Need a version to run on a USB flashdrive? Try Pen Drive Linux, or search the websites of larger distributions for do-it-yourself instructions. Want to coax every ounce of speed from your hardware? Try Gentoo, in which every program is compiled for the hardware it's one. Need to maintain different versions of the same software? Then try rPath Linux or any of the other distributions based on the Conary packaging system.
Chances are, a web search on your requirements plus "linux" will reveal at least one distribution with a ready-made or easily customizable solution.
Conclusion: Auxiliary Apps
When you're ready, you may be able to download a Live CD for your preliminary tests. A Live CD is a version of a distribution that boots from a CD, allowing you to test the software without making any permanent changes to your system. Just remember that even the latest DVD drive is slow compared to a hard drive, so you can't judge performance from a Live CD.
These days, the differences between distributions are narrowing. Most distributions that you test will have much the same choice of software: KDE and GNOME for desktops, Mozilla Firefox for web browsing, and OpenOffice.org for office productivity. By definition, a distribution is a collection of software made by other projects and, no matter how specialized, its unique or selective features are only a small percentage of the total package.
However, that small percentage can often greatly affect the user experience. A distribution designed for older hardware, for example, might use the less familiar Ice Window Manager for a desktop, or AbiWord for word processing.
More importantly, just as with any software, the policies and procedures and structures behind a distribution can be as important to your adoption as the contents. Do your due diligence, and you'll have a better chance of finding a distribution that fits your needs.
This article first appeared on Datamation in March 2007.