June 4, 2002

ELX: Newbie-friendly Linux looks a lot like Windows

- By Norbert Cartagena -

Recently, a number of new Linux distributions have been seeking to create a Windows clone. Some of these are highly commercial projects and have arguably began taking on some of the code sharing traits of their model, while most simply seek to make a
Windows-like system for new converts to use while they get accustomed to
the entire Linux/Open Source world. A couple of these projects stand out because
of their close similarities to the system they're trying to copy. Others stand
out not only because of that, but also because of the innovative features
they add. Everyone's Linux, or ELX, is in that second category.
ELX is developed by 3T Solutions
Pvt Ltd in Hyderabad, India. The distribution's goal is to create a newbie-friendly,
easy-to-use desktop with no learning curve for the typical Windows user. ELX is still at a pre-release stage, but 3T Solutions is taking
pre-orders for the 1.0 release. For this review, I'll be taking
a look at ELX Pre-Gold. It has a number
of bugs, as is to be expected in any pre-release. Although I'll be focusing
on the features of ELX, I will mention some of those bugs for the sake of the ELX crew, more than anything, just in case I've run into something they're not aware of. Most, if not all, of these issues should be resolved by the 1.0 release.

I tested ELX Pre-Gold on the following systems:

Model: Tower I built myself Dell Inspiron 8000 Laptop
Processor: PIII 450 PIII 650
RAM: 128MB 192MB
Monitor: KDS AV-195T Generic LCD, 1400x1050@75hz
Hard Disks: 40GB+10GB 10GB
Video Card: ATI All-In-Wonder 128 8MB ATI Rage 128 Mobility MF
Sound Card: SoundBlaster PCI 16 ES 1983S Maestro 3i
Network Card: Realtek RT8029(AS) 3Com Hurricane NIC/Modem combo
Modem: Generic WinModem 3Com Hurricane NIC/Modem combo
CD: Creative Blaster CD 52x
CenDyne 24x10x40 CD-RW
TEAC CD-ROM CD-224E (standard)
Printer: HP 832 C None


Linux users spend an inordinate amount of time talking about installations.
This seems kind of funny if you consider that one of the community's
points of pride is Linux's ability to have extremely long up times, hence
eliminating the need for frequent installs. Nevertheless, it's been because
of this attention that developers have spent years figuring out ways
to make the installations easier and more inviting. In fact, it's gotten
to the point where a Linux installation is, generally speaking, a rather
uneventful occurrence. You plop in a CD into the CD-ROM, start the computer,
click yes a couple of times, wait a few minutes and you're done. Oh sure,
you can spend hours optimizing your system and tweaking it to your needs,
but it's rather nice to have the ability to do your laundry while
you're installing a new operating system. That's pretty much how things went
when installing ELX. Boring, boring, boring. Then again, boring installs
are a good thing.

At the beginning of the installation process you're greeted by Dolly,
ELX's mascot dolphin. This was a nice change of pace from the usual penguins
and lizards. After Dolly's swift introduction, I went through the installation steps. Because this was a clean install, I just clicked yes whenever
I was asked. The hardware all checked out, time zone was set to EST (default
setting is Calcutta), and package selection was all there. The basic install
is about 1.8 gigs, but I clicked the "everything" option and the install
ballooned up to 3.1 gigs. At this point, Dolly told me I should go take
a coffee break, so I started up a pot of java and went to do my laundry.
The whole installation took about an hour of my time, most of which was spent
either drinking coffee or checking on my clothes. Yes, I admit, I had to
change to CD 2 at about the halfway point, but I figured I needed the exercise.

After the installation was complete, the system rebooted and I was on
my way. For some reason, on my tower system, the graphical login screen was
just coherent enough for me to know that there were two login boxes and a
couple of buttons, but with a gray background and green lines everywhere,
the screen didn't make for very pleasant viewing (maybe X didn't like my
video card). Once I figured out how to log in, everything shaped up. On the
laptop everything was smooth sailing.

Not quite Kansas, not quite Oz

To ease my learning curve, once logged in, I pretended I was in
Windows instead of Linux. The default desktop was a modified KDE 2.2.2, and I usually
use Gnome, so that wasn't particularly hard. I didn't take long to
notice the "My Computer" and "Network Neighborhood" icons, or the "Start"
button at the bottom of the screen, for that matter. I'm surprised, however,
that Microsoft hasn't said something about this yet, given all the hoopla
it's made about Lindows
. I did find it odd that ELX's KDE defaults to only
one desktop. I know from personal experience that multiple desktops is one of the features Windows users like most about using Linux, and it's what I miss first when
I have to work in Windows. Maybe this is something ELX should make a little
less Windows-like.

Once I got over the shock of the similarities, I started to see that
it was the non-Windows-like additions that really impressed me. One of the
best features is the "Launch Pad," a menu that holds a list of related
applications in a number pad-style group of icons. If there's an application
listed on the pad that isn't installed on your system, ELX has a tool that
will go into the ELX servers and install the application via the Web, much
like Ximian's Red Carpet. It can also go install from the CD, which might
be faster for some users.

I used this feature a number of times, but had varying levels of success with it. I installed a firewall and Emacs, both off the 'Net, both of which had problems. The firewall complained that access was denied and that I had to be root to manipulate the firewall and FireStarter wizard. Emacs just wouldn't come up (I found out later it was
having a segmentation fault). On the other hand, I also installed Quanta
and Screem, one from the 'Net, the other from the CD. Both
of these installed well and were up and running in no time.

ELX desktop

After I played with ELX for about a day, I decided the true test
was to give my parents a chance to try the software. I figured if my dad can
use it, then so could anyone who can click a mouse. I let them do the install
to see if they could go through it. Realizing after about two minutes I wasn't
going to be needed for anything, I went off to do my own thing. I came back
a couple of days later to see how they were doing. Things were going so smoothly
for them that they forgot they were supposed to be testing it. They liked
the Launch Pads and liked the fact that their system was running faster than
it had been before. I'd consider this to be a success. What they didn't notice
was that they didn't have to worry about whether they ran into Flash
or a PDF or a RealPlayer stream. ELX comes with those functions pre-configured and ready to go. It's nice to be able to use a computer without using much more brain power
as it takes to use a toaster.

ELX comes with enough software to satisfy the needs of most users. The
system is not meant to be used to administer huge networks, so you won't
find many utilities to take care of all that. What you will find, however,
is enough software to keep the overwhelming majority of users happy, including OpenOffice, KOffice, Netscape, Evolution, Opera, Ogle, Xine, the
Gimp, Kylyx, Webmin and more. In fact, ELX has included a Launch Pad called
"My Favourites," which includes the applications most people would be interested
in using (although the exclusion of XMMS from this panel was a surprising discovery).
In short, this is a very well built, complete and attractive package, definitely
good for newbies.

A feature I'd like to see from this distribution is a better way
to install new software. The Webmin utility includes a good package installation
utility I found very easy to use, but Windows converts and new
users might not be too comfortable with it at first. This is an issue that needs to be addressed by the makers of Linux distributions that seek
to make Linux viable for the regular Joe User. In this case, an icon within
"My Computer" or on the desktop, called "Install New Software," linked to
this portion of Webmin, would be a good start. Eventually it should just be
a matter of downloading an RPM, DEB or standardized TGZ package, clicking
on it, and having a dialogue box take you through the package installation.
Red Hat's up2date utility is close, as is Ximian's Red Carpet, but what
about something to handle downloaded files and files on CD, not just
those files sitting in an FTP archive somewhere?

Wrapping up

The developers in Hyderabad have done a great job in creating this very
Windows-like, complete distribution. In fact, they've done such a great job
that during my use, a virus tried to install itself on my system. After realizing
it was dealing with Linux, it promptly apologized and left without causing
any damage. For you serious types out there, that was a joke. On a more serious
note, I'll say that although ELX is still at a development stage and does have its problems, this promises to be one of the better newbie -friendly distributions available.


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