I believe the problem with supporting recent hardware along with old examples from the 90s is that the modern Linux kernel has been stripped of much of the hardware support for the older systems. Additionally, its total size has grown.
The result is that in order to maintain a small size and good support for old hardware, DSL enevitably ends up getting left behind the pack as Linux marches forwards. As time goes on, fewer new developments in Linux software are able to be passed on to DSL - most apparent with the limited Firefox version.
However DSL-N was designed to counter these problems by presenting an alternative version of DSL that continued the same philisophy, but submitted to the need for newer software (particularly a newer version of the kernel, 2.6.x instead of 2.4.x). The problem is that this has seen a longer time without development than DSL, so in some ways DSL is still newer and both are still very far away from the current generation of Linux distributions.
SATA wise, DSL usually works, but the old drivers mean that you have to rely on BIOS designers playing by the same rules that they did a few years ago. I've actually never had a problem with DSL and SATA, but I usually use PCs that are a few years old anyway.
So practically speaking, I'd first start with DSL-N
and see if it has the same problem (I've often found it to behave very differently in terms of hardware detection, for better or for worse). If that doesn't work, or you don't like DSL-N's older software and/or design, you can try these picks from my Live CD stack:
- Puppy Linux - An actively developed distro for old hardware using a much newer kernel. Lots of versions and spin-offs, many of which can use mainstream package repos.
- Puppy Linux Pulp - A little known spin-off that's also now rather dated development-wise (last I checked), but seems to have an ultra-light approach more like DSL.
- Tiny Core - Done by Robert, who left DSL development some time ago. Uses a different approach by coming with minimal software as standard and requiring the manual addition of the particular software packages you desire
. Uses its own package system like DSL though, so choice can be a bit limited if you don't want to compile.
- Slitaz - I don't know too much about this one (except I used one PC for which this was the only Linux distro which would boot from CD), another low resource usage distro. Wide language support.
- Knoppix - DSL is based on an early version of this. It runs quite light and pretty (often very) fast on PCs from the last ten years or so. It's what I install if I want a Linux that can run newer software (it can use Debian packages). Note that it's really meant just to be run from CD (though HDD installation usually goes alright).
Well there you go, hope it helps. Sorry it's such a long post.