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Is Linux for you?


Bryan Lilius is the Staff Elder at Faith Presbyterian Church, 1307 Blanco Woods. 

From the February, 2002 issue of PC Alamode Magazine

I have been a Linux dabbler since 1993, when I worked in Berlin, Germany with a real programmer, Scott Maley. Our mission there was conversion of the Tempelhof Terminal Radar system to serve as the regional Air Traffic Control System for the former East Germany. Scott was a subscriber to Linux Journal before the Linux Kernel reached version 1.0, and he would let me look at his magazines, which I found to be interesting curiosities. While I could look over his shoulder at his Linux system, I didn’t have one of my own until 1996 when I installed Red Hat (4.0?) on a 486 I was retiring from active Microsoft service. Amazingly, I succeeded at getting that old 486 set up as our home file and print server, although it didn’t seem the sort of thing that just anyone could do. I had to recompile the kernel to get it to work with my bus mouse and obsolete Western Digital network card. Recompiling the kernel, for me, required extensive reading of kernel cookbook instructions, and resulted in having to start over from initial installation more than once. It was the sort of thing that computer hobbyists might enjoy.

I stayed with Red Hat through version 6.0, and would probably still be using it but couldn’t get network services working on a Toshiba laptop. While this may sound like a criticism of Red Hat, it isn’t, as many other people were able to get a configuration similar to mine working, and they were patiently helping me do the same when someone suggested I might like to try Mandrake . The Linux world is very remarkable in this respect – there are a lot of people willing to help you and it is very inexpensive to try different distributions. If you have access to a high-speed Internet connection and a CD burner (and almost everyone does nowadays, right?), then you can try any one of the hundreds of Linux distributions for the cost of your time and the blank CDs. When I first tried Mandrake Version 6.0. I was very impressed with how easily it installed on my laptop, recognizing all the hardware, including the Ethernet PC-card. A creature of habit, I have been using Mandrake ever since and have been quite happy with it.

Who should try Linux
Linux is most suited for those with a “sys admin” outlook, who enjoy twiddling with configuration files. Web-site developer/maintainers and software developers must give it a try it a try and see the incredible capabilities available at little or no cost. 

More and more, though, if you just want to surf the web, use e-mail, and maybe compose your paper for school, Linux may be for you. Mandrake Linux installs easier than Microsoft Windows (98, 2000 or XP), and is at least as likely to recognize all your hardware and work on first boot up. There is the possibility that you may be one of those able to free yourself from the monolith before you get so locked in to applications that demand the Windows operating system.

Getting Started
While most people I know who use Linux, including myself, have a dual boot machine, (we want Linux on our best hardware), I think first-timers are better off trying it on the machine they have just replaced. Right now people are giving away old Pentium II’s, if you don’t have one of your own sitting in a closet, and Linux will run just fine on them. The advantage of this is that you don’t worry about messing up your Windows machine and you have the freedom of knowing you can’t hurt anything. You should be aware that if your computer is really old (say a P-133 with 8MB RAM) you ought to get an older version of Linux. These older versions are still available for download. Mandrake recommends you have at least 64 MB of RAM for using version 8.1. You should also have at least 2GB of disk space available, and 4GB is better. However, you can still obtain versions that will even run on a 386 with 640kb of RAM from their Web site.

If you are not putting Linux on a stand-alone machine, you must make some decisions. Mandrake provides an option of installing itself in your Windows partition, and actually starting up from a windows command. I have never tried this, and wouldn’t recommend it. I have heard that it runs slower than native mode. 

If you have room for a second drive that you can dedicate to Linux, then this is a better option. You won’t have to repartition your current, fully utilized Windows partition. If for some reason you have just lost all your data and must reinstall Windows, then you have the perfect opportunity to set aside a small portion of that big hard drive, create a Linux partition, and enjoy a dual-boot machine. Before you do any of these things, be sure to read the “install.htm” file in the top-level directory of the first CD. This document tells you everything you need to know to boot from the CD-ROM and install Mandrake Linux. It also shows you how to create a set of boot floppies if your machine can’t boot from CD-ROM. Other informative reading about Linux and Mandrake can be found at Mandrake’s Web-site.

Mandrake’s installation is easy and straightforward. From my experience and reading, Mandrake does the best job of recognizing the hardware on your machine and configuring it appropriately of any Linux distribution available. There isn’t space in this review for a step-by-step description of all must do, but the installation instructions will be sufficient for most users and systems. When you are finished you will have X-Windows and the KDE environment all configured for you.

What’s included
Mandrake 8.1 comes with Linux Kernel version 2.4.8, the KDE Desktop version 2.2.1 with the “dramatically improved” KOffice 1.1. Server features include:support for Journalized File Systems, a special version of SAMBA which allows Windows file sharing with NT-like access control lists, and the Apache web server. 

Some of the 100’s of applications include:

  • Grio500: synchronize your desktop with the Rio 500 MP3 player 
  • Mozilla 0.9.4: browse the Web and try the new communication module
  • XMMS 1.2.5: edit and manage MP3 files 
  • GIMP 1.2.2: create and manipulate photos with this powerful graphics software 
  • Gphoto2: manage all your digital photos
  • Grip 2.96: burn you favorite CDs
  • KOffice 1.1: perform all your office tasks
  • Galeon 0.12.1: try this unusual browser for a new kind of browsing experience
  • Gnomemeeting 0.11: Share good times with family and friends with this full-featured video conferencing software 
Availability and pricing
If downloading and making your own CD is not something you can or want to do, you can order the 3-CD “Download” set from Mandrake for $25 plus $5 shipping, or from Cheabytes for $10.49 including shipping. You may also find bargains on Mandrake through other inexpensive sources such as book and discount computer stores.

If you want to jump in with both feet, Mandrake Linux PowerPack Edition 8.1 features 7 CDs, 2 manuals, thousands of Open Source and commercial applications and installation support. The price of $89 includes shipping and a contribution to Mandrake’s Free Software developments. Other more expensive and extensive options are also available.

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