Categories
Linux Windows

A Linux/Windows Comparison

Introduction
Someone posting on the Ubuntu Forums asked if there was an article around that honestly compared Windows with Linux in a way that’s not anti-Microsoft. Honestly, I couldn’t find one. And, as someone who has no loyalty to any operating system (truly… in our household, we have one computer that dual-boots Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux, and we have a Powerbook with OS X), I thought that article should be written, so here it is. I’m dividing up my audience into two groups—business users and home users—and hoping to not get caught up in stupid impractical debates about what’s “better” or not “better.” My hope is that I can help you find what’s most appropriate for you and/or your business.

Business Use
Now, “business” here can mean anything from a mom-and-pop store to a small corporation. It could be a school, a non-profit organization—anything that’s considered “work,” even if it’s fun work. And I’m specifically addressing desktop use, not server use. I know nothing about servers. There are two serious considerations in business when it comes to making computer choices.

Cost
First, you have to consider cost. There are a lot of studies out there (with conflicting results, believe it or not) about what the “total cost of ownership” is for the various operating systems out there. Of course, one of the flaws inherent in any of these studies (apart from possible bias because of who’s funding the study) is an assumption about resources. For example, Linux, by itself, is cheap as a set of operating systems. However, it’s usually the support you pay for—either written, phone, or in person (or all three).

If you’re a small business, and you have one person on staff who is fully proficient in Linux (and you know she can be easily replaced should she leave), then it probably makes a lot of sense in terms of cost to go with Linux. I’m not sure the extent to which this is true for Red Hat and Novell, but Ubuntu is free and has no licensing fees. You can get as many copies of Ubuntu as you want free, and you don’t have to pay for the number of computers you install it on. However, if you want Ubuntu’s official support (as opposed to your own in-house support), you have to pay for it. You can pay per year per desktop, or you can pay per incident. The cost savings of Linux go beyond the actual operating system, though. You’ll probably use OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office. And, for OpenOffice and most Linux software, you don’t have to pay a licensing fee. Of course, you can also use OpenOffice on Windows, but keep in mind that you are not paying for the Windows licensing fees, either.

I’m not blanket-recommending Linux for business users, necessarily. What I’m saying is that you have to weigh what kind of support you have/want for Linux (and for which you’re going to have to pay) against the cost of the software and licenses. I’d say if you have strong technical support or meager needs (basic word processing, basic spreadsheets, email, and internet), Linux will save you a lot of money in the long run. If you have weak technical support and a lot of software needs (Windows-only software or office features that are available in only Microsoft Office), it’s probably worth paying for all those licenses to be able to stick with Windows. By the way, I’m not saying Linux is so deficient as an OS that it needs more support, but since it’s not as well-known even to some techies, more support might be needed even just to answer simple questions at first.

Time/Efficiency
In addition to cost, businesses need to consider which operating system saves time. Honestly, I can’t say that in general either operating system is more efficient in and of itself than the other. In my experience, efficiency comes with training, whether you are using Linux, Mac, or Windows. For example, recently I was taught a function in Excel (it’s in OpenOffice, too—don’t worry) called VLookup. It compares a value in one column to an entire column in another sheet. If it finds a matching value, it returns whatever’s next to the comparing column to the function cell. Okay. You read that and thought, “Huh?” The point is that VLookup has saved me literally hundreds of hours of work. Also, learning keyboard shortcuts has saved me all the mouse time I would have used otherwise. While the actual keyboard shortcuts vary from OS to OS, the use of keyboard shortcuts in general saves time. It takes me a lot less time to alt-tab or cmd-tab between applications than to move my mouse back and forth and keep clicking on each one. This is OS-independent. So if you’re truly worried about efficiency, the number one thing you have to do, regardless of whether you use Windows or Linux, is train your employees to be efficient computer users.

That said, sometimes Linux does make better use of people’s time. For example, the average computer user knows very little about how to protect herself from spyware and adware. I’ve seen countless hours wasted at work because of all this malware. The hours are doubly wasted because they’re wasted for the person whose computer is infected (she can’t do her work because her computer is being repaired) and for the person who has to fix the computer. Add to this the fact that most Windows users don’t even realize they have spyware right away. They just think they have a lot of pop-up ads or that their computers are running slow “for some reason.” That kills productivity. There are numerous debates about why Linux doesn’t have as much spyware and adware. I don’t want to go into all that right now. The point really is that Linux doesn’t have spyware, adware, or viruses. It also means you don’t need to spend money on anti-virus software. Though, you should still have some kind of firewall in place.

On the other hand, since almost all businesses and schools already use Windows, the time it takes to train people on a new operating system is not negligible. It’s also not a one-time deal, depending on how high your staff turnover is. Sure, you may spend a few weeks having your staff adapt to Linux’s interface(s), but if someone leaves, you can almost guarantee the replacement you hire won’t know Linux or be familiar with it. She will probably know Windows and Microsoft Office or maybe Mac OS X and Microsoft Office.

Still, when properly set up, Linux is just as point-and-click as Windows and Mac. Whether it’s using a KDE or a Gnome desktop, Linux always has the equivalent of a Start Menu and a taskbar. The only hard parts of adapting would really be on the IT side of things. Administering a Linux network may be easier, but it’s also extremely different. That’s another thing to consider. If your IT staff is well-versed in Windows and knows nothing about Linux, you have to consider, “Do I fire these people and rehire Linux-trained folk? Or do I send them to training programs for Linux?” Either way, you’ll be spending more money. Linux-trained IT folk (due to their relative scarcity) usually charge higher pay rates, too.

Bottom-line for Business
Weigh out how much money you’d have to spend versus how much time and money you think it will eventually save you. It’s simple economics.

Home Users
For home users, the choice weighs in different factors. For example, since businesses buy or lease computers all the time, they don’t often consider buying a computer and paying someone to install Linux on it a big deal. In fact, that person may just be IT staff. For home users, though, installation is a big obstacle in Linux adoption. All the stories about “my grandma uses Linux!” usually come from serious Linux users who can troubleshoot just about any problem and who usually know how to set up Linux so that it works flawlessly. You really have three viable options for installing Linux as a home user:

  1. You have one of these grandma-uses-Linux friends who knows
    just about everything about Linux. You don’t have to worry. Find this friend. Say, “Hey, I want Linux on my computer. Can you set it up for me?” She’ll not only have it set up for you, but you probably will never see a crash or an error message again. Your Linux experience will be amazing, and you’ll have done almost nothing make it so.

  2. You install Linux yourself. You have to have the time to do this, and you have to be willing to learn a lot, even with a “user-friendly” distro like Mepis, Ubuntu, or Xandros. It’s taken me three months to get to the point where I’m truly comfortable with installing and configuring Linux. I’m still no expert—not even an intermediate—but I know enough to be able to help new people out. If you view the learning of a new operating system as an adventure, and you have some spare time, go for this option. You will be rewarded.
  3. Pay for a computer that has Linux preinstalled. This usually means both buying a new computer and paying for software installation subscription (as most preinstalled commercial Linux computers use Linspire). Many I-don’t-want-to-be-bothered-with-installation folks swear by Linspire, though.

Cost shouldn’t be such a big consideration for home users, unless you go the Linspire route. Most Linux distributions are free in some way, if not completely free. For example, Xandros has an “open circulation edition” that is free. The only stipulation is that you can burn CDs only at the slowest speed. Otherwise, you pay for the “surfside” Xandros. Likewise, Libranet usually releases its slightly older version for free but makes its newest version cost money. Mepis allows you the option to pay for it, but it also has free downloads available. Ubuntu is completely free (though, if you want to donate, you can). In fact, Ubuntu will even ship you the CDs and pay for shipping. Naturally, since the shipping is free, you have to wait over a month to get the CDs.

You may run into some “use” obstacles, though, even if you get a Linux distro for free or cheap and you’re successful in installing it. For example, if you use Hotmail or Yahoo!, you won’t be able to check it consistently in Thunderbird, Evolution, or any of the other Outlook-like Linux email programs. Again, I won’t go into the reasons for this, because, in some ways, it doesn’t really matter. The point is, if you have Yahoo! or Hotmail, you have three options with Linux:

  1. Get a new email provider
  2. Check email only through the web browser
  3. Get some third-party hack like Gotmail or Mozilla’s Webmail to decode the tricky Hotmail and Yahoo stuff. The problem is that the “tricky” stuff keeps changing, so if it changes, you won’t be able to check your email through a mail client until Gotmail or Webmail is updated, too.

I’ve also heard that GIMP, while a wonderful graphics program, doesn’t offer the full functionality that Adobe Photoshop has for graphic designers. So if you’re a graphic designer by profession, stick to Mac or Windows. Likewise, if you’re a serious gamer and need the latest and greatest commercial games, you may want to stick with Windows. Not even Mac gets all game ports.

The default user/security model of Linux (not held up by Linspire, by the way) may throw off Windows users. Windows makes the first user of the computer an administrator. That means that user can add and remove software, change system settings, and let in all sorts of malware that can damage the entire operating system. Most Linux distributions set up a user and what’s called “root” (the Linux equivalent of the Windows administrator). The user cannot do anything to damage or upgrade the system without the root password.

The last thing Windows migrants have to get used to is installing software on Linux. First of all, there is no standard way to install software on Linux. In Windows, you either have a .exe file you double-click that walks you through a wizard, or you have a CD that autoruns and walks you through a wizard. After that, icons are usually placed for the new program on the desktop, in the Start Menu, and on the quick launch bar.

One reason Linux installation types vary is the existence of different Linux distributions. You may notice that some distributions use a variant of the .rpm file popularized by Red Hat or the .deb popularized by Debian. Sometimes you may download .tar.gz file you have to unpack and configure from the command-line.

Most of the time, though, you’ll use a graphical front-end that draws on online “repositories” to download software (and their dependencies) and install software. This could be called YaST or Yum or Synaptic or CNR. It’s a totally different way of doing software. It’s not easier or more difficult necessarily. It’s different. It’s kind of like the difference between renting movies from Blockbuster and renting movies from Netflix. I have found, though, that the appearance of icons for newly installed programs is a kind of hit-or-miss in Linux.

There are several distinct advantages Linux has over Windows. I’ll outline those, then talk about what advantages Windows has over Linux.

Linux comes in many different flavors. At first, this may seem like a disadvantage because you won’t be able to figure out easily which flavor (or “distro”) to use, but soon you realize that having different distros means suiting different users’ needs. For example, I hear many “not ready for the desktop” arguments talk about Linux as not being enough like Windows or relying too much on the command-line. Well, if you want a distro that is like Windows and has no command-line, maybe Linspire’s your distro. Or maybe Mepis is. You can also have the computer-literate user-friendly distro Ubuntu. You have the crazy built-from-scratch distros for those who want a totally custom system (Gentoo, Slackware). You have the crazy small distros (Damn Small, Puppy, Feather) for those with modest hardware (under 128 MB RAM, for example).

There are no registration keys in Linux. This may not sound like that great an advantage, but I have to say it offers a freedom from worry that I cherish a lot. For my copies of Microsoft Office, I carefully guard and back up my registration keys—with their hard-to-remember mix of numbers and letters. For my Linux applications, I don’t have to enter anything to install them. I can just install them. And there are so many apps at your disposal in repositories. And if the repositories aren’t enough, you can enable more repositories. I soon realized that my base XP install did not have a CD burning program, a serious image editing program, or even anti-virus software. Oh, and it doesn’t come with an office suite, either. All these and more are available for free in Linux.

Customization is king in Linux. You can use whatever desktop environment you want. You can change icons, toolbar transparency, splash images, window decoration styles. I tried to do this in Windows and realized I had to pay money for this.

The Linux community is also very supportive of new users. Sure, there are some annoying things about the Linux community. For example, many in the community are extremely negative towards anything Microsoft. Many think Linux can do no wrong. Many think newbies should just learn to live with the command-line. Still, people tend to be patient in answering questions. The Ubuntu community in particular is extremely responsive, welcoming, and helpful.

So what does Windows offer? Well, for one thing, compatibility. The compatibility works both ways—it’s a kind of “I pat your back…” thing. Software designers and driver-makers and hardware manufacturers tailor their products to work with Windows, and vice versa. Chances are, if you walk into Best Buy, Office Depot, Circuit City, or even Toys ‘R Us and buy a piece of software, there will be a Windows-ready version available. You won’t have that luck with Linux or even Mac. Printers, computer games, random programs will sometimes work on Windows only.

Windows also has a few functions that are available by default that Linux can have if customized but lacks otherwise. Fo
r example, in both Nautilus and Konqueror, I haven’t yet found this great Windows functionality: if I’m browsing in a folder and hit control-F, there will be a custom find for that particular folder and its subfolders. After the find is done, I can have the results show as list, icons, details, whatever.

It may just be my poor install of Linux (as I said before, I have only a few months experience with it), but I have not found Linux to be as stable as Windows XP. Sometimes (very seldom—I’d say once a month) things freeze up so that I can’t do anything to alleviate the situation except to shut down X and go back to full terminal. Almost always in XP, I can hit control-alt-delete and be at the dialogue box that allows me to shut down the computer, lock the computer, or go to the task manager and shut down a program. Once again, it may be that I installed Linux badly, but that’s what I’ve seen.

I hope something I’ve written here gives you a sense, either as a home user or a business user, of whether Linux is right for you. At the end of the day, an operating system is an operating system. You’ve got your programs. You’ve got your mouse. You’ve got your keyboard. You’ve got your data. You can always cut and paste and type and all that. Choosing an operating system is all about figuring out what your priorities are.

Categories
Linux

Linux is ready for the desktop—but whose desktop?

Whether or not Linux is “ready for the desktop” or “ready for primetime” often shows up in technology news these days. It’s also a frequent topic on Linux forums and message boards, regardless of distribution. I often find these debates pointless because there’s an assumption inherent in these debates that there is a real-world-applicable concept called “ready for the desktop” that any operating system’s structure can satisfy.

My answer to people who ask “Is Linux ready for the desktop?” is “Whose desktop?” But I would give the same answer if someone asked “Is Windows ready for the desktop?” or “Is Mac ready for the desktop?” The truth is that if we take “the desktop” to mean “everyone’s desktop,” no operating system satisfies the “ready” requirement. A better way to phrase this question would be “Which operating system is right for me?”

And, unfortunately, the technology marketplace doesn’t give an easy answer to this. It would be an ideal world where you could take any operating system and plop it on your hardware of choice and use your software of choice. The truth is that with Mac, the hardware and operating system are tied together—so choosing to use the Mac platform means choosing a particular piece of hardware (Mac Mini, Powerbook, etc.) to fit with it. Also, with Mac and Linux, you’re limiting the software you’re able to use. Sure, with Linux you have literally tens of thousands of software packages available to you, but if someone hands you the most popular new computer game, you’d be lost on how to use it in Linux or Mac without VMWare, Crossover Office, or some other emulator.

So in choosing what operating system is right for you, you have to consider a few things. Are you a graphic designer? Are you a heavy gamer? Or… do you just check your email, surf the web, word process, organize a few digital photos, and listen to music. If you fall into the latter category, you can use Mac, Linux, or Windows. It’s up to you.

And using Linux has never been easier for this latter category. Linux is no longer a command-line prompt (it can be, if you want it to be, but it’s not the default boot option on most distributions)—there are pretty graphical user interfaces now. And you click on icons that open applications to do all the activities listed above and more. With a few exceptions, chances are that if you use a Windows program, there’s a Linux application that’s a sufficient substitute or an even better substitute. There may be a couple of things you have to get used to. For example, control-alt-delete usually doesn’t do anything. You may have to hit control-alt-escape to kill applications. Your “Start Menu” or Apple menu may be a KMenu or an icon that looks like the footprint of some neanderthal. Nevertheless, it’s a very point-and-click environment for everyday applications.

So, if using Linux has never been easier, why is there all this debate about whether Linux is “ready” for the desktop or primetime? The problem is that HP, Dell, Gateway, Sony, and all the major computer distributors do not sell the latest and hottest computers preloaded with Linux. There’s this myth that Linux is “difficult” to install. Actually, it’s not a myth. No, the myth is that Windows is easy to install. It isn’t. People think it’s easy to install because they’ve never had to install Windows. I’ve had to install Windows, and if you don’t have all the drivers for your hardware, installing Windows is just as difficult as (if not more difficult than) installing Linux. I’m not talking about using the “restore” CDs that came with your Windows computer. Those restore CDs replicate all the hard work your manufacturer put into installing and configuring your Windows computer before you bought it. I’m talking about your Windows 98 computer that you’re now trying to upgrade to Windows XP.

What’s truly amazing is that Linux installation isn’t more difficult than it is. I’m amazed that most Linux distros do recognize my hardware automatically. There have been a couple of distros that haven’t recognized my mouse, but these are usually outdated versions. There are a couple of Linux distros that didn’t recognize my monitor resolution, but that’s an easy fix once you know how to do it.

Anyone who argues that Linux as an operating system isn’t usable for the everyday user (not the commercial graphic designer, not the heavy gamer), I’d challenge you: find a Linux expert (someone who knows just about anything about installing Linux, someone who can install Slackware or Linux from Scratch with her hands tied behind her back) and find a Linux ignoramus (someone who’s never heard of Linux). Get the expert to install Linux and configure it for the hardware perfectly. Give that expert fifteen minutes to explain “This is the email icon. This is the internet icon. This is how you word process,” and tell me that the Linux igoramus won’t be able to use Linux.

Don’t believe me? Go to Linux forums. What are the most common questions? I’d say 90% of them have to do with how to install Linux. How can I dual-boot with Windows? How can I recognize my Windows partition? How do I boot from the disk I just burned? What’s an ISO? I can’t get better screen resolution than 640 x 800. Linux won’t recognize my internet connection. Where’s my sound?

So the question of whether Linux as an operating system—as a piece of software—is “ready” is a stupid question. Of course it’s ready. The real question is for whom? The real question is how can we get others to use it?

The truth is that the situation I described above, with the Linux expert and the Linux novice, is a rare one. Most Linux novices don’t have a Linux expert in their lives. I know I don’t. I’ve spent the last three months learning Linux, and it’s been a tough battle, but in only three months, I feel I’m in a position where I can even help other Linux novices with their installations. It took me years, decades even, to learn how to “use” Windows (if use includes installation, use, and maintenance). Nevertheless, many people new to Linux get scared off because they don’t have an expert to guide them. After all, they had an expert in Windows (the expert being Dell, HP, etc.).

These are the things that will help Linux get better desktop adoption and use:

More well-known manufacturers need to start preloading computers with Linux. Sure, you can pick up a crappy-looking no-name computer at Wal-Mart that has Linspire, but it’s also a very low-end PC (128 MB RAM? Even the Mac Mini has more than that!), but that’s not going to encourage wide Linux desktop adoption. The question of what will motivate manufacturers to do this… well… I don’t know. Money? An assurance that people will actually buy them?

Publicity for user-friendly Linux distributions. My guess is that the average computer user out there (not super-user… user) knows very little about Linux. She may not even know that there are graphical desktops for Linux.

Linux users themselves have to be better about helping new users select appropriate distributions. The three standard responses to “Which distro should I use?” are not satisfactory.

  1. Use Mandriva (or Ubuntu, Xandros, Fedora, etc.).
  2. Use whatever works for you.
  3. Use Slackware (or Gentoo, Linux from Scratch…).
  1. Doesn’t help because even though you name a user-friendly distro, the person asking the question doesn’t know why she should use that one as opposed to another.
  2. Doesn’t help because she doesn’t know what works for her… uh, that’s why she’s asking in the first place!
  3. Doesn’t help because the vast majority of people asking the question do not want to build Linux from scratch—they want something truly user-friendly.

Linux use
rs need to ask probing questions to find out the things that inform people’s choices about distros. Here are a few good ones: How fast is your computer? How much memory does it have? How much money are you wiling to spend? Which version of Windows are you migrating from? Are you migrating from Mac? Do you want to dual-boot? What programs are most important to you? Would you prefer a lot of apps that you need to uninstall or few apps that you’d need to add to? Is using the command-line okay with you, provided you have specific instructions on what to write there? Or would you prefer to do everything via a graphical user interface?

By the way, I recently found out about a Linux distro chooser quiz. I wish I’d had this when I was starting out.

Are you thinking about using Linux?

Well, I’d say you’ll be successful in migrating if you fit into one of these two profiles:

  • You know very little about Linux, but you have a Linux expert friend who can install Linux for you.
  • You know very little about Linux but are willing to learn to install it—this means investing hours in configuring it, possibly many more hours downloading various distributions to see which one best recognizes your hardware.

If you fit into one of these two profiles, you probably won’t be successful in migrating to Linux:

  • You know very little about Linux; you don’t care about how computers work, just that they work; and you will run from Linux at the first obstacle you encounter. You have no friends who are Linux experts.
  • You think the Windows way of doing things is the best way and is always the best way. You don’t really want to migrate to Linux. You just want to make a feigned attempt at installing it and using it so that you can complain about how it’s not “ready for the desktop” when you encounter a single problem.

It’s human nature to be skeptical of new things and forgiving of old things. If something goes wrong in Windows, people don’t even notice. They just put up with it. If something goes wrong in Linux, “Oh, it’s not ready for the desktop. It’s not user-friendly enough.” People expect Windows to fail. They just use it because it’s popular and installed on their computers already. For some reason (perhaps because of crazy Linux zealots?), a lot of Windows users expect Linux to be perfect, so if it fails just once or produces one error (which may, in fact, be the user’s fault, not the program’s), Linux “isn’t ready.”

It’s pointless right now to argue whether Linux is “ready” for the desktop or not. Right now, Dell is still preloading its desktops with Windows XP. So the real question is who are you and should you be migrating to Linux? Well, take a look at those four profiles and figure out which one you fit into.

P.S. You can graphic design in Linux, but I’ve heard, for example, that there are some features Photoshop has that GIMP doesn’t. I don’t know what these features are. GIMP looks pretty fully-featured to me. Then again, I don’t graphic design. Also, Linux has many, many games. My point about games was that a popular commercial game (say, Sims) probably won’t have a Linux port immediately… or ever.

Categories
Apple and Mac OS X Linux Windows

Mac Zealots, Linux Zealots, and Windows Zealots

Mac Zealots
For a while, I read with interest a site called X vs. XP. After a while, though, I got sick of all the zealotry, particularly on the part of Mac users. Now I understand that people like their OSes—that’s generally why they use them. What bothers me most is that some Mac fanatics will not concede that there is anything wrong with Mac OS X. Even if you give three criticisms of Windows for every one criticism of OS X, Mac Zealots will fight that one criticism with all their might. They also have the cheap defense of “Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s worse” or “What’s intuitive for Windows users isn’t necessarily what’s intuitive in general.” Of course, Mac crazies think it’s more intuitive to delete a file by pressing Cmd-delete than it is to delete the file by pressing only delete. I just stopped participating in the site’s forum, since in one particular thread, I attempted to bring some peace, saying that one OS is not necessarily better than the other but that each one suits the needs of its users—I included specific examples of some things I thought were worse in XP and some things I thought were worse in X. The site’s owner (who claims to want to minimize bias as much as possible) insisted that OS X was clearly superior as an OS and would not concede that there was anything wrong with X. One Mac zealot even got quite upset by one of my criticisms of X (despite the fact I had many criticisms of XP as well), explaining that I had come on to his “territory” and he had a right to defend it.

Whoa! Operating systems may be used by your family, but they are not your family, or shouldn’t be, anyway.

Mac zealots think that OS X is always superior to XP, that whatever Jobs decides is the best and most intuitive way to do anything, and that anyone who uses Windows must be a fool. Mac zealots used to never shut up about how superior PowerPC architecture was to Intel architecture. Now that Steve Jobs has announced Macs will be moving to Intel architecture, they don’t know what to do. Mac zealots used to laugh at flash-based MP3 players until Jobs announced the iPod Shuffle. It’s just speculation on my part, but my guess is that if the iPod was the only flash player that had a screen, Mac users would say, “Apple’s iPod is clearly superior, as it has a screen”; since iPod Shuffles are the only flash players without a screen, naturally Mac zealots exclaim that screens are stupid and that you should always know your own music anyway. This is the dumbest argument I’ve ever heard. Speaking as someone who has a flash player with a screen, I can tell you there are many reasons I use the screen. The screen not only tells me what’s playing at any given moment, which is helpful particularly for songs that start off quietly or new songs that I’m not yet familiar with, but it also gives me various displays and menu options (options iPod users should be more than familiar with from the regular iPods)—equalizer settings, volume levels, battery life, etc.

What bothers me most about Mac zealotry is its counterproductivity. No one will listen to someone who is unreasonably in favor of only one position, who does not admit that there is any fault with that product. Several months ago, I advised a friend of mine to buy an iBook, explaining all the pros and cons of getting an iBook versus a Dell. He was impressed and said it was the first time anyone had actually convinced him a Mac was worth getting. According to him, anyone in the past who’d recommended an Apple computer never admitted there was any alternative. Too many Mac users think Mac is the only way—that’s what turns most Windows users off from “switching.” Remember that operating systems aren’t a way of life; they’re simply computer programs that help us do what we want to do. Don’t make an operating system into a religion.

Linux Zealots
Recently, I’ve become a big fan of Linux. I have to say, though, some of the Linux zealots are nutcases. They insist, similarly to Mac crazies, that Linux is the only way… well, a couple of Linux zealots concede that Mac OS X might be okay to use. What matters most to Linux zealots is not that people use Linux (again, OS X is okay) but that people not use Microsoft products. There’s a definite anti-Microsoft passion in the Linux community. People will often refer to Windows as Windblows, Windoze, or Window$. What’s most ridiculous about some Linux nutcases is their insistence that there’s no reason to use Windows and that only brainwashed automatons would ever use Windows.

As a matter of fact, there are a lot of good reasons to use Windows. First of all, I recently tried to switch a Windows user over to Linux, and she had to switch back because Hotmail and Thunderbird were not working well together (even with the webmail extension in Thunderbird that enables Hotmail checking). People get attached to their email accounts (because it’s a pain to change emails and then notify all your family and friends of your new address and still check your old address in case there are lingering emails that still arrive there—and a lot of commerce websites have your login be your email address… Netflix, for example), and Hotmail and Yahoo just don’t work that well in Linux. Even if you check your email with a browser instead of an email client, Yahoo! mail has limited functionality in Firefox or any non-Internet Explorer browser.

There are a lot of Windows applications that just do not have sufficient Linux equivalents. I’ve never used it myself, but I’ve heard Quickbooks does not have a good Linux alternative. I’ve also heard that while GIMP is a very good graphics program, it lacks some of the features Adobe Photoshop has. Linux has a wealth of free applications—far more than Windows has, and without all the spyware—but for commercial applications and compatibility, Windows just can’t be beat. If you play a lot of computer games, Windows also cannot be beat for selection. My wife loves the Sims games and is bummed that it takes so long for them to be ported to Mac OS X. As far as I know, Sims does not get ported to Linux at all.

My point isn’t that Linux is a bad OS. In fact, I love it a lot. If it weren’t for iTunes (and, believe me, I’ve tried Muine, AmaroK, Rhythmbox, Juk, XMMS, and all the rest), I wouldn’t even be dual-booting—I’d go straight to a Linux-only desktop. You just can’t blame people for using Windows. Sure, a lot of people who just check non-Hotmail, non-Yahoo email, who surf the internet, and who write the occasional Word document, Linux is probably a more appropriate OS than Windows, but there are good reasons for a lot of people to use Windows.

Windows Zealots
Rare though they are (or at least rarely audible), I have to say Windows zealots are the worst of the bunch. I prefer Linux zealots to Mac zealots, but I prefer even Mac zealots to Windows zealots. I mean, Microsoft already dominates desktops around the world. Isn’t it something like 90% of desktops that are on Windows? Why rub it in? Being a Windows zealot is like being a white supremacist in America. You already rule—what else do you want? Despite spyware and virus problems, despite endless bugs, Windows zealots still think Windows is the best, bar none. Of course, rarely has the Windows zealot even bothered to give Linux or Mac OS X an honest try.

What They All Have in Common
No one can truly be objective about OSes, but, as someone who dual-boots a desktop with Windows XP and Linux and also uses a Mac OS X G4 Powerbook, I have to say that each operating system has its merits, faults, and ideal users. I laugh when Mac users complain about Windows’ “blue screen of death” because I’ve never seen a BSOD on Windows XP or Windows 2000. Control-alt-delete handles all instability or program crashes. Likewise, most criticisms of Mac OS X by Windows users are unfounded either because Windows users have not really explored OS X
or because they’re actually thinking of Mac Classic or OS 9. Linux users usually do have some exposure to other OSes but may have become so geeked out that they don’t realize how difficult it is for people who’ve grown up their whole lives with Windows to learn how to use Linux.

You should not force someone to use an OS. It’s like forcing someone to learn a new language. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to learn a new language, and being bilingual or trilingual can actually be useful and also be an enriching experience, but when it’s forced, it’s unpleasant and often builds resentment. I’ve also found that learning new languages is useless unless you have a way to practice that language. What’s the point of forcing someone to learn OS X if she doesn’t want to shell out the money to buy a Mac computer (even a Mac Mini with a decent amount of memory—512 MB of RAM—is $550. You can get an eMachine for the same price with twice the processing speed, four times the hard drive space, and three times as many USB slots… oh and a keyboard and mouse)?

So, which OS is best for you? I wish it were as easy as just “picking an OS.” Unfortunately, Mac OS X is tied to hardware—you can’t just install it on any computer you want. And it’s not easy to find a computer with Linux preloaded on it. If you get Linux, you probably will put it on a native Mac or Windows computer. Well, I’ll give you the basic run-down, anyway:

OS X: If you like a name-brand computer with slick-looking graphics, and you don’t want to worry about spyware and viruses, and you have enough money to shell out, and you don’t play a lot of video games, Mac OS X may be your OS of choice. It’s also handy for people who work heavily with graphics (graphic designers, for example). The ideal audience, though, is the clueless computer user—someone who knows almost nothing about computers and just wants to check email and surf the web. Even though that’s the ideal audience, Macs also appeal to total geeks who like tinkering under the unix-like hood of OS X and who like to memorize keyboard shortcuts that can sometimes involve as many as four keys pressed at once.

Linux: If you don’t mind doing a little bit of set up and learning of a new language, Linux may be for you. Unfortunately, if you’re tied to certain programs or proprietary software, you may have difficulty using Linux (see above part about Hotmail). The best part about Linux is that it’s almost always free (cost-wise), including the thousands of programs you can download. It’s also endlessly customizable. What pushed me to Linux this last time (the first time was spyware on Windows) was that customizing themes and styles in Windows required either money to Microsoft for some Plus thing or money to a third-party vendor for a special widgets-modifying program. Like Mac, Linux will appeal to both super-geeks and super-novices alike. The only difference is that Apple will preconfigure Mac OS X for you before you buy it. If you’re a novice Linux user, you’d better have an expert Linux user set up Linux for you.

Windows: If you game heavily, Windows is for you. If you use Hotmail and Outlook, Windows is for you. If you like “maintaining” your computer, Windows is for you (I’m talking about updating virus definitions in anti-virus software, defragmenting, scandisking, cleaning the registry, etc.). If you like cheap computers and don’t want to learn Linux, Windows is for you.

Find what’s best for you… but chill. It’s just an OS. Don’t be a zealot. Be a user. Be human.

Categories
Linux

The Linux Guide for Windows Users

Why Linux?
Some people come to Linux because they’re sick of spyware and adware, and they want something more secure. Some people just want to try something different. Some people love the idea of “free” software (free as in cost-free and/or free as in freedom). Some people have old computers that can’t run any version of Windows except 3.1. You could come to Linux with any of those reasons or any other reasons, and the Linux communities will likely be more than happy to help you find your way through the land of the penguin (Tux, the Linux mascot).

Background on the Author
I’m not really qualified to talk about Linux. I don’t know how to compile a kernel. I don’t know any programming (I took a computer science class in high school on writing in Pascal, but I don’t think that’s going to help). I’m not a computer scientist. In fact, for five out of my six years out of college, I was a high school English teacher. So why write this? Well, it’s the same reason I don’t teach elementary school children Moby Dick. Sometimes, when you’re too advanced, you take certain things for granted that novices don’t necessarily grasp. A techie may forget that a newbie doesn’t know what a mount point is, or what a kernel is, or what the command-line looks like. In fact, a newbie may not even know what a newbie is. (Hint: if you don’t know what a newbie is, you’re probably a newbie.) The idea is that I want to help someone who is computer-savvy (i.e., Windows-savvy) but who knows next to nothing about Linux—the me of last year. I want to answer the questions I wish I’d had the answers to when I started using Linux. So, this is targeted to a particular group: people who are comfortable with computers and Windows and who are willing to give Linux a try. So I’m not going to explain what memory is or what a file is or the basic structure of a computer. I’m going to explain only Linux-related terms.

Terminology/Glossary: not official definitions here, just enough so you understand what I’m talking about.

Apt-get/Synaptic. Debian-based distros use a software installer called apt-get, which uses the Debian dpkg system to retrieve, unpack, and install software. Apt-get is the command you use to get that software. For example, you might say sudo apt-get update (sudo or su gives you administrative privileges and update will refresh your list of what software’s out there), then sudo apt-get install gnocatan (this will install the game called gnocatan, a Linux version of the German game Settlers of Catan). Sudo apt-get upgrade will upgrade your currently installed software to the latest versions. Synaptic is the GUI version of apt-get.

Command-line/terminal. Remember DOS? The command line is kind of like DOS and it appears in what’s called a terminal. At first, particularly for people used to the current versions of Windows, the command line may look daunting. Honestly, though, for novice Linux users, the command line can be your new best friend. It’s a lot easier to receive instructions and help from documentation and strangers through the command-line. With the command line, you can just copy and paste in character-for-character some string of commands you don’t understand. With GUI, you need descriptions, screenshots, and very specific instructions.

Dependency hell. Apparently, not too long ago, there was something called “Dependency Hell.” You may still read about this on Linux forums every now and then. I guess in the past people would try to install software X that would depend on software Y already being installed, which in turn would depend on library Z being installed. Most up-to-date distros do not have this issue, whether they use RPM or dpkg/apt-get to install software. Apt-get, for example, will automatically mark dependencies for installation when you install new packages.

Distribution/Distro. Distributions are different versions, varieties, or flavors of Linux. No version is necessarily better than any other version. Many versions, however, are based on previous versions. For example, you may hear a lot that some distro is Debian-based or Fedora-based or Slackware-based. It just means someone took an already-existing distro, tweaked it a bit, then created a new distro. Mepis, for example, is Knoppix-based, and Knoppix itself is Debian-based.

GUI. Stands for “graphical user interface.” Usually involves pretty graphics and a point-and-click ability.

ISO. I don’t remember what ISO stands for, but if you download a file with an .iso extension, it is probably a disk image. A disk image is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than being a collection of separate files that get burned to CD, a disk image is what the CD looks like after that collection of separate files has been burned. The difference between an image and a collection of files is kind of like the difference between the letters in a printing press and the page it produces. The letters are separate entities and can be rearranged. The page that printing press produces is a single document with those same letters, but the letters can no longer be rearranged.

KDE/Gnome. These are the most popular desktops in Linux. Linux has different desktops (and hardcore Linux users make a very sharp distinction between desktops and windows managers, but I can’t tell the difference). Windows and Mac do not give you that luxury. Each desktop has its own pros and cons, and I can’t go into all of them right now. You just have to explore a bit. Gnome is slightly more light-weight, but KDE looks a lot more like Windows initially. Ultimately, you can configure either for your needs or visual preference.

Kernel. This is the core of Linux—the thing all distros share. I don’t know why it’s called the kernel, but it is.

Mount/Unmount. The closest Windows users come to doing something called “mounting” is plugging in an MP3 player or digital camera into a USB port. If you’ve done this, you should know not to unplug the MP3 player or camera before “ejecting” the hardware so that it is “safe to remove.” Think of mounting as plugging in and unmounting as ejecting. The only difference is that sometimes distributions don’t always automatically mount something plugged in. Also, Linux can also mount partitions, not just devices.

Newbie. Someone new to a product or community. If you’re reading this page, you’re probably a Linux newbie.

Open Source. You may have read some webpages or books saying that Linux is “free as in freedom, not free as in beer.” The idea behind open source is that proprietary software is written in programming code that’s hidden. You usually receive it in an executable (or binary) form, but you don’t actually see all the “if… then… else” stuff that someone actually wrote to get it working before compiling the code. In open source, the programming code is freely available—meaning that people can look at the code for bugs, suggest changes, and even appropriate the code, modify it, and re-release the code as a new version (hence, new distributions). The new hit browser Firefox is open source. Internet Explorer and Opera are closed source. Of course, much of open source software is also “free as in beer.”

Packages. Even though packages technically are not exactly software, for all intents and purposes for a novice, a package is software. When someone says, “Install this package,” she’s really saying, “Install this software.” As I understand it, a package includes what you need to install the software—it’s not just the software itself. It’s all just semantics, though.

Partition. Exactly what it sounds like. A partition separates within something else. If you have a
room or are in a room, imagine a screen or thin wall that divides the room in half. That’s a physical partition. Think of your hard drive as a room. You can divide that room up with these “screens” and you’ll have several hard drive partitions.

Repositories. This is where software packages are stored and updated. If you enable a new repository, you’ll have access to new software. Repositories usually look like some form of web URL: ftp.something.org or http://www.something.org.

Root. You know how in Windows there’s an administrator? You may not. Current Windows versions (though it’s rumored Longhorn may change this) usually make the first user the computer administrator. That means you can install programs, change system files, and do just about anything to ruin or improve your computer. In Linux, this user is called “root.” By default, most Linux distros force you to create at least one general user. Then, you’re separately prompted for a root password. Some distros prevent you from logging in as root, so you’ll have to temporarily assume root privileges for individual tasks, instead of having open reign over your entire computer to do anything you want.

RPM. Red Hat Package Manager (Red Hat/Fedora’s packaging system/ software installing system). I think I read somewhere it actually stands for RPM Package Manager. Linux people are really into recursive acronyms.

Su. I read in a book recently that, contrary to popular belief, “su” actually stands for “switch user” and not “super user.” Does it matter? When someone types in “su,” she’s usually prompted for the root password. You’re not just switching users, you’re definitely switching to the root user, which is the only super one out there.

Sudo. In an effort to discourage users from logging in as root, some distros come with something called sudo (whose name always reminds me of Phil Collins for some reason). It allows users to perform specific tasks as administrators without having to use the root password or logging in as root. As long as you put “sudo” in front of a command, Linux will recognize your command as a root-like command. If sudo isn’t enabled, you’ll probably have to type in “su” and be prompted for the root password instead (see above).

Swap. There’s a lot of debate about swap. Some people say having a swap partition is like having added memory. From what I’ve read, swap will take some info in RAM that isn’t being used and temporarily write it to the hard drive to be retrieved later. Other people say swap actually makes your computer slower because you have to use extra RAM to read what’s been written to swap. There also seems to be no consensus on how large swap should be. Some say half your RAM. Others say 1.5 times your RAM. Still others say the same as your RAM. There’s really no harm that I can see in including swap, and I haven’t seen the size to be demonstrably important. Try whatever works for you.

Which distro (or version)?
The first problem any Windows migrant to Linux encounters is, “Which one?” Linux has many different flavors or versions (officially, they’re known as “distributions” or “distros”). This was my first problem, and it’s also the most frequently asked question on message boards besides, “How can I get my screen resolution to work?” There are basically two responses you’ll see from Linux veterans. One is a variation of “Slackware. Slackware is the only way. Slackware is the only true distro!” The other is a variation of “Oh, you just have to try all the distros and see what works for you.” To a certain extent, this second piece of advice is something you have to follow. I’ll recommend a few distros here, but if one doesn’t work with your hardware (i.e., doesn’t recognize your mouse, doesn’t recognize your ethernet card or your video card or your sound card), then you have to try another one.

There are certain distros that some people call “mainstream” distros. These have a significant corporate backing and usually have a ton of books written about them. They’re often targeted specifically at Windows users. These are SuSE, Red Hat (and its branch-off Fedora), Mandriva (the merging of Mandrake and Conectiva), Xandros, and Linspire (formerly known as Lindows). I’m not going to bash any of these distros, but I didn’t find them particularly useful. First of all, with distributions like these, you often have to pay to get the latest version, and the second-to-latest version is often crap. Right now, Xandros offers an “open circulation edition” with the limitation that the CD burning program will let you burn at a speed of only 2x. Linspire offers a live CD, but you have to pay to get the real installer CD (and apparently you need to pay a yearly subscription to download software or something like that). If you like books, Fedora/Red Hat may be your distro. Red Hat puts out many books—extremely detailed books—about their distro(s), and the books often have a copy of the distro attached to the inside back cover.

Unless you’re feeling extremely adventurous (“I’m going to roll up my sleeves and dive right in!”), I’d advise against having Slackware, Gentoo, Debian, or Linux from Scratch be your first distribution. These distros force you to really get to know Linux and its structures even before you’ve installed Linux.

You may have a really old system with less than 128 MB of RAM for memory or a less than 333 MHz processor. In that case, I’d try Puppy Linux, Damn Small Linux, or Feather Linux. You’ve got to do a little trial and error with these barebones distros and post a lot at their forums. I believe Damn Small and Puppy just passed the 1.1 or 1.0 versions. Still, anything to get your system running at normal speeds again. Windows XP certainly won’t do the job!

Otherwise, some of the best distros out there for beginners are the lesser known ones—Ubuntu, Mepis, and Blag. I’m going to recommend these three. It doesn’t mean there aren’t other worthy distributions out there (some people swear by PCLinuxOS—I personally love Knoppix, but I can’t find a way to install it fully in English; something always ends up in German). Recently, I read an article comparing the various distros, and one newbie’s critique of the article was that it lacked a decision tree—it talked about the various distros but didn’t tell you what you should use. Well, I’m going to tell you:

Mepis – use this distro if you want to avoid the command-line as much as possible, you want to dual-boot with Windows, you like pretty interfaces, and you want to try out Linux but you’re not sure if you want to install it. Mepis has the distinct advantage of being a full-blown distribution (with all the bells and whistles) that is also a live CD. That is, if you download the Mepis CD and boot from it, it will be a “live” CD, not damaging your hard drive but running completely off the CD and your computer’s memory. Once you’re in the live session and have played around with Mepis, you can click the “Install Me” icon on the desktop, and the installer wizard will walk you through all the steps you need to install Mepis, including a graphical partitioning tool. Mepis is Knoppix-based, and it comes with a lot of stuff that Knoppix is great for (in fact, if you can read German, you’re better off installing Knoppix instead of Mepis! Knoppix is less “bloated” and isn’t as slow or cluttered with unnecessary programs). Mepis has an icon you can click on that will browse files and folders as root. It has an integrated control center that can change style, fonts, keyboard shortcuts, login options, display configuration, etc. It also automatically has all your hard drive partitions appear on the desktop, whether mounted or unmounted. The one Linux book out there that focuses specifically on Mepis is rightly called Point-and-Click Linux. You can use the command-line here, but you really don’t have to.

Ubuntu – use this distro if you want to be absolutely certain that you will never have to pay a single penny for Linux (you cheapskate). In fact, if you are so cheap that you won’t even download and burn your own CD (’cause it would cost you the $.50 you need for a blank CD), Ubuntu will even ship you free CDs and pay for postage (of course, they may not arrive for months, but that’s what you get for being cheap). It’s backed by an extremely wealthy South African dude who was apparently the first African to go to space. He started up a company called Canonical, which is dedicated to Open Source software, particularly Ubuntu. Ubuntu is extremely stable and doesn’t come with a lot of software (it has “basic stuff” for the internet, office applications, graphics, and multimedia)—though, you can always install software from the 20,000 or so packages available via apt-get. It uses the Gnome desktop by default and doesn’t suck up as much memory as Mepis, which uses KDE by default. Another advantage Ubuntu has over Mepis, besides being guaranteed always free, is its responsive and helpful community and its extremely thorough documentation. For those who fear the command-line, Ubuntu may not be the best first choice. I have to say, though, it isn’t that difficult to copy and paste some commands and hit Enter.

Blag – this distro is almost unheard of. Last time I checked on DistroWatch, it was just barely in the top 100. It’s kind of a weird distribution. It seems as if the people who make Blag are in some kind of conspiracy to take over the world, and all the Blag backgrounds look like scary clips from the latest Hollywood thriller (think Stir of Echoes). The documentation is quite skimpy, and people rarely post in the user forums. So why am I recommending Blag? Well, first of all, it has a ton of software on its one CD. This is a Fedora-based distro that uses both Apt-get and RPM to install software, and it includes a lot of random codecs and other little bits that will help you play your MP3s and commercial DVDs (these codecs you have to go out of your way to enable in Mepis and Ubuntu). It uses Gnome, and the installer is far more custom than either Mepis’ or Ubuntu’s. You can decide not only what kind of package types you what but each specific package you want to install. So what’s wrong with Blag? Well, apart from all the aforementioned stuff, it’s a bit unstable. I’m not sure what kinds of repositories it uses, but if you “mark all upgrades” for installed software, your system could bust. Also, even though the installer lets you not select Gnome as a windows manager, Blag will not load up properly without Gnome installed. You can install Gnome and use another windows manager, but you must install Gnome. So who is Blag perfect for? Someone who wants a complete up-and-running system (albeit a quirky one) with an easy GUI installer and a lot of flexibility. Particularly if you have bought or checked out from a library a Red Hat/Fedora book, Blag may be a good distro to play around with, as it is Fedora-based. Both Mepis and Ubuntu are Debian-based (and thus use apt-get to install software).

Is there any real difference between distros?
Well, no, not really. I mean, when it comes down to it, they all use a Linux kernel (2.4 or 2.6 or whatever version). They may have Gnome or KDE installed by default, but even if you install Mepis with KDE, you can always install Gnome and use that instead (the reverse is true as well—you can download KDE for Ubuntu… in fact, they make a special version of Ubuntu called Kubuntu that has a KDE default desktop). Even though Red Hat/Fedora-based distros use RPM to install software and Debian-based distros use dpkg/apt-get, both draw on a wide variety of software.

So what makes one distribution preferable to another? Well, a lot of the aforementioned considerations: documentation, ease of installation, amount of GUI, community support, number of CDs needed, default desktop, amount of memory needed. The ultimate deciding factor should be what works for your hardware. I feel so sorry for people who stick with a distro because it’s “easy to use,” but they can’t get the sound to work, the CD-ROM drive recognized, the monitor resolution fixed, etc. If you have to do that much work to get your distro to even function, get a new distro.

Where do I get Linux?
It’s up to you—whatever’s easiest. Some people get Linux in books (either from the bookstore or the library). The good thing about this approach is that the book that comes with a Linux CD will usually have quite a bit of instruction about how to use the CD. The bad thing about this approach is that even if the book is relatively new, the distribution version may be out of date.

You can order CDs from outside vendors or from the distribution’s website. The ordering can be anywhere from $1.25 per CD to $100 per CD, depending on the distribution. I don’t really see this as a viable option for most Windows-to-Linux newbies because at this point why would you shell out money for something you haven’t even tried yet? …especially if you’re not sure which distro will work best with your hardware.

You can download CD images from the web. The downside to this is the amount of time it takes. You also need to have either a CD burner or a friend with a CD burner. Even with a broadband connection, each CD will likely take hours to download. If you have dial-up, just forget it. Nevertheless, this is a great way to get multiple distros at almost no cost (you have to pay the cost of the blank CDs). This is how I was able to try well over ten different distros (including Red Hat, Mandriva, PCLinuxOS, SuSE, Xandros, Lycoris, Damn Small Linux, and Debian). If you do have a CD burner and broadband, I’d advise finding the ISO somewhere (either at LinuxISO or the actual distro’s website) and downloading it overnight and burning it in the morning.

For those with meager resources (no CD-ROM, only dial-up), you may want to consider Damn Small Linux or another distro that’s able to do some kind of boot from a floppy. You’ll have to do research on this, though. I have no clue how to do it.

How do I burn an ISO?
One of the big problems a lot of newbies run into is not knowing how to burn an ISO. They’re so used to just dragging and dropping files into a blank CD icon or CD-burning area that they end up burning the ISO as data and not as an image. Whether you’re using Nero or Easy CD Creator (you may even be using something else), there should be an option somewhere to “burn disk image” or “burn CD image.” There’s also one in OS X (under Applications > Utilities > Disk Utility).

On a related issue, the BIOS setting on your computer dictates in what order your computer should look for a place to boot. If you load a CD in, and it doesn’t boot from the CD (i.e., it looks only at the hard drive or floppy to boot from), you’ll have to change your BIOS settings. Usually, the BIOS menu can be accessed by pressing F2, F1, or Esc during bootup. You’ll have to play around with this or find some documentation for how to change your BIOS settings.

Should I Dual-Boot?
Luckily, with the advent of live CDs, you can try out Linux without damaging your hard drive. In fact, some distros (like Damn Small Linux
) can run from and store data in a USB key (the entire Damn Small operating system is 50 MB). Nevertheless, some people want to “try” Linux in an even more committed way without abandoning Windows altogether. A dual-boot is very easy to do, and I’d advise it, especially if there are some Windows programs you just can’t let go of (my weakness is iTunes). There are usually Linux alternatives to Windows programs, but sometimes there just aren’t, or you may decide the alternatives are missing some key features. If you’re willing to shell out some extra money, there are programs you can pay for that will run Windows applications in Linux (Crossover Office, Win4Lin). One free program called Wine can run some more basic programs but is severely limited in running more complicated ones that draw heavily on .dll files. By all means, though, if you know you need just email, internet, and office, wipe out Windows and do a clean install of Linux. The installation process will be a lot easier.

Partitioning
The first thing you have to do if you want to dual-boot is repartition your hard drive. Most likely you have only one hard drive, and most likely your Windows partition probably takes up all your hard drive space. Even if you have a 160GB hard drive with only 20GB used for actual data, you don’t necessarily have 140GB free for Linux. Windows probably claims all 160GB for its partition, regardless of how much free space there actually is.

Before undergoing the actual partitioning, back up all your data in any way you can. This could mean burning a lot of CDs, burning a DVD, copying to an external hard drive, loading up zip disks, uploading to an internet site you own, or even using fifty different floppy disks. Whatever you’ve got to do to back up your data, back it up. Of course, even if you’re not preparing for a dual boot, you should always back up your data, but any time you’re messing with the filesystem itself, you’re playing with fire. You could be doing everything “correctly” and still screw something up. Along with backing up your files, you may want to make sure you have a copy of Windows or some kind of restore disk. Otherwise, if your Windows installation gets corrupted, and you decide you don’t like Linux… you’ve got nothing.

The next step in preparation is defragmentation. You’ll likely find this using the Start Menu (All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Defragment). Windows often leaves your filesystem fragmented with little bits here and there. Before you resize, you want to make sure there’s a lot of clean unused space to make into a new partition.

Okay. So you’ve backed up your data and you’ve defragmented. Now you have to pick your partitioning tool. Almost every Linux installer comes with a partitioning tool. Some are easier to use than others. Some are text-based. Some are GUI. I would personally recommend the QTParted that comes with Mepis. Mandriva’s DiskDrake is even better. If you want to pay money for a partitioning tool, I’ve read many recommendations of something called Partition Magic.

Now the question is how much space do you want to partition? How many partitions do you want? Well, it depends. It all depends. First of all, what version of Windows are you using? If it’s XP, 2000, or NT, your Windows installation probably uses an NTFS filesystem. If you’re using 95, 98, or ME, your installation is probably a FAT32 filesystem. I honestly don’t know that much about the two different filesystems (I think NTFS is supposed to have better user-specific file security). What I do know is that Linux can read from both filesystems but as yet cannot reliably write to NTFS. So, if you’re dual-booting with Windows XP, for example, and you want both XP and Linux to have read/write access to your files (documents, music, pictures, etc.), you’ll need to create an extra FAT32 filesystem in the middle that both can access. You may want to create a partition for your “home” folder. In Linux, there’s a folder with all of your settings for various programs (the Windows equivalent is c:\Documents and Settings\username\Application Data). If you create a home partition that gets mounted as the home folder, you can preserve your settings easily, even if you reinstall Linux or install a new Linux distribution. If you have 256 MB of RAM or less, you may also want to create a swap partition. Some people say they need swap with even 512MB RAM, but I haven’t personally found this to be the case. Certain Linux distributions may force you to create a swap partition, though.

I’ll give you an example of how I partitioned my hard drive to do a dual-boot. You can probably do something similar with your computer. Of course, a lot depends on how much hard drive space you have, how much memory, and what version of Windows you have. My computer has Windows XP, 160GB of hard drive, and 512MB of RAM:

hda1 Windows XP C:\ (NTFS) 10GB
hda5 documents D:\ (FAT32) 134GB
hda6 Linux (ext3) 10GB
hda7 home (ext3) 5GB
hda8 swap 512MB

I have no idea why the numbers suddenly jumped from 1 to 5, but that’s how it happened. Once you’ve created the FAT32 partition, Windows should automatically recognize it as D:\ Your Linux distro will probably ask you which partition you want to use to install Linux, and you should pick the ext3 partition. You may pick another ext3 partition for the /home directory.

Installing Linux
I can’t really give many general instructions on installing Linux, as each Linux distro has its own method of installation. Some are text-only. Some are GUI. Some walk you through the process. Some try to do more things behind-the-scenes. There are a few things Linux distributions have in common, though. You’ll probably be asked what language you want, what keyboard layout you want, what time it is in your timezone, where you want to install things, whether you want to dual-boot, where you want to install Grub (or Lilo), and what packages or kinds of packages you want installed (this isn’t that standard, actually). You’ll also be asked for a root password, a username, and a user password.

There are a few things I want to highlight here.

When you’re picking partitions, there are two things to keep in mind for each partition: 1. where you’re installing things and 2. what you’re mounting. For example, you may want to mount the FAT32 partition at /windows. This means that you won’t actually format or install anything on the FAT32 partition, but when you boot into Linux, there will be a folder called “windows” that will be your FAT32 partition. You’ll click on the folder “windows,” and it will appear as if the partition exists inside of your Linux partition, even though the folder itself (or mount point) is referencing an entirely different partition. Likewise, if you create a separate “home” partition, you will choose to have it mounted at /home, and it will appear to be just a folder called “home,” but it will actually be referencing the outside partition “home.” If you don’t create a separate partition for /home, /home will actually be a folder. Think of mount points as pointers, aliases, or shortcuts.

You’ll be asked to create both a root and user password because the Linux assumption (a good one) is that you will operate as a user most of the time. You’ll invoke your administrator privileges only when necessary. Some Linux distros use sudo, which invokes the same principle but doesn’t need a totally separate password to execute commands with the power of root.

I’ll be honest and say I don’t have much experience with Lilo. As I understand it, Lilo is simply an older version of Grub. I’m not sure what the exact definition of “boot loader” is, but boot loaders essentially enable you to choose boot options. All three of the distros I recommended earlier use Grub, but Lilo serves more or less the same purpose. There’s a rea
l controversy about whether to install Grub on the MBR (master boot record) or at /root. As far as I can tell, there’s no real danger to doing either. I would highly recommend putting Grub on the MBR, though. Here’s the difference:

If your Linux installation recognizes your Windows partition (as it most likely will), it will include Windows as a boot option in the boot loader, so when that boot loader is in the master boot record, you’ll have both options available—Linux and Windows.

If you install grub at /root, Windows will not recognize it. You’ll have to find some way to copy the boot loader into a binary file to put at C:\ on your Windows partition. Then, you’ll have to manually edit the C:\boot.ini file to add in the Linux boot option.

The only time I’ve found it advantageous to install Grub at /root is when I’ve triple-booted Windows with two Linux distributions. When you’re more comfortable with Linux, you may want to try this, but for now it’s probably best to stick with the dual-boot.

Configuring Linux
Depending on what desktop or windows manager you use, configuring Linux can be easy, hard, and/or extremely fun. You’ll find that sometimes when you search for icon, desktop, or splash themes online (particularly for KDE) that they don’t install exactly the way you thought they would. Nevertheless, with a little persistence, you can get your desktop to look just about anything you want it to. I prefer to get mine Mac-like.

You may have to do a bit of tweaking to get sound, video, keyboard, mouse, modem, wireless, ethernet, printer, etc. working. If you notice that more than two things aren’t working straightaway, you have the wrong distribution. Get one that recognizes your hardware. Usually you can find the solution to any of these problems on some Linux forum. I can tell you the most frustrating thing is the wrong screen resolution because you may not even be able to navigate properly if the screen windows appear too large. The solution usually lies in /etc/X11/xorg.conf or the XFree86 equivalent. You have to modify this file as root (or sudo) and change the VertRefresh and HorizSync ranges to your monitor’s appropriate ranges. I had to do quite a bit of research to find out that my monitor’s ranges were 50-70 and 30-62, respectively.

You may notice, particularly with free distributions, that certain multimedia don’t seem to work correctly. For example, you may find that when you try to play a commercial DVD that the FBI warning shows up (yes, I live in the US, and I think most people reading this page probably do as well), but then the DVD fails to play after that. You may find that all the media players don’t recognize your MP3s. Well, I don’t know all the details, but basically this is because MP3 and a lot of other popular encodings are proprietary. They can’t come with a free distribution without proper licensing. Every distro will have a way around this. It kind of reminds me when I was in the UK and would order a Red Bull and Vodka, but the bartender couldn’t mix it for me; I had to get the Red Bull and the Vodka separately, then mix them together myself. Installing these multimedia codecs usually is part of the distro’s documentation. It usually means enabling another repository, which brings me to the next topic…

Installing Software in Linux
You know how in Windows you download an .exe file or a .zip file that extracts to an .exe file? You click on the file and a wizard of some kind walks you through the installation process? Well, in Linux it’s a bit different. You can download packages and try to install them yourself, but that usually involves doing weird command-line stuff like

cd Desktop
tar -xvzf blahblahblah.tar.gz
./configure
make
make install

This doesn’t guarantee you’ll have any idea where to find the program once it’s installed. This also doesn’t deal with dependency hell. Most distros come with some kind of package manager. The most popular are Debian’s dpkg (or apt-get) and Red Hat’s RPM. You usually search for a package; then, a program installs it for you, resolving all dependencies. How do you find these programs? Well, let’s say you have five progams you want to install. Instead of going to five different websites to download five different .exes with five different wizards (which will each prompt you to reboot after installation), you’ll probably go to Synaptic Package Manager, reload your repositories, search for the packages, mark them for installation, then hit “apply” to download and install all the software. See a graphical tutorial of Synaptic Package Manager.

Do I have to worry about viruses and spyware in Linux?
Short answer: no. Of course, no system is immune to bugs, malware, and hacking. There are a few things working in favor of Linux that Windows currently doesn’t have. First of all, it’s a smaller target—though, many Linux advocates point out that Apache servers are compromised far less often than Microsoft servers, even though Apaches dominate the server market—so it’s less likely to be attacked. Secondly, the default user is usually not the administrator or root in Linux. The user may temporarily assume administrative privileges to perform a task, but anything sneaking in is not likely to have access to critical system files. Thirdly, on a related note to the last point, the default web browser (usually Firefox) is not integrally linked to the operating system. In other words, the same tool that connects you to the internet (and who knows what sites) is not the same tool that downloads and installs updates to your computer behind the scenes. Now, is it theoretically possible to create a virus for Linux? Yes, it’s theoretically possible, and it may have even happened once or twice in the past. It’s not a big enough phenomenon to even be noticeable, though, and any virus that breaches Linux’s security model is not likely to have any kind of effect on other users of that computer or users of other computers. The virus would stop dead in its tracks and then… well, not really be a virus.

Isn’t Windows easier to use/install than Linux?
Let’s take this apart one issue at a time. First of all, the word “easy” is a little misleading, seeing as how what’s “easy” for a Windows user is usually easy simply because it’s what she’s used to. For example, I’ve asked this myself, and I’ve often seen it asked in Linux forums: “How do you control-alt-delete in Linux?” Think about it. How is “control-alt-delete” in any way intuitive or easy? The truth is that when things malfunction in Windows, most people just brush it off and don’t see it as a reason to ditch the OS altogether. There may be a message about .dlls or some program failing at start-up, but most Windows users just put up with that.

There are a few things that factor into making Windows “easy to use.”

  • People have had a long time to learn Windows. I, for example, have used Windows ever since 3.1 came out. I even used DOS before that. I’ve had well over twenty years to learn this operating system. Now that I’ve had that experience I know all sorts of weird quirks about it (defragmenting, scandisk, regedit, etc.)
  • It’s widely used, and widely supported. Since Windows is everywhere, if you get to know it, you usually don’t have to worry about using someone else’s computer, as her computer is likely to also be a Windows computer.
  • Since most people use Windows, it’s very easy to share tips and tricks with each other by word of mouth. I’m not that close to anyone who uses Linux, so I have to rely on message boards to figure out Linux problems.
  • If there’s a popular piece of software, you’re almost guaranteed to see a Windows version of it.

Now, often people confuse “easy to use” with “easy to install.” The truth is that very few people have installed Windows from scratch. We used to have a Dell laptop that came with three CDs. The first CD w
as a Windows XP installer CD. The second CD was the drivers and utilities CD. The third was the InterVideo WinDVD installer. When our Dell was infested with spyware last year, we had to wipe the hard drive clean and reinstall Windows (Spybot S&D and AdAware weren’t cutting it). At the time of the reinstallation, I couldn’t find those second two CDs, and it was hard getting the sound to work and the DVD-ROM to work. I had to download MPlayer, and the codecs didn’t always work. Of course, once I found the CDs, it was a lot easier to install Windows. Our eMachines computer is even easier to “install” Windows on. It comes with three CDs restore disks. If you want to reinstall Windows, you boot the first CD, then insert the second and third CDs when prompted to do so. This three-CD combination installs Windows, all the appropriate drivers, and software (PowerDVD, for example).

Using restore CDs is not “installing” Windows; it’s restoring Windows. Someone—a company you paid for your computer—spent quite a bit of time and energy tweaking the software and hardware to work together seamlessly. That restore CD is a work of art. When you install Linux, Linux is usually not designed for your particular hardware—Linux has to be designed for every piece of hardware—nor was your hardware probably designed to work with Linux. How can Linux know which drivers to download or what hardware profile you have? In fact, when I think about it this way, it’s a wonder that so many Linux distributions can detect hardware for the most part.

In practical terms, installing any OS is a pain, and you should always get an expert to do it for you, if possible. For Windows, that expert is usually the company that’s sold you the computer. For Linux, it may be a friend who’s a techie… or it may be that you make yourself an expert.

Once Linux is installed and configured, though, it’s as “easy” to use as Windows (easier in some respects), especially if you’re using a Gnome or KDE desktop (very point-and-click, with taskbars, windows managers, and start menus). If you use Mepis, Ubuntu, or Blag, it shouldn’t be too difficult for you to figure out the installation process.

A few things about Linux I wish someone had told me at the outset…

control-alt-escape If you press this key combination, your mouse should turn into a skull and crossbones. Any app you touch after that will be force-quit from. [Actually, this may work in only KDE, not Gnome]

control-alt-backspace Closes all open programs and restarts the graphical user interface.

startx If you somehow end up lost at a user prompt in what looks as if the terminal/command-line has taken over your screen, you can try typing this in to get the GUI up and running again.

/etc/apt/sources.list This is where the repositories live for Debian-based distros.

/boot/grub/menu.lst This is where the boot options live for the Grub menu.

/etc/fstab This is where the mounting/automounting of partitions lives. You can specify here what partitions (or other devices—floppies, CD-ROMs, etc.) you want mounted upon boot.

SMEG helps you edit the menu in Gnome for Ubuntu. For some reason, menus were editable in Blag’s Gnome but not in Ubuntu’s Gnome. I also had to dig around to find out how to install SMEG. This is how you do it. Download it to your desktop. Then open up a terminal/command-line. Navigate to your desktop (most like cd /home/username/Desktop). Then, type in sudo python2.4 installsmeg.

In Gnome, you can make aliases/shortcuts from a FAT32 partition to your desktop by middle-clicking and dragging the file to the desktop, then selecting “make link.” In KDE, you don’t have to middle-click; you can just drag the file and select “link here.”

Final tips
If you want to successfully explore Linux, you have to be adventurous, try different things, and ask a lot of questions. First of all, spend time getting to know at least three distributions before settling on any one. Secondly, when you have settled on a distro, register at its forum and introduce yourself to the community. Generally, Linux communities are very supportive of new users. Lastly, search for stuff. Even though communities are supportive, a lot of times people get tired of answering the same questions over and over again (I’ve tried to answer some of those questions here). Odds are (though this isn’t always true) that if you’re encountering a problem, someone else has already encountered that problem. Your best bet for Google searches is to type in the error word-for-word or to search for the question you have (go ahead and ask it in the form of question) or search for the rant you have (“My resolution sucks in linux”).

I’m by no means an expert. In fact, I’ve probably gotten my terminology all wrong here, but no one ever introduced me to Linux. I’m not good friends with any Linux users. Still, by checking books out from the library, trying various distros, and asking a lot of questions, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m comfortable using Linux, and comfortable enough to try to help others out. I’m still learning, though, definitely—and I’ll probably keep updating this document as I learn more. Welcome to the journey!

Categories
Linux

Linux for Others

As you could probably tell from the recent turn my essays have taken—from feminism and antiracism to Christianity to education to computers—I’ve become a big Linux advocate, mainly because I’ve noticed how Microsoft Windows has ruined the computer-using experience of so many people I know. Ironically, my own installation of Windows XP actually serves me better than Linux does: it’s faster, more stable, and supports iTunes (a personal must). Still, I’m bored with Windows and I want to explore… and be able to help others.

A friend of ours is currently a grad student (and hence not making terribly a lot of money). We recently got a new computer that is more than four times faster than our old computer, with four times as much memory and eight times as much hard drive space, so we were more than happy to donate our old computer to this friend in need. For the most part, this computer has served her all right. Nevertheless, it’s extremely slow. It was built for Windows Millenium Edition, but that particular release of Windows is notoriously unstable (worse than Windows 95 or 98), so she upgraded to Windows XP. Unfortunately, Windows XP on a 766 MHz processor with 128 MB RAM is super slow. You click on a window, and it takes three seconds to acknowledge your click (highlight the folder) and another twenty seconds to open the folder.

I convinced her to try putting Linux on the computer, and yesterday I finally got the chance to put it on as dual-boot with Windows XP (that way, in case things didn’t work out with Linux, she’d still have her old configuration available). Boy, was it an ordeal. A fun ordeal, but an ordeal nonetheless.

Now, I’ve been having a lot of fun playing around with various Linux distributions: installing them, configuring them, using them, then re-installing more distributions. I’m using Linux mainly for the learning experience. I have constant access to my home computer, and its fast processor and ample RAM allows for quick installs and reinstalls.

The challenge I had with our friend’s computer is that it’s so slow. It took me probably forty minutes to back up her files (USB 1.1, not 2.0), another forty to defragment the hard drive, another half-hour to repartition the hard drive, another hour to install Linux. All of this is before configuring the newly installed Linux OS. And since she lives far away from us (an hour’s drive), I was trying to get as much done as I could before having to leave.

Surprisingly, most of the stuff was painless. The monitor and video card were recognized right off the bat, as was the DVD-ROM drive. Sound worked without any configuring. The USB drive I used to back up her files was recognized and duly mounted by Mepis (which runs at a decent speed on 128 MB RAM if you also give it 128 MB of swap partition). The only hurdles I came across were Hotmail possibly not working and the printer driver not being present. Mepis seems to have hundreds, if not thousands of printer drivers but not one for her printer. There was a driver for model 1710 and model 1750—no 1740, though. Odd.

What was most difficult under a time constraint was trying to configure Linux to be as Windows-friendly as possible. As Linux distros go, Mepis is by far the most conducive to a Windows switch that I’ve encountered. Nevertheless, it is still Linux. I love Linux, but someone who is relatively new will want as few things to be different as possible. So I changed the keyboard shortcuts to Windows shortcuts. I turned num-lock on by default. I made double-click, not single-click open files and folders. I changed the default save in OpenOffice to be Microsoft Office formats. The usual stuff.

In respect of her privacy, I set up a temporary password for all my configuring. Then, I had her change the password to her own password. What I didn’t realize at the time (though I figured it out later) is that I didn’t know how to change the root password—for those Mepis users out there wondering how to do this GUI-style, log in as root, go to Control Center > Security & Privacy > Password & User Account. I also was totally stumped on getting the driver for her printer installed, even though she had the manufacturer’s disc, which had Linux-specific drivers. It claimed to support Debian, but all I could find were Red Hat, Mandrake, and SuSE. Eventually, I found the driver installer on Samsung’s website.

If I’d had more time, I could have set it up correctly. There’s always the worry, too, that if the friend you’re installing Linux for sees how much trouble it is to configure, she may just think it’s not worth it. The most infuriating thing, though, was watching the minutes go by as seemingly simple processes (defragmenting, for example) would just take their jolly sweet times.

Categories
Linux

Linux Review: A Comparison of Ubuntu, Mandriva, and Mepis

Disclaimer: I have used these three distributions only on my particular desktop computer for my particular needs. My assessment of each one is biased because of what hardware was recognized and the types of things I was trying to achieve. Your experience may be very different from what I describe below.

Right now, the top three distributions on DistroWatch.com are Ubuntu, Mandriva, and Mepis. I’ve played around with all three, and here’s what I’ve noticed:

Mandriva (formerly known as Mandrake) is a very polished distribution. It’s a fully graphical user interface (GUI) installation that walks you through each step of the process and assumes you know nothing about Linux. For example, in selecting software packages for installation, you can select from broad categories (games, internet, etc.). It also gives you the ability, if you know a lot about Linux software to select individual software packages instead of package groups. Mandriva has the best free partitioning tool I’ve seen (many people say Partition Magic is good, but it costs money). It’s the only Linux partitioning tool that’s left my Windows partition fully intact after resize (full functionality and undisturbed ScanDisk capability).

There are a few downsides to Mandriva. One major drawback is its size: it requires either three CDs or one DVD for installation. If you’re downloading ISOs (CD images) to burn, this can take a very long time. Once you’ve selected your software packages for installation, you have the option of copying the three CDs to your hard drive so that all packages will be available for future installation, but that requires a lot of hard drive space (I happen to have 160 GB, so it wasn’t a problem for me). This also adds quite a bit of time to the installation process.

The biggest problem with Mandriva, though, is that it’s so ordinary. The GUI installation will probably help Windows users uninitiated to the ways of Linux feel less intimidated, but at the end of the day, Mandriva is simply a plain-Jane KDE desktop with basic functionality.

A smaller problem with Mandriva is how it divvies up the control panel into little bits in the KMenu so that you have to click on the K, go through four subtrees to find the login manager. Then, you have to click on the K again, and go through the same four subtrees to find the theme manager. You can rearrange the KMenu, of course, but there’s still not a single control panel for all these things. I also found Mandriva’s hotplug ability sorely lacking.

Ubuntu, however, probably has hotplugging as its greatest strength. That’s what drew me to exploring Ubuntu more. (Oddly enough, I didn’t see the same hotplugging ability in Ubuntu’s KDE companion, Kubuntu.) I just pop a CD in, it appears on the desktop, and it begins playing in the CD player. I pop a USB external hard drive in, it appears on the desktop as an icon, and a folder of its contents opens. When I unmount (or eject) the external hard drive, its icon disappears from the desktop. This is basic functionality that Mac and Windows users come to expect, but it’s been slow in arriving at the Linux community, where the command-line and manual mounting and unmounting have dominated for so long.

Another plus for Ubuntu is its general solidity and speed. Maybe it’s just how it interacts with my hardware, but I found it to be extremely responsive to clicks, opening applications, and navigation through folders.

I did find Ubuntu’s defaults a bit lacking. Some Linux die-hards find the Gnome desktop appealing, but I have to say it’s quite ugly and isn’t as conducive to Mac/Windows switching as the KDE desktop is. Ubuntu also doesn’t include navigation in its folders by default (you can choose to use a browser window for navigation, though), so once you’ve gone into a folder, it isn’t easy to go back to its parent folder.

Personally, and I seem to be alone in this experience (based on what I’ve read in Linux forums), I found Ubuntu to be the only Linux distro of the top three not to recognize the native 1024 x 768 resolution of my monitor. It allows only 800 x 600, and I had to do quite a bit of research to figure out that I had to edit my etc/X11/xorg.conf file and how to do so.

… which brings me to the next thing: if you’re thinking about using Ubuntu, you’d better like the way it is out-of-the-box or get used to using the command-line. Take a look at the Ubuntu Guide. It is a great resource (a very long document that covers just about any tweak a novice user would want) and is indicative of the comprehensiveness and supportiveness of the Ubuntu community and the Ubuntu project. If you look closely at it, it’s very heavy on the command-line. Most tweaks require you to use sudo.

In Linux, there’s something called the “root” user. This root user can do just about anything and is similar to the “administrator” that is the default user on most versions of Windows (presumably not in the upcoming Longhorn release, though). “Root” access is needed to install software and change essential files (the aforementioned xorg.conf file, for example). Ubuntu, by default, does not enable a root user (you cannot log in as root and navigate through files via GUI), but it enables the regular user to use the command-line to temporarily become root by prefacing commands with the term sudo (I’m not sure what do is, but su is usually the super-user). This can be quite annoying. Fortunately, you can enable root log-in through the users and groups preferences.

Even though the Ubuntu Guide is quite comprehensive, I noticed that for a lot of basic preference changes, there’s a quite a bit that you have to do. I had to use the command-line and copy and paste a huge chunk of text in order to get more repositories for Synaptic (the package manager). I had to download a separate program to get num-lock to turn on when the computer’s started.

Some people may like CD burning through the file browser, but I prefer a good old CD burning program. The browser is drag-and-drop—you put the files you want in the CD burning folder, then you click “write to CD” (or something like that). It’s very Mac, in some ways. This could be a good thing for many people (just not for me, as I’ve come from the Nero/Easy CD Creator world of Windows).

The installation for Ubuntu is relatively painless and quick for an intermediate user. The questions about partitioning (and the use of a text-only interface for partitioning) may throw off some novice users, though.

Finally, a big plus for Ubuntu (or maybe just Gnome in general—I don’t know which)—themes that you download from gnome-look or other Gnome customization sites actually seem to install properly. I haven’t found this to be the case in KDE at all, even though the KDE theme managers all have something that says “install new theme.”

Something that Ubuntu advocates have pointed out many times is worth mentioning: Ubuntu will always be free and has a new release every six months. Its community is huge and very supportive. If someone posts a problem, she is likely to get a helpful response very quickly.

Mepis doesn’t have that luxury. It is a one-man operation (with a little help), and the base distribution, SimplyMEPIS, is free, but ProMEPIS is not. Of course, for most users, SimplyMEPIS is more than enough.

The latest SimplyMEPIS (3.3.1) has almost everything you could want in an operating system. In fact, one of my biggest annoyances with 3.3 was its lack of hotplugging capabilities, but that’s been fixed in the 3.3.1 release. While Mepis doesn’t automatically mount and open my USB external hard drive, it does automatically make it appear on the desktop. Once that happens, I just have to double-click on it, and it will be mounted and opened. Once I right-click it to unmount it, it doesn’t disappear from the desktop, though.

Still, this is only a small annoyance, cons
idering the fact that Mepis automatically detects both my NTFS and FAT32 Windows partitions and puts them on the desktop for use. I had to do a little bit of sudo backflipping to get that to work with Ubuntu.

Some people have complained that Mepis isn’t as good about detecting hardware as Ubuntu. I can’t say this happened for me, but I’d encourage people to pick distros mainly based on hardware detection. Just about everything else can be tweaked (you can even download KDE or Gnome desktop environments from both Ubuntu and Mepis, respectively). It does have both Linux kernels 2.4 and 2.6, designating 2.4 as for “older hardware” and 2.6 as for “newer hardware.” That may help.

One of Mepis’s greatest strengths is its nigh-perfect defaults. It installs just about every basic program you need (yes, including a K3B, the CD burning program) and has a special (albeit tiny) link to browse folders as root (very handy if all you want to do is some cut and paste or editing without using the command line). It has an integrated control panel that is one place to modify keyboard shortcuts, themes, icons, screensavers, logins, users, mouse preferences, etc. It was at that control panel that I could modify my KMenu, change taskbar preferences, turn on num-lock by default, choose to have my username load in automatically at the login screen (with a focus on the password field), and make the keyboard shortcuts more in line with my native Windows way of thinking (actually, there’s also a special settings wizard that will let you set basic preferences to Windows or Mac).

Enabling extra repositories through Synaptic was fully GUI and involved only checking a few boxes. Through that I was able to get libdvdcss2 (which allows you to play normal Hollywood DVDs). I also was able to download and install Thunderbird, which I couldn’t do through Ubuntu without using the Ubuntu CD (odd, I know—I don’t see why that wouldn’t just be in the repositories).

Installing Mepis is easy. First of all, it is both a live CD and an installation CD. Mandriva has no live CD (that I know of) and Ubuntu has a separate live and installation CD. That means that if you want to try Ubuntu, you boot up the live CD. Then, if you want to install Ubuntu, you have to restart the computer and put in the installer CD. It also means that if you want to try and install Ubuntu, you have two ISOs to download. I tried having Ubuntu mail me my free 10 copies, but it’s been weeks, and I still haven’t gotten them. A download is much faster, even if you have dial-up. And I don’t know what I’m going to do with ten copies of Ubuntu. With Mepis, you load in the CD. It boots to live (leaving your hard drive untouched). You can play around with it, and once you’ve decided to install it, you can click on the “Install Me” icon on the desktop.

The installation wizard itself has a partitioning tool—one that’s almost as good as Mandriva’s but doesn’t leave ScanDisk functionality in Windows intact—called QTParted. There was a weird quirk (maybe with my computer, maybe with all Mepis installations) where the installation progress stayed frozen at 3% until it was finished.

A couple of other quirks I found in Mepis (at least as installed on my computer):

1. Even though Mepis recognized my DVD player in order to play DVDs and recognized my CD burner in order to burn CDs, it wouldn’t let me mount either CD-ROM drive for simple content browsing. I kept getting an error about how the device didn’t exist. Also, the default CD player would “play” my CDs, but no sound would come out. I had to use Xine (the default DVD player) to play CDs, and I had to use Ogle to play DVDs because Xine would play the sound with weird crackling noises (wouldn’t do this for CDs, just DVDS—weird).

2. Maybe it’s just KDE, but very few theme installations worked in the regular wizard way (click “install new theme” and find the new theme). Many I had to manually configure.

3. I don’t know if this counts as quirk, but the Mepis grub screen and bootsplash background are hideous.

4. Again, not exactly a quirk, but the KWeather program installed by default is ugly and wouldn’t display the proper city, even when I had the correct city code. I uninstalled it and used Firefox’s ForecastFox instead.

5. This is a quirk I found in both Ubuntu and Mepis, so it may be more of a Firefox quirk than anything else. Firefox’s default download location is “Desktop,” but the downloads didn’t actually go to the desktop unless I selected /home/username/Desktop.

6. Problems don’t get solved, for the most part. I actually like the Mepis community, but it’s just not big enough or full of enough experts to really help the struggling novice. If Mepis works out-of-the-box for you, go with it. It’s a great distribution. If it doesn’t, though, you may want to try Ubuntu. It’s the norm for most problems posts on Mepis or Mepislovers.org to go unanswered or unsolved.

Ultimately, what informs the Linux distribution you choose should be how it works with your hardware. Does it recognize your mouse? Does it recognize your monitor and video card settings? Does it recognize your ethernet connection?

I would recommend for the first-time Windows migrant (most Linux newcomers are ex-Windows users; though, they make PowerPC versions of Mandriva and Ubuntu) to try Mepis first. If that works, stick with it. If it doesn’t, try Ubuntu.

Oh, but use Mandriva to partition your hard drive for dual boot.

Categories
Linux

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.

Categories
Linux

Linux LiveCDs are Great!

This is a sequel to my first account of my adventures with Linux: Linux v. Windows. Many of my original conclusions remain. I still find much of Linux more troublesome than it’s worth, even to intermediate computer users like me. The quality and/or functionality of various distributions is iffy—they could work extremely well… they could work not at all. I’ve also noticed that a lot of my previous Windows problems (spyware, basically) went away once I started using Firefox as my main web browser instead of Internet Explorer.

I can’t help still being curious about Linux, though. First of all, especially after my wife got a Mac for school, I was constantly reminded how ugly the Windows themes are. I’ve tried all the built-in ones—Luna, Silver, Classic, etc. You have to pay more to get Windows-sponsored themes (no thanks!), and if you want to customize it using third-party software, you either have to pay money or be bothered by nagware. I did try out Windowblinds for a while, and it was fun. Still, nagware bites.

Well, apparently Linux has grown up quite a bit in only a few months. In my last article about Linux, I bemoaned the fact that it was difficult to set up a dual-boot for Windows XP and Linux. It still is difficult, but now these Linux LiveCDs are quite popular. I tried out the classic live Linux distro (short for distribution), Knoppix. It’s a German distribution, and it’s fast. It detected hardware and ran off my computer’s RAM very quickly—all from one CD. Unfortunately, the version I downloaded was out-of-date and had some really old software bundled with it. At first booting from Knoppix was fun—being able to play around with Linux while leaving the hard drive untouched (the live CD gives you access to the hard drive but only as “read-only”)—but I soon realized I couldn’t save my settings. I had to change the screen resolution, the desktop, the browser homepage, etc. every time I booted up. There was various Knoppix documentation about saving settings, but I didn’t have luck with any of those methods, and I don’t have a USB memory key.

At one point I did try to take the plunge and install Linux on the computer, wiping the hard drive clean since I didn’t want to try to configure a dual boot. Suse Personal 9.1 seemed okay at first. Soon, though, I realized it wouldn’t let me “mount” the external hard drive I had all our files backed up on. (“Mounting” is what’s done to be able to read hard drives, media devices, floppy drives, cd-rom drives—anything that’s not considered the main partition on which Linux resides). Then, I tried installing Ubuntu Linux, a distribution that’s gotten rave reviews. I tried several times, but every time it would get stuck at 79% progress in installing the Linux kernel. I tried searching around in forums and websites to see if anyone else had this problem. Apparently not. Still, I didn’t think it was worth trying to find another .iso of Ubuntu to download and burn. I thought I’d try another distribution that’s been getting rave reviews: Simply Mepis.

Mepis has several advantages over Suse, Ubuntu, and Knoppix. The Simply Mepis CD-ROM is both a live CD (which works just like Knoppix) and an installer. In other words, one CD can do two things: 1. Boot from CD, give you a live version of Linux that makes your hard drive accessible but not mess up your computer. and 2. Install Mepis Linux on your computer if you’re so inclined to do.

Click for larger image More importantly, Mepis is configured well. It recognized all my external devices—external hard drive, internal hard drive, MP3 player, printer. It’s very close to the plug-and-play people are used to in Mac and Windows—there is a small difference, which is that some external devices will appear on the desktop but need to still be “mounted” manually through a right-click on the icon. It also came packaged with lots of software (I can’t list it all here), including my favorite web browser, Firefox. It had a game very close to Bust a Move, a program that lets you organize music in and put music on your iPod, and a nifty screen capture program (which I used to do the screen capture shown here).

Most importantly, Mepis was super-fast (faster than the XP native to the computer), considering the entire operating system was running off a CD using only available RAM. I couldn’t believe the multi-tasking was better on an operating system run off a CD than on an operating system installed on the hard drive!

There are a couple of things that are still keeping me from going “all the way” with Linux, though. First of all, even though Linux has a program that lets you use your iPod and also has programs that help you organize music, none are as intuitive and easy-to-use as the real iTunes for Windows and Mac. Also, iTunes is one application that organizes, rips, transfers, and plays music. As far as I can tell (and I could be wrong—I don’t know—at least it wasn’t immediately obvious to me), Linux needs at least three or four programs to do the same. I’ve already given up my iPod, but I still use iTunes to organize music, and my wife still has her iPod.

Linux apparently has this program called Wine that can use Windows executable files (.exe). The Wine on the version of Knoppix I used couldn’t open any .exes.

I do rest easy, though, knowing that if my computer gets too old to operate the latest version of Windows properly, it can still run a wonderful version of Linux.

P.S. Well, I just checked out this book from the library called Point-and-Click Linux, and realized how great Simply Mepis is. The book walks a novice Linux user through Simply Mepis step by step with lots of screen shots and explanations that assume you know almost nothing about Linux (a good assumption!). It’s through this book that I realized how Mepis is clearly the most user-friendly distro and the best one for first-time Windows switchers.

Rather than having you set up some complicated dual-boot, playing around with the boot.ini file and manually creating and transferring some file called linux.bin, Mepis through its own QTPart program will create partitions off your existing hard drive without damaging your original Windows installation (you still have to defragment your hard drive and back up your data first, of course).

Also, the package manager is the easiest way I’ve seen to install software. Instead of clicking for a download, clicking an setup file, clicking through a whole bunch of dialogues, you just click to install, and it’s all installed. You’re limited only to the hundreds of programs available through Mepis (and it’s doubtful you’ll have to download much of anything, since Mepis comes preloaded with software for webpage creation, audio and video editing, word processing, etc.—the
only program I felt the need to download was Mozilla’s Thunderbird email client).

Categories
Linux Windows

Linux v. Windows XP

Disclaimer: I wrote this essay almost an entire year ago, and a lot has changed since then, including my verdict. Linux has gotten a lot better over the past year, and I now use it as my primary OS. Please read my other, more recent Linux essays for the true state of the Linux desktop today. In the meantime, so as not to spread FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt), I’ve put in some updated remarks in bold. — 19/09/05.

I’m a big fan of the “little guy.” I don’t like monolopies and chains… in theory. I’m also practical, though. I’m not a crusader or a radical. I won’t buy your product just because you’re the “little guy.” I’ll buy it because it works and is quality… and you’re the “little guy.”

For a while now, I’ve been curious about this thing called Linux. First of all, the mascot is very cute. Secondly, Microsoft has been taking a lot of heat lately for its security holes and integrated browser (which invites viruses to flourish within a system). I personally found it annoying that spyware was loading on with some applications I’d downloaded a few months ago. They slowed down my operating system significantly and introduced Internet Explorer pop-up ads even when I didn’t have the browser open. When I downloaded Windows XP Service Pack 2, I kept receiving messages about Windows “recover[ing] from a serious error.” When I did the “fix” according to the Microsoft website, the message no longer appeared, but then Photoshop wouldn’t launch any more because there wasn’t enough virtual memory.

So, I decided to give Linux a try…

It was a frustrating experience. First of all, there are so many distributions to choose from, and it’s not that clear what the differences are between them. I can tell you now that, to the uninitiated, these differences are insignificant. Just pick whatever’s most convenient to try. When I first started, I came across a thing called Blag, but as of this writing, the site is not working. It may come back later. Blag was intriguing. It was an entire Linux installation that fit on one CD and included a whole bunch of applications (just about anything you could think of, from word processing to DVD ripping). Since then I’ve discovered many Linux distributions are like this—in fact, most come with too many applications. Mepis even has a one-up on Blag in that it’s one CD with tons of applications, but it’s both a live and installer CD in one. There’s also a site called Linux ISO that has all the major distributions (or versions) of Linux in the form of a CD image (or several CD images, for the non-Blag varieties). You download the CD image and burn a CD using “burn from an image” property in your CD writer. Then, the CD itself boots and installs Linux. I actually don’t espouse LinuxISO any more. The versions of Linux distributions on that site are usually quite outdated, and, as I discovered the hard way with some distros, having the most up-to-date version greatly improves the user experience..

The odd thing is—both on websites and in books (I checked out several from the library, and Linux for Dummies was by far the most helpful, even though it could have been better), people who talk about Linux make a point of saying something along the lines of “Linux is free, but when you think free, think ‘freedom to,’ not a free lunch.” Actually, it is a free lunch. Linux ISO and Blag are entirely free. Sure, you have to have your own CD burner, but that’s the burner you’re paying for, not the operating system. Most of the books I read came with a Linux installation CD, and I checked those out of the library (so I didn’t have to pay for those either). Linux is free. Ubuntu, my current distro of choice is free in every way—no proprietary software, no shipping costs, no cost for the CD, no cost for the programs. You may think Windows is free because it came with your computer, but the price of the Windows operating system was probably included in the cost of your computer. Windows as a separate piece of software runs anywhere from $99-$300, unless it’s pirated. Legitimate Linux is free, if you’re willing to look for it. And, even if you do pay money for it, a serious Linux package won’t cost more than $80 or so.

The other thing is that most Linux users who write books or websites—even though they’ll explain to you how to do this—tend to frown upon a dual-boot installation of Linux with Windows (dual-boot means that both operating systems are on your computer, and when the computer boots up, you have the choice of whether to use Linux or Windows). The truth is, even experienced (but not expert) computer users like me are not likely to jump into using a new operating system unless we’re able to give it a little test run first. I think this culture has changed in the past year. Now, on message boards, people don’t tell you to just install Linux—they tell you to use the live CD, which doesn’t affect your hard drive in any way, so you can test-drive Linux without installing it.

This isn’t easy, though, for several reasons. First of all, if Windows is pre-installed on your computer, it most likely takes up all of the memory on your computer, even if it isn’t using all the memory. “Memory” here means hard drive space—I got my terminology mixed up. A dual boot requires at least two separate “partitions” in the hard drive. It’s difficult to create a new partition without erasing your hard drive, unless you buy a piece of software called Partition Magic. That puts a little damper on the “free” part, especially if you’re only test-driving Linux. Actually, a lot of distributions including a partitioning tool as part of the install process, and the partitioning tool is free. I’ve found Mandriva’s DiskDrake tool to be excellent, and QTParted, which comes with Mepis and Knoppix, isn’t too shabby either. Another problem is that Linux isn’t compatible with a NTFS partition (which is what Windows NT/2000/XP uses). It’s more compatible with a FAT32 partition (which is Windows 95/98/ME). Windows can convert a FAT32 to an NTFS, but not vice versa. While you can reinstall Windows XP as a FAT32 partition, it runs faster and better on an NTFS because that’s what it’s been designed for. You’ll need a special Linux download to be able to access files from an NTFS-formatted Windows. Actually, I was severely misinformed about this, or maybe it’s changed since I wrote this over a year ago. Linux can easily read from NTFS, but it cannot successfully write to it without a third-party tool, and even that’s considered by most to be experimental. Now, I just keep my Windows XP partition NTFS, and I have a huge FAT32 partition with all the files I want to share between Windows and Linux. Bottom line: I had to back up all my personal files and reinstall Windows cleanly before installing Linux (no one ever advises installing Linux first since Windows destroys key Linux files when it installs). Bottom line now… use a live CD

Sound complicated? I also ran into another problem, which was the screen resolution staying 640 x 800, even when I’d configured the monitor to be 1024 x 768. Turns out, I had to download a special patch to fix this. This took me quite a while to figure out. It’s actually quite simple to fix the screen resolution. You just need to edit the /etc/X11/xorg.conf file and put in the proper HorizSync and VertRefresh ranges for your monitor—t
hese can usually be found on your monitor manufacturer’s website
.

The worst part was that I couldn’t get new programs installed properly. I don’t consider myself computer illiterate, but when I downloaded new programs, they would sit there as executable files but wouldn’t be included in lists of applications, and I had to manually create shortcuts and quick-launchers. Yeah, I was an idiot. I didn’t know about package managers when I wrote this essay a year ago. It’s actually easier to install software in Linux than in Windows, as I demonstrate here. When I did “officially” install programs, even the executable files would disappear to who-knows-where, and I had to log in as “root” in order to even search my entire hard drive. I wonder why this happened. Users should be able to search everything—they just can’t modify system files.

The whole “root” concept is a blessing and a curse. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the idea that the “root” user is the master user and can do anything on the computer—delete any files, install any programs, whatever. The regular user(s) can do basic stuff but can’t reindex the hard drive, install certain programs, delete certain files, etc. On the one hand, this is what makes Linux more secure than Windows. Since, on Windows, everything is integrated and automatic, you may not even consciously run a program, but it will turn out to be a virus that automatically triggers some other program, and your entire system is infected along with all of your email. Linux takes you step by step, so that you’re aware of every decision, every event on your computer. This can be annoying sometimes, though. Sometimes, you don’t want to have to enter a password or logout and log in again just to be to do a simple task. Again, I was an idiot, or things have changed. You don’t have to log out, log back in again, make changes as root, and then log out and log back in again as user. You can make root changes with a simple password prompt when you’re logged in as user.

Eventually, I gave up. In order to learn Linux, to customize it to your liking, and have it run smoothly, it takes a lot of work. I’d say I probably would have had to study it for a good two weeks to feel comfortable with it. Would it be worth it? Basic, basic programs (iTunes, for example, as of this writing) do not run on Linux. Sure, Linux has a ton of programs that emulate Windows programs and which are compatible with Windows files, but every now and then there’s something you just can’t do in Linux, unless you’re a programmer and have a lot of time on your hands. I still think this is true. I have yet to find a match for iTunes. I like little bits of JuK, AmaroK, and Rhythmbox, but iTunes is a killer application, and it can’t run in Linux without Crossover Office. I also still believe that you have to invest some time and energy to install and configure Linux. If someone else does it for you, then you don’t have to do much, of course.

Overall, though, I’m glad I familiarized myself with Linux and took it for a little test drive. On the surface, it runs just like Windows. It has a graphical mode (similar to the Windows desktop) and a text-based command line (similar to Windows’ MS-DOS). It’s supposed to be more stable, and it takes up less memory (it did take a little longer to boot up, though… Windows took about 45 seconds from boot to functional desktop; Linux took about 1:50 seconds from boot to functional desktop—same computer for both). Again, still true. I love Linux. I love the interface, the programs, and the customization, but I have yet to find a distro that boots as quickly as Windows does on the same computer.

The advantages of Linux, as far as I can see are this: 1. If you have an outdated computer that’s too slow to run the most current (or supported) version of Windows), Linux will probably run just fine on it, and with the latest software. 2. If you want to create your own web server at home, Linux is probably the most secure for that, and most Linux distributions include software that will help you set that up. 3. Linux is free… really free, not just “freedom to” or “freedom from.” It’s free—no money down. So as Microsoft keeps releasing newer, more advanced versions of Windows, you won’t have to keep paying for new developments. 4. It can work on all the major platforms—Mac and PC—neither Mac OS X nor Windows XP can do the same. It is also compatible with and can exchange files with both major operating systems.

So what does Linux have to do to compete? Well, I would consider myself an intermediate computer user: officially I’m the “Admissions Data Specialist” at my place of work, I can create webpages using hand-coded HTML, and I am familiar with every major piece of software out there. Still, I’m intimidated by Linux. How would someone like my mother, who sometimes can’t even find the Play button on the VCR (sorry, Mom, but it’s true!), work Linux? Linux has to be more user-friendly. Supposedly, it’s improved a lot over the years. It now uses a graphical interface, for example. There needs to be more, though. Linux needs clearer explanations, central locations for things, up-to-date links, etc. When I went to the main Linux website, half of the distribution links were dead. The information at Microsoft may not be available to deal with every patch and hole in the system, but most of the links work. My advice to myself of a year ago is this: find a forum. You don’t go to Linux.org for Ubuntu support—you go to the Ubuntu Forums. Forums, not webpages or books, are where you’re going to find the most up-to-date information on how to install and use things. Things still do need clearer explanations and a central location, but I’ve found that doing proper Google searches also helps.

Linux, please catch up! Your penguin is much cuter than MSN’s stupid butterfly.