Choosing a Linux Distro, Part II

This article is a followup to an article I wrote on 2-20-2003 about my experiences choosing a Linux distribution that would suit my needs and wants. My principal requirements for an OS are that it be powerful and up to date, easy to use and set up–I don’t mind using the command line and I don’t mind editing a file here and there, but I like doing this type of editing for fun, not because I have to. I also want an OS that is fast and looks nice on my PII 450 with about 350 MB of RAM.

After choosing Red Hat as my favorite OS last time, I received many kind emails referring me to one distro or another. For the most part, I tried (or tried to try) all of them. Here are the results…

Let me first get these out of the way. I’ll preclude this by saying I have nothing against these first few distributions, I just couldn’t get them to install… that’s all.

Vector Linux SoHO. I was unable to install this distro in either of the two versions I tried. It came up with errors about files and directories it could not find on the install CD. I couldn’t figure out what it needed and therefore, I never got it installed. I’ll probably experiment more with this because I only hear good things about it.

Peanut Linux – I was interested in Peanut because it seemed very small and is touted as being for those new to Linux, which I am. My computer has two hard drives, one with had Windows XP on it (until recently) and the other I was using for my Linux tests. Peanut wouldn’t recognize my second hard drive. I have no idea why or how to make it see it, but at the time, I wasn’t willing to overwrite my Windows XP drive. I’ve since done so (more on this later) and I’ll probably give it a try again later.

College Linux – I don’t know what I could have done to cause this, but while installing packages 8’s started scrolling across the screen and never stopped. I don’t know what went wrong. Again, I intend to try to install this distro again in the future.

Debian – Debian was hard to get working. I tried to install it a few times, but couldn’t get it working. The first netInstall CD for the stable version of Debian had a hard time with my network card, I eventually got it connected and even installed the base system. Apt wouldn’t work and I was not able to get further than that. I probably could have if I had spent more time with the manual etc. etc. etc., but I just didn’t mess with it too much more. When I tried the testing version of the netInstall CD image, I couldn’t get it to find my Internet connection and therefore couldn’t install it. You’re probably thinking by now that I don’t have a talent for installing Linux or I am just not persistent enough with it… maybe you’re right.

I’d learned enough in email responses from the last article and from reading about Debian before my install attempts that I was still very excited to try it. It’s method of software installation seems very cool to me. I love trying out the latest and greatest software on Freshmeat or experimenting with web design tools on Linux. If nothing else, I learned using Red Hat and Mandrake that while RPM’s can be very cool, they can also be a HUGE pain. Enough people before me have complained about dependencies for me not to have to. Suffice it to say, I’ve spent more than my share of time on looking for lib this or “k” that.

This brings me to my next Linux experience… LindowsOS. I thought Lindows was pretty cool and very usable. It was very easy to install and I was thrilled to find out that it is Debian based and as such, retains much of the software installation functionality that Debian offers. Lindows comes pre-configured with popular browser plug ins–something I think every Linux distro should at least give you the option of having during the install.

Their Click-and-Run software warehouse was pretty good. It features a surprisingly large selection of even fairly obscure applications which, despite not always being the most current version, almost always work with literally one click. If you’re on an even slightly slow connection, I’d recommend getting the click-and-run CD and burning it, otherwise waiting for the apps to download will be tortureous. I’m on a 68kbs DSL connection and even with that, installing Star Office took a good 20 minutes.

Lindows also comes with Hancom Sheet and a couple other commercial applications. I don’t really use spreadsheets that much and the differences between StarOfice and are so nominal that I never even notice them, commercial apps were, therefore of little worth to me.

The Lindows GUI is very nice–clean, simple and fluid among the different applications. XMMS has a Lindows skin as does Mozilla, both are very nice. I actually found it (for my purposes) to be a powerful OS. Lindows makes a lot of otherwise not so pretty apps look great just by having such a nice theme. It ran decently fast on my computer (though they recommend at least a 500mhz processor) but it wasn’t snappy by any means. Almost all of the software I was looking for was in their Click and Run database. Apt-get could be used to install MOST other applications. Sometimes apt would complain and try to uninstall KDE, but it’s still a pretty functional tool. Networking in Lindows was a breeze as were almost all other configuration options.

I really do not have too many complaints about Lindows. I doubt I’d renew the $99 subscription since I don’t mind installing software from the command line with apt, but for people who don’t want to do that, it might be worth it. I started thinking that once you add up the cost of the os and the money you’ll spend with paying the software subscription, you’re approaching the cost of Windows very quickly, but really that’s not the case. With Lindows (and ANY Linux distro) one thing people all to often fail to mention is that you’re not only getting a full OS, you’re getting a full OS with 99% of the software you need all for free (or for the price of LindowsOS in this case.) With Windows, that is not the case, the cost of Microsoft Office alone makes up for any subscription fees you pay with Lindows or others like it.

Just to quickly comment on the controversy Lindows generates. I think there’s a lot of truth to the statement “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” I really don’t think that there is much Lindows (or their CEO) could possibly do to tarnish the reputation of the entire Linux community. Anyone who is even half interested in Linux will quickly realize that there are other options and other companies and that LindowsOS does not equal Linux. I think that Lindows will do good for the Linux community in the long run.

How did I finally make the decision to get rid of Windows XP on my desktop for good? Well… the decision was in a way made for me. is the easiest Linux to install, hands down. Before you do it, learn from me and read the instructions! (which consist of about 3 lines). There I was, working on my laptop, I pop the cd in the desktop, reboot and forget about it while I grab a snack. When I came back, the CD was ejected and the computer was ready to reboot. Wow. I didn’t type a single thing or even use the mouse but once I rebooted I was in a fully functional (with web plug ins) version of Red Hat 8.0… on hda1. Ah well… that was a couple weeks ago and I haven’t missed XP at all since then. If you’re going to use, make sure it’s on a computer that will ONLY have on it. If you do, you’re almost guaranteed a no-click install. Couldn’t other distros find a happy median between this and the experiences I document in this article?

I also got a number of emails about Xandros. Xandros 1.0 was VERY Windows-like in many ways. The file explorer was almost identical to Windows Explorer. It was super easy to use and configure, more so than any other distribution I’ve tried. It was also the fastest distribution I’ve tried, easily beating out Red Hat. Xandros installed easily and once it was up, I had this eeire feeling of “I just installed Linux but I don’t have anything to configure… weird.” It was that easy to use. I really hope this company is able to stick it out and come out with version 2.0 and so on because I really think Xandros has a LOT of potential, but is quickly becoming dated. I didn’t play around too much with installing software, because truthfully, I was too excited to try out the Technology Preview CD. Version 1.0 is Debian based so I’m guessing that had I decided to try to install apps I would have found the process similar to my experience with Lindows. For someone who needed basic, word processing/email/Internet functionality that will run well on older hardware, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Xandros 1.0.

At the moment, I’m using Xandros Technology Preview or at least that’s what this was before I tweaked it so much it no longer even says Xandros at startup. Basically I think that the price you pay for Xandros 1.0 is worth it even if you never install 1.0 because the Tech Preview that comes free with it is an easy to install, fully functional version of Debian. Using ONLY apt (NO RPMS and never typing make install) I’ve successfully installed KDE 3.1 and pretty much all the software I have been trying to install on other OS’s without a hitch…(notably Rhythmbox) Ok, that’s an exaggeration, I’ve had plenty of hitches but that, I suppose is part of the process of learning to effectively use apt and the sources.list file correctly. I’ve had to configure Samba and other services manually, but I expected that and after the the other install experiences I’ve had, this isn’t too much of a problem anymore. I still can’t get Gnome2.2 working in the login menu and ctrl+alt+f* shows gibberish instead of terminals but I imagine I’ll get these things working soon enough.

I would NOT recommend Xandros tech preview to someone who has little or no Linux experience. There are simply too many things that are not pre-configured, however for anyone who wants to get Debian working without the install difficulties, it’s perfect. Personally, I find myself having to choose between the giving up using apt, having the biggest and most current software archive available to install very easily or choosing a distro such as Red Hat which has a lot of the configuration tools I really like. Apt is available on Red Hat, but in my experience, there are not nearly as many packages available and those that are there are not always the most current versions. I use the unstable sources in Debian. As I mentioned earlier, I’m excited to see the next version of Xandros which will hopefully include the ease of use and configuration of Xandros 1.0 combined with the power of apt and Debian.

I gave Mandrake another try and installed a 9.1 preview release–the Galaxy theme for Gnome is beautiful. It features (ironically) a lot of blue curves. I was disappointed not to be able to get online. Mandrake 9.0 didn’t give me any problems with getting on line at all. Netconf didn’t work in the preview release and since I had no connection and not much patience for such a large problem, it didn’t last long. I’m sure that that 9.1 will resolve this problem. I wouldn’t mind seeing Galaxy ported to KDE also. I still fully intend on giving Mandrake another chance someday.

Red Hat 8.1 beta was great. The samba configuration tool that is included solved my networking problems. I also took some time with it learning about some of their other configuration tools–there is a graphical configuration tool for pretty much any problem you might have if you look hard enough for it. I liked the minor changes to the Bluecurve interface as well. Do the title bars remind anyone else of worn blue jeans? Despite the beta status, I found no problems or bugs with RedHat 8.1.

In my last article I mentioned I’d like to install Knoppix on my hard drive. It turns out this is very, very easy and I was able to do it (a couple times actually.) Once it’s installed, you have a fully functional Debian install, similar to that of Xandros Tech Preview. My biggest complaint was that I was unable to upgrade to KDE 3.1 using APT. No matter what I tried, it always wanted to remove KDE entirely. I read somewhere that this will be addressed in the next version of Knoppix. I’m looking forward to it. Once that is out, there will be a free, easy to install, fully functional Debian distro available–I think that will be great for Linux in general.

Just to mention briefly, I tried another Knoppix based live-eval CD called Morphix. Morphix is modular which from my understanding means you can burn different versions of it based on your needs. I chose the most useful one (the one with all the games). It’s fun, easy to use and does what it sets out to do well.

Finally, and this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with choosing a Linux Distro, but while I have my soapbox, I’d like to mention how cool the thumbnail features in KDE 3.1 (and many are also in Gnome 2.2) are. I think it’s amazing how you can see the contents of text documents in a thumbnail, extremely useful to be able to browse to a fonts folder and see what the fonts actually look like before you open them, mouse over an mp3 and it starts playing–this is brilliant. This is usability. This is an area where Linux clearly outshines any other OS I’ve seen. From the perspective of someone who is very visual, these are features that make Linux worth the extra effort required (in most cases) to get it configured.

This article (like the last) didn’t focus much on my experiences actually doing my job in Linux, I plan to address this in a separate article. As of now, I haven’t had enough time to use the available software and give it a fair test. On a similar note, my experimentation with Linux distributions is not scientific or even uniform, it’s based mostly on my whims and fancies. Please do not take criticism of your favorite distribution harshly, these just my impressions.

I appreciated all the helpful feedback and courteous corrections I received after the last article. This, to me, was one of the examples of a time when the Linux community really showed its best side.

Marcus VorwallerSilverfish Solutions.


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