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A Windows User’s Guide to Linux

Three disclaimers: 1. I’ve tried various Linux distributions but only on my system, using my hardware. Mepis may not work well for you. If so, find something else. 2. This is written with an intermediate Windows user/novice Linux user in mind. Others may benefit, but this is the target audience. 3. I’ve spread out the screenshots throughout this essay—they do not necessarily have anything to do with the paragraphs they’re next to. They are also after some considerable tweaking and are not the default settings for Mepis Linux.

The most annoying thing about exploring Linux is not knowing where to start. I first began looking at Linux in June 2004, after our family (Windows XP) computer had been infected with adware—pop-up ads would pop up even when Internet Explorer wasn’t in use, and the operating system ended up extremely slow even when the ads weren’t coming up.

Where does one begin? Well, at first I tried going to Linux.org and searching for distributions (or variations of Linux) using their drop-down menus full of criteria (language, type of user, etc.). I found a lot of the distributions’ descriptions lacking, and many of the links were dead links. Soon I stumbled upon Linux ISO, which keeps images of installation CDs for Linux distributions (not many dead links there). The problem is that most of the distributions were multi-CD installers. It’s quite a commitment to download three of four CDs just to try out a new operating system.

Linux users themselves aren’t terribly helpful in recommending a Linux distribution to a new user. Usually, someone will post a message to a message board asking what the best distribution is for a new user, and a handful of Linux veterans will reply back with various forms of this response, “There is no ‘best’ distribution. What’s best for one person isn’t the best for another. You just have to try out different ones and see which works best for you. Some great distributions are Mandrake, SuSe, Red Hat, and Xandros. I like Mandrake in particular.” This sample response itself would be helpful if it were the only one out there. Someone else’s list will have Gentoo, Damn Small Linux, and Slackware. Another will have Debian and Linspire.

The first Linux distribution I stumbled upon was called Blag. I was attracted to it mainly because it was a single-disc installer, including a variation of the more commercially refined Red Hat Linux distribution. Blag had an amazing selection of software and was fairly stable. The issues I ran into with both Blag and Red Hat Linux (an older copy of which I got from a CD in the back of library book) were difficulty in software installation and bad detection of hardware. I found that the “rpm” system (“Red Hat Package Manager” I think it stands for) did not a lot for me. First of all, I had no idea where it installed the file that launches applications. Secondly, it didn’t place any shortcuts to the application in the Linux equivalent of the Start Menu, on the desktop, or on the taskbar. And neither Blag nor Red Hat was able to detect the proper screen resolution for our Dell Inspiron 500m—so I was stuck trying to accomplish tasks in 800 x 600 with huge dialogue boxes that went off the screen until I finally downloaded a workaround I found via a message board.

I’m not a total cheapskate, but when you’re trying out new software, shelling out money is not the best way to go. That said, the most up-to-date commercial distributions of Linux (Linspire, Xandros, SuSe, etc.) are probably more stable, fully-featured, and able to detect hardware. Of course, they will usually set you back anywhere between $50 and $100.

Knoppix may be your best bet if you just want to try Linux. It is the most famous (I’m not sure if it’s the “original” per se) in what’s becoming a growing trend in the Linux community—Live CDs. Knoppix and other Live CDs will boot into the Linux operating system straight from the CD, leaving your hard drive untouched. You can play around with Linux and see if it’s worth your time.

Your real best bet is actually to find a Linux distribution that has both a Live CD and an installer CD. Ubuntu and Simply Mepis are getting all the buzz these days as far as simple, user-friendly distributions go. Ubuntu has a separate Live CD and installer CD. At first, I couldn’t get the Ubuntu installer CD to work on my computer, so I’m going to talk about Mepis, which has one CD that is both a Live CD and an installer CD.

On one level, Mepis is all most people need in an operating system. You can test it out right away without hurting your system (note: my computer was already set up to boot from CD—you may have to toy with your BIOS in order to get your computer to do so). While testing it, you can install it by clicking the “install me” icon on the desktop. During the installation process, you can set up a dual boot between Windows and Mepis Linux (you’d be a fool to do this without backing up and defragmenting your hard drive beforehand, though).

For Windows users, there isn’t that much to adapt to in Mepis. It uses a KDE desktop environment with the equivalent of a Start Menu (with a big “K” on it instead of “Start”). On my computer it even responds to the Windows key the same way the Start Menu does [actually, I don’t know why that used to work—it doesn’t now, but control-esc does]. Alt-tab switches between applications, just as it does on Windows, and all the other standard keyboard shortcuts (for cut, paste, etc.) apply.

There are a few defaults you may want to either tweak or get used to. Single-clicks open files and programs. Num Lock is turned off unless changed in the settings. Programs are most easily installed not by visiting a website, downloading an installer file, then installing it, but by launching the kpackage application and searching (or browsing) for the application you want. There are a ton of applications, so you’re very likely to find what you want.

When you’re looking for “what you want,” though, you have to keep in mind what you’re trying to accomplish, not the specific tool with which you want to accomplish the task. If you want to word process, look for OpenOffice or AbiWord, not Microsoft Word. If you want to check email, look for KMail or Thunderbird, not Outlook Express. If you want to surf the internet, look for Konqueror or Firefox, not Internet Explorer.

Honestly, though, unless you’re a developer or a serious gamer, just about any application you need will be pre-installed in some form or other. From a fresh install you’ll be able to desktop publish, burn CDs, rip CDs, organize music, manage an iPod’s playlists, instant message, balance your checkbook, create spreadsheets and presentations, play basic games (solitaire, bust-a-move, and the like), and manipulate images. (This is not an exhaustive list, by the way.)

There are some definite glitches. It could be that I downloaded an older version of Mepis, but it makes sense that if something isn’t the most recent, commercially developed version of software, and you didn’t have to pay any money f
or it, it’s bound to have a few glitches in it.

One major glitch is that—for legal reasons, according to the Mepis website—the DVD player won’t play protected (i.e., normal Hollywood) DVDs unless you download a special file through KPackage (search for a file called libdvdcss2). I also discovered that the CD ripping program acknowledged one of my CD-ROM drives but not the other, even though both we’re “mounted.”

When you’re first discovering Linux, get used to searching the internet for answers and haunting message boards. Chances are if you’re experiencing a problem, you’re not alone. It may be the screen resolution doesn’t match your monitor’s capabilities. It may be your network printer won’t configure properly. In any case, you have to take the time to get to know Linux a bit—the way you took the time to get to know Windows oh-so-many years ago.

Here are a few things I’ve learned from my experiences with Linux in its various distributions (I’ve tried PCLinuxOS, Xandros, Mandriva, Blag, Knoppix, Kubuntu/Ubuntu, and SuSE) that are particularly good for Windows users to know:

  1. If you’re getting your distros online, most of them come as ISOs (or CD images). Windows XP alone won’t burn CDs from images. You need some third-party software—Nero or Easy CD Creator. I’d recommend getting a trial version of Nero to burn it. Then, the Linux distro itself will come with fully-featured CD burning software.
  2. Many Linux distros will include some kind of partition software and will automatically set up a dual boot if you so choose.
  3. When an application freezes—and this happens on every operating system… Windows, Mac, Linux—instead of hitting control-alt-delete, hit control-alt-esc. This key stroke combination should bring up an X cursor. When you click that X cursor on the offending application, the window will close.
  4. There’s something called the “root” user in Linux. This user can do anything to the system, change any file or configuration. In Windows, you generally run as something similar to root (administrator) by default. Most Linux distributions will not have you run as root by default. They will set you up with a root password for when you need to install software and change system-wide settings but also have you set up a regular user account. You can usually use root privileges either a) by logging in as root, which many distributions discourage or simply disallow b) by starting a program or application that needs root privileges, after which you’ll be prompted for the root password c) by starting the terminal (MS-DOS equivalent) and typing su (which stands for super-user).
  5. Most major Linux distributions have a special way to get new software. Red Hat-based distributions use something called RPM (Red Hat Package Manager). Debian-based distros use something called apt-get. I’ve found you can also download software directly from websites and install them; though, the exact configuration may be too custom (as opposed to in Windows, where almost all software will install to c:\program files by default).
  6. One of the beauties of Linux is customization. You can have multiple kinds of X window displays (KDE, Gnome, IceWM, etc.), and each has its own set of themes, icon sets, splash screens, login screens, window decorations and such. All the customization is free. Of course, as with everything “free,” it’s all of varying quality as well. Some people will have a great-looking theme, but when you go to “download” it, all you get is a dead link or a screenshot, not the actual screen. Sometimes people give lousy installation instructions. Sometimes the instructions are complicated and make liberal use of the command line. Other times the theme or customization can be installed simply by clicking “install theme” and finding the file you downloaded. Note: most Linux files are compressed as .tar or .tar.gz files, not .zip files, and they may actual install as compressed files—you do not necessarily have to extract them to use them. You can see some screenshots of how I’ve customized my Mepis Linux to be a combination of Mac Aqua and Linux Tux.
  7. Boot times for Linux generally tend to be slow, but they often are “verbose,” meaning they show you every little test and configuration that’s going on—what worked, what failed. That way, in case you have any trouble, you can more easily diagnose what the problem is.
  8. Plug-n-play is patchy at best. Some Linux distributions will have new devices appear immediately on the desktop, ready to use. Some will make you manually mount each cd-rom drive, etc.
  9. Most of the distributions I’ve used, when set up to dual boot with Windows will automount the Windows part of the hard drive and make those files available for viewing/reading. Be careful, though. As of this writing, Linux cannot successfully write/save files to NTFS-formatted drives, which most NT versions use (XP, 2000, NT). Linux can make great use of FAT-formatted drives, though (ME, 98, 95).
  10. In case you do ever encounter the command line terminal, the commands I’ve found most useful are cp (cp oldfile newfile), cd (same as Windows; cd directory to get deeper; cd .. or cd / to get to the base directory), ls (equivalent of dir, lists files in a directory).
  11. Some distributions (Ubuntu/Kubuntu, for example) do not let you log in as root. This can be frustrating, because if all you want to do is move some files from one directory to another, you have to use the command line.
  12. The command line is case-sensitive. Watch your upper and lower cases.

There are a number of reasons I picked Mepis over the other distributions. First of all, it recognized all my hardware. Some other distros couldn’t find my mouse or monitor settings. Secondly, it has libdvdcss2 and baghira readily available; I need the former to play DVDs, the latter for an aqua look. Thirdly, once installed it never asks me for the original install CD (Ubuntu kept asking me for the disk whenever I wanted to install more software). It’s one of the few distros out there that has both live CD and installer on the same CD. You can boot the live CD up right away. Then, after playing around a bit, if you still like it, you can click the “Install Me” icon on the desktop and get going right away without even rebooting. It’s free. The menu organization actually makes sense (sure, you can change the organization manually, but what a pain!).

At this point I’m far from being a Linux expert. I’m at the dabbler stage. In some ways, though, that makes me the perfect person to be writing this for Windows transitioners. I know exactly what difficulties you’ll encounter and what you’ll need to know. I’m targeting this essay mainly towards people like me—intermediate Windows users who want to try something else and are willing to put a little playful work into the endeavor.

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