By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers
There are many versions of Linux. If you're thinking of installing Linux, either in place of Windows or in addition to Windows, you have a choice of five or six main versions and many lesser-known ones.
They differ mostly in the number of extra features and how easily they install. If you're new to Linux, you should choose one that meets both those goals.
At this time, the one that comes closest is Mandrake Linux 6.0, from MandrakeSoft of France. You can buy a packaged version for about $50 or you can download everything you need - many hundreds of megabytes -- from one of the large Linux sites and not pay anything. Most people would be better off buying the packaged version because it comes ready to install on five CDs (one main CD and four extra ones) and has two small but useful manuals. You can find links to downloadable versions of Mandrake Linux and a great deal of information on it at the Mandrake Web site at http://www.linux-mandrake.com.
Mandrake is sometimes viewed as the bad boy of Linux versions because the Mandrake programmers let someone else do most of the work. Until recently Mandrake's version of Linux was little more than Red Hat Linux with Mandrake's name added to it.
Red Hat is the most famous of all the developers of Linux software, so you'd think such apparent plagiarism would have caught the attention of lawyers for Red Hat a long time ago. But it was just questionable taste and not plagiarism. Linux and most of its supporting programs are Open Source software, meaning everyone can share it and even change it freely as long as they share their own changes with everyone else.
The folks at Mandrake are still using Red Hat Linux as the basis for their own version, but Mandrake Linux is at last coming into its own. It's a wonderful combination - the best of the best, so to speak, with the latest Red Hat Linux software and the most current versions of dozens and dozens of other programs.
Mandrake also comes with two different graphical interfaces, KDE and Gnome. Linux fanatics often rave about Gnome, but even a dodo can see that Gnome is an unfinished project. Luckily, Mandrake installs the KDE interface by default. KDE is outstanding in some ways and does fairly well in most other aspects. (The fact that the KDE interface surpasses the Windows interface in dozens of ways tells us a lot about how useless Microsoft's highly paid engineers can be when quality counts. KDE's software engineers do all their work for free.)
Mandrake Linux has an outstanding auto-update system that you can run every few days to make sure your Linux software is up to date. Unlike the unreliable auto-update program Microsoft created for Windows, which checks for updates every five minutes and then causes crashes when you try to use it, the update program built into Mandrake Linux is easy to figure out and knows how to update just about every program out of the hundreds automatically installed on your Linux PC. If a program uses the standard Red Hat Package method (RPM) of installation, the update software knows how to check for and install new versions.
I've installed Mandrake Linux twice so far - once on an older PC and once on my faster and newer Pentium II computer. I had no problems with either installation. Mandrake's installation program looks old and a little dumb compared to the one Caldera uses in Caldera OpenLinux 2.2, but it has a big advantage: It works. Caldera's installation program repeatedly failed to recognize the ATI video card in my older PC. I tried more than a dozen times before giving up and doing it all manually, something no one should have to do on the eve of the next millenium. Mandrake recognized the same card in the same PC properly.
Right after you install Mandrake Linux, log on to the computer at least once as the supervisor and once as each regular user. (Every Linux computer has a supervisory user called "root" and any number of regular users.) Do this right away so you can run the Mandrake update program next. The updater needs to know certain things about all the users, and can't find that information unless they've logged on at least once. As supervisor, you can, of course, log on as each user, so this won't take more than a few minutes.
You get a lot of software with the Mandrake Power Pack - by my estimate, about 14 times as much as you get with Windows. Sit down and set aside a few minutes to read what you get with Mandrake Linux; you'll probably be amazed.
The standard installation provides a lot of good software, all of it free. You get a lot of system software to control and adjust the way your Linux PC runs, a dozen or so games, two good KDE word processors (both with spell checkers) and KDE e-mail and newsgroup programs. It also comes standard with the Apache Web server program, ftp server software, a mail server, Samba software that lets your Linux PC join the Network Neighborhood on a Windows network, and NFS client and server software for network connections to Linux and Unix computers.
Also standard are a control center that works like the Windows Control Panel, a CD player program, an MP3 player, a MIDI audio player, an AVI and MPEG video player, an excellent graphics viewer from KDE and a fancier viewer that makes slide shows out of images of any kind. You also get an image editor called The GIMP that has many of the functions found in $600 image-editing software, an excellent icon editor, a program that does ICQ Internet messaging and an IRC Internet chat program. And you get the complete Netscape Communicator suite (Web browsing, advanced e-mail, newsgroup reading and simple Web-page editing), a PostScript document viewer, PostScript printing software, fax software, Internet dialup-connection programs and Adobe Acrobat Reader 4.0. It also has a couple of personal schedulers, including one that has a nice little reminder that pops up when you want it to, along with a desktop note-taker (complete with yellow "stickies"), a simple CD-recording program and a lot more.
That was a list of just some of the programs you get with a full installation. There are 1,800 other programs that are not installed but can be added with a few mouse clicks to launch each installation. They're on a separate CD, all in RPM form. You also get many other programs as free options. The two biggest ones are WordPerfect 8, a very large program that does extensive word and document processing, and StarOffice 5.1, a suite of programs compatible with Microsoft Office 97.
WordPerfect is a good word processor, able to do just about anything, but the word processor that comes with StarOffice probably is better for the typical Linux home user. It has the same menus and keyboard combinations that Word 97 has and has a better spell checker than the one in Word. (The thesaurus is better, too.) All of StarOffice's programs can handle Microsoft documents -- even older ones such as Word 6.0 documents. You can open up a Word 6.0 text and change it and then save it back to disk in Word 6.0 format if you want, for example.
StarOffice also has a spreadsheet that works the same way Microsoft Excel does. Like the word processor, it is able to open Excel documents. (I didn't try saving them back as Excel documents, but no doubt that's an option.) It also has a calendar and scheduling program that looks and works like Microsoft's Schedule +, a PowerPoint-like presentation program, an easy-to-use image editor, e-mail software that can handle multiple accounts and a Web browser. (The browser is not very good. Use Netscape Navigator instead.)
StarOffice comes from Star Division, a German company that recently moved to the United States. Sun Microsystems, the world's biggest maker of Unix computers, recently bought Star Division and has promised to make all StarOffice programs available free as Open Source software. (The version of StarOffice that comes with Mandrake Linux is not Open Source but it's free anyway. Star Division wanted Linux users to have a no-cost way of getting out from under the oppressive Microsoft umbrella.) Unix and Linux are close cousins.
The software statistics are numbing. You get so much with Mandrake Linux that the scope of all this software is hard to comprehend. Cynics may try to point out that much of the software that comes with Mandrake (and with many other versions of Linux) is just so much dreck, but that's not true. Windows users who have eagerly bought books on taming Windows have no doubt discovered that the CD-ROMs invariably glued to the inside back cover of many of these books are full of outdated dreck, but that's not the case with the CD-ROMs that come with Mandrake Linux. Some of the programs are specialized, unlikely to be of use to general users, but most are not. So many good programs come with Mandrake Linux that you could try out five new programs a night for a year without running out of choices. (And you'd still have a few hundred you hadn't looked at.)
There's something else, something you (or your kids) will like if graphical excellence is important. Mandrake has included scores of KDE interface themes, all accessible in the control center. Windows would call these "desktop themes," but KDE's themes do much more than the wimpy ones in Windows. If you are used to the way Windows handles themes, you're in for a surprise the first time you click open the themes applet in the control center and start checking out the KDE themes.
Under Windows, themes change the colors of various parts of file and folder windows, the colors or images used in the background on the desktop and the fonts used within windows. Themes can also change the sounds associated with various actions.
KDE's themes do these things, too. But because the KDE graphical interface uses a vastly different system than the one Windows uses, KDE themes can change the way windows are shaped and crafted also. One KDE theme might show a wrought-iron effect on all borders around the windows on your screen while another might have a heavily shaded title bar with delicately cut rubies at the upper right in place of the standard buttons for closing and minimizing windows. Some of the KDE themes are wacko, with crazily shaped window borders that extend a few inches beyond each edge of a window and silver gray fonts against black backgrounds, but others are simply stunning in their architectural elegance.
Mandrake Linux does not try to be, as Windows does, a be-all and end-all operating system. The fact that Windows fails so spectacularly at this goal probably keeps programmers who write Linux software from attempting the impossible. If you don't do much except play games on your PC, don't install Linux. Windows is a wonderful operating system for games, despite the flaws in Windows that show up when you install more than one or two games. (Windows has no way of shielding itself from software that changes vital files, so game players face the task of reinstalling Windows now and then or giving up on games that won't play any more because Windows is corrupted. This inability to protect itself marks Windows as a non-operating system in a real way, much the same as an air conditioner that kept the temperature at the boiling point could not be said to be an "air conditioner" no matter how much its manufacturer insisted otherwise. Microsoft is not at all happy that I refer to Windows as a non-operating system, but I'm not at all happy that Microsoft made Windows as a non-operating system in the first place, so I suppose we're even.)
This does not mean Mandrake Linux and Linux in general are not suitable operating systems for games. Nothing in the design of Linux makes it anything but ideal for games. The problem has two parts: First, Linux needs better support for advanced graphics than it has now, so that games will not bog down from inadequate 2D and 3D graphics. (Normal displays are handled just fine. But companies that make graphics cards need to help develop Linux drivers for them. Some do this already; others need to wake up to the emerging Linux market.) Second, most game developers haven't been creating Linux versions of their games, so there just aren't enough available to matter in most cases. Linux advocates probably already know that Quake is available in a Linux version, as are some other popular games of the same type. But nearly all the games you can buy for Windows are not available in Linux versions.
But for those who do not play games, Mandrake Linux is an attractive alternative to Windows. You can even have the best of both worlds if you install Mandrake Linux in its own portion (called a partition) of your hard drive, or on a separate hard drive built into your computer. (Every modern PC can use two hard drives easily.) This is called a dual boot system. Each time the computer boots up you can choose Linux or Windows. Each of them will run without a problem and without interference, because the computer switches identities right at boot time. Windows ordinarily can't make sense out of the Linux area of the hard drive, but Mandrake Linux will be able to see the folders and files and open any of the text files or graphics on the Windows portion. This means you'd be able to make use of Office 97 documents (stored in the "My Documents" folder that Windows uses, maybe) if you are running StarOffice under Mandrake Linux.
Because so much software comes with Mandrake Linux, you'd have all the basic programs you need for many operations and probably wouldn't need to boot back up into Windows except to run a scanner -Linux can do this but not yet as well as Windows-or to work with specialized things such as digital cameras. (Software to extract images from these cameras is just now appearing for Linux.)
Web browsing is a simple matter with Netscape Navigator, e-mail is handled competently by the companion program, Netscape Mail, and word processing could hardly be better served than through StarWriter, built into StarOffice. Functions that used to require Microsoft Excel can be done by the Excel-compatible spreadsheet in StarOffice, and you'd probably find the personal scheduler that comes with KDE a delight. (If you need something more powerful, you've got it in the StarOffice scheduler.) Internet Relay Chat is a Linux specialty, but even ICQ chat is a simple matter using the ICQ clone program that comes with Mandrake.
But Mandrake and other modern Linux versions are more than simply attractive alternatives to Windows if stability is important to you. Under Linux, programs that don't behave are nothing more than programs that don't behave. They're not bombs that sabotage the operating system and cause a crash as they are in Windows. You simply close down offending programs under Linux. (If the program doesn't want to close down, you press a key combination and your mouse pointer turns into a skull and crossbones. You click inside the ill-behaving window and the program goes away.) In nearly any circumstance, a Linux PC does not crash on its own. You can cause a crash by doing certain things (by pulling the plug, maybe, or by intentionally messing up the operating system by logging on as the supervisor and making dumb changes), but you're not going to cause Linux to act up just by installing new software or running a lot of things at the same time. The difference between the way Windows behaves and the way Linux behaves will amaze you the first few days you are running programs under Linux, and I doubt that you'll want to go back to Windows except to run programs that aren't available on the Linux side.