Saturday, February 23, 2008

Things are different in Linuxville

Of all the metaphors to the computer world I like "Tron" and "the Matrix" the best. In them there's the basic constructs and program loaders and then the immersion of the user into a virtual reality. To be totally immersed in a virtual environment yet still have awareness and control is akin to a sci-fi utopia. Escaping the bounds of physical limitations while still having physical sense as if it were reality. I hardly think that the present day GUI does that for anyone but we still strive to have more intuitive interfaces. You have at your disposal the six major functions, point, click, drag, drop, cut and paste, plus you can tweak and adjust the look and feel of the desktop through the various desktop settings menus. Then you have the hardware to interface your physical body to the computer: the mouse, keyboard, pen tablet, video screen, etc. What makes Linux so different than MS or Mac is the range of desktop choices. Fundamentally, they all do the same things but the subtle detail in the look and feel on the desktop is overlaid on top of what is underneath, the kernel, libraries and utilities involved. I'm not making a pitch to programmers, what do typical computer users care about internals? They just want the thing to work and look snazzy. So, it is the right and privilege of every Linux user to try out the various desktops to find ones they are comfortable with. Usually the desktop you start out with will become the most impressive in your experience. If you are prone to bragging rights and subject to new car smells, you might have problems moving on and if you are stuck on MS Windows like looks and feels you might struggle a bit. My advice is to stick with the tried and true desktop GUI's until you are a bit more knowledgeable, but don't let me limit your exploration. What are the tried and true? In Ubuntu Linux, if you decide to go that route, Gnome desktop is the basic desktop. Gnome is also the default desktop on other major distributions like Red Hat. Gnome is well put together and has a particular look and feel as opposed to KDE (in Kubuntu) which is also very popular. KDE in it's basic look resembles MS Windows but is much more tweakable. My personal opinion is that KDE is more complex, has more power and is adjustable to a wider swath of users than Gnome. Gnome is no slouch on looks and feel but the focus is on stability and simplicity. These two desktops are the big guns of the Linux desktop and will usually be what a new user will encounter first.
What I myself use is Xfce (in Xubuntu) desktop. While Xfce is slated for use on older, less endowed computers, it is also fast and efficient on well equipped computers. If you believe that less is more, you will not be disappointed with Xfce. What does fast and efficient mean? Fast means snappy, crisp response, no excessive waiting and efficient means there is less drain on resources like memory and less dependency on libraries and overhead compared with Gnome and KDE. Is Xfce the better desktop? No, but I just like to use it. Gnome and KDE are fine if you like the way they work for you. Like in cars, you drive several and get picky later after you filter out what is the same. I haven't even talked about window managers which is the next rung under full desktops. There are dozens of them and as you experience Linux you will encounter at least a couple. Window managers are not as integrated as the full desktop suites are and you can pick various Linux applications to bolster up the functionality to do what you need. Window managers tend to be lighter in resource use but differ in how they are configured and the level of user adjustment. Fluxbox, Ice, Enlightenment and Window Maker are a few names you might hear. In Linuxville, things are not made obsolete by a marketing or corporate decision. You will find both "old school" and the latest window managers being developed and upgraded and in use. This all makes Linux fitted to a vast variety of users. So, you can choose your Linux parts, piece by piece or you can get a packaged Linux (a distribution). You can run it out of the box and you can tweak it, hack it and pimp it. You can get it to resemble MS Windows, though I don't know why, and you can make it into an arcade of sights and sounds. The secret of Linuxville is that under all the scenic landscaping is the sovereign soil of the nation of Linux. The population of inhabitants include not only coders, developers and system administration folks but also average computer users like yourselves. Whether it's Gnome, KDE, Xfce or Fluxbox, Enlightenment or Window Maker, the GUI makes Linux accessible and usable to all. The GUI (graphical user interface) is the thing that avails users. Imagine Disney World without the "Magic Kingdom" look and feel. Imagine cars "any color as long as it's black" or only one model, brand and what's a world without trucks? Many demand the focus of a product and the accountability of a single company. We have yet to understand the idea of or embrace the possibilities of an outcome developed, produced, maintained and used by the same community. We have insisted on separation of company and product from the user and or customer. We have dictated terms of use and planned obsolescence to ensure product loyalty and dependency. We have believed our economic model is the only way to do things. Yet, things are different in Linuxville!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Care and feeding of a Linux user

As you all know, I am all fired up about how computer users are trained these days. It is not for computers in general but targeted for specific products. Usually it is about being a MS PC or a Mac person. Even general knowledge books assume we are using a MS PC and Macs get a cameo mention just to be inclusive. What about Linux, "Oh Linux is....... and Linux is........ It doesn't help when you get a Linux book that begins with the standard Bash command line commands. Why is it that MS PC's and Macs are point and click and Linux is still type in the commands? I have read a number of helpful Linux books and they all start off with command line training. What about the people who criticize as to whither Linux is ready for the desktop or not? They all are saying the need to use the command line makes Linux user-unfriendly. To extend the push even further, it is assumed that people interested in using Linux will grow up to be System Administrators one day or a programmer. You must be destined to use Linux on a server and manage a network and might even learn about Unix. All these perceptions prevent the popular use of Linux as a desktop operating system. Lets see, Linux on a server is highly respected but on the desktop is highly suspect even by Linux server people. Even though the Linux OS does the same things the other OS's do and the GUI on Linux does the same things that the other OS GUI's do, Linux is not ready for the desktop because it's too complex for average users because "you have to use the command line".
I have in my possession a book, "Red Hat Linux 7, Fast and Easy" by Brian Proffitt, published in 2000. This book starts off using the GUI to explore Red Hat Linux 7. It is too bad that other books I've read aren't like this one. This book is about Linux on the desktop for users to use Linux. Not for system administrators on servers, not for programmers. It does have a chapter on how to use the command line but in truth you do not need to use it unless you choose to.
So let me state the facts, you do not have to use the command line in order to use Linux on the desktop. Linux has a GUI with all the toolbars, icons and windows that other desktop operating systems have. Then, the problem with the perception of Linux not being ready for the desktop is because of people saying that Linux is for servers and programmers but not for typical users. Linux has a GUI and programs (applications) that open in windows using the keyboard or mouse, just like MS and Mac. It is the same, period. Here is a picture of my desktop.

Here I have two applications open, a game and a video playing, using only my mouse to do it. Notice the toolbar at the top, the desktop icons are hidden under the open windows. Believe me, if you can use a mouse you can use Linux on the desktop the same as you can use any other desktop operating systems. I myself am a long time computer user, but not a system administrator or a programmer. I am here to assure you that as a user you are free to point and click, drag and drop, and cut and paste on any computer you jump on, including the Linux desktop.

Monday, February 18, 2008

All that matters to a user is the GUI

The trouble with computers is the same as a bunch of blind men describing an elephant. Who is touching what and who is expressing their opinion. The topic of choice is the human-computer interface. What do you, the common computer user today use to access, control, manipulate and view data? Besides the various input and output devices there is a common element that co-ordinates the whole arrangement. It's what you see on your computer screen, the desktop GUI (graphical user interface). The GUI is a bone of contention among system designers. Some are old enough to remember the all text days. I my self was around when pen and ink drafting gave way to computer aided drafting, so I know the pangs of progress. The fact that the GUI responsible for the popular use of computers, is often lost on some programmers and developers has not hampered its use in the least. So, even if the operating system is perfection itself, the GUI is the thing the user handles. If the GUI is sloppy, sluggish, ugly or any other faulty adjective, the user thus judges the whole system as lame. And you know how picky some users are. The GUI has progressed since the early days in Xerox labs and I don't think we've seen the end of it. Many are trying to extend the devices we use to manipulate the GUI beyond the keyboard and mouse. But for you and I right now we have the keyboard/mouse/screen combo with the on screen GUI. It is almost safe to say that certain elements of the GUI are standard, that is what a user expects to see on the desktop after boot up. You expect to see a status bar, menus, and of course icons and windows. Who doesn't know how to point and click, drag and drop, and cut and paste? If you can work the GUI, you can work the computer. It always cracks me up to hear users say the GUI and OS they are using is the best. They often get quite heated over criticisms to the contrary. In truth, you'd have to admit that the quality of workmanship of the operating system underneath the GUI does show through. Stability and response are very apparent to users when trying to get work done. My point is not to promote who has the best elephant(GUI), but that GUI's are the common access method for users of computers today. If you can grasp the GUI concept, it probably wouldn't matter the brand name of the operating system behind it. Of course and having said that, I am implying that many are duped to believe that Microsoft and Apple software are all there is and that they alone have the polish and glitz to own the desktop. This is not the whole truth and in fact Linux is not the only other operating system with a GUI that is available for public use today. Again, my point is that if you can work the GUI (point, click, drag, drop, cut and paste), you can operate virtually any desktop computer today. Talking cars, does your drivers training make you a Ford, Chevy or Toyota person, or give you the ability to drive any car, truck or van? I know, a computer system is so much more than just a GUI, but the GUI is the means to access any system today. Many operating system camps use the scenario of how easy is it for grandparents to use a computer. It is the GUI they are talking about. Will they understand how to point and click, drag and drop or cut and paste? It is about the precise location of screen elements (habit optimised) vs user adjusting and tweaking. It is about knowing what to expect when you click. A GUI can add a level of reassurance to a person poking the keyboard and clicking the mouse. The GUI is a comfortable face on a screen of numbers. The GUI is the thing!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The approach, how to arrive safely in Linuxville

In the Linux past users have been IT specialist, coders and developers. Today Linux has spread to include less knowledgeable business and home users. The problem has always been that Linux is not in wide popular use because it hasn't been simply described and taught by the experienced users.
How do you approach Linux so that any user can want to begin to understand it? There are lots of Linux experienced people whose claim to fame is that they also are IT specialist, avid coders and developers. They know all the ins and outs of Linux but in truth have no need for the reassuring comfort of a GUI. I learned this from working at NASA, never ask an engineer for a quick overview of a project. They will impress you with the vital (interesting to them) details, important to know how they see it. With these type of folks the simple basic truth of Linux is the command line or terminal. So you need to learn something called the standard basic Bash commands and eventually learn to compile programs. Then you should learn how to use the text editor called Emacs (it does everything!) or Vim. "Only then can you know the true nature of the force." Yeah, you must become an auto mechanic before you can drive too. I have a great respect for IT folks, coders, developers and auto mechanics but the know what I know how I know it way of passing on knowledge is not the path to user enlightenment. Critics of Linux seem to perpetuate the attitude that the complexities of Linux are barely covered by the desktop GUI. Let's talk cars, you will find a dashboard, steering wheel, gas and brake pedals on a Ford Focus sedan and on a heavy-duty F-150 truck. Does more power under the hood require a different driver interface? How is it the Focus driver is able to drive the F-150? The driver interface is standard on cars/trucks and the GUI is the standard user interface on computers. The question of whether Linux is ready for the desktop is a stupid one. The Linux desktop has all the features the MS Windows or the Mac desktops have. The perception that Linux complexities and power is cheapened and degraded by the GUI is ignorant. The perception that Linux is only for geeks and techies in spite of having a GUI is also ignorant. Let's review the facts of computers. The OS (operating system) is a program that makes all the hardware work together at the request of a user. A GUI (graphical user interface) is an efficient (point & click vs type in commands) way to make those request.
Now we have settled the basic truths of computers (users point of view), you can argue all you want about who has the best or most popular operating system and who has the best or most popular desktop GUI. The fact is that the GUI is what the user expects after boot up. Robin 'Roblimo' Miller of "Point & Click Linux" fame (very good book) says that today's Linux can be used with six commands, point & click, drag & drop, and cut & paste. Linus Torvalds the inventor of Linux said that the OS (operating system) should be transparent to the user. The Linux desktop GUI does this very well and yet you can if you have the skills, tinker under the hood. Speaking of cars, even if you like the outward appearance, the engineering and the standard features, the interior look and feel is what sells the car. An awkward dashboard design and misplaced amenities will spoil the allure, you look good being seen in it but it doesn't look good to you while you are in it.
Of course when we talk about desktop Linux we also refer to the programs that run in Linux. We first want to run MS and Mac programs on it because we already know, love and use them. Then we want to know if Linux has equivalents (drop-in compatible replacements) of MS and Mac programs. Finally we come to realize that there are softwares for Linux that are better or worse than MS or Mac programs that do the same things. It is so hard to convince us users that the only true requirement is for file formats that are transferable between systems. The MS Office file formats that are widely used in business and home can also be read and written by Linux programs. There are other file formats like PDF and multimedia formats like Flash that can also be used in Linux also. You can safely use Linux rather than use MS or Mac and not miss a beat. Well, I guess there is a curve to over come. If you are a Ford Focus person and come to drive a F-150 (I've seen it done), you might have to adjust your judgment, perception and your techniques but you should have no problem working all the features.
OK folks, you got the GUI and the file formats, you just need to kick the tires and drive around the block. Don't worry about the terms and agreements of leasing because you can actually own it, to pimp it, junk it or drive it until it dies (if ever). You can fold, spindle and mutilate it without voiding the warranty. You can copy it, clone it, replicate it, even mutate it and yet, install it on as many machines as you have access to. With all the freedoms and liberties with Linux the only thing holding you back from using it is FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). This is user inertia caused by extended MS and Mac product use. I assure you that the existence and pedigree of Linux are firm and the pleasure of using it is comparable to if not better than what you have previously known. Sorry there is no money back guarantee, Linux is free!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

ode to the eye and the hand

I was doing a visual survey of what is on the desktop of users on the internet. That is on YouTube and Google Videos to be exact. Eye candy is what it is known as and who has the best or most extreme eye candy is the rage. It's a GUI mess if you ask me. Does whirling and scrolling desktops mean you have the best OS or the greatest user interface. It's like looking at a popular hotrod magazine. You begin with something your grandpa can drive and wind up with something only Evil Kinevil would approach.
I for one can't imagine the thrill of texting (my fingers won't do that) when the spoken word is sufficient, but here I want to center on computers. Let's see, the whole idea is to point and click. We all do that very well so that now desktop OS developers are pressed to add features that tantalize our senses to the distraction of reasonable use. Of course you don't have to tweak out your desktop and it can just be boringly useful. The argument goes back and forth between the MS Windows PC and the Mac as to who has the better interface, then Linux comes in with "I can do that too and have done it for years". Young folks seem to gravitate to tweaking and fussing with all the bells and whistles like they do with cellphones and PDA's of all sorts. Us older folks like to see simplicity and consistency. The oneupmanship battle is kind of driving the desktop market but you can only do so much with a keyboard and a mouse, or can you? Video screen gymnastics are unlimited or at least we haven't seen the last of it, so who knows how much more the GUI will progress. In my honest estimation, the point and click desktop has become the standard already and it will become apparent to most computer users that any GUI is sufficient and simple enough to do the basics. The apparent persuasion or dissuasion that one maker's GUI or OS is better should be rated on technical terms not based on usability alone. We know that with MS and Mac the GUI is an integrated part of the OS and that with Linux it is separate projects with different flavors. The question that is speculated among the Linux community is what would happen to Linux if it had only one desktop? Would this make Linux better, or able to compete with MS and Mac head to head, or limit Linux by diverting from it's very nature, user choice and development diversity? Some want the focus of a "product" and the accountability of a single vendor. These are not ideas from which Linux has grown from. Does narrowing the user choice to a preferred desktop really serve to improve Linux or just give its critics something consistent for comparison to MS or Mac? We must accept that the MS and Mac have company/product focus and Linux is developed by a community on many fronts. The two ways to arrive at point and click are conceptually different and the efforts can be appreciated by users just the same. Because all we care about is the point and click.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Welcome to Linuxville, here's the lay of the land

It is like the scene in the movie Tron where Tron contacts the girl, Yori, embraces her and she responds with statistical codes while looking him intently in the eyes. Then he shakes her, she awakens and engages in normal conversation. We MS programmed users think and speak Microsoft until slapped around a little. We all do it, when we want to write a document and instinctively reach for Word. Then when Linux is presented we ask will Word run on it? In your mind, write doc = use Word. This is entirely understandable as popular usage causes some leakage into the common vocabulary. The real truth is that we want the familiarity of Word and the ability to produce a Word compatible document. Well, let's examine that a little bit. If a product was exactly like MS Word, Microsoft wouldn't stand for that so it has to be a little different. Then it can't be a whole new thing because it won't be familiar to us. Then the document format must be consistent and compatible with Word because that is what is in popular use. So what does MS do? They change the user interface so the product appears to be new (we must have the new stuff!) but they also change the file formats just enough to be incompatible with the older formats. They call it an improvement but they intend to control the file formats and make their product indispensable. Now other document application developers must lease the rights to use the new formats making them subject to the wiles and whims of Microsoft. This is just business to MS and we too must sign a users agreement so we are not exempt from their influence. We don't care about these things, all we really want is to make the document. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) comes to the rescue. Open Office Writer is what I am talking about or Abiword or Kwrite. They each have a similar interface as MS Word, that is point and click, drop down menus and tool tips. They each can read and write the current MS Word file formats (until MS changes them again) and they each can be acquired off the internet for free. The only reason we don't use them is because we are convinced that MS Word is the only one that can do the job. I sort of advocate that certain file formats should be public domain for free and open computing. Then if you want a vendor's propriety format to use, that is your choice, not your obligation to use a certain vendor's product. Free and open computing, what a concept!! You don't have a business, yet you must have MS Word because that's what businesses use. It's not your fault, businesses ask if you are experienced in using MS Word instead of if you have word processor experience. They too have assumed MS Word is the acceptable standard. I am pointing out that the use of Linux and open source software is a challenge to the concept of using MS compatible products.
If you are like me, can't always justify the cost of upgrading both hardware and software to do the same things I do on my old computer, then Linux and open source software is a viable option well worth looking into. "Take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes"(The Matrix movie). Go to if you are curious. Then I also ask that you new computer buyers getting ready to jump into MS hyperspace to look here, for FOSS stuff to run on your MS system. Consider it like clipping coupons to save money, and if you must spend something, donate to the software projects, they could use the funding, it will be appreciated. Yeah, I know, Linux and FOSS seem to skirt the normal economics of doing business but when times are tight and cost matters, the way of doing business as usual must be adjusted. You must bite the hand that feeds you once in a while to keep it real. I am also here to tell you home users that there is no reason on earth to go into debt in order to compute. If you need commercial stuff for your survival, that is OK, but if not, there is no threat to the economy or national interest to use free and open source software. Me, I'm just here to shake you a little, you might awaken to engage in a normal conversation. Then we can once again gain access and control over our computing experience.

Friday, February 08, 2008

What would be Linux users should know.

Well, I am trying to approach this a number of ways so you can understand my madness. Choosing a Linux distro is not that difficult. Let's start off with what a users sees, the GUI. The GUI is the face of any operating system, The GUI affords you an easy way to work the guts of the operating system to do what you want. There are as I said 3 main desktops, KDE and Gnome are the most well known, KDE seems the most like MS Windows but Gnome is not that different. Then there is Xfce which is a little leaner at resource use. Which means that Xfce will work better on a less endowed computer. Then also there are what is known as window managers, which are less integrated than full desktops but still sufficient to get at your system. The thing you need to know is that it is all point and click. Some window managers are Fluxbox, Ice, Enlightenment. I will say this to those who think Linux is hard to use, or for geeks. The command line or terminal window is available when and if you need it, but the same is true in MS Windows. The fear is in not knowing what to expect when you hit the return. This is why user forums exist to tell you what to do and expect so you are not in the dark.

The next thing to be concerned with is the application package management system. There are three, RPM, DEB and TARGZ. You ask which is the easiest/best to work with? I say DEB is the best, then RPM, then TARGZ. That is my opinion, different distros have tools to make working with files a breeze, your likes might be different. Distros are classed by these package management systems. Red Hat and Red Hat based distros use RPM. Debian and Debian based distros use DEB. Slackware and Slackware based distros use TARGZ. Now add on the GUI of your preference and you can begin to see why so many distros.

The third consideration is system administration tools. Are the system admin tools in one place or scattered? How are the desktop configuration tools, the disk management tools, network tools and especially the installation tools. If you are using the live-CD, is it easy to save your files and settings?

The last thing to know about is how to get your Linux driven computer to mesh with the MS Windows dominated world. How to get MS TT core fonts so that your docs will be compatible. How to install codecs if you need them for multimedia. How to add extensions to web browsers like Flash. Then how to deal with 32 bit extensions when you have a 64 bit programs, if you need to. Finally, how to install video drivers, install printers and deal with WiFi.

There is a lot of plug-n-play but some hardware needs serious tweaking. You need to check the user forums to see how others have dealt with those problems. Once you have entered into the Linux world it can be consuming but no worse and for some much better that dealing with MS Windows. I hope your Linux adventure is a long and interesting one. Breaking free from well honed user habits takes a little struggle and looking into a few things clears up a lot.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Peaking into the Linux box

I see, you are wondering what am I getting you into by suggesting you try Linux. Don't worry it's pretty painless and you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find. If not, you can back out at any time.
Part of the terror of trying something new is not knowing what to expect. It is not like driving a car with the steering wheel on the right side and driving on the left side of the street. Let's say you've downloaded and burned a live-CD version of Linux, popped it in the CD drive and rebooted. On the screen is the usual boot screens showing what is being loaded and run, some distros hide this activity with a progress bar in its' place like MS win does. Eventually, if all goes well, you come to a login screen. Info tells you how to login and then flashes some configuration screens for graphics, timezones, keyboard, language. Some distros will read your hardware and bring up the user GUI which you could adjust later. Once you get to the user GUI, "you are free to move about the country". Since this is a live-CD, it is running in ram and off the CD, so you can explore and quit and not damage your present MS Windows installation (if you have one). Just don't click the install button unless you intend to install. When I got my computer that came with MS WinXP on it, it also came with extra stuff, MS trial and demo software and internet service offers. It came with HP system and user management software and a few extra softwares for multimedia. Needless to say I deleted much of the extra software because it was mostly useless to me, sort of like the previews on a movie CD. Then I had to purchase applications to get real work done. So I am looking at my live-CD Linux desktop, let's say KDE desktop and there are icons for all of my disk drives and a menu bar much like MS WinXP. Gee, this is just like ........ What a surprise, I can do this. Hey, and not a bad looking desktop, point and click and tool tips on the icons. Now you can explore all the stuff and find out what it does. I know you probably have your favorite MS Windows applications for different functions but can you do the same stuff in Linux? That you will have to discover. Let's say you're into graphics. There is the GIMP (graphic image manipulation program), it is similar to Photoshop. Gimp doesn't do color separation for print publishing, but if you don't need that, you still have the power to do much of what Photoshop does for free. Gimp usually comes with most distros. If you decide to install Linux on your hard drive, you can download other graphics applications to fatten your tool box. Linux comes with Open Office which does what MS Office does or a combination of other productivity applications. The trick is to be able to read and write MS Office documents, no problem. Internet browsers that give you access to the net is enhanced by the fact that most live-CD's will figure out your internet connection without your help. It's like test driving a car, you get to not just kick the tires, you get to drive it too. So, use the live-CD to try it , use it for taking a break from the MS world, for emergency's (when your MS system breaks) and then for installing into a permanent situation or dual-booting, your choice. If your bringing an older PC back from the dead, live-CD Linux might work for you. If you want a set up for grandpa and grandma, the live-CD Linux is great because once you know what to expect, it won't change. Why subject your folks to the problems of older MS Windows and older hardware too. Yeah, yeah, you hear so many people nit-n-pick about the look and feel, the quality of this and that, the polish and comparison to this and this other stuff is better, more popular and.........ya know, it all gets me tired. Just try it, use it, and if by any chance you like it, install it, enjoy it. If you find it doesn't stand up to your personal scrutiny, move on, there are other choices in life.

To clear up a few things, Linux is really just the kernel (heart of the operating system) and some utilities and libraries. The rest of what we call Linux is tools and applications (programs). These are what make up a "distribution" or distro. There are some very, very cool distros, easy to download from the web. Yes, I do have favorites. I like Xubuntu and I have it installed on one PC. It is good but it is not the best for portability. For hit and run computing I like Wolvix (small and lean) and SimplyMepis is very sweet and comes up fast. Puppy Linux is also worth a look and so is DreamLinux. Each has a particular look and feel, desktop tools and a focus of applications. DreamLinux is focused on multimedia for instance. Be careful as the terrible tendency is to compare and rank distros, to be picky and will have you collecting a number of assorted distro CD's. You will not know which one to pop in next. Oh, the pleasure and pain of Linux......... so many distro's, so little time. To narrow down your prospects it is wise to research the web a little bit to see "what is hot and what is not" and what might be a good fit. Even if you are a die hard MS Windows (all you know) person, you might find a live-CD version of Linux useful. Anyway, for me the Linux experience has been fun. In the words of Jedi master Yoda, "there is another".

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Making the Linux Choice

Trying to make sense out of choosing a Linux distribution is an art, or is it a science. I guess that too depends on what kind of person you are. Most likely you are looking for a desktop Linux to supplement (dual-boot with MS Windows) or to replace MS Windows altogether. Selecting a desktop version of Linux narrows down the field quite a bit. This eliminates the server editions and a lot of the special focus versions out there. I really wish there was a spreadsheet or database listing all the options in one place. Wikipedia has a chart under "Comparison of Linux Distributions" but I think it needs some refinement so that new folk can quickly grasp an over all view. With all Linux distros there are some elements that are alike and some that are standout and value added features. The whole idea is to pick one distro as a base and then add or delete stuff until it suits your needs. If you are a picky user, this can get quite involved. I am going to give you the big choices and point out some of the small ones you are likely to encounter.

1. Distro name - name recognition is strong indicator of what's behind it. Like Red Hat, Suse, Ubuntu. Would you like a company, a small group or a couple of people behind your distro. In any case you have to investigate and consider. If not, then look at what's popular and consider it a start, you are free to change your mind. Consider support and updates.

2. The desktop - KDE, Gnome, Xfce, Fluxbox, or whatever is right for you. You can go fat or lean, full featured or minimum. In theory, you can put your desktop preference on any distro you choose.

3. The package management system - RPM, Debian, Targz, or CNR. There are also programs that will convert one format into another. The question to ask is if this distro with this format has the software you need in its repository's, are they current, and can I install/delete them without a lot of hassle.

These to me are the biggies. Then there are small but important stuff that hit and run users don't usually haggle over, like administration tools and utilities that you tweak the system and desktop with.
Don't neglect to look at these as this is where the value added features come to play. Often these features define and make or break a distro. But, in theory, it doesn't matter which distro you start off with. You should be able to find the same stuff that is in other distros to put into your distro. I am saying there is only one Linux, it has many, many parts to choose from and that a distro is some pre-selected parts already grouped together for you.

If you are a wet finger in the wind kind of weatherperson, there are some web sites that have "distro chooser" programs. My favorites are and You just answer the questions and they put you in the ballpark. Then with your choices in hand go to or to to find info or download sites.

Do I have any recommendations? Yes and I have opinions too.
The full featured major distros are fine but I think it is fun to consider the smaller ones too. Ask yourself if it's easier to add or delete stuff. With the live-CD Linux you can try before you install, no harm done if you don't like it. If you like a particular desktop, that desktop will make different distros look and feel the same. In that case it's the added value features that matter. My choices are full featured but a little leaner desktop Xubuntu and for a smaller distro I like Wolvix. I like DreamLinux and Puppy also. There is nothing good or bad about other distros, taste, choice, fit, are all subjective things. If you are into performance or resource use or laptops, you can look into those things as well on user forums. Relax folks, Linux is fun and you can afford to be picky, it's OK because there is no one size that fits all.