Free Your Mind! (Linux Test)

Published Date
01 - Sep - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Sep - 2006
Free Your Mind! (Linux Test)
Bob Dylan crooned, "The times, they are a-changing", and when it comes to desktop operating systems, indeed they are. Linux, which was once the choice of geeks, has undergone considerable changes. Gone are the days of grisly hardware compatibility, rudimentary graphic interfaces and negligible vendor support; it's now time to enter the new world of Linux!

The last Linux comparison that we did was exactly 13 months ago; and in that short period, things have really moved to the next level. Newer versions of applications have come up, a lot of work has gone into making the Graphical User Interface (GUI) less intimidating, the Kernel has been spruced up, hardware databases have expanded and overall, using Linux is now an enjoyable experience.

Going by, there are thousands of distros (Linux distributions) available on the Internet for people to download. Each distribution is different from the other in the way it targets its audience. For example, there are distributions that are made specifically for testing network security-such a distribution has all the required tools for testing network security. However, apart from these esoteric flavours, most Linux distributions tend to be desktop centric.

Practically speaking, under the hood, almost all Linux distributions are similar since they end up using the same Kernel, application bundle, etc. There are several factors that go into making a distro better than the others, but the single factor that makes a huge impact is an 'Active Community'. A community consists of the developers and users of that particular distribution. The developers make sure their distribution is up to date as far as security, bugs and new applications are concerned and the users make sure they provide the necessary feedback to the developers and help other novice users via forums.

On the desktop Linux front, having an active community does not cut it anymore; the distribution has to be polished in terms of look and feel and Intuitiveness, since it will be judged alongside Microsoft's Windows products.

In this comparison we have selected some of the best distros-free as well as paid. Ubuntu 6.06, Fedora Core 5, SuSE 10, Xandros, Mandriva 2006 and Knoppix 5 have been reviewed here.

Based on usage scenarios Linux distributions can be classified into three broad categories-Beginners, Power-users and Corporate.

Distributions aimed at beginners, like Xandros and Linspire focus on making the distro's look and feel like Windows, so that first time users do not encounter a steep learning curve. This makes the transition from Windows to Linux much smoother for beginners. However, such distributions are made by companies, and hence are often paid propositions, which go against the basic philosophy of Linux being free.
On the other hand, powerusers like to be on the cutting edge 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. Distros like Gentoo, OpenSuSE and Fedora fall under this category.
Distributions aimed at the Corporate world, like RedHat and SuSE have an altogether different demand, such as ease of deployment, availability of patches, good technical support and basic sets of applications for office work. Addressing the corporate world requires dedicated resources and hence such distributions are paid-for the services offered, not the software.

Six steps are what it takes to install Ubuntu 6.06, and that too in 10 minutes flat

The Test
Unlike Windows, installing Linux can be a challenge for many. The installer often gets quite technical and at times can be the biggest hurdle for the technologically challenged. Usage of terms such as sda1, hda1, swap, root, mount, etc., can confuse a novice.

Ubuntu 6.06 has a clean desktop

Ubuntu 6.06
has done away with the quasi-graphical interface it had in the previous 5.10 version, which proved to be a stumbling block for many novices. In its latest incarnation, Ubuntu utilises a different approach-the Live CD itself doubles as the installation CD. What's so good about this method? First, one can ascertain hardware compatibility before installation and second, it's extremely straightforward and simple-any computer user will be able to install Ubuntu without any help. Six steps are what it takes to install Ubuntu 6.06, and that too in 10 minutes flat. During those six steps the installer prompts for basic information such as Locale settings, desired user name, password and partitioning details. We think the partitioning part still requires some polishing-it's much better than the older version though. During our test, Ubuntu 6.06 was excellent at hardware detection and hence we like to call Ubuntu the 'Pop it, install it and forget it' distribution. A point to note is both our configuration were quite standard Intel boxes (assuming that's what most Indian's will have), people with ATI or NVIDIA chipsets might land up in some hardware issues. Note: earlier, a colleague had trouble installing the previous Ubuntu version on an ATI Radeon Xpress 200 chipset based system, but was able to install 6.06 without problems-so a few compatibility issues have been sorted.
Ubuntu has yet again gone for the brown GNOME desktop-neat and clean-yet it might not suite everyone tastes.

With Mandriva 2006, our first installation attempt failed as the installer hung mid way. On the second attempt, however, the installation was smooth without any glitches-strange! The Mandriva installer is quite straight forward and its partitioning tool (where most other Linux distros mess up), made sure things don't get dicey. As with last years experience, Mandriva 2006 was able to detect most of the hardware, including the Audigy card as well as the onboard high definition audio. Display resolution, frequency and aspect ratio of the display were perfectly set by default. Right from the onset, Mandriva has always preferred the KDE desktop and Mandriva 2006 is no exception.

SuSE Linux still has its slick YAST (Yet Another Setup Tool) installer and configuration tool. Not much has been changed in the new SuSE version, except for the new green background. The step-by-step menu approach and hints being displayed makes installing SuSE much easier for a novice. The partitioning, however, can use some refinement. The Installer also allows you to configure which applications to install right at the beginning-by default, some 2.5 GB of software is selected for installation. Hardware detection still isn't SuSE's forte, and SuSE needs to accommodate more hardware drivers. On our test machine it failed to recognise the Samsung 798MB monitor and configured it with the wrong frequencies. Apart from the display, the rest of the hardware was properly detected. SuSE Linux, unlike its previous version, has defaulted to a slick GNOME desktop.

Fedore core 5 (the open source offshoot of Red Hat) has undergone a revolutionary change. The jazzy splash screen and the new logo give the otherwise boring granddaddy of Linux, a completely new look. On the partitioning screen, the installer surprised us with its intelligent selection and optimisation of space for installing Fedora. The manual partitioning tool is also pretty workable if the automatic detection fails. The best part about Fedora is its hardware detection capability; it detected and configured all the hardware we threw at it, which it also did in our test last year. Being in the business for such a long time gives Fedora the edge over its competitors when it comes to hardware compatibility. Fedora Core 5 defaults to a well laid-out, customised GNOME desktop.

Xandros Linux has done commendable work on its installer. The installer directly starts by detecting hardware and then moves on to present a license agreement! Yes, Xandros is a paid OS-hence the license agreement. The full graphical installer is unique in a sense; the interface resembles Windows 98 and is sure to make novices feel comfortable. It even goes to the extent of having 'Custom' and 'Express' options for installing the applications-excellent for those of us used to Windows-style installers. Partitioning is so simple in Xandros that we think Microsoft should take a leaf or two from these guys. We rate Xandros partitioning UI above everybody else because of its simple and yet functional approach. Hardware detection was good-we didn't encounter any problems with our hardware. Xandros default's to a well polished KDE desktop, which resembles a typical Windows desktop-makes it quite easy for a beginner to settle down fast.

One good thing about any Linux distribution is the applications that come with it. While distributions such as SuSE, Fedora Core 5, Mandriva and Xandros take a "more the merrier" approach; Ubuntu believes in the essentials.

Ubuntu 6.06 is a single-CD distribution and makes the most of the space by providing essential applications only. This might be a good strategy-keep the clutter to a minimum and not intimidate a beginner with too many choices. However, adding extra applications to Ubuntu means a fast Internet connection becomes a must-a scarce commodity in India. Nevertheless, the bundled applications are enough for a typical desktop usage. Ubuntu came bundled with the new Gnome 2.14 desktop environment, OpenOffice.Org 2.02, Firefox as the default browser, GIMP 2.2 for image manipulation, Evolution as the e-mail client, GAIM 1.51 for instant messaging and Totem video player. Sadly, proprietary audio/video formats are not supported, but that can be resolved by simply installing Mplayer. One can also install scripts such as Automatix, which automatically installs all the required third party codecs to make the box multimedia compliant. 

We still remember when the SuSE 6.2 box landed in our Lab some five years ago-not for the green box, but for the bundle. Some five CD's and two huge comprehensive installation manuals. And the tradition is still intact; SuSE 10 is a five CD distro containing hundreds of applications that most people will never require for standard desktop usage.

The package includes Firefox 1.5 for browsing, Evolution for e-mails and contact management, Helix Banshee music player, F-Spot photo browser (looks similar to Google's Picasa) and 2.0 for word processing. While these might be the regular applications, there are some applications that are unique to SuSE.
Novell, the network company that took over SuSE, is responsible for much of the development in the new SuSE Linux. To take on Microsoft's Vista in terms of eye candy, SuSE Linux comes with XGL X server-an OpenGL accelerated X server. Getting it started is slightly tricky, but once it's set, the effects are mind boggling! Transparent windows, 3D desktop, water effects and many other effects can be applied. XGL is open source and can be made to run on other Linux distributions as well. Beagle, an indexing tool that debuted in SuSE Professional 9.3, works near perfectly in SuSE 10. It found all files we searched for, such as mail, documents, images, etc. AppArmour is something interesting that SuSE 10 is bestowed with. In layman's terms it's a firewall for applications-from a conceptual point of view it looks like an interesting concept. YAST (Yet Another Setup Tool) still remains the best configuration tool across the various Linux distros. One-click access to various hardware and software configuration makes life easier.
Fedora Core 5 is in no way behind the chameleon-it too comes in a five CD pack or a single DVD for download. The usual suite of applications makes its way to Fedora too. 2.0 for spreadsheets and word processing, Firefox for Internet browsing, GIMP 2.2 for image manipulation and loads of other stuff you will never use. Since Novell took over SuSE it has contributed immensely to the Open source movement by sponsoring projects that are utilised by other distribution as well. Beagle indexing tool, F-Spot photo manager, etc., are some of the fine examples. Beagle was installed by default on our test rigs, but wasn't running, and we had a little trouble hunting down documentation to get it up and running. Tomboy- again a Novell-SuSE innovation, is a nifty note-taking utility, residing besides the Applications (Start) menu. TomBoy is lightweight, making it an ideal application for taking down phone numbers and small notes on the fly.
Mandriva 2006 is no stranger in the 'give it all' bandwagon and its PowerPlus pack with 4000-odd applications will definitely satisfy anyone's craze. The package includes the standard applications such as Firefox 1.06 (with all plug-ins included) for Internet browsing, GIMP 2.3 for image manipulation, 2.0 as the default office suite, Amarok for music, etc.

Some unique Mandriva innovations include 'Kat'-a desktop search tool. For now, Kat supports limited text formats such as PDF, MS documents, documents, HTML, etc. However, it supports wide variety of graphics formats. We would say organising your files properly is much better way of staying organised then using some indexing application. Mandriva 2006 also includes an interactive firewall. The firewall operates in two modes namely, Automatic and Interactive. As the name suggests, automatic mode protects the PC from any incoming threats by automatically adding source address to the blacklist. In the interactive mode the application prompts for user intervention by means of a small pop up. 

Similar to SuSE's 'YAST' configuration tool, Mandriva has the famous control centre. It has applets for controlling various hardware and software components of the system. While it is similar in look and feel to the Windows 'Control Panel' it can't match the granularity offered by the latter from the GUI. Further, to make life easy for a beginner, Mandriva has plethora of wizards that help in setting mundane applications such as Evolution. 

Xandros, on the other hand, is quite reserved in offering applications and that's understandable given the fact that it's targeted at beginners who need not require everything that is cultivated on the open source farm. The Xandros network is a common pool from where one can download and install new application that too at the click of a single button. As far as default applications are concerned they were up to date,, Firefox, KDE office suite, etc., are present. Xandros also offers Codeweaver's Crossover Office 4.1 tool. With this, it is possible to install MS Office XP, Adobe Photoshop 7, IE 6, Windows Media Player, and many more applications. Xandros file manager is quite unique. It is the primary system browsing tool for file management. CD/DVD drives, network folders and more are listed in the left window pane and a simple drag and drop operation makes it possible to take a backup of the files, quite like Windows XP.

System update
Security is one of those things that is often touted as Linux's core advantage over rival operating systems. To keep the system up to date, one has to often update the system with new patches and bug fixes. Simplifying this update process certainly works in the favour of a novice Linux user. Apart from security, installing new applications also needs to be simple, because installing them is not as simple as a double-click-further dependencies need to be resolved too. The point is, how good were these Linux distros at updating and software installation? Let's figure out.

Ubuntu, being based on Debian, is robust and 'aptitude' still is the preferred application installing tool on the command line. In addition, the Synaptic package manager makes it simpler for a Linux newbie. And finally, the GDebi installer makes installing .deb files a simple double-click affair. Ubuntu also has a software updater, which pops-up messages when new patches or upgrades are available from Ubuntu.
SuSE's YAST has an integrated software updating module. You can select the location from where you want to update from, such as the CD-ROM or the online repository. The YOU (YAST Online Update) makes sure new upgrades and patches are delivered to the system at regular intervals.

Mandriva 2006 comes with a new Smart package manager. Unlike other package managers, Smart differs in the way that it can use different types of packages other than what Mandriva specifically uses-Slackware repository and .deb repositories as well. The original urpmi package manager is still present and is as simple to use as any other packager manager today.

Xandros network is the tool that helps keep the system up to date on the software part. It is simple to use and allows single-click install of new software. We found Xandros approach quite simple, however it is quite reserved in the number of new applications it makes available.

How We Reviewed
Our review 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 for 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.

In terms of ease of use, we took into account general usability of the system. To start with we checked how simple it is to customise the system to your liking-wallpapers, screensavers, applying themes, changing fonts and their size, changing screen resolutions, etc. Once the system was set to our liking we moved on to setting up network connections, Proxy settings, configuring the e-mail 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 typical PC usage.

For out of box usability, we looked at the bundled applications and whether there are enough of them to carry out your daily chores. We looked for an office suite that can be a viable replacement for MS Office, a messenger client to chat, a good browser for Internet browsing and some sort of image manipulation application. We also tired connecting a USB flash drive, a Digital camera to check for plug and play capability.
Right from the inception, hardware support has been a problem with Linux operating system due to unavailability of drivers. For us it is extremely difficult to test them on various hardware, so we decided to test these distro's on the latest hardware. The idea being if they work with latest hardware then there is relatively less chance that they might not work with older hardware. Our testbed comprised of an Intel 3.6 GHz Pentium 4 CPU, Intel D925PBX motherboard, 1 GB RAM, an MSI 7300GS graphics card, a Creative Audigy sound card, a 400 GB Hitachi SATA hard drive and Samsung's SyncMaster 798MB monitor. Another machine we used was the Dell D820 laptop with Intel Core Duo processor, 1GB memory, NVIDIA Quadro NV125 and a 100 GB hard drive.

Knoppix 5.0.1

If one happens to use and appreciate Live Linux CD's then the accolades should go to Knoppix, because it was the first distro to pullout the so called 'Live-CD' rabbit out of the hat.

There is no installation required to run Knoppix. Just pop the CD/DVD in your drive and you will have a complete Linux Operating system running in about five minutes. We downloaded the 3.5 GB DVD version and it came packed to the gills with more software than you'll ever need. The Knoppix 5 version was released in CeBIT this year and it offers features like no other Live CD distro.

Most live CD's load the required files into the memory to run, hence generally speaking the higher the amount of memory you have the more responsive the Live CD will be. Since both our test machine were configured with 1 GB of memory, Knoppix was cruising. On machines with 512 MB and less memory, the response times took a hit. 

Desktop and Application
Once the DVD boots it defaults to KDE desktop, after seeing Gnome 2.14 in action, we have begun liking the minimalist approach it has; nevertheless Knoppix offers the essential things right up front.

Due to the DVD version we used the menu structure was too long-but that's understandable, it was cramped with application we have never heard off. In case you plan to use Knoppix we suggest you download the CD version and not the DVD version; the DVD has just too much stuff on it.

What's really good about Knoppix that we like is that it auto-mounts hard drive partition and makes them available on the desktop. If your Windows machine goes down, this Live CD comes handy-we vouch for it, helped us on numerous counts. Similarly, external devices such as USB drives, external hard drives, digital cameras, etc., were also promptly detected.

Hands down the best Live CD Linux distro available! We recommend you to keep a copy of Knoppix, for one day it will definitely come handy.

Some Observations

A couple of years back, getting Linux running on a typical desktop machine was a pain-mostly due to hardware incompatibilities; laptops were simply out of question. However; today most Linux distributions are better suited to run on a laptop than on desktop machines. In fact almost all distro's that we tested here installed smoothly on the Dell laptop. Most surprisingly this laptop had a 15.4 inch wide-screen that is capable of reaching a resolution of 1920x 1200 and even SuSE, which had problems detecting the Samsung 17-inch monitor, detected such a esoteric resolution perfectly. What more, power management features also worked with some distro's out of the box. With SuSE we were able to suspend the laptop to hibernation. The point is, though gradually, Linux is finally getting there! We would love to see hardware manufacturers working with these Linux vendors and providing the necessary Linux drivers, which still seems to be the Achilles heel.

On the software front, open source software is rivalling the best in the proprietary world. They have the ability to get your work done, and done quickly. A good example would be OpenOffice.Org, this office suite is sufficient for day to day working. Though it does not have the ease of use that the new Office 2007 offers, it gets the work done at absolutely no price.

KDE desktop used to be the preferred desktop environment. However, GNOME seems to have caught the fancy of most Linux distributions now. Even SuSE 10 and  Fedora Core 5, once ardent KDE-biased distributions, have suddenly taken a somersault and started using GNOME. We have no complaints though, the new GNOME 2.14 is slick and fast and exactly what we want.

When it comes to Ubuntu, we have just one thing to say-try it, it's fun! The sleek installation, out of the box operation, great package selection, easy to use package management and a fantastic community makes Ubuntu our choice of Linux distro for the masses.  

SuSE still remains the evergreen Linux distro that we have known for years. Novell's takeover has simply added more professionalism and the urge to stay ahead of the competition is bound to grow. However, SuSE still has to work on its hardware compatibility list-it's not perfect yet. We recommend SuSE to Linux fans who want to try out a lot of applications.

 Fedora Core 5, probably the oldest community in the Linux world, still holds its own, especially in India where 'RedHat' is synonymous with Linux. Brilliant hardware detection, a dedicated community and a blinding legacy is what gives Fedora its fair share of dedicated users. There is nothing wrong with this distro; it's just that it was left behind in making the necessary cosmetic facelifts that other distros successfully pulled out at the right time.  
Mandriva 2006, practically speaking, doesn't have anything wrong with it, but we don't see the point in coughing up money for it. We'd rather opt for Ubuntu, which is free, or pay for SuSE-Novell is well-settled here in India, so support will be good; we can't say the same for Mandriva.  

Xandros was a brilliant concept when it first came out, a 'Windows-like Linux'. However, if Ubuntu continues at this pace, we don't see the need for a Window's clone increasing. Of course, we're not criticising the brilliant work done by Xandros, because it achieves nearly everything it originally set out to do. 

Is Linux ready for the desktop? The level of piracy in India means that for most users, Windows is also 'free'. With an increasing level of security measures being added in Microsoft software, soon you might find yourself forced to either pay up to legally use Windows, or find other free alternatives. But will you be ready?

We suggest you try Linux and decide for yourself. Remember, Linux does not work as well out of the box as other OSes, but you may find yourself liking the power to customise everything.  

Team DigitTeam Digit

All of us are better than one of us.