July 18, 2006

Linux Starter Kit: a review

Author: Nathan Willis

Sams Publishing's Linux Starter Kit bundles a SUSE Linux 10.1 DVD, a searchable SUSE reference manual in PDF, and a paperback Quick Start Guide together in one $40 package. Here is a look inside.

Since SUSE 10.1 has already been reviewed extensively, and is not the product of Sams' efforts, I will dispense with reviewing directly. It is worth examining Sams' choice of distributions, however. SUSE is a good choice because -- despite being historically a KDE distro -- since its acquisition by Novell, it has elevated GNOME desktops to more-or-less equal status. On initial installation, you must choose one or the other, but both are available on the installation media. The same could not be said of Ubuntu, for example, which focuses its GNOME and KDE attention on essentially two separate-but-equal distros, standard Ubuntu and Kubuntu. For a Linux vet, it's not a major issue, but imposing such a choice on users new enough to want a "starter kit" would be asking for trouble.

Likewise, including a DVD-based installer is a win not just for Sams' production costs, but for new-user-friendliness. I still suffer from intermittent nightmares about having to swap in and swap out installation diskettes on the primitive Macs of my childhood -- and more recently of doing the same with Red Hat CDs.

And of course, despite the controversy such a decision inevitably brings, a "starter kit" absolutely must supply a distro that can pre-install commercial components like closed-source video drivers and proprietary media codecs. It may be an evil to the eyes of some, but a brand-new free software user needs such a hand up to escape the non-free software world.

Words

What, then, of the Quick Start Guide book? Its cover touts three topics: Installation, Linux Basics, and Troubleshooting. Installation is covered in chapter one, Linux Basics comprise the next four chapters, and Troubleshooting is addressed both in the final chapter and interspersed within the rest of the text.

Stylistically, I give the book high marks. It is readable and clear, and on important issues takes a detailed but straightforward approach. For example, the entire third chapter is devoted to explaining the Linux boot and shutdown processes. Beginning with POST, the text clearly explains each step in booting a Linux system, and does so without dumbing it down. It includes what I consider to be one of the best explanations I have seen of boot loaders and runlevels -- two things experienced Windows users will have had no prior exposure to.

I also found the book's point of view to be refreshing -- openly admitting, for example, that GNOME and KDE do the exact same things and are more or less interchangeable, or that you will occasionally have problems with the X server. Such confessions clearly place the author on the side of the reader; too often when I read a distro's official documentation, it sounds vetted by marketing copy writers -- singing the praises of the software, perhaps stepping through an error-free configuration, but little in the way of pointing out likely problems.

Consider, for example, SUSE's own installer, which buyers of the Linux Starter Kit will see and use. It asks you to choose between KDE and GNOME during initial setup, but describes each of them as "a powerful and intuitive desktop environment" -- zero help in distinguishing between them, and couched in the wording of a sales pitch. In the middle of installation, the "sale" has already been made; it's time to level with the user and be frank about the choice.

The Quick Start Guide cuts through the featureless wall of company pride, and helps the user make sense of the system at a practical level.

That is not to say that the guide is perfect. Like a lot of contemporary technical books, it makes liberal use of boxed "side notes," a practice that I find disorienting and distracting. If the information is important, then it deserves to be worked into the text. If not, relegate it to a footnote. Side notes just add visual clutter.

Furthermore, even though I give high praise to the chapter on the boot and shutdown processes, I found the chapter on Linux filesystems weaker. To make matters worse, the filesystem is discussed in chapter five, but referred to repeatedly in the first four chapters, and cited with forward-references. The filesystem hierarchy is not difficult once you understand it, but for beginners even the syntax of file paths is foreign, and it deserves to be explained early on, in the same level of detail given to runlevels.

Final thoughts

On the whole, though, the Quick Start Guide is an excellent piece of work, and that makes the Linux Starter Kit a stronger offering than a solo DVD of SUSE 10.1 would be on its own. Anyone can download an ISO image for free; the value of this package is how well it guides a new user through his first steps into the Linux world.

I am still a staunch believer that the best way to convert a Windows user into a Linux user is through personal, one-to-one tech support -- but if I had to abandon a willing proselyte with an installer and a book to guide him instead, I am confident that the Linus Starter Kit would serve him well.

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