Charles Arthur: 'Windows costs around £80; Linux is free. But which "distribution" of it should a novice try?'

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The Independent Online

Although you may have heard of Linux ­ super-stable, free, doesn't suffer from Windows viruses ­ few people have used it on the desktop.

Although you may have heard of Linux ­ super-stable, free, doesn't suffer from Windows viruses ­ few people have used it on the desktop. Unless you go looking very hard for one, you won't find a retail machine with Linux pre-installed; Microsoft has in the past put considerable pressure on PC manufacturers not to sell anything besides Windows. And for manufacturers, there's little point in bothering to put anything but Windows on ­ because that's what the overwhelming majority of people want (initially). And if you want to install Linux, you can.

Of course, the reverse would be true if by some accident of history Linux were the dominant PC operating system. Except there's a big price difference: Windows will cost you around £80, but Linux costs a few pounds for a "distribution" ­ two or three CDs containing a collection of the basic operating system, plus programs for e-mail, web, writing, drawing, graphing, and so on, all packaged in a GUI (graphical user interface).

A while ago I asked here which distribution of Linux a novice should try. Most people advised one called Mandrake. A few suggested one called Red Hat. Outwardly there's little difference. My feeling is that for a novice, it comes down to which is the easier to install. And on that, you take pot luck. But for the cost of a night in the pub, you can get yourself a handful of distributions to try out. If one flops, another will fly.

A warning: if you do this, back up all your personal data from your Windows machine first; and check that you have its system restore or installation discs, in case Linux isn't to your taste. And write the truly important things, like mail and ISP settings and passwords, down on paper, as you'll surely need them just when you can't get at their electronic forms.

I tried it out on an EasyPC supplied by Hewlett-Packard that ­ under WindowsXP ­ had been acting as a home server. It had a 2Ghz Pentium, a 20Gb hard drive (partitioned into two of 10Gb), 128Mb of RAM, and a ATI Rage 128 graphics card connecting to a flat-panel screen.

I began with a distribution called Debian because, well, the penguin on the box looked friendly. How wrong can one be? I slotted the first CD in, booted up and... wow. It was back to the 1980s. White text on black screen, incomprehensible numbers, that sort of thing. I stumbled through the very non-GUI setup program. It wasn't good. Nobody, it appeared, had considered that you might want to move backwards through the installation process; nor that you might want to know how far along you were in it. I was in a twisty maze of screens, all lurid.

After what seemed like hours of swapping CDs in and out, I got to the meaty bit ­ which packages (ie programs) did I want to install? This was more like it: the GNOME desktop (I've heard of that), the X11 Windows server (ditto), and a few others that sounded like fun. Scientific things, games; there's a huge choice. And all, don't forget, for the cost of the CD duplication.

The machine chuntered up some more white script on black screen, and threw me into the X11 configuration program. This was confusing and annoying. To get graphics on Linux, you have to run a program called X11; for it to run, you need to tell it all about your mouse, keyboard, graphics card, sound card, inside-leg measurement and so on.

Disaster. I couldn't make the mouse work. And the installer insisted that the driver for the ATI card wasn't installed, even though it knew what the card was and listed it in the setup. Obviously, I should install it. No problem, I thought. I've installed software before.

But not on Linux. Once the setup program was done with me (parting with the jolly "Have fun!"), I was dumped on to the command line. There may be lonely places on this earth, but I'll bet that few of them compare with staring at a computer screen that says, in white text on a black background, "debian/charles$:" The immediate response is to ask: aren't you even going to give me a clue what to do now? And the command line's answer is: no. If you're not already comfortable with Linux, things won't improve.

Through trial and error I finally launched the X11 Windowing system ­ which the installer really should have done, right away. X11 then wouldn't start. It said it couldn't work out what my card was, and that the driver wasn't installed, and could I go back and install it in something like /bin/X11/Xdrivers/yournamehere?

Sure, I thought, I've got three CDs full of drivers here. But there was one problem. I had no idea how to search a CD once I put it in the drive. I had no idea where in the directory tree it would show up. I began feeling that not only was this the loneliest place in the world, but that I had also lost the radio to call for the rescue plane.

Fortunately, I hadn't. Thanks to the folks at (in Lancashire, since you ask), I had a handful of other distributions to try. As I'll explain next week, those were rather more successful.