Charles Arthur: 'The overall feeling I got from Linux as a simple desktop user was one of freedom'

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The Independent Online

My description here last week of my failed initial efforts to install one particular version (a "distribution") of Linux - the free PC-operating system - raised a sort of collective howl from the Linux community. "Shouldn't have tried Debian," they said. "Should have gone with the advice people gave you, and tried Mandrake or Red Hat."

They also passed along many useful suggestions, which I'll round up here next week. In the meantime, though, as I've started the tale with woe, I thought I'd finish with triumph.

Having failed with Debian (which demonstrates that not all Linux "distros" are created equal in novices' eyes), I got in touch with Yourlinux.com. They generously sent me enough distributions to keep installing until Christmas: Mandrake 9.1 (three CDs), Red Hat (in the guise of "Blue Square", due to copyright restrictions that Red Hat has placed on it), Peanut and Slackware, and Suse on a stand-alone CD (meaning that rather than have to wipe your Windows hard drive, you just put a few files on it while most of the operating system is stored on the disc).

I began with Mandrake. With three CDs, this will set you back £7 from Yourlinux.com (£2 each, plus £1 shipping). The install went smoothly. The autodetect program (with a pleasant graphical front-end) recognised the computer's video card - which had stumped Debian - the scroll wheel on the PS/2-style mouse, and generally got on with putting everything in its right place.

The only stutter was with installing the Open Office suite (which can read or write files for Microsoft's Office suite) off the CD; this wouldn't go through, but a version that would install came on a separate CD (£2, vs £400 for Microsoft Office).

And so I embarked on the ocean of Linux. And it was a comfortable cruise. Having created a "root" user (who lurks unseen behind everything, and can zap any or all files) and a "normal" user (who can't), I logged in as a normal user.

You get a choice of interface; the most common are KDE (www.kde.org) and Gnome (www.gnome.org). Both run the same applications; it's just the appearance that varies. Personally, I preferred KDE for its typeface - far, far better than the vile Courier font that Windows uses, which becomes jagged at small point sizes - and the general feel of the desktop. Gnome seemed more angular (for example, the windows are all square, which will be familiar if you've been using Windows98; KDE will appeal to WindowsXP users). However, the choice is very much yours, and can land you in one of the many minor religious wars that erupt over software. Some folk hate KDE, so no doubt I'll be lambasted somewhere and lauded elsewhere for this opinion.

Actually, with KDE and Gnome, you don't get one desktop. You get multiple desktops, which you can switch between at will. Got a lot of games open, and want to do some work? Start a new desktop and start doing whatever it is you need to do.

This is a neat feature, although you can run into problems if your spreadsheet is open on one desktop and your word processor on another and you need to look at both together. You can't; but most people used to Windows' single desktop won't find this a problem.

There is a plethora of software for Linux. The motto of its contributors seems to be "one just isn't enough". There are multiple browsers, e-mail clients, word processors, graphics editing programs, games, calendaring programs... And for those with years of data gathered on Windows who wonder how they'll migrate it, all the tools exist (and often the programs can do this themselves). KDE's Kmail can import mail from two versions of Outlook, as well as Pegasus and Eudora; and even if you don't want to use Kmail, it can do the import and then export the mail as a Unix "mbox" file (thanks to Paul Evans for this advice).

As for those letters, spreadsheets, Powerpoint demos, and so on - OpenOffice will open those just fine. The only hassle you might experience is with getting your more esoteric devices to run; many fax modems in particular infuriate Linux users, because they use Windows drivers for their fax functionality, and neither the modem makers nor Microsoft will share what that function is.

Generally, though, printers (unless they're very, very old) and scanners should all be fine. There are even programs for getting Palm machines to work with Linux (as Palm hasn't ported the software), though you're currently out of luck using a PocketPC. It is being worked on, and not from the Microsoft end.

Given an internet connection and a search engine, or the user forums of whichever distro you've installed, you will generally arrive at a solution. It's just possible that the solution will be "boot back into Windows and print/scan/fax it", but most Linux devotees will view this as an admission of defeat and failure on their part, and do anything to avoid it.

You will, of course, be unable to install programs that run only on Windows (such as the GPS navigator program I mentioned a couple of weeks ago). For those, you need to keep your Windows partition intact.

The interesting effect of that, though, is that Windows becomes more of a necessary evil than the thing that confronts you every time you switch on. (Linux will run endlessly, by the way.) The overall feeling I got from Linux, as a simple desktop user was of freedom. I didn't get nagged about whether my copy of the OS was pirated. I didn't get little messages popping up saying "a network cable is disconnected" (to which my mental response was always, there wasn't one there before dammit). I was just free to do what I wanted. I rather liked that.

network@independent.co.uk

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