In Part 1 of this series, I posted about my decision to eschew Windows Vista in favor of Linux and a bit about the initial journey. In this installment, I'll provide a bit more detail on the Linux side of the decision process and the initial installation.
Linux Landscape in (Very) Brief
Linux comes in more flavors than Baskin Robbins' ice cream. Choosing one sounds daunting at first, but the process can be much easier with a little thought about your requirements and acceptable risk level.
Most home computer users have relatively simple requirements: email and messaging, web browsing, word processing, basic photo/graphics support, and multimedia. Some may have further needs, but most folks live within this box.
Acceptable risk requires some serious thought. One bottom-line question is ?do I absolutely need my PC every day, or can I live with gaps in my computer's availability?? Now, most folks would give a knee-jerk ?Of course I need my PC every day!? reaction, but most often that's not the case. Remember, people lived long before PC's were even in existence and survived quite nicely. If you do your bills electronically, then you need your computer available at particular times of the month, but could maybe suffer gaps at other times.
Availability doesn't capture the entire concept of acceptable risk here. The other bottom-line question is ?how much time do I want to spend messing with this?? Some operating system versions can be a significant time sink from a maintenance or even setup perspective. Most folks would probably answer this question with ?as little as possible.? Hard to argue with that. But to some, going toe-to-toe with errant electrons makes an interesting hobby. Others just want it to work?first time, every time?but this usually entails some performance trade-offs.
To be fair, no operating system is perfect. Folks like Geek Squad and the endless hosts of consulting firms make their living off of Windows' shortfalls. People who criticize Linux as too hard to do usually give Windows a pass where none is deserved. Many like Tanker Bob made their reputation on rescuing Windows users who cannot help themselves?and on a frequent and regular basis.
On Windows, you get what you get, but under Linux these questions impact directly on which distribution you choose. Every distro has its strengths, weaknesses, and fans. Very experienced geeks tend to like Gentoo, which takes a large amount of effort to set up but rewards the user with high performance optimized to their hardware. Some distributions have corporate backing, like Fedora which is sponsored by Red Hat and OpenSUSE sponsored by Novell. Other distributions philosophically tie themselves to the Free Software Foundation approach of totally free, non-proprietary Open Source. These include the obscure gNewSense and UTUTO-e. Other distributions like Debian maintain a dedication to remain free to users and offer only free software in their default repositories, but have the option to use, for instance, proprietary drivers from other locations. Still others, like the commercial Linspire, include proprietary drivers and codecs in their primary distributions, but also Linspire also offers a Freespire variant. There are also a host of independent cats and dogs distributions, too many to name.
Under the major distributions like Red Hat, SUSE, Debian, and Gentoo are forks and branches that build off these larger efforts. Ubuntu (in all flavors), for example, builds on the Debian distribution. Further yet, the MEPIS releases build off of the Ubuntu distribution. And so it goes.
One very nice resource for helping to sort out the fray is an ongoing project at polishlinux.org. They have a wiki-based system that allows you to compare different major Linux distributions. Though far from complete, the database as I write this covers the major players. I found this after I made my distribution choice, but it would have been very helpful had I found it earlier. There are sites like KnoLinux specializing in Linux distribution reviews. Help for choosing your Linux journey sits just a click or two away.
Ubuntu derives from the excellent Debian distribution. One criticism of Debian has been the long periods of time between new version releases, and most of those releases suffer from significant delays. This enhances Debian's stability, but hinders its ability to keep up with the latest hardware developments. The Ubuntu team takes test versions of Debian, stabilizes them, adds user-friendly utilities and controls, and releases these every six months. This keeps Ubuntu up with cutting-edge hardware and new hardware drivers, while maintaining good stability.
The Ubuntu team also sought to make Linux accessible to the masses. The GNOME desktop version especially provides an easy-to-use interface together with tools. They designed these to allow users to customize their system but also to avoid hurting themselves. Even legacy hardware will run well. Ubuntu itself includes no proprietary drivers, software, or codecs, nor do its default repositories. However, you can access these items by enabling other repositories that contain them.
An Ubuntu installation will maintain excellent stability if the user stays with software from the default repositories. These repositories have a huge number of titles, so this wouldn't impose any serious limitations. The reason for that stability is that the Ubuntu team ensures and supports the compatibility of everything in the default repositories. All of the problems that I've encountered with Ubuntu have come as a result of stepping outside that strict-compatibility world. (Bad Tanker Bob, bad, bad!!!)
Ubuntu offers four major desktops: GNOME (touted as the simplest-to-use interface), KDE (the most geeky and attractive), Xfce desktop (minimalist approach), and Edubuntu designed for schools. Of the four, I found the KDE desktop to best suit my tastes. Although it takes more resources to run than GNOME, it looks great and gives me more control over how my desktop looks and works. Apparently I'm in good company, as Linus Torvalds?the father of Linux?agrees with me on GNOME's limitations.
In the end, Kubuntu (Ubuntu with KDE desktop) provided the right amount of stability, ease of installation and use, control, performance, and support for Tanker Bob. Your mileage may vary, but Tanker Bob has lots of company. As I said in Part 1, Ubuntu tops the charts of Linux distributions. And did I mention that it's all free?
The use of proprietary software under Linux sparks spirited debates. The Free Software Foundation holds that any compromise eventually leads to very bad things. On the other hand, Tanker Bob tries to keep his religion distinct from his electronics. In an ideal world, I'd be inclined to side with the FSF folks. As is usually the case, though, reality is quite different.
Hardware makers like NVidia and ATI in the video arena work hard in the competition to win a slot in your PC. That competition makes for better and better products, from which we all benefit. There's a thread of the FSF argument and even an online petition to get these board makers to release their competitive secrets so that open source drivers may be made to support their special performance features (3D acceleration, shading, etc.) If they did, then what incentive would they have to produce better boards? Others could just look at the open source driver code and reverse engineer their hardware. Millions in research and development would be flushed. Everyone would lose as innovation would stop. We already see this in some parts of the world where piracy has destroyed competitive advantages and incentives. I hardly think that's a model to emulate. Idealists often ignore basic human nature, and to their peril.
This isn't limited to video cards, although they're one of the two most hotly contested targets. Wireless networking cards would be the other. But in reality, any hardware device that requires special handling in the operating system and that also contains competition-sensitive innovations would be affected. Without a graceful way to handle this hardware, Linux will never compete well as a mainstream operating system on the desktop.
So what's the answer? Tanker Bob could retire to Tahiti with his own broadband satellite link if he could answer that question. But, I think that improving the way proprietary drivers work in free distributions like Ubuntu, including automatically updating/recompiling when the kernel updates, would go a long way to resolving the instabilities introduced with proprietary drivers. Until the religion of absolutely-free-and-open-software-no-exceptions gives way to the reality of competition and incentives in the market place, that's unlikely to happen. I think that's a shame, but I certainly respect others who disagree.
Tanker Bob's Linux Setup
First the hardware (please don't laugh, the basic system dates from Aug 2001):
Aurora-Gigabyte 7DX Motherboard with an AMD 1400+ (T-Bird) Athlon CPU, 266 MHz FSB, built-in VIA sound chip, 4 built-in USB1 ports
1GB DDR-SDRAM (sorry, that's all it holds)
VisionTech NVidia Geforce2 MX 200 AGP 4x video card with 32MB RAM
17? Panasonic CPD-2401 analog monitor
320GB Western Digital 7200 RPM ATA 100 hard drive (Linux drive)
60GB IBM 7200 RPM ATA 100 hard drive (Legacy WinXP drive)
120GB Maxtor One-Touch USB2 external hard drive
LG GSAH22N DVD?RW/DVD-RAM/CD-RW drive (IDE)
250MB Iomega Zip Drive (IDE)
1 IOGear Bluetooth device on USB2
3Com V.90 PCI Fax/Modem (never used it)
2 USB2 PCI cards
1 Kensington USB2 7-port hub (long story)
10/100 Ethernet PCI card (I forget the model)
Linksys WMP-54G PCI wireless card (at install, later removed)
HP 4+ Laserjet at install, now a Brother HL5240 Laserjet printer (on parallel port)
Epson Stylus CX7800 All-in-One Color Inkjet printer (on USB2 port)
Dell X50v Axim in its cradle
I installed using the Kubuntu LiveCD. This first boots up Kubuntu from the CD, then you click the Install icon on the desktop. I recounted in Part 1 how I had to partition the 320GB drive due to my older BIOS limitations and the dual-boot Grub software. Kubuntu correctly detected ALL of my hardware on initial install, but getting the scanner part of the Epson CX7800 to work took some effort (more on that in a later installment). So much for the rumor that Linux has limited hardware support. I didn't time the installation, but it was WAY faster than any Windows install that I've ever done (and I've done a few) and I didn't have to answer a million questions (or input my serial number). The open source NVidia driver installed by default. More on that later. After rebooting the system, Kubuntu came right up, asking me to create an initial user account that would have administrative privileges. The wired network was already up and running. That's it, done!
Complete Productive System
Kubuntu installed everything that the average user needs to tackle routine tasks. The excellent OpenOffice.org provided a complete office environment with a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, database, equation editor, and graphics editing program. All these provide compatibility with MS Office 2003 and older versions. I've personally tested this compatibility and it works! Firefox web browser and Thunderbird email both found a home on the disk. Kubuntu also installs its own Konquerer browser, which it makes the default, and its Kontact Personal Information Manager. I simply copied my backed-up Firefox and Thunderbird profiles to the appropriate directories and I was fully operational in minutes.
On the multimedia side, the excellent K3b copies and writes DVDs and CDs. This program easily rivals the best Windows' programs. KAudioCreator rips CDs and AmaroK furnishes outstanding music player support?even reading music directly off your iPod. JuK is another provided music player. KMix is a an audio mixer, and Kaffine comes as an excellent (and my favorite) video player. There's also a sound recorder and the K9copy DVD backup program.
Standard utilities include a nice calculator, two package installers (more on these later), system monitoring tools, shell terminal, the excellent Kate text editor, and a comprehensive system settings program. On the Internet side, in addition to the browsers there are IM and IRC programs, Akregator RSS reader, and remote desktop access.
On the graphics side, Krita creates drawings and edits images. GwenView furnishes image viewing and KSnapShot takes screenshots. KPDF is probably the fastest and most capable PDF viewer in Linux. As a bonus, Kubuntu installs a Monopoly-like board game.
I have probably missed a number of applications and utilities. Thousands more are available on the various repositories (more next time). As you can see, Kubuntu is ready to enhance your productivity right off of the initial install.
Did I mention that it's all free?
So, what are repositories, how do you use them, and why should you care? Ah, there be real gold in there?and as you can probably guess, it's all free! I'll also talk about the additional repositories that contain things like proprietary drivers, and getting the most out of your video card (if it's an NVidia or ATI).
Y'all come back now, ya hear?
Read Part 3, where I discuss Linux software, including the difference between finding Windows software vice Linux software.
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