posted by Anthony Hicks on Tue 8th Apr 2003 16:17 UTC
IconThis (quite long) article has been written by me for two primary reasons: One, to hopefully save someone else the time and hassle associated with trying out various Linux distributions, and two, to promote some discussion and feedback regarding what a modern Linux distribution should be, and of course to contrast this with what is currently available. I am exploring the offerings of MS Windows, BeOS and MacOSX, and then taking on a number of well-known Linux distributions.

For a while now I've been an "OS Junkie". I like to keep up to date on what's happening in the OS world, and I spend way too much time researching and trying out alternative OS's. I use a computer for everything from video editing and music production to accounting, web development, and graphic design, so my Dream OS has to be up to the challenge of handling most, if not all of these chores.

In short, I probably fall into the "Power User" category, and am constantly looking into how I can improve both my productivity and my user environment, either through software or OS changes. To that end, I've used quite a few different OS's, on quite a few different platforms. My current desktop system's based around a 1.2Ghz Athlon, 512 megs of DDR ram, 2 video cards (an older ATI All-In-One-Pro, and a Sis 300 based card), a SB Live video card, and about 200Gb of drive space. I also have a large assortment of add-ons used with this particular box... Everything from scanners to drawing tablets, and even a digital postage scale that hooks into the serial port.

My goals are lofty: To try and find the ideal OS for my own personal usage, which will allow me to work the way I want to, while not shorting me when it comes down to the tools and features that I need in order to "get the job done", no matter what that job might be. And yes, it has to look good too! Eye candy might not be a concern for you, and there's very many good arguments against eye candy (with the number one concern being that eye candy often just equals wasted CPU cycles), but for me, I want to work in an environment that's not only functional, but also one that looks good.

I'm not a huge gamer, but the ability to play the odd game would also be nice, as would the ability to handle all of my non-gaming activities, from Web development to Graphic design and video editing.

Before we get into the Linux distributions specifically, let's look at some of the non-Linux alternatives. This will hopefully provide some background on what I don't want, while providing us with some hard data about what I do want. We'll start with the biggest list, Windows and then work our way down.

Obviously the Windows family of OS's is going to factor in here. There's been arguably more work done on the Windows platform than on any other modern Operating System, and it shows! Windows owns the world, as far as consumer Operating Systems go, and they're very well known, so without further ado, here's some things I do and don't like about Windows (oh, and by the way, unless noted, most of the Windows references refer specifically to Windows XP Many of the issues I will note are present in other Windows versions as well, but since XP's the latest Windows version, this is the one we will focus on):

Windows Plus's:

  • There's a plethora of software's available: Just about everything's available for Windows, from music sequencers to cad programs, there's an app out there for Windows that will do the job. Similarly, there are drivers out there for virtually all hardware I'm ever likely to run on my PC. Software support is definitely not a problem when using Windows!
  • Keyboard Shortcuts: Windows has a keyboard shortcut for virtually every function, and if it doesn't have it, there's any number of add-on programs that will provide such features to you.
    Similarly, if you want to, or have to due to hardware issues, you can set the more modern versions of Windows up with an included utility which will let you substitute keyboard commands for mouse actions. This functionality is a huge bonus to Windows as it allows one to flip between programs knowing that these shortcuts are common from one program to another.
  • Customization: Sure, all OS's allow you to customize it's look and/or feel to a certain extent, but it's the degree with which one can modify his or her environment that really interests me, and Windows is up near the top of this category both with it's features, and with the ease at which you can customize them (although arguably, many of these features are either hidden away, or are accessible only with the aid of 3rd party software).

  • With the appropriate tools, I can change the look of Windows to virtually anything I can dream up, and that's saying something!
  • Common Look and Feel: This kind of ties in with the Keyboard shortcuts as there are a number of Windows elements that help to tie 3rd party applications together and make them operate and appear similarly to all users. Much of this can be attributed to the GUI of Windows, which provides a common, and somewhat skin-able/theme-able GUI for all apps to run under.
    This allows one to jump from one Windows application to another without having to learn a new interface. This Common Interface is a big plus when it comes to being productive, and it's one of the many strengths to the Windows Operating System.
  • Quick and Responsive: Well it should be as most companies tend to optimize everything for Windows! Windows, at least when just using one or two apps, is very snappy on my machine. Granted, when I have multiple apps open (which is virtually every time I'm on the computer, mind you), the system can bog down somewhat, but for the most part Windows is "The" desktop by which others are judged by most people, as far as responsiveness is concerned.

Windows Minus's:

  • It can be slow: As mentioned above, Windows can bog down when many apps are open simultaneously. True, a dual CPU machine would help immensely with this (XP is SMP-capable!), but we're looking specifically at the operating side here. Multiple CPU's will also help to speed up my Linux box when and if they're added (although Linux would of course require that I build an SMP-capable kernel). Ideally, I'd like an OS that allows me to switch my focus between apps without noticeably slowing down, or taking awhile for the CPU's focus to shift gears (as can happen when burning a CD-ROM and typing a letter, for instance).
  • Built in GUI capabilities are limiting: As mentioned above, I can customize virtually every aspect of Windows I want to, from the GUI itself, to how keyboard shortcuts are received and handled. However much of this customization is handled only by 3rd party apps. Windows has came a long ways as far as what it allows the user to do, but to still get the most from a Windows system, you have to typically use a 3rd party program. This often requires additional $$, and it often adds another application to those already running in the system tray. This in turn results in more CPU cycles and memory going towards a feature which I for one feel should be included with the OS itself. Virtual Desktops under Windows is an excellent example of this, in that if you want Virtual Desktops, similar to Linux and BeOS, you must run a 3rd party application to provide this functionality.
  • Stability: Windows XP goes a long way towards making Windows a stable platform. It's much more stable than Windows 98, and arguably more stable than NT ever was, but it is by no means perfect. I've gotten everything from the dreaded "Blue Screen of Death" to popups saying that Windows can no longer find a valid license on my machine thanks to the bugs in XP!

    Don't get me wrong, XP is a nice OS, and it's fairly reliable. But for someone like myself who's always "pushing the limits" of what a machine can do, XP is a long way from perfect. The ultimate example of the problems this can cause is how XP reconfigures itself without asking. Allow me to explain...

    I do a fair amount of music composition and recording on my PC, and as such, I strongly feel that a PC should be seen and not heard. I don't need my PC going "beep" in the middle of a recording session just to let me know that an update's available (or for any other reason for that matter!). So I typically turn all the system sounds off on my PC and save that scheme as my default.

    So you can imagine how upset I get when I boot up Windows and hear Windows default opening sounds play. This is my cue that something has changed within Windows, and that Windows in its infinite wisdom has reconfigured itself again without asking me. This problem is a great example of why I want off the Windows platform: I want an OS that works great and one that remains configured as I set it. I don't need or want an OS guessing at what's best for me, and then making changes without my approval. A first-time computer buyer might appreciate such features, but I for one loathe them.
  • Security: It's Windows... It's full of holes, and more are discovered every day. Enough said.
  • Can't optimize core system: By this I'm referring to the fact that Windows is a closed-source system. The users don't have the access necessary to do such things as optimize the kernel for a particular platform. This isn't a major problem, but when you consider all of the legacy applications that Windows supports, you naturally have to wonder how fast and responsive it could be if it was optimized and targeted at modern PC's. Rather than have a kernel that runs on everything, it would be nice to strip out the things that don't apply to my setup and optimize it for the hardware I do have. On the other hand, this is one of Linux's strong points!
Table of contents
  1. "Intro, Windows"
  2. "BeOS"
  3. "Mac OS X"
  4. "GNU/Linux"
  5. "Linux Minus"
  6. "Linux Distros: Yoper"
  7. "Linux Distros: Redhat 8.x (Phoebe)"
  8. "Linux Distros: Mandrake 9.1 RC2"
  9. "Linux Distros: Ark Linux"
  10. "Linux Distros: Vector Linux (Soho 3.2)"
  11. "Linux Distros: Gentoo Linux (and other source based distros)"
  12. "Linux Distros: Suse Linux, Conclusion"
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