For no good reason other than curiosity (and a bloated XP install that gets slower by the hour) the inner geek in me has been looking for a competent Linux distribution to try. I’ve experimented with a few in the past but none have ever gotten me to stick with it for even 10% of my daily computing time. Either the distro was difficult to install, had a non-intuitive GUI, didn’t have applications that support most of my regular tasks (‘net, office tasks, photos to name a few), or just plain sucked. Since I first started experimenting most of the distros have improved greatly, and in the last month or so I’ve gotten several different varieties to keep my interest.
First was Freespire, a community version of the pay product Linspire. The claim to fame on this version is an unabashed love-affair with proprietary products (closed source code like Adobe Flash, Windows Media, etc.) tied directly into the OS, which allows for a more Windows-like experience from the get go and reduces the need to configure every little piece of hardware. This embrace of non OSS applications & drivers is generally frowned upon by the dedicated Linux community, who insist that true GNU Linux products should be open source and should never contain locked away code. I could go on an editorial rant here and point out that the ease of use for Linux noobs is directly proportional to the adoption rate of their beloved product, but that point usually flies over many a head. Anyway, the Freespire install was as painless as advertised. Less than ten minutes after starting the install I had a clean desktop staring at me.
The speed of loading and the quickness of individual applications to respond, even after sleep/hibernate modes, was impressive when compared to a clean Windows load on the same machine. (This is a common theme across all the distros I tried.) Freespire shipped with basic software, including a Mozilla-based, web broswer, the Open Office suite, and a collection of applications designed for the KDE environment. (Basic Linux lesson – the OS still seems to be text based at its core, so many different GUI layers have been developed to interact with the core. Think Windows 3.x layered over DOS here. Gnome and KDE are the most popular versions, with KDE resembling Windows the most.) Other than this, installed applications were sparse. Because Linux is still quite tech-heavy at heart installing new applications can be daunting, with running a source code compiler of the new app being one of the first instructions. Even the Linux guys recognized the need for a simpler install package, so in true open source fashion several different installation front-ends popped up. Freespire uses CNR, “Click-n-Run”, a web app that allows one to search the database, find an application, and click an Install button that calls up the CNR pacakge manager installed locally. This is where the tarnish builds heavily.
To put it simply, Freespire and Freespire capable apps on CNR are frequently out of date. The last release of Frespire was November 2007, and it is built on top of Ubuntu code from April 2007. The most recent Firefox installer on CNR is version 2.0.8….several versions behind. A Firefox 3 build is available, but it is (a) an Alpha release and (b) not Freespire-capable. Many other products are similarly out of date, which isn’t necessarily bad but does do a disservice to an installation package that works well. I’ve read stories that indicate the Linsire/Freespire organizations were not very focused, and the purchase of Linspire by Xandros leaves the future of Freespire in question. Damn shame too – Freespire has potential.
Next I looked at Ubuntu, the current God of OSS. Like Baskin Robbins there are a lot of flavors to pick from, both official and unofficial versions. I went with the basic Hardy Heron (8.04), downloaded the ISO, and proceeded to install. Speed bump #1 came during install, when the partition editor decided to slam on the brakes and putter across the installation street like an old man with a walker. I thought the thing was frozen. After what seemed like forever, the partition editor finally kicked up but continued being sssssslllllllloooooowwwwww after I selected options. This is in stark contrast to other screens that flew by. Once the installation finished Ubuntu seemed to run fine. The applications were more current and through the application manager updated software (including Firefox 3….go figure) was a breeze. The default Gnome screen was a little different but not much trouble to work with, and the installed application package was pretty stout. Unfortunately trouble was ahead.
I’m not exactly certain what happened but the Master Boot Record (MBR) for the entire laptop got messed up, which wound up corrupting the dual-boot loader (which allows one to use either Linux or Windows upon starting the machine) and preveted me from loading either OS. Since the Ubuntu install updated the MBR I decided to reinstall it, walker and all, hoping to correct the MBR. That part worked, but another snafu popped up. The original Ubuntu install found all my laptop hardware correctly the first time, but after a partition format and reinstall my video card and LCD screen were no longer found. Very confusing, considering that everything driver-wise went fine the first time. Every fix I tried didn’t work, so rather than running 800X600 Ubuntu hit the trash can. I tried Kubuntu, a KDE variety of Ubuntu, but the installation application kept exiting prematurely.
Next was Fedora from Red Hat, the first major consumer based distro to hit popularity. It certainly has bloated over the years, requiring a DVD ISO rather than the CD ISO to install. Given that the download was 3.5 Gigs I expect everything to be available when needed, but the install kept failing because a file for OpenOffice was missing. I would have skipped it and installed OpenOffice later, but my two choices were Abort the Install andReboot, which seemed silly because Fedora wasn’t installed enough to boot. Yeesh.
Mint Linux, which promised the best looking interface, is an Ubuntu derivative and didn’t like my display drivers either. OpenSUSE asked me for a login prior to install, pointless because I didn’t have the ability to set up an account. At this time I was just about ready to give up and stick with my plodding XP. Then along comes my savior.
PCLinuxOS is a KDE environment that is based on Mandrake, another long time Linux distro. The installation was fairly smooth, didn’t bog down on the partition editor, and finished fairly quickly. No problems were found with the MBR load, and the dual boot box is a graphical one. Most importantly, my laptop’s display adapters were configured just time and are actually used. The desktop itself is very clean and the whole OS loads fast. The application menu can get a little too hierarchical, making it difficult to find newly installed programs. Like many other distros, the add/remove applications interface is the Synaptic package manager, which also doubles as the update manager for the system. I basically have Linux versions of the main programs I use in Windows, with better load and response times. The proprietary drivers to run different media are included and work fine – although not as trumpeted as Freespire. There have been problems – the hierarchial mess in the “Start” bar can be a pain, it’s a bit long in the tooth being a 2007 release (although it does update and run just fine), and some embedded videos have killed the system. Other than those, I don’t think I’ve encountered any massive problems with it. Heck, even the kids can play their online games from Disney, Noggin, Nick Jr., etc on it with Firefox. And in the end, it’s legally free.
A year ago….hell two weeks ago…..I thought that nothing would replace Windows on my machines. Not because I didn’t like Microsoft. I like them and have used them almost exclusively in my life. It’s just that nothing better had come along. All the Linux problems above would have made most other folks say the hell with it, and I almost did too. I’m glad that I found PCLOS, because it’s definitely been worth using to me. Both machines I have it on are set to dual boot either it or Windows, but I find myself booting to Windows less and less as PCLOS is just so much more efficient. I know I’ll find gripes as I keep messing with it, but for now I’m completely happy with it.
End of nerd transmission.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 30th, 2008 at 6:00 pm and is filed under Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.