Free Agent
Matthew Newton keeps a watchful eye on Open Source and Free Software, and shows that you don't need commercial apps to get the job done.
How YOU Can Get Started With Linux
So you want to give Linux a shot, but you don't know which Linux to try? Here's some advice.

Matthew Newton, PC World
Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Every month when my column posts, I get a bevy of e-mail. And every month, there is a contingent of readers who have one question for me: How do I get started with Linux?

It's a simple question, and I wish there were one simple answer for the folks who've decided they've had enough with Microsoft Windows, and that it's time to make a switch. I've been trying to answer this question in various ways for years now. Back in 1999, I contributed to one attempt at an answer, and the result was a lengthy, sometimes confusing set of instructions that really don't apply anymore, for a simple reason: You don't need to be a geek to install Linux these days.

So this month, I'm taking another shot at the topic. Here, dear readers, is my advice for you if you're done with the spyware and the adware that keeps creeping in from new directions. Here's the plan if you want to leave your virus scanner behind and grab most (perhaps all) of the software you'll ever need off the Internet. This is the road to a new relationship with your computer, brought about by software that is built by a community, not a monopoly. It is a road less traveled, and it makes all the difference.

Option 1: Buy a Cardboard Box, Get Software and a Book

I'm recommending two different courses of action, depending on what sort of user you are. The first option is for folks who want to engage in some hassle-free computing today, as in right now.

If you're not a tinkerer or a self-described power user, and if you use your machine mainly for a few key tasks (Web, e-mail, office apps, music, photos), then what I want you to do is shell out some cold, hard cash for a copy of Xandros Desktop OS Deluxe Edition 3.0. This is about as friendly as Linux gets: The box, which is covered mainly with an impressive list of features, should have a "Zero Linux Experience Required" sticker on it. Inside, along with the installation discs, is an extremely well-laid-out, 350-page user manual with a 24-page index. It's likely to be all the hand-holding you'll need.

I've written about Xandros 2.0 and 2.5, offering praise but also wincing a bit. Xandros is based on the KDE desktop, which I think makes a lot of mistakes in the usability arena. But Xandros 3.0's KDE desktop has a unique, clean look to it; and it caters to folks who've learned the Windows way of doing things.

As always, the proprietary Xandros File Manager functions as a Windows Explorer clone that beats Windows Explorer at its own game, providing easy access to both local and network files, along with integrated CD (and now DVD) burning. Xandros's ability, fresh out of the box, to interact with file and print servers on a Windows network remains unparalleled among Linux distributions.

There are other niceties, too. A "First Run Wizard" will come up the first time you log in, helping you to set up a printer and do a few other post-installation bits of configuration. A "switch user" button on the taskbar functions just as it should, unlike similar attempts I've seen on other Linux desktops. (You don't lose any functionality by using the feature, either, as you do with the Windows equivalent, Fast User Switching.)

New to Xandros 3.0 are encrypted home folders: All your personal documents and settings can live in an encrypted folder that is decrypted on the fly when you (and only you) log in. Converting my user account to an encrypted home folder took about 10 minutes, but then I couldn't log in to that account; the password was rejected each time. So I logged in as root and reset the user's password. My encrypted home folder has been working just fine ever since. This feature is very nifty, if a bit rough around the edges with respect to setup.

There is a smidge of an "if it ain't broke, don't improve it" feel to Xandros 3.0. Web and e-mail are handled by Mozilla 1.7.3, rather than the newer Firefox and Thunderbird apps, which are faster and slicker. I hope to see that change in the next Xandros release.

Then there's the Xandros edition of the OpenOffice.org productivity suite. Most distributions these days take great pains to produce customized OpenOffice binaries so that the suite's applications fit in with the rest of the system's look and feel. I've dinged Xandros before for not taking this step, and I ding it again here. The OpenOffice apps (version 1.1) included with Xandros 3.0 simply don't look right. Perhaps the Xandros folks assume that most of their users will use the included CrossOver Office package to run Microsoft Office.

At any rate, there's nothing difficult about using a Xandros system, and there's nothing difficult about installing the OS, either: Unless you deliberately invoke some advanced options, the installer will not ask you a single question that will make you blink. It will automatically shrink your Windows partition and set things up for dual booting. It will install all the packages you need. And after less than a dozen clicks, it will ask you to reboot into your new world.

If you're ready for Linux and are willing to fork over some dough to keep the geeky setup work at bay, you cannot do better than Xandros Desktop 3.0 Deluxe. The package retails for $90 and is appearing in stores, though you may find it easier to order online. There's also a less expensive Standard Edition that retails for $50; it does not include CrossOver Office or the printed manual.

Option 2: It's All About Headware

The second option is for folks who don't mind getting their hands dirty, and who want to explore everything that Linux has to offer while taking advantage of its Free nature. This path won't cost you a dime, save the cost of some blank discs. If this sounds like the angle for you, then head on over to the Fedora Project and start downloading some installation CDs.

There are many benefits to running Fedora.

First, it's more bleeding-edge than most distributions. The current version, Fedora Core 3, sports version 2.8 of the Gnome desktop environment; most other distributions are still stuck on Gnome 2.6, or even 2.4.

Second, the system scripts that handle various tasks (like connecting to a wireless network, or mounting a USB drive) strike me as rock solid. This may not sound like a big deal; a week ago, I was convinced that all distributions basically did the same stuff in more or less the same way behind the scenes. But after spending some time with Mandrake 10.1 and then Fedora Core 3 on the same machine, I came to realize just how bad some of Mandrake's plumbing is, and how great Fedora's is.

For example, when I plug my digital camera (or my MP3 player, or a thumb drive) into the USB port with Mandrake running, I get an icon on my Gnome desktop labeled "removable"--sometimes. Other times, I get nothing, and I have to dive into a command line session to figure out what's gone wrong and how to set it straight. With Fedora Core 3, I get an icon with a unique name for whatever device is plugged in, every single time.

Another example: My laptop, which is still running Mandrake, has a terrible time with wireless connections, leading to my desire to run NetworkManager, which I talked about last month. Fedora Core 3 comes with NetworkManager packages all ready to rock.

Third, Fedora is a wonderful Linux distribution to run because just about every Free Software project on the planet has precompiled binary packages available for it. This means you just download the package and enter one command to install a given chunk of software; removal is also one-command simple. It's very rare to find something that you have to compile from scratch, because someone, somewhere, has already packaged That Thing You Need for Fedora.

Fedora Caveats

There are some downsides to Fedora, too, the first being that there will be many Things You Need. Out of the box (not that there's actually a box in this case, but I see you're still with me), the system doesn't know a thing about MP3 files: It can't rip 'em, can't burn 'em, can't even play 'em. So you'll need to hit up a third-party package repository to install MP3 support. Ditto for a few other system libraries that are otherwise encumbered by licensing issues. There's more on this over at The Unofficial Fedora FAQ. It's a handy place to visit during your first few days with Fedora, during which you'll need to invest some time getting everything working. If you get stuck, there are lots of genuinely friendly people at FedoraForum.org who can likely help you out.

A tip: With previous Fedora releases, it was easiest to pull down third-party packages from the Fedora Extras and Livna repositories. With Fedora Core 3, these repositories have fallen out of favor and in fact aren't keeping up with the pace of Fedora development. I've had much, much better luck when procuring packages from the Dag Wieers, ATrpms, NewRPMS, and Freshrpms.net repositories. Red Hat should be paying these people for the amazing services they're providing to the Fedora and Red Hat communities.

Five minutes with a text editor and your /etc/yum.conf file, and everything becomes automatic. Once the repositories are known to your system, there are no worries. For example, let's say you know you want The GIMP but don't know which repository to get it from. You open a terminal, type yum install gimp, and watch as Fedora figures out every last package The GIMP needs to survive, fetches and installs them, then fetches and installs The GIMP. Or you can go do something fun while the bits are busy arriving.

With Fedora Core 3, there are a bevy of options for your base interface, KDE and Gnome chief amongst them. If you're new to Linux, I suggest trying each and deciding for yourself which one seems friendlier and more tailored to your needs. You can install both interfaces during Fedora's initial setup; you then select which interface you want to work with when you log in. Also give the XFCE environment a spin, especially if you're running an older, slower machine. (Look for more on XFCE next time.)

One other wrinkle to note: Fedora's installation program doesn't know how to resize Windows partitions. Before you get started, you'll need to repartition with a third-party utility. If you feel like spending money, take a look at Partition Magic or Partition Commander--either one will do the job. Or you can go the Free route and try the version of QTParted included on the SystemRescueCD. I've had mixed luck with that program, and I've always been glad that I'd backed up my data before mucking around with partitions. No matter what tool you choose, you should always take this precaution, just in case the unthinkable happens.

I hope I've provided a push in the right direction for some of the folks who write in each month. Best of luck to those making the switch. Drop me a line and tell me how it's going!