A Linux For Everyone

Published Date
01 - Aug - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Aug - 2005
A Linux For Everyone
Not too long ago, Linux was predominantly considered as an operating system for geeks and the idea of installing it on a home desktop was totally alien. Though fervently used on servers, on the desktop side, system administrators were the only humans to accept Linux open-heartedly.

Despite being free to use, Linux never really caught on big time, for, it had grisly hardware compatibility issues, a rustic GUI-in comparison to Windows and Macintosh-a command line interface that asked you to remember thousands of commands and in case you got stuck, and there was no one who could help you out.

However, as with many things, Linux also has undergone a gradual evolution. Most teething problems have been well taken care of. Hardware detection has improved by leaps and bounds and provides better control over your hardware.

The graphical interface has replaced many command line utilities and hence, working with Linux is much simpler today. In case you get stuck, there is a strong community eager to solve your problems, and companies that offer dedicated support.

All these things have helped Linux to elevate its perception from a not so user-friendly OS to a must-try operating system.

Though Linux has evolved into a user-friendly OS, in no way has the taming come at the expense of the stability or flexibility that's inherent to it. This domesticated beast is still potent enough to be deployed on a server and lithe enough to be used on a desktop. This single attribute makes Linux a one-size-fits-all solution and gives it a leg up in comparison to its competitors.

Architecturally, Linux is quite different from Windows, right from its philosophy to the final implementation. It is modular, which makes it powerful, but demands a steep learning curve, from the interested and passionate computer user.

This steep learning curve often happens to be the stumbling block, as many first time Linux users struggle to get past doing mundane tasks such as burning CDs, playing music, accessing shares on a network, etc., which otherwise is a no-brainer on a Windows box. Recent developments were largely geared towards reducing this learning curve and make Linux more approachable.

When it comes to using Linux, the biggest challenge a user faces is choosing the right distribution to start with. Speaking of variety, as of today, there are more than a thousand distributions available. Each of these distributions has its unique characteristics-some are totally geared for server use, others are written from scratch for probing network security, while the majority are aimed towards enthusiastic individuals.

If we want to classify distribution based on usage scenarios then there are three broad categories they distinctly address-beginners, power users and corporate.   

In distributions aimed at beginners, the focus is often to make the distro look and feel like Windows, so that first time users can gradually learn the new OS without feeling the shift. This makes the transition from other operating systems to Linux much smoother. However, such distributions are made by companies and hence are often paid propositions, as opposed to the basic philosophy of Linux being free.

For power users, being at the cutting edge matters more than simplicity and hence, the focus is often to provide the best there is in the Linux world. Such projects are community-driven and are free to download and use.

Distro's aimed at the corporate world have a different demand; ease of deployment, availability of patches, good technical support and basic sets of applications for office work are some of the important ones corporate users would look for. These projects need dedicated teams and are often a product from a Linux vendor company such as RedHat, SuSe or Mandrake.

In this comparison, we have looked at some of the best distro's available for the first two categories. For beginners, who want to take the jump in the Linux world, we have Xandros Desktop edition and Linspire 5.0. For power users, we have Fedora core 4, Ubuntu 5.04, SuSe 9.3 professional, RedHat WS, Mandrake 10.1 Power Pack and OpenLx 11.0.

How We Tested
Our testing methodology took into account parameters such as ease of installation, ease of use, out of box usability and to some extent hardware support.
In ease of installation, we checked how simple the installation process is? Does it allow you to choose empty space on the hard drive to install the new OS? How simple is the user interface for partitioning the drive? Does the installer provide any useful hints or information during partitioning of the drive? These parameters are quite critical for a beginner and may not be as important to a power user. To gauge the simplicity of installation we got a non-Linux user to install the OS on one of our test machines. 
For ease of use, we took into account general usability of the system. To start with we checked how simple it is to customize the system to your liking i.e. wallpapers, screensavers, applying themes, changing fonts and their size, changing the screen resolutions etc. Once the system was set to our liking we moved on to setting up network connection, proxy settings, configuring the email client, configuring a printer. Then we checked sharing of folders on the network, browsing the LAN network, connecting to the Internet, updating the system by downloading new patches, etc. In the process we tried simulating a typical PC usage.
In out of box usability, we looked at the bundled applications and whether they are enough to carry out your daily chores. We looked for an office suite that can be a viable replacement for MS Office, a messenger client for chatting, a good browser for Internet browsing and some sort of image manipulation application. We also tried connecting a USB flash drive and a Digital camera to check the plug and play capability of these distro's. Overall, the idea was to find out how effective Linux distro's are when it comes to real world scenarios.
Right from its inception, hardware support has been a problem with Linux. It is extremely difficult to test distros on every hardware configuration, so we decided to test these distro's on the latest hardware. The idea was that if they work with the latest hardware, chances are that they will work with older hardware as well. Our testbed comprised of an Intel 3.4 GHz Pentium 4, an Intel D875PBZ motherboard, 512 MB DDR RAM, MSI FX 5200 graphics card, Creative Vibra sound card, SATA 400 GB Hitachi hard drive and Samsung's SyncMaster 173P TFT monitor. The other machine was an AMD FX-53 processor, MSI VIA-based motherboard, 1 GB 400 MHz RAM, Gigabyte FX 5950 graphic card, onboard AC97 sound, SATA 120 GB Seagate drive and a Samsung 17-inch CRT monitor.
Windows Clones
To begin with, both Xandros and Linspire (previously knows as Lindows) are targeted towards a Linux newbie and are very different from other distros when it comes to general usability. Both distro's offer a sleeker user interface and introduce some excitement into the otherwise bland UI that other Linux distro's have.

As with Windows, the installation of Linux also requires you to have a bootable CD with you. Both Xandros and Linspire come on a bootable CD and all you need to do is insert the disc in your CD-ROM and wait for the system to boot.

Once the system boots via the CD-ROM, Linspire presents you with a menu to either install it on your hard drive or run it directly from the CD (as a Live CD).

Xandros offers a well polished installation interface. Seen here is the application selection window, a la Win98 style

On the other hand, after booting through the CD Xandros directly goes into hardware detection mode and once that is completed, presents a welcome screen.

After you select to install Linspire, the installer goes through the routine of collecting necessary data such as keyboard layout, machine name, and administrator password. On the next screen, it asks you which partitioning method to employ. By default, two options are offered, one to completely take over the hard drive and the second, more advanced one, where you can select the partition to which you want to install the OS.

Partitioning used to be the most critical phase during installation of Linux on a PC... and most first time users wound up with a blank hard drive. Not any more

Once you boot from the Xandros CD, you will be presented with a license agreement-quite unexpected! After accepting the license, the installer moves on to the installation selection, where it offers very familiar looking options-express install and custom install, and a small pane at the bottom offers the explanation for the two options.

This resemblance to the Windows way of installing might put off hardcore Linux gurus, but is a boon for first-timers.

If you select custom install, you can select applications to be loaded by default on the next screen. To make it even easier, there are four preconfigured sets such as minimal, standard, full and custom desktops.

Then you move on to the disk partitioning, where you are offered three options, namely use free space, take over disk and manage disk and partition (advance control).

Partitioning used to be the most critical phase during installation of Linux on a PC, the rudimentary interface wasn't intuitive enough and most first time users wound up with a blank hard drive. Not any more.

The disk partitioning in Xandros is worth mentioning and we think even Microsoft can take a lesson or two from these guys on how to make the UI for partitioning simple and functional. Between the two distro's, we felt Xandros offered a much cleaner and polished interface.

Once the partitioning is done, Xandros offers to set up your network, if any, and you can specify your IP address, gateway, and other details, followed by the computer name and administrator password. Following this, you can add a user if you please-we suggest you do so, as using the system with root privileges is never advisable for a newbie.

Once all the required information is acquired, an installation summary page shows up in both OSes. Before proceeding to the installation, Linspire confirms twice, and then starts off with the installation procedure, whereas Xandros starts off immediately. Both OSes took almost 30 minutes to complete the installation procedure.

During the installation of files, splash screens convey the features built into Linspire to make it a simpler Linux. Though these things are not of great value, it definitely gives a new user a hint of what he can expect of this new OS.

Rembember, Xandros offers better control over the installation procedure since it allows you to choose applications that you want to install. Linspire, on the other hand, takes control away from users and by default, configures the machine to a predefined state.

Though this could be good for new users, as they do not have to bother about the applications being loaded, advanced users should at least have the option of choosing what to install.

Overall, we think Xandros sets the standard for other Linux distros to follow when it comes to making a Linux installation a sweat-less affair.

Xandros File manager, gives easy acces to your drives, network, shares etc in a simple and elegant manner

Post Installation
Once both the operating systems are installed, a splash screen (with rather big typography) tells you to remove the CD-ROM and press [Enter] to restart the machine.

After a reboot, Linspire presents you with the administrator login, entering the password takes you to the next screen-a License agreement. Then the system does the routine task of setting region, time, date and finally moves on the advanced setting tab, where you can create new users and change network settings.

Xandros, on the other hand, starts up with a first run wizard and takes you through setting up and customising of your system.

In Linspire, the first time you log into your system, an audio tutorial makes sure you get a good hold on the various aspects of the new OS. The audio tutorial is comprehensive, with features to forward, rewind or skip through chapters.

Both OSes were able to detect most of our hardware straight out of the box. We did come across some small issues, but they were solved immediately.

Xandros had set the TFT settings to 1024 x 768, but we were able to change it to 1280 x 1024 without any hiccups.

Linspire, for some reason, wasn't able to boot on the 875 machine, but ran smoothly on the AMD machine. Apart from these issues, we didn't face any problems as far as hardware detection was concerned.
Moving on to the desktop screen, it is hard to believe you are using a Linux distro. The desktop resembles Windows, and you are greeted by familiar icons up front. Purely on visual appeal, we think Linspire beats the pants off all other distros, including Xandros.

Though both of them use the KDE environment, Linsipre has done a commendable amount of work to add eye-candy. Both desktops are well organised and uncluttered, and you have all the necessary icons up front.

A Windows user is so accustomed to the 'Start' button, so to make that relation there's the 'Launch' buttons on both OSes. Click on them and you have the application menu, control centre, recently used applications, and the usual features. While there are certain entries specific to these two OSes, in general, the structure is pretty same. Linspire has done a good job on giving each section such as Games, Utilities or Office, a different coloured icon so that demarcations are distinct.

Linspire's inspiring CNR service takes away the pain of updating

The Xandros File Manager is good, and is the primary system browsing tool for file management. The left window pane lists your drives, CD/DVD-ROMs, network folders etc. The most important thing is that you can drag-and-drop files on the CD-RW to backup your files-just as you do in windows XP. Linspire uses KDE's Konqueror file browser, but it's nothing great.

Coming to applications, both OSes offer up-to-date software. OpenOffice 1.1.x is offered by both; though we would prefer to see version 2.0, as it offers features comparable with MS Office. On the browser side, Xandros ships with both, Mozilla as well as Firefox 1.0, whereas Linspire offers a customised version of Mozilla as the default browser.

Linspire comes with the ability to view QuickTime, Windows Media, Flash etc., and we were able to play the movie trailers that offered on the Digit DVD. There were two applications that are bundled with Linspire: Lphoto and Lsong. Lphoto is an image organiser and is quite similar to Google's Picasa, whereas Lsong looks like a clone of Apple's iTunes player.

To install more software in Linspire, you need to get a paid subscription of CNR (Click 'n' Run) service. It enables you to search Linspire's repository for a particular application and install it by downloading it via the CNR client. While most applications in the CNR repository are available for free anyway, it is the convenience of installing that matters and hence a new user just has to click a particular software to install it, which can otherwise be a much harder task. 

Xandros comes with Codeweaver's CrossOver Office 4.1, which allows you to run Windows-based applications on Linux. You can install MS Office XP, Adobe Photoshop 7, IE 6, Windows Media Player, etc. Xandros network is the tool that helps you organise your installed software, and download newer ones. 

Between CNR and Xandros network, CNR offers a simpler and better interface to upgrade and install newer software.

We found both these products quite suited for a new Linux user and recommending a single product is difficult. Both these products are neck-and-neck in terms of features and performance; however, we do think Xandros has something more to offer than Linspire.

Overall, it's a personal choice; if you value eye-candy, Linspire beats Xandros hands down, but if you want practicality then Xandros is the way to go.

Also keep in mind that you need to buy them. While Xandros Desktop OS 3 Deluxe edition is available for $90, Linspire 5.0 with one year CNR membership retails for around the same price. If you want to try these products, they are available on their respective Web sites for download. 

In this category, we have Ubuntu 5.04, Fedora Core 4, RedHat WS, SuSe 9.3 professional, Mandrake 10.1 and OpenLx 11.

While Fedora has been the distro that most power users swear by, in recent times, Ubuntu has seen remarkable acceptance by the community and happens to be the number one according to www.distrowatch.com poll.

SuSe 9.3, RedHat WS and Mandrake 10.1 have corporate backing and hence are driven by dedicated teams of developers as against the community driven project such as Fedora and Ubuntu.

OpenLx comes from an Indian developer and is based on Fedora core. These distros are targeted at mature Linux audiences that prefer the DIY (do-it-yourself) approach over spoon-feeding. Hence, ease of use, though desired, is not the defining factor as to which is better.

On the other hand, it does not mean that a new Linux user can't try them, but don't expect things to work for you out of the box, a little tweaking here and there will be required.

Since you have enough experience and confidence on installing these Linux distro's, we think we need to touch up on the important issues without going into the depth of installation as we did for the beginners.
A true blue Linux user is at complete ease with a command line interface (CLI), for he has not only learned to live with it but also to love it. While this is true, a GUi installer wouldn't hurt.

Ubuntu was the only distro in this comparison to come without a GUI-based interface. Though it doesn't hamper the work, we would love to see a nice, simple, point-and-click UI. 

Fedora 4, RedHat and the Fedora-based OpenLx come in second when it comes to ease of installation. One good feature they have is to check the installation media for any errors before you actually start the installation. While installing Fedora, we found that CDs 3 and 4 were corrupt. Because we used this disc check feature, we saved a lot of trouble and time.

SuSe and Mandrake have always been ahead of their time, innovating features that make life simpler. Keeping with the tradition, their latest products have the same sleek installer that will win accolades. We think SuSe has done commendable work on their YaST2 (Yet another Setup Tool) module, which is simply fantastic to use.

Apart from Ubuntu, all other distro's here will allow you to choose the packages to install. Is that bad? Not really, since Ubuntu comes on a single CD-ROM while all other distros come on a minimum of four CD-ROMs. So there is nothing much left to choose or discard in Ubuntu-what you get is a fairly configured system.

Partitioning, again, is much simpler in SuSe and Mandrake as compared to Ubuntu, Fedora or OpenLx. The primary reason being the amount of attention paid towards convenience.

However, bear in mind that although other distros have workable user interfaces, there is still a lot of scope for improvement.

Overall, when it comes to ease of installation it is SuSe that takes centre stage. Its sleek, simple to use interface and granularity in offering control over the installation procedure gives it an edge over other distros.

Post Installation
After installing the files, Ubuntu offers to configure your video display and prompts the user for the appropriate resolution to use-we found this really helpful. Once done, a pleasant looking coffee coloured Gnome desktop tickles your senses. "Wow! This is neat…", are the words most people use to describe it.

Ubuntu was the only distro that defaulted to Gnome's 2.10 (geeky) environment-all other distro's invariably use KDE (K Desktop Environment).

RedHat WS, Fedora 4 and OpenLx are pretty much the same and once installed, default to a customised KDE desktop. Apart from a few icons, there is hardly anything that distinguishes WS from Fedora. However, the developer of OpenLx has done some amount of work to distinguish itself from the Fedora core and also convey its India roots.

In Mandrake, once the installation is done, it offers a choice as the default environment-KDE, Gnome or other environments. It also offers to download the latest patches and packages before proceeding to the desktop. Finally, you are asked to take part in a survey and then to agree to the user license before it takes you to a blue KDE desktop.

SuSe also follows a pattern similar to Mandrake, before defaulting to a pleasant green KDE desktop.

On the hardware detection front, almost all distros were able to detect every single component of our testbeds. There were some minor issues though; Ubuntu failed to load once on the i875 chipset machine, but after a reinstall worked perfectly.

During installation, SuSe was able to take 1280 x 1024 resolution on the 17-inch TFT monitor however, once the installation was complete, it defaulted to 1024 x 768 and also detected it as a CRT monitor. Some tweaking with Yast2 solved the problem. Fedora core 4, RedHat, OpenLx and Mandrake were bang-on, detecting everything in the first go.

As compared to last year's Linux comparison, we faced relatively less hardware incompatibility issues this time. This goes to say that the community has done a great amount of work in sorting out driver issues. To give you a perspective: when we connected our 400 GB hard drive to Windows without SP1, it only detected about 120 GB or so, but the same drive was detected perfectly in all these distros. Unbelievable? Better, believe it!  
A lot depends on the environment you prefer, when talking about usability. KDE offers the intuitiveness of Windows, but is a system hog and requires real processing power to run at its best. Also, since most Linux distros are based around KDE, the number of applications that are developed and bundled along with the OS is huge. Gnome, on the other hand, is direct in its approach and does not offer any eye candy. Nevertheless, it is functional and is less demanding on system resources.

Ubuntu, as we mentioned earlier, defaults to Gnome and presents a clean desktop interface. Despite the single CD installation that takes only 25 minutes to install, a clean install of Ubuntu provides enough applications to get your work done. It comes with Firefox 1.0 for Internet browsing, OpenOffice 1.1 and Evolution for communications and Gimp is included as the default image manipulator.

On the multimedia side, it includes Totem movie player, Rhythmbox media player, Sound Juicer CD ripper and a volume monitor. A Bittorrent client is also included along with Gaim and Xchat IRC.

Being based on Debian, Ubuntu uses its excellent apt-get package system for updating and installing new applications. If you don't plan to fiddle around in the command line, Ubuntu also includes Synaptic package manager, a front-end tool for apt, which makes installing applications a breeze. By default, the apt repositories are not enabled, and you need to uncomment the lines in the /etc/apt/sources.list file.

Debian repositories have a huge collection of applications and you can be sure of finding what you want. 

Fedora Core 4 and RedHat offer you a choice of using either KDE or Gnome-we preferred the KDE version. Both come on four CD-ROMs and hence, during installation, if you choose to install all packages, it takes around two-and-a-half hours. With that many applications installed, you will never have to hunt for more!

To give you an idea, the menu will reveal 30 apps in the accessories section, 11 games, 16 graphics related software, 19 Internet related software… the list goes on. Some nifty tools such as the Akregator, for collecting news feeds, have also made it to this latest release from the Fedora community. A new tool called Yum is also included for easy system update and get the latest patches.

OpenLx is also based on the Fedora core, but has some good features bundled with the OS. An evaluation version of Kalculate, a financial accounting application is provided with the OS. This distro also bundles dozens of development kits such as Mono development, Eclipse, etc., an audio visual editor such as hydrogen, and Blender, a 3D modelling suite. The Clamav anti-virus software is also offered in the pack. Overall, we found the list of packages to be more than enough for anyone to use.

SuSe and Mandrake have always believed in offering the best possible collection of applications along with their OS. SuSe 9.3 professional does not disappoint on that count. Just to check, we decided to install all the applications provided in the SuSe DVD, and it took about three hours to install! It would be safe to say that they are more than enough applications available for a life-time!

We found SuSe to be up-to-date as far as applications are concerned. It had KDE 3.4 and Gnome 2.10. OpenOffice version 2.0 also made it into this distro, and we were glad that we wouldn't miss the 'format painter' feature that was missing in the previous versions of OpenOffice. Though the splash screen says OpenOffice 2.0, in reality, it is 1.9.X.X-a stable version of 2.0 is still awaited.

Beagle, a desktop searching utility and XEN, a virtualisation tool for the Linux operating system are some of the highlights of SuSe 9.3 professional, and should please true power users. Beagle is switched off by default and you need to create an empty .runbeagle file from Gnome to make it work.

We plugged in a flash drive into each of these distros to see the reaction and to our disbelief, it was auto-mounted and a temporary desktop icon was created, through which you could access the data. Our similar attempt with a digital camera, however, did not work. We tried setting up a network printer, and in most cases, the result was failure. A lot of work still needs to be done on all these distros.

To compare Ubuntu with either SuSe or Redhat would be unjust. So, we further classified this category into free-to-use and paid distros.

Ubuntu and Fedora fall under the free to use category, and both are projects driven by the community. When it comes to the number of applications that are bundled with them, Fedora seems to be your best bet. Ubuntu, on the other hand, provides what's necessary and you can upgrade your system as per your needs later on.

Ubuntu is doing well right now, and its success will depend entirely on the efforts of this community. From our limited experience with the community we can say they are quite active and you can expect a quick response to your queries. We bet our money on Ubuntu.

So we are left with RedHat WS, OpenLx SuSe 9.3 professional and Mandrake 10.1 as paid distros. Here, the verdict is clear-SuSe wipes the floor with the competition and wins, thanks to the truck loads of software bundled, cutting-edge features such as XEN, beagle and up-to-date software. However, this, under no circumstances undermines the efforts made by OpenLx and RedHat to offer well-rounded Linux solutions.

Moreover, since you will be coughing up cash, having a support system in place gives peace of mind and SuSe has a good presence in India via Novell, which unfortunately, can't be said about Mandrake.

Team DigitTeam Digit

All of us are better than one of us.