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 Unfortunately, the version I downloaded was out-of-date and had some really old software bundled with it.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).

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