A Review: Switching to Linux

After four years of using Windows XP, I decided to try something new. I had been getting by with Windows ever since I got a Windows 95 PC in high school, but I was getting bored with the same old look.

The Requirements

I had a number of strict requirements for any potential replacement for my cherished Windows desktop:

  • It has to provide a complete Microsoft Office replacement suite, with seamless document interoperability and features to match.
  • It has to play my extensive music and video collection, much of which is encoded in Windows Media Audio (WMA), DivX, and a multitude of other formats.
  • It has to play and burn DVD’s and provide hassle-free CD/DVD burning.
  • It has to work seamlessly with my digital camera.
  • I need to be able to easily read and create PDF files.
  • It needs to provide remote desktop connectivity to Linux as well as Windows servers.
  • I need to run several Windows-only applications from Linux, such as my favorite text and image editor.
  • I have a 1GB Microsoft Outlook archive including mail and contacts that needs to be moved to a Linux-compatible mail client.
  • I would like to use Linux as a platform for Microsoft .Net Framework development.
  • It should allow me to easily configure my dual-monitor configuration, TV card, and no-name 5.1 surround sound card.
  • I don’t want to edit any configuration files, scour the net for any drivers, and I want to finish everything over the weekend.

The Candidates

I researched three Linux distributions as candidates to meet these lofty goals: Mandriva, Xandros, and SuSE. My initial exposure to Linux was through Mandrake, which recently merged with Connectiva, and was renamed to Mandriva. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated in a while, and since I am obsessive-compulsive about running the latest software, it was out of the running.

I had read good things about Xandros, which is one of the few distributions to support Office XP and DVD playback by default, so this was my next candidate. I downloaded the free but limited Open Edition, booted from the CD, and had it installed on a spare drive in under 30 minutes. I had several disappointments: I couldn’t get my desktop to work with my dual monitors, I couldn’t get my 5.1 surround card to work, and the TV signal was black and white and silent. I was also disappointed by the lack of software provided by the free edition.

After fiddling with the monitors for a few hours, I gave up and downloaded a SuSE LiveDVD. (SuSE is a mature commercial Linux distribution owned by Novell. The LiveDVD loads the entire operating system from from the DVD and allows you to play with it without making any modifications to your hard drive.) The 1.4 Gb file size took a bit to download, but once I booted from the DVD, I was seeing a KDE desktop in under 5 minutes, with almost all my hardware correctly installed. A few minutes later, I was watching TV and chatting on the net. Later that evening, I purchased SuSE 9.3 for about $100 and waited eagerly for the full version.

Installing SuSE

Later that week, I received a package containing several DVD’s, CD’s and manuals from SuSE. Within half an hour, I had installed SuSE on a spare hard drive, with dual-boot with Windows XP automatically configured. About a day later, SuSE delivered on all the requirements I had established. It took a little fiddling to set up my two monitors in a dual-screen Xinerama configuration, but it was just a matter of choosing the right option in SuSE’s graphical configuration tool. I installed all the software I needed and configured my TV and Sound cards with the excellent YAST2 configuration tool. Mostly, it was a matter of selecting the hardware and clicking next

While SuSE does not natively support DVD or even mp3 playback, it did direct me to a website which allowed me to quickly set up my computer for DVD and Windows Media playback. The TV card worked OK once I ran the configuration wizard, but the image was more garbled and fuzzy than in Windows. Making CD’s was as easy as running the software, dragging the files over, and clicking a button. The contents of my digital camera came up automatically as I plugged it in. Overall, the process was easier than the most Windows installations, which require you to provide drivers for most hardware, at least if you want it to run efficiently.

Migrating Data and Applications

All my office documents loaded up perfectly in OpenOffice.Org 2.0. For my instant messaging client, I used Kopete, the native KDE client, which worked great. To migrate my Outlook mail and contacts, I first exported it to Thunderbird in Windows, and then simply copied it over from my Windows partition . Contacts were a bit trickier because I had to export them to CSV format before I could import them back in.

For the Windows applications I wanted to use in SuSE, I installed Wine, a compatibility layer that allows you to run Windows applications in Linux. Unfortunately, it does not support Dreamweaver MX 2004 and Visual Studio.Net, but it did run my favorite text editor and image viewer (albeit slower and with minor graphical artifacts).

For the Microsoft .Net Framework requirement, I installed Mono, a compatible framework that allows you to write and run .Net programs on Linux. Unfortunately, it did not provide an easy means of accessing it, so I haven’t had a change to mess with it yet. I will probably just limit my .Net development to my laptop for now.

Problems

The problems I ran into were not the ones I expected. While I was able to meet all my requirements for a desktop OS, I found the process to be very buggy. KDE, the desktop environment, would crash several times a day, audio would hang, software would refuse to install, the TV card would not show video, DVD drives would refuse to play, and sometimes, the desktop would just freeze up. After each reboot, everything would work again. This may be related to the ancient 5GB hard drive I am using for the Linux partition, the fact that the versions of SuSE and KDE are brand new, or the fact that my hardware was not selected with Linux in mind. Overall I found these issues to be an annoying but tolerable.

Conclusion

I don’t know yet if I am going to switch to Linux on a permanent basis. Certainly, the OS is impressive, and provides a real alternative to Windows. The question is – do I really need one? Aside from the superior (albeit buggy) interface provided by KDE, I was able to do all the same things in Windows with less bugs and a greater variety of software. I’ve never had spyware or any security problems with Windows. I like being able to buy any piece of hardware or software and know that it will “Play For Sure” as Microsoft says. I don’t buy into the ideological motivations of the “free software” movement. (It’s not really “free,” and I paid $95 more for Linux that I paid for my school-subsidized copy of Windows XP) I’m sure that Linux geeks could go on for hours about the superiority of the architecture, the licensing model, stability, and so one, but these things are not what ultimately matter – the only relevant question is “does it accomplish your objectives?” I’m not sure if Linux does that that much better than Windows. Still, I’ll try it for a few more weeks, if only to justify my investment.

4 Comments

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4 Responses to A Review: Switching to Linux

  1. I am by no means a computer expert, but I’ve used SUSE Linux almost exclusively since ’98 (version 6.1). The distribution has become both easier to install and to configure over those years. (Back in 6.1, for example, I had to change several configuration files and recompile the kernel to get a new zip drive to work. Now, they, and almost everything else works straight out of the box. No more computer machismo for me.) With Novell’s recent purchase of SUSE, I’m sure Windows compatibility will only improve as they’re eyeing corporate customers.

    When I do need to use Windows software, I use a utility called VMWare, which allows me to run Windows on a virtual machine within Linux. I haven’t looked at Wine in ages as it seemed for years to be too far from maturity. I’d be willing to bet money blind that it still is. Codeweavers has a Wine-based product called “Crossover Office.” As with Wine, this supports only a limited array of software, although their web site does list what works and how well. The last time I checked, VMWare ran in the $100-130 range and Crossover Office was about $40-50.

    I am surprised at your difficulties with KDE. I like Unix-style windows managers and so use FVWM, but my wife’s account is set up for KDE. She has used it for hours at a time without crashing it. It did hang for ages once, and I’ve heard that KDE is a memory hog. Perhaps that was your problem. You seem to prefer the Windows-style GUI. You could give Gnome a whirl, too. (BTW, This is the default desktop for Red Hat, the distribution that my grad school adopted for campus after I’d been using SUSE for a year or so.)

    Like you, I find the leftist orientation of many Linux users annoying (and wish the GPL would not call itself a “copyleft”). They’re not all commies, but should you ever need to go to a Linux forum for advice, you’re likely see a moonbat or two fluttering around.

    My boss uses Word and many of its collaboration features. I have Star Office (a commercial version of OpenOffice.org) installed for most work with MS files. However, I have had some difficulty with such things as viewing editorial comments (I forget what the Word name for that is.) and have had to fire up VMWare. Perhaps this has been fixed in your version of OO.org, but if you don’t know, get your hands on a “document from hell” and try it if this is an important capability for you.

    I have also never had a security problem with Windows, but my wife once was on a phone modem for five minutes with a Windows 2000 machine a couple of years back and got infected with Blaster, I think it was. I like not having to worry about worms and viruses or pay a third-party company regularly to take care of that. However, as a sysadmin, you still need to keep your sstem updated regularly as Linux has security concerns of its own. SUSE allows automatic updates. I have heard that sometimes a bad update can goof up the odd application, but such problems are found and fixed quickly. But Windows patches have the same problems, if not worse. (No experience w/ auto-updates here: I do mine manually as file integrity checking is part of my security routine — THIS I have set up to do automatically.)

    For ease of use and MAYBE stability, it’s almost up to your personal preferences which to use, but Linux does have one advantage. Its distributed development model has the same kind of error-checking capabilities that we see in blogging. This leads to some very fast turnaround times on when bugs get (a) found and (b) fixed.

    OK. That’s enough for one comment. I’ve probably written more than you posted already!

    — Gus

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  3. Earl

    A couple of years ago I tried Lindows,now named Linspire,It was fairly easy but wouldn’t work with my dsl modem or any external win-modem either.I could have switched to cable but my access cost would have almost doubled.Lately I’ve heard some good things about Ubuntu Linux,liked their website and ordered their free CD w/free shipping, so the price is right and if it works I will send them a donation

  4. fripper

    I’d be willing to bet your video card is an Nvidia with the Nvidia 3d drivers installed.I had the same problem and solved it by using the nv drivers.
    I take exception to Gus’s comment that many linux users are leftists,I’ve found that most are just folks who are tired of microsft for whatever reason.
    Many don’t agree with Inteclual copyrights-neither did Thomas Jefferson-.Some,like me,are also cheap and
    don’t feel like shelling out megabucks for bloatware.Others like the fact that there is no spy-ware and virii are far and few between.
    Basically most linux users are akin to hotrodders and do-it your-selfers,do it your self and see what she’ll do.Nobody accuses them of being leftists because they choose not to patronize companies with questionable software standards.
    Good luck with Suse,but wait till you get bored with it and move to either Debian or Slackware.
    Fripper

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