and was included in KNOPPIX 5.3.1, this is the first release to build completely around it. The underlying system has been rebuilt from scratch, so all in all it's shaping up nicely. The ADRIANE components aren't perfect and need a few bugs squashed, but overall it was quite amazing with its accuracy.

However, some of its quirks might keep someone with visual issues from just inserting the CD and working entirely on their own, at least until they have been trained. This would be especially true for someone new to requiring accommodations such as text-to-speech and screen readers. In tests here, our brave blindfolded guinea pig became lost and stuck within a matter of minutes in the graphical environment. On the other hand, everyone in our test lab with unobstructed sight was completely impressed with the ADRIANE technology and appreciate the work done by Klaus Knopper and his lovely wife Adriane.

Overall, it's a great first showing and subsequent releases are bound to be even more exciting. If you know someone with vision impairments, it might be worth their while to give them and walk them through a copy of KNOPPIX ADRIANE.

Comments (2 posted)

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