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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.