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.

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