Linux still quirky but becoming friendlier

By Rob Pegoraro
The Washington Post

July 17, 2004

The choice of software to run our computers can get awfully depressing. On one hand, there's Windows XP — expensive and woefully insecure, but it works on almost every machine.

On the other, there's Mac OS X — far more secure, but also expensive and restricted to Apple's own computers.

Where's our independence from this pair? For a growing minority of users, it comes in the open-source operating system called Linux. It's either cheap or free (depending if you buy a packaged distribution or download a version online), it's secure and it can run on any Windows-ready machine.

And because its code is open for anybody to modify, users, not marketers, can get the final say in this operating system's evolution.

But Linux doesn't offer up these rewards easily. At worst, installing it means hours of thumb-wrestling the software into submission, first tweaking it to work with a PC's hardware and then mastering the inscrutable routines needed to update and manage this code.

The first problem arises because many hardware manufacturers provide enabling software only for Windows, forcing Linux programmers to do that work on their own. The second is a consequence of how Linux was first crafted by hobbyists for hobbyists.

With a lot of work by developers, those issues have improved greatly, and Linux has gotten easier to find in stores (Wal-Mart's Web site even sells desktop computers with it pre-installed).

To check up on the progress, I tried two commercial distributions, SuSE Linux 9.1 Personal ($30, http://www.suse.com/) and Mandrakesoft's PowerPack 10 ($85, http://www.mandrakesoft.com/), and one download-only release, Fedora Core 2 (fedora.redhat.com), a community project sponsored by Raleigh, N.C.-based Linux developer Red Hat (Windows XP Home goes for $199 new, or $99 at the upgrade rate.)

All three incorporate the latest updates to the underlying Linux software, differing mainly in the programs wrapped around that kernel of code. All show the progress that has been made — and the work that remains to be done.

At one extreme, consider the "LiveCD" SuSE. Pop this in your CD-ROM drive, reboot and you can run Linux right off that disc without touching your existing Windows installation. It's a quick and painless way to try out this system.

Mandrake's protracted setup routine, however, didn't configure a graphical interface automatically and kept asking me to confirm technical details like "mount points" that other distributions handled on their own. (Mandrake's cheaper Discovery edition includes a LiveCD, but PowerPack omits it.)

While many Linux distributions cannot be set up next to a Windows installation without using separate disk-partitioning software, the Mandrake and SuSE releases do include that capability.

Hardware compatibility is the stickiest part of loading Linux, and all three distributions had their moments. Fedora didn't accept an ancient IBM desktop's network card. SuSE didn't recognize the sound cards on two of three PCs until after a reboot. A different sound malfunction in Mandrake caused a Dell laptop to emit an ear-piercing screech.

None supported the laptops' modems or system-suspend modes.

Most things, however, did function normally after each install. For example, all three Linux versions detected an IBM laptop's Wi-Fi receiver and connected to my wireless network (the Dell's Centrino Wi-Fi circuitry, however, didn't work).

Mandrake and Fedora also printed to a Hewlett-Packard printer-scanner device on the first try. And the CD-burning tool in Mandrake and SuSE looked and worked about as cleanly as anything sold for Windows.

Connecting an old Canon S100 digital camera was easier in Linux than in Windows XP; I didn't have to download extra software or click past ominous warnings about the perils of unsigned drivers. But a newer Pentax Option 550 camera didn't work, and I couldn't synchronize a Zire 31 handheld organizer using the software each version provided.

The greatest differences between these versions came in their vaguely Windowsesque interfaces. Mandrake's was the most cluttered, with its thickly nested menus. SuSE pared down the complexity but suffered from puzzling settings (icons on its desktop respond to single clicks instead of double clicks). Fedora looked far cleaner.

Mandrake and SuSE bundled the largest number of Internet, productivity, multimedia and utility programs. Fedora's setup required extra downloads for such basics as MP3 playback.

That brings up Linux's biggest embarrassment: software installation. Outside of core system updates (successfully handled by each distribution's auto-update software), my attempts to add new programs were stymied by the chancy availability of prepackaged downloads and "dependency" issues, in which the installation failed because the computer lacked needed library files.

To judge from comments I've read in online forums, I'm not the only person bugged by that. That, in turn, means a friendlier interface can't be long in coming. In this way, bit by bit, Linux will continue to grow stronger. It's a fascinating process to watch, even if the results aren't always what you'd want for your everyday system.

— Kevin Washington, The Baltimore Sun

Copyright 2004 The Seattle Times Company