Let me start by saying that I’m desperate for a real alternative to Windows on the PC platform. I like Windows XP for a lot of reasons, and hate it in equal amounts for just as many other reasons. I want to like Linux, I really truly do. I really want to be be in a situation where I can migrate happily, easily and with the minimum of fuss onto another better system in part or fully over time, but at the moment that day just seems too far away.
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I’ve installed and tried really hard with various distributions in the past, going all the way back to Red Hat 5. I’m not a novice computer user and consider myself fairly technically-minded.
I spent the last three days downloading Mandrake 9.1 on my lowly 64k ISDN line and was it worth the wait? …partly yes and, sadly, mostly no.
I burnt my ISO image and rebooted eager to see how things had improved since my last venture with Linux (SuSE 8.0) ended in abandonment when I failed dismally to get anything working properly.
The install process was speedy, easy and very straightforward. I didn’t have to worry about partitioning my system as I already had 9gb free and 1gb swap left over from my SuSE installation, and it found and used them without any intervention on my part. Trying to remember the difference between hda1, hdb5, hdb7 and hdc always leaves me in a cold sweat in case I get it wrong and format my windows drive by mistake ( I never have, though). But I was glad not to worry about it.
As I only downloaded disk one I couldn’t install all the packages but Mandrake made allowances and gave me an option not to install anything from the second disk. (just as well, as I didn’t relish the idea of another 3 days worth of downloading). As my Linux partition is on my Slave drive, I wanted the boot loader at the front of this disk, enabling me to boot to that device first in the bios. This was a real nightmare in SuSE until I found out how to add the “bios=0x80” option, So I was prepared for it this time, but Mandrake didn’t seem to need it and this again was very welcome. (although it did write to my master drive boot record as well and meant I had to repair it with the Windows install CD)
The only real dilemma for me came when it asked for which logon manager I wanted to use and presented me with several options. I hadn’t heard of any them (why would I have?) but I chose the mandrake logon thingy. Why it felt the need to ask me I don’t know. How would I know which one was better, which was one right for me? What if I chose the wrong one, would I be able to change it back? It would have been better if it had just chosen for me unless I specifically asked to change it myself. But chose I did and logged straight in.
Here is where things started to go wrong. Mandrake did find both my Windows partitions for me, and knowing how to add them to the desktop I did so. I then fired up Xmms and tried playing my Mp3 collection (got to get your priorities right!) – No sound…hmm. Checked in XMMS and found an option to change sound output formats OSS or ARTS (just what’s the difference between the two and why would I want two of them?) – changed over, still nothing.
This is where my heart sank, I was going to have to try to configure the hardware as it had clearly not found it correctly, or so I thought. It’s a Soundblaster live 5.1, and had in fact installed correctly. The problem was that all my sound was muted. Why? It took my an obscene amount of time to figure out how to adjust the sound. Turns out there is an applet in the start menu called AUmix. Unless you know what this does, AUmix is meaningless to the average person and it was just by sheer luck I stumbled upon it – surely renaming it to something useful like “sound mixer, or Volume control” would be better.
Next task was Internet access. Mandrake has a very nice Internet connection wizard, so I started that up and went through the motions, only to discover that there is no option to connect my isdn terminal adapter via USB. I get Com 1-8 listed, incidentally, so why can’t Linux use the same notation as Windows here? Sure, Com 1-8 was in brackets next to each ttys port, but why still use this confusing and seemingly archaic terminology if you have to then clarify it by sticking “Com1” next to it. In Windows, my USB isdn adapter connects through a hub but appears to Windows as if it’s on COM3. So I tried that, but that didn’t seem to work, although it’s hard to tell if it worked or not as clicking “apply” in the wizard seems to make it hang for a bit then restart. I guess this means it failed to connect, but who knows? After repeating this several times, making minor changes without success, I quit out and visited the hardware configuration tool. In there, Mandrake correctly identifies my Terminal Adapter (Eicon Diva USB TA) but places it in the “Unknown” section of the hardware. Clicking on the TA’s details yielded no clue as to the problem, or how to resolve it. I know it works in Linux though as I had it working in SuSE, (one of the few things that did work in Suse). Also listed in the “unknown” section was my Bluetooth adaptor (on the motherboard) and my webcam (what still no Creative Webcam go drivers after all this time?)
Hardware problems easily must be one of the most annoying and difficult things to work with in Linux. How do I get my Terminal Adapter and Bluetooth working? Looking at the GUI there is nothing that helps me here and browsing through the help I can’t find anything helpful either. Of course, I could just open up a terminal window and type some clever phrases into it and I’m sure it would work, but that relies on two things, me knowing what to type and me knowing what’s wrong. Neither of which I do know of course. After a couple of hours of frustration I gave up looking — I’d go online in Windows later on and have a look on the web. The lack of GUI tools is clearly a problem for me. I use the command prompt in Windows a little, mainly for pinging servers or performing traceroutes, but in Linux I still feel that you can’t get anywhere without using it and that’s unfortunate because it’s never going to be accessible by novices and is just too damn “hard core” for anyone who just wants to get something done quickly and with the minimal amount of reading required.
So I moved on from that and thought I’d try installing something. I’ve got a DVD that came with a Linux magazine overflowing with apps, so I thought I’d try installing Openoffice and Abiword, two of my favorites. I fired up Mandrake’s package manager, as I thought that would be where I could install things from — it gives that impression when you hover it in the control panel. However, that’s only partly true, it seems I can only install software that comes with Mandrake that I didn’t install first time around. So I tried another route, I opened up Konqueror and found the rpm for Abiword 1.0.3 and double clicked it. Up pops the (seemingly) same package manager and asks me if I want to install, I click the affirmative and it immediately pops up a warning about needing other dependencies. Unlike other distros I’ve used, it actually offered to install the dependencies as well. I was impressed… briefly. After clicking yes I was then told the installation had failed due to conflicts with my system. Oh well, it was nearly successful. In all the time I’ve been trying to use Linux I have never ever managed to install anything via rpm. Not once has it worked for me, it always complains about dependencies, or internal conflicts or missing libraries that I haven’t got installed or just simply fails to give a reason that I understand. Why does this have to be so hard and confusing?
Moving on to to Openoffice then, I know that OOo comes with a nice install program that makes it easy for idiots like me to install it. So I navigate to the DVD cover disk and drag it from the DVD onto the desktop and copying starts… and continues… and continues a bit more… and then stops at 16%. I’m only copying a 70mb file. In Windows doing this takes 13 seconds, but mandrake does 16% in about a minute then stops, not just the copying but all of the desktop stops, XMMS stutters and window redrawing stops. I went for a cup of coffee and returned to see it made it all the way to 17%, whereupon I killed it (CTRL- ALT – ESC). I fired up Gnome system monitor only to see what was happening before I tried again, only to discover Linux using 505Mb of system and 100Mb of swap – Bear in mind that I had nothing else running except 1 Konqueror window at this point. 500Mb! Out of curiosity I rebooted the machine to see how much was being eaten at startup: 200mb, quite staggering really; that’s more than XP uses at Startup even with SQL server, IIS, Trillian, Bluetooth drivers, Activesync and my anti-virus running. But I’ve got 512Mb of Ram, and it’s using about half of it, not to worry I’ve got 300Mb left. That is until I start using Koqueror, doing a search or copying large files. I tried once again copying Openoffice and within a few seconds of the copying starting RAM usage shot up to 500mb again and within a minute or so it had hung at 16% again. Killing the copy didn’t seem to bring any RAM back either. After yet another reboot (I don’t know yet how to get that RAM back without rebooting, but the system was unusable as it was) I tried performing a search (on my NTFS drive). Just a simple search on a 15GB drive once again started eating in memory and processor usage. I’m not sure if this is Linux performance in general or just Mandrake, or just Mandrake on my machine but either way it’s pretty pathetic.
KDE 3.1 looks lovely, and the new features of Konqueror that I’ve read about make it seem very appealing (obviously without Internet access I can’t make any use of it) and the anti-aliased fonts are a big improvement. Although, sadly, even on my Athlon 2400+ KDE still seems sluggish compared to XP and applications seem to still take too long to start.
KDE and Mandrake-Linux in general just seems bloated and sluggish, although I can’t really put my finger squarely on the reason why I feel that. It’s significantly slower at booting than Windows XP. Typically, XP loads on my machine in about 20 seconds, while Mandrake took 65 seconds to get to the log in screen and another 15 seconds after that to load KDE. Gnome on the other hand was much faster to start and felt a lot less sluggish, but just looked and felt too UNIX-like and ultimately didn’t feel friendly or fun, so after a couple of minutes of using it I logged out and back into KDE again; for all its slowness it’s enjoyable to use.
I don’t see why distros bother with shipping more than one window manager, again I’m sure most Linux savvy users would shout about choice for the end user, but in reality KDE is good enough for virtually everyone, Gnome too. Surely it’d be better to just offer one desktop in the package letting the end user then decide if they want to download another WM or get it from the install CD. No other OS confuses its users with a choice of window managers like this. Windows can support other shells and does quite happily, but for most people the default one is all that’s needed. Adding the 5 window managers and all their associated packages, libraries and tools only succeeds in bloating out each distribution. Anyone savvy enough to want to try another desktop will probably be quite happy installing it themselves anyway!
But Mandrake isn’t all bad by any means, it’s far and away the best Linux distro I’ve used so far, beating my previous best SuSE 8.0 in many ways.
The installer is really very good, easy to use and surprisingly flexible and intelligent. The boot loader works well, without any fuss and is flexible enough for non-standard installations. Most of the menu items in Mandrake are sensibly laid out and the default options are more than adequate for most people. It looks great, thanks to KDE 3.1 and the anti aliased fonts, and seems straightforward enough for most users, providing of course that all their hardware is detected correctly and they don’t want to install any other software, ever!
But overall, I still can’t switch yet. There’s no Internet access for me and no Bluetooth support either and ultimately I don’t have the time, inclination or patience to spend days, or even weeks trying to get all my hardware to work, and this is the crux of the problem. For a lot of users, Windows just works, things (mostly) just work, and when they don’t it’s fairly easy to investigate, even if you can’t always fix the problem yourself. Why spend lots of time and effort re-learning a new and seemingly more complex way of working with your computer than you have already?