Windows addicts curious to see how the other half lives but wary of the installation
challenges Linux is supposed to present will find Mandrake 8.1 considerably easier
to install and configure than Win-XP. It's quite nearly Harry Homeowner-proof. Ready for some cultural tourism? No need to hesitate; the Pro package sells for a
mere $70.00, compared with XP's $300, so it's hardly a major investment even if
you should run home to Redmond in the end.
The Mandrake installation beats even SuSE's, which is relatively comprehensive
and trouble-free. The first issue for me was whether I'd get the same fatal read-errors
I got from Red Hat and SuSE with my CD-ROMs set to cable select, as the Dell
factory likes them. This is important because Compaq, Gateway and HP also like
this arrangement, and Harry is most likely using an OEM box.
With Red Hat the installation failed, and the documentation was inadequate to sort
out the issue. With SuSE it failed as well, but the YaST installer prominently offers a
safe-mode installation, and the documentation prominently urges this whenever
there's a problem. The user may never know why his first attempt failed, but his
second will go all right so long as he follows directions.
Again I set up my two CD-ROMs and two HDDs with cable select, and ran
Mandrake's DrakX installer. It handled the CS arrangement flawlessly. I was so
surprised that later I switched everything back to master/slave configs and
re-installed, but that worked fine as well.
So on the Harry test I give an F to Red Hat for having no knowledge of the CS issue
and no useful recommendations; a C+ to SuSE for making it easy for Harry to get it
right the second time around; and an A to Mandrake for having no such issue at all.
The second issue for me is my networking scheme, which, while not quite an
out-of-the-box setup, is by no means over the top. Perhaps a bit eccentric by Harry
standards, I'll allow.
I'm using a DSL modem, ethernet cards and a router to connect my machines to
Verizon's DSL service. I need a PPPoE client running. Red Hat took me hours to
configure; and SuSE never did work due to some lame-assed PPPoE client I was
told to fetch from their Web site (hello!). Win-XP never worked either, because it was
convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that it had already installed all the software
needed to run my hardware and arrogantly refused to be corrected.
And Mandrake? It detected my ethernet card correctly, and when I installed ADSL it
popped in a handy PPPoE client and connected the first time. I mean, immediately
after configuring it, without any subsequent tweaking.
As for other hardware detection, Mandrake was infallible. The drives; the
wheel-mouse, the keyboard, the monitor, the video card (nVidia Ge-Force AGP 64
MB), the sound card (SoundBlaster Live), all of it. All I had to do was confirm its
choices every now and then.
Disk partitioning and formatting is an absolute breeze in expert mode, with a
graphical menu showing all your hard drives and partitions. You just click to select
a partition or a chunk of free space, and it's selected in the configuration menu. It's
a mousey affair, with little sliders to set the partition sizes. (Mousey is OK with me,
as is texty; what irritates me is a combination where I'm shifting back and forth
between mouse and keyboard.)
Ah, but there had to be at least one hitch. The driver for my video card with
hardware acceleration which I was offered froze my machine during the boot and
nothing could make it start, not even a boot floppy.
There was an "experimental" driver which I didn't try. The one I did try wasn't
flagged for danger, but should have been. So I had to use the driver without
hardware acceleration which worked fine, and then download the right RPM from
nVidia's Web site. Not a lot of trouble, but this is precisely the sort of little oversight
which will drive poor Harry to distraction; and it's the only thing I encountered
during several different Mandrake installations which mars an otherwise outstanding
What to expect
There will of course be some trade-offs if you migrate from Windows. You'll loose the
Microsoft puppy yapping at your heels, harranguing you to 'activate' and get a
Passport. You'll finally be permitted to configure your machine pretty well as you
please, which may take some getting used to.
But regardless of whether you choose to run KDE or Gnome, the Linux desktop
definitely isn't as pretty. It's more configurable, certainly; the OS is more stable; you
get lots of free applications and utilities; and your machine will be a lot more
secure, if for no reason other than your immediate escape from that premium virus
If you're into graphics work, Linux is not your environment. But then you're already
using a Mac. If you're heavily into games, then you're definitely stuck with
Windows. Linux's multimedia support is crude out of the box, but there are heaps of
applications and codecs for download, so this limitation can be overcome.
So what's it good for? Everyday chores with a lot less noise and nonsense,
especially those related to the Internet. It's a fine choice if you want to surf the Web
and take control of the information you're leaving behind, and which Web sites are
leaving on your machine; it's good for using e-mail with far fewer malware dangers
(start by displaying all received messages as text only); and of course it works well
for chatting and trading files with your friends on line.
In other words, it's better at most of what the majority of Windows addicts use their
computers for: wasting time on line.
Office applications are adequate, but not great. Personally I never use anything but
a text editor, though many people seem to relish the distractions of word-processors
and spreadsheets. Here you have several choices, none of which is as slick as its
MS Office counterpart. Sun's StarOffice 5.2 is particularly loathsome, but recent
reports indicate that version 6.0, due out in early 2002, marks a giant step forward.
Of course Linux is a great development platform if you like to roll your own progies,
and perfect if you want to run a little Web or FTP server off your home machine. It's
far cheaper, simpler and safer than using IIS over NT or 2K. (Also excellent in the
enterprise space, but that's another story.)
Other virtues include the simple pleasure of 'getting clean' following years of
addiction to the Microsoft upgrade dependency scam. The sweet sensation of
rehabilitation alone is worth the purchase price.
If you'd like to eXPerience that sensation, Mandrake 8.1 is, hands down, the easiest
way to get started.
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