December 12, 2005

Review: <em>Linux Made Easy</em>

Author: Stephen Feller

If you're new to Linux, the only the thing you may have to lead you along is the recommendations of those who already know about it. While Rickford Grant's book Linux Made Easy will help you set up Xandros 3 and give a spot-on tour of what you need to know, it's written for those who know far less about computers than they may think.

Grant, whose previous book Linux for Non-Geeks was designed around Fedora Core, opens this volume with the assumption that it has taken the reader this long to move beyond Windows out of a fear of the unknown. Grant explains that OS changes aren't (necessarily) permanent, and shows readers how easy the transition to Xandros can be.

After instructing the reader to back up any important files, Grant explains that you can change your mind at any point regardless of the options you go with. After a few minutes of letting the Xandros CD-ROM included with the book do its thing, I found I was staring at a desktop frighteningly like Windows, just as Grant had promised.

Grant leads readers through a tour of their hardware, setting things up along the way. He doesn't go into detail early in the book in favor of focusing on the basics, but later on he dedicates whole chapters to all sorts of tricks, and he tells you where to find the right chapters if you don't want to wait.

The overview and brief exploration of where to find applications, how to connect to the Internet, and customizing the look of the desktop sometimes border on overly basic -- as if the author thinks people are caught way off-guard by the silver "Launch" menu instead of the green "Start" one we've grown accustomed to over the years.

The book shows the Xandros File Manager in all its glory. Grant shows the reader that it is much more versatile than its Windows counterpart, allowing deep customization that provides more options than Windows users could dream of messing with. Grant also makes sure you know how to open files from the Windows partition, if you've got one.

The book covers a healthy portion of the other software included with Xandros: the obligatory walk-through for the GIMP, a look at that will be strangely familiar to Microsoft Office users, Firefox and Thunderbird introductions, and the Kopete instant messenger and Skype communication software. All of these applications should feel familiar, so the tips are mostly just redirection to stuff many users already know. The chapters dedicated to scanners and cameras, as well as audio and video software, are pretty comprehensive.

For someone new to Linux, the Xandros Networks (XN) application repository is the true revelation -- it is like a religious experience when used for the first time. Grant's guide for taking XN to its full potential reveals everything from the basic to the fantastic. He covers installing games, office applications, desktop variations -- SuperKaramba kills the ridiculous idea of switching OSes in favor of a more attractive interface by allowing you to emulate pretty much any look you want -- and software designed for kids that even this adult couldn't resist.

With everything Grant includes in the book, there are still a few things missing. If everything goes as planned, you're golden; but whenever a computer is involved, that's not what tends to happen, and advice on troubleshooting some of the problems you might run into is where this book falters.

Grant doesn't cover things as simple as where XN downloads software to, something you'd like to know if you can't find it afterwards on the Launch menu, or how to change the default wireless slot where Xandros looks for a card, or what to do if a DVD won't play the way it once did in Windows. It would also be nice to know what to do about the frustrating "broken package" message that pops up every once in a while in XN.

When someone buys this kind of book, he hopes he will have to reference it only once in a while after a first read to soak up the knowledge necessary to get by -- but without sections that address the potential for problems, this book just doesn't seem quite enough.

Linux Made Easy, which lists for $35, is a basic introduction to a Linux distribution that's so similar to Windows that you really can't even feel the difference. In theory, users could get by without Linux Made Easy, but the book provides a useful safety net for readers who might be uncomfortable switching operating systems. Xandros provided such a perfect transition that I've already begun looking at more distinctive distributions that better fit what I want out of Linux, something that might not have happened without Grant and his introduction.

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