Installing Linux on a desktop machine used to be a chore but the emergence of increasingly popular CDs make it easy to turn any PC into a temporary Linux machine.

One such is Knoppix, a version of Linux that fits on to a single CD or DVD. Put it into the CD drive, turn it on, and the computer will start up in Linux.

The disk has all the open source software needed to use a computer. The KDE desktop provides a familiar user interface with menus, windows and icons, much like Windows, but with the Linux penguin instead of the four-coloured Microsoft flag.

It has the Konqueror and Firefox web browsers, Open Office for editing documents and Gimp for editing pictures.

Knoppix runs entirely in the computer’s memory, without touching the data on the hard disk. This is slower than running from a hard disk, but when you restart and go back to Windows (or whatever else) it won’t leave a trace – ideal for borrowing a computer for a couple of hours, in a friend’s home or office.

Bootable rescue CDs have been around for years, but Knoppix has proved more popular because it comes packaged with all the software drivers needed to run almost any hardware.

So as long as your system is relatively mainstream and recent, it’s likely it can run Knoppix, and connect to the internet.

Knoppix is named after its inventor, Klaus Knopper, a 36-year-old German computer engineer. “I took apart the software on these small rescue CDs and learned how they work,” he says.

“Once I got as far as creating a small, self-booting system, the idea of putting all my favourite Linux software on to a single CD was not far away.”

The two significant uses he suggests for it are in education and travelling. In schools or universities, it can give students a taste of Linux by converting an entire computer lab for a single lesson. For travellers, Mr Knopper says, it provides a computing environment that they know is “secure and virus-free when travelling or using foreign computers (where you never know what’s on the hard drive, and sometimes don’t even want to know).”

It is also useful for repairing or recovering data from a PC with a damaged version of Windows, which can no longer start up on its own. Specialised versions are also used for security purposes, and playing games.

Mr Knopper says that 10,000 people each day visit his web page to accept the licence terms for their copies of Knoppix, but there are many more users out there.

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