Friday, July 15, 2005

Linux in 60 Seconds: Test Driving Linux by David Brickner


"From Windows to Linux in 60 seconds" is the promise on the cover of Test Driving Linux by David Brickner, and it certainly keeps its promise. I popped the included Move CD into the drive, re-booted my computer, and in less than a minute, I was looking at a Linux KDE desktop.

Much like Knoppix and other Linux Live CDs, the Move CD lets you boot into Linux (actually Mandrakesoft's Mandrakelinux 10.0) without disturbing the Windows-formatted contents of your hard drive. This benefit makes it possible to "test-drive" in the store a system configured for Windows, to see if it will work with Linux instead. The boot process actually looks for device drivers for your monitor, keyboard and mouse, printer, and so on, and then incorporates them into the Linux configuration. Network system settings are also moved, more-or-less seamlessly, into the Linux arena. With a memory key inserted, the configuration file is stored, and you skip over this process in subsequent boots from the CD.

Because the operating system is stored on a CD, your computer will run slower than you are used to—and the slower your CD-ROM drive, the more your patience will be tried. After using it satisfactorily on my main computer and two brand-new ones at Computer City, I even tried it on a creaky old PC with eight years under its AMD-chip belt—it worked, but I had time to make a sandwich in between window refreshes.

The CD doesn't just give you a peek at the world of Linux. It provides a full operating system, plus working versions of popular Linux-style open-source software. The "Kool Desktop Environment" (KDE) interface spawned a whole host of other K-initialed programs: Konqueror (Web browser and file manager), Kontact (eMail manager), Kmail (the eMail component of Kontact—think Outlook Express), and the Kicker panel (sort of like the Windows taskbar). These are included on the Move CD, and the reader can walk through using them with the careful instructions in Test Driving Linux.

I had to try Konqueror on the Web first. The appearance of BlogCritics from this browser is interestingly different from my Firefox view; fonts are lighter in weight, and I miss the status bar at the bottom of the browser window. While I'm sure there is such a feature in Konqueror, I could not figure out how to turn it on during my exploration. Moving from page to page was slower, most likely due to the CD-based OS, and some of the MT buttons were missing from the editing interface. Since I've seen the same missing buttons when using Firefox, this may not be a Linux- or Konqueror-specific issue.

An open-source office suite is also provided, including Writer, Calc, Impress and Draw, as well as a mathematical-formula generator called Math. I had already downloaded these prior to my test-drive, so I was able to use Writer from my hard drive. Like many open-source programs, they are designed to run under Linux as well as (sometimes, better than) under Windows.

There's a photo program, GIMP, and an accounting program, GnuCash on the CD. Gimp is midway in features between Windows Paint and Adobe Photoshop, but to get the full feature set, you need to download a later version from the Web. There are also Mac or Windows versions to try out, all located at The manual instructions apply to the older version found on the CD.

I dabbled in GnuCash a bit, but since I didn't have the USB key in during that session, I lost all my setup upon exiting. The taste was sufficient to assure me that this Linux-friendly program would do everything I get Quicken to do. It even imports Quicken QIF files.

Two chapters also cover the Games and Music/Video capabilities of your system under Linux. Several MP3 or XXML players (amaroK and Totem, for example) are covered. I was intrigued by the open-source take on compression of sound files.
There are several problems with MP3 files. First of all, their compression algorithms are no longer the best available... Also, the MP3 compression algorithm must be licensed if you want to create a legal encoding program that uses the MP3 format. To remedy these problems, the open source community has created its own audio format known as Ogg Vorbis... You can test the sound difference for yourself by visiting [the Ogg Vorbis page at].

The real fun, for me at least, was the opportunity to play with the command-line interface (CLI)—named Konsole, of course. Linux preserves much of the Unix flavor its name reflects, and the fact that you're not running Windows lets you fiddle with files that are locked while the Windows OS is running. (Needless to say, this is not for the faint of heart, nor is it recommended for the beginner.) The manual really comes into its own here, showing the test-driver how to halt runaway process and loops, and generally recognise what's going on under the hood.

One nice advance over the older SUN Unix I was used to is the addition of tabs to the Konsole CLI. Like tabs in your Firefox, Mozilla or Konqueror browser, CLI tabs let you easily separate different tasks, isolating them in their own tabs without needing to open a new window process.

Despite the speed issues, I came away from my test-drive ready to sign the contract for this shiny new vehicle. And that's the beauty of the Move CD and the Test Driving Linux manual. Once you've tried it out, you're ready for the highway.

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Blogger samraat said...

4/03/2010 10:51 PM  

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