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technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
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Caldera OpenLinux: What you get, and how it works

Technofile for June 27, 1999

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers

Last week I described how easily Caldera OpenLinux 2.2 installed on my PC. In an hour or so, I had a computer that could run either Windows or Linux, based on a menu choice when the computer booted up.

This week I'll tell you about Caldera OpenLinux itself.

First, a quick review of what you get with Caldera OpenLinux 2.2. For a discount price of about $40, you get an incredible array of software.

You get the Linux operating system, a ton of basic Linux programs, a Web server and other fancy Internet software, a full range of Netscape programs (for mail, news groups and Web editing in addition to Web browsing), the latest version of the WordPerfect word processor and the outstanding suite of office-and-home-productivity programs called StarOffice. (It's from Germany, where software coding is an art, and comes with an excellent Microsoft Word-compatible word processor, a good scheduler, a cleverly done e-mail program, a good spreadsheet, a drawing program, a presentation program that's better than Microsoft's PowerPoint, a Web-page editor and more.) You also get The Gimp, an image editor that works better than Photoshop.

Caldera OpenLinux 2.2 is easy to get around in because it looks and feels a lot like Windows. The desktop and interface come from a program called KDE (the "K Desktop Environment"). I like the way it works much better than the way Windows works, and I especially like the ways you can customize it.

Another big help in getting used to Caldera OpenLinux is the Netscape Web browser that is automatically installed. It works just like the Windows version in nearly every way. Because Linux doesn't allow programs to use up memory the way Windows does, I was able to open scores of separate Web sites at the same time, while doing a lot of other things. (I lost count when I hit 40 browser windows.)

Unfortunately, all current versions of Netscape have a major flaw if you have more than one e-mail account. Netscape mail, which is otherwise splendid, can pick up mail from only one mail account. (I have five or six.) I tried out Kmail, another e-mail program that comes with OpenLinux, and found it adequate. It can handle any number of accounts but is obviously a work in progress. I also tried the mail software in StarOffice and eventually used Netscape's mail for one account and StarOffice mail for the others.

OpenLinux 2.2 comes with some simple games and diversions, some good screen savers (including the same OpenGL screen savers that Microsoft puts in Windows), a cute revolving-earth background program called Xearth, a stunning menu function that lets you browse through every folder on your PC though one drop-down list -- something Windows desperately needs -- and a file manager that works like Windows Explorer, turning itself into a Web browser when necessary.

Combining such a modern graphical interface as KDE with the bullet-proof behavior of Linux -- it just keeps on working, no matter what, and no amount of misbehavior from any program can upset the operating system -- is a great idea. But it's not perfect. When setting up various functions (my second CD-ROM drive, for example), I had to type cryptic commands into small window that offered almost no help. (The "help" system in the world of Linux commands is contained in "manual" pages, and they are all written by volunteers. Some of them have no idea how regular people work with computers. There were absolutely no examples of commands in actual use in any of the manual pages I looked at. I write documentation, so I know how it should be done, and many of these "man" pages, as they are called, are bad, bad, bad.)

Another big disappointment: The fancy video card in my PC might as well have been a $3 no-name chip. None of its acceleration features made a difference to OpenLinux 2.2; everything happened slowly on the screen. The card is an ATI All in Wonder Pro, which uses a very common ATI chip used in hundreds of thousands of other PCs. No doubt this will be fixed before long -- it's a problem with all versions of Linux, not just with OpenLinux 2.2 -- but for now everyone with an ATI Rage Pro-based graphics card or on-board ATI Rage Pro chip will have to put up with unaccelerated screen displays in OpenLinux 2.2. Many other graphics cards will have similar problems until Linux programmers do something about it.

You should understand that Linux suffers from a "newness" problem. It's is a relatively young operating system that is just now adapting itself to home use, so many of the programs and nearly all the games Windows fans are used to are missing from Linux.

My digital camcorder's editing software, for example, is not available except in a Windows version. (It's not even possible to get a Mac version.) Likewise, my Snappy video-still processing software is not available in Linux or Mac versions. And only one of the dozens upon dozens of major CD-ROM games that my wife has collected over the last few years is available in a Linux version.

That's why Caldera OpenLinux 2.2 (or any other version of Linux) won't be satisfactory as the sole operating system for a lot of people. And it's also why Caldera's setup makes such sense. As long as you have enough hard drive space, you can install OpenLinux 2.2 right alongside Windows and choose one or the other each time your PC boots up.

This worked fine. But in my setup at home, where my wife and I have four PCs, all networked, I got rid of the dual bootup on the PC I installed Linux on. I never wanted to put up with the problems of Windows on that PC again, so I took Windows off and dedicated that computer to Linux. My camcorder software and the Snappy processor program are still on another PC that runs Windows. I don't play CD-ROM games and simulations, so I'm not missing what I've never had in that area.

What I do have in Linux is very satisfactory so far. I write professionally, so I'm very picky about a word processor. I was surprised at how serviceable the one in StarOffice is. It is a virtual clone of Microsoft Word 97 in most ways, yet it improves on Word 97 in others. (I like the spelling checker and thesaurus much better, for example.) Of course, WordPerfect fans also have WordPerfect 8, which comes free with Caldera OpenLinux 2.2. WordPerfect 8 has a built-in Web-page editor and it is superb at a lot of things, but acts strange at times. (I just don't like WordPerfect.)

The scheduler in StarOffice also seems like a clone, since it looks and works like one from Microsoft. In many ways it's even better, and I found myself using it intuitively. OpenLinux comes with other schedulers, too, in case you want one that's a little less Teutonic.

The image editor that comes with OpenLinux became my image processor of choice very quickly. It's called "The Gimp" ("GNU Image Processor") and is fast, solid, able to work with huge images and adept at handing more than two dozen image formats. It has a script mode that lets you automate any task. I like it much better than Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro, the two mainstay Windows image editors. (Photoshop costs about $600, so any image editing software that is both free, as the Gimp is, and superior to Photoshop in major ways has got to be a good reason to start using Linux.)

An excellent Web browser, a fine word processor, good e-mail, a great graphics editor -- those are wonderful. But what makes Linux so enjoyable are the features of Linux itself. It does not complain about "resources" or run out of memory. It does not slow down when a lot of things are happening. It does not crumble and lock up when a Web page has bad code in it. It is refreshingly stable and secure. It works and works and works.

That means it has a bright future in a world of Windows PCs that crash and burn almost daily. The range of good software that you can already get for Linux is encouraging for sure. But what's most encouraging is Linux itself. At last, PC users have a choice. We've been waiting too long.

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