I’m a long-time, frustrated Windows user. I have tried various Linux distributions in the past, but I haven’t been satisfied with any of them. Today, I went out and bought Red Hat Linux 8.0 from Office Depot for $40. I am a dial-up internet user and I consider myself computer literate, although I don’t have much experience using Linux on the desktop. I do however, have some experience using Linux and FreeBSD as a server (no GUI).
I was excited to see all the positive, glowing reviews of the latest version of Red Hat Linux. I thought, “finally, I can get away from Windows 98.” “It just works” is the mantra. Unfortunately, this was not the case for me.
I tried two different computers. The first one was my laptop, a Toshiba 2595CDT. Installation was easy, all the hardware was detected flawlessly (even the USB mouse, which Windows 98 was never able to recognize). Installation of the “desktop” system took just over an hour. The computer is a Celeron 400a with 64MB of RAM and a 4.3GB hard drive.
[Editor In Chief’s Note: The RAM for this machine does not meet the requirements of Red Hat 8.0 towards X11.]
Once the system was booted, I was surprised to see that GNOME was so slow, it was useless. It took a full 5 minutes for Open Office Writer to load up. It took a minute for a window to show up when I double-clicked on the ‘home’ icon. I’m sorry, but there’s no way I can use a system like this, I can’t get any work done.
I clicked here and there looking for ways to speed the system up. I turned off “animations,” but it didn’t do anything. What I mean is, all the windows and whatnot were still animated. I found a “services” option which I used to shut down a bunch of unused services. I’m still confused as to why there were printer related services running when I specifically deselected all printer-related packages during the install. I don’t have a printer attached to the laptop and I don’t plan on getting one.
After spending about an hour fooling with this and that, I found a “Desktop Switcher” option. I thought to myself, “cool, maybe there’s a faster desktop than GNOME.” The only other option there was ‘TWM,’ so I clicked it.
It was then that I realized just how easy it is to break a Linux installation. I wasn’t running as root, I was running as a normal user. It dropped me to a blue background with no menus, no icons, nothing. After clicking a bunch of times, the only thing I could bring up was a terminal window. I promptly got back on my “real” desktop machine (running Windows 98) and found a #redhat IRC channel on irc.openprojects.org. Luckily, they told me how to switchback (‘switchdesk gnome’). Unfortunately, it didn’t work 100%. You see, at every login, I am still presented with an ugly “Welcome to XFree86” login screen (as opposed to the default RedHat one I originally had). I tinkered with /etc/inittab for another hour and finally gave up when nothing seemed to work (even changing it to gdm, but as I mentioned, I’m no expert).
Since the whole mess was slow anyway, I decided to try my extra computer (which had CRUX 0.9.4 installed, but that I never used since I couldn’t get much done on it). This computer is a 500mhz Celeron with 128MB of RAM, a 13GB hard drive, and a 16MB Riva TNT (no sound card).
This installation went much faster (about half an hour), and I chose to install WindowMaker and KDE (in addition to the GNOME default). I figured if GNOME was still too slow, I could try something else.
Again, the installation was straightforward and I had no problems. I got to GNOME and low-and-behold, it’s still slower than molasses. I seriously don’t know how anyone can use a system such as this. Every window takes eons to load, and that’s just the regular file manager. Apps take even longer.
Wait, I take that back. I loaded AbiWord and it loaded right away. However, inside the application, the word wrap didn’t work correctly, and wrapped somewhere around 1.5 screens wide, and I couldn’t find an option that changed that. The browsers were slow, preference panels still ignored my settings (no animations), and even though I installed Galeon and Mozilla, the ‘default’ browser is always lynx.
So I fired up the desktop switching utility again (this time I was sure to stay away from TWM). I first tried KDE, which was slower than GNOME (if that’s possible). The windows are sluggish, startup times are horrid, and frankly, the default fonts are pretty ugly. The ugly part doesn’t bother me much, in all honesty, I just want to get some work done. My main tasks include coding in PHP, testing in a web browser, checking email, and chatting on IRC. These tasks should not bring a 500mhz computer to its knees!
Another major usability problem is the menu system. System Tools, System Settings, Preferences, and Server Settings are all duplicated under the ‘Extras’ menu. Why can’t they be categorized with the rest of the applications? Furthermore, why can’t I easily recategorize them to suit my needs? In Windows, it’s as simple as dragging the menu items around.
So, after a failed KDE trial, I decided to try WindowMaker. I had a little bit of an introduction to WindowMaker in my previously mentioned CRUX install. In CRUX, none of the menu items worked, so it was pretty pointless. I figured RedHat would get it right. When WindowMaker started, it looked exactly like the CRUX install. The menus were full of applications that simply didn’t work (not found errors). I don’t understand why someone would include a bunch of programs in the menus when the programs themselves aren’t even installed.
However, I did look around and I did find programs I was sure were installed. For instance, The GIMP. It worked in GNOME so I knew it was installed… Still got the error, though. The only menu item that worked in WindowMaker was VIM, but why do I need WindowMaker to run a text application? Back to GNOME (this time using ‘switchdesk gnome’ since there was no menu option for it).
Uh-oh, after switching from GNOME to KDE to TWM and back to GNOME again, all the desktop icons disappeared. I still have the menu and I still have the panel, but no desktop icons whatsoever. No home directory, no “start here,” nothing.
Needless to say, I’m not impressed. Sure, the GNOME installation looked good. I like the interface, a lot. I just can’t stand how slow it is.
Although the package management system was much better than the last time I used RedHat (6.1), it’s still not as convenient as going to the author’s web site, downloading a file, and double-clicking it to invoke the installer. Plus, the removal of packages leaves a big dirty mess in my home directory.
I think it’s important for an operating system that’s touted as “user friendly” to be pretty resistant to permanent breakage, especially for a normal user. If a utility has the potential to break or change the entire system (such as my switch to TWM), it either shouldn’t be presented as an option, or there should be a warning message. RedHat shouldn’t assume that everyone who installs their operating system is familiar with Linux, and every change should have an easy fix, should something break.
Finally, was there anything I liked about it? First of all, I chose to install Apache, bind, MySQL, and mod-php. Logged in as root, I was able to find the “services” utility and start MySQL and Apache at boot up (as a service). I was able to configure Apache using the graphical tool – much easier than on Windows, I must say. Galeon wasn’t bad, but why must it require the Mozilla package to run? I realize it’s based on Gecko, but what’s the point of having two complete browsers installed when I only need one?
In conclusion, my experience wasn’t a positive one, and I’m afraid I will be using Windows 98 for quite a while. I really dislike Microsoft and Windows in general, I must admit that it at least lets me get my work done in a timely fashion. I do realize that my two systems aren’t the latest-and-greatest, but for my purposes, they should be sufficient. Unfortunately, I only see the situation getting worse. The major Linux distributions keep getting bigger and bigger, more and more bloated, and ultimately, slower.