The Linux Experiment

Illustration: Jeff Berlin
I knew I'd had it with Windows when I had a nightmare filled with those little yellow balloons from the system tray, telling me that I had 3617 critical updates waiting to be installed. What's more, Trojan horses were prancing across my desktop and worms were crawling out of my in-box.

I woke up and thought, "There must be a better operating system." I wanted an OS that didn't need me to constantly install fixes, that didn't crash at the worst times, and that wasn't a target of every punk itching to prove his hacker skills.

I didn't want a Macintosh--for one thing, I didn't want to move to a new hardware platform. That left me just one other choice: Linux. But could I really get my work done in an OS written by a self-organizing online collective? I knew there were Linux counterparts to many Windows applications, but given that many of them are free, would they work? Would my hardware still function? And could I share my work with the more than 90 percent of the world still living in Microsoft's domain? I decided to give Linux a try for a month and find out.

What was life like in Linux-land? I found that, as its devotees swear, Linux is stable and highly customizable. I discovered a lot of solid and free--if sometimes pretty basic--apps, as well. But I also learned that Linux can be demanding for Windows users accustomed to having jobs (like installing new software) done for them almost automatically. And making the change meant making some compromises and leaving behind some old software friends that I couldn't take with me.

Get a Geek

Switch projects easily: Linux lets you organize your work into multiple virtual desktops.
Switch projects easily: Linux lets you organize your work into multiple virtual desktops.
If you're going to San Francisco for the first time, all you need is a good travel book and some comfortable shoes. If you're making your first trip to the uncharted wilds of Alaska, however, you'd better have an experienced guide. Moving over to Linux is like going to Alaska: You need a geek to show you the way.

I was fortunate enough to have two geek-guides, PC World Editorial Applications Development Manager Matthew Newton and Associate Editor Alexandra Krasne. (If you don't know any Linux fanatics [yet], check out "Get the Linux Help You Need" below.) Matthew and Alexandra helped me install Mandrake Linux 9.2 in a new partition alongside Windows 2000 on my work PC, a Dell Dimension 8100. Mandrake is free to download; a shrink-wrapped copy costs $39 or more. (For more information on different distributions, see "Choose Your Flavor of Linux.")

I probably didn't need a geek to get through the installation itself. Putting Mandrake Linux on my PC was no harder than installing Windows, and it took only about 25 minutes, a fair amount quicker than most Windows installs. Matthew handled my connection to our office's Windows servers through the Samba utility, but getting it to work was an adventure. The problem, it turned out, lay with the configuration of our servers.

Though I had my machine up and running, I still needed some assistance. I was suddenly facing a computer with a very different vocabulary and organization. On the surface, working in the Gnome desktop environment wasn't significantly different from working in Windows, and in a lot of ways it was better--I had much more flexibility in changing my desktop.

But beyond the interface, things got confusing. In Linux, programs aren't .exe files; in fact, they have no extensions. Programs don't live in the Program Files folder--they live in various "bin" directories. Having all my landmarks abruptly disappear left me frustrated initially.

My Linux machine acted as I expected it to--almost. The DVD-ROM/CD-ROM drive worked, I could read and write to my floppy drive, my Internet connection was fine, and I could print on our network printers after a little tweaking. But I encountered a few glitches. For instance, though my Zip drive was (we thought) successfully mounted, when I tried to access the drive it would spin incessantly--I couldn't access it. The only way to make it stop was to shut down the PC. And I couldn't spread my desktop across two monitors, as I did in Windows.

Whenever I came across such problems, Matthew would tell me he was sure there was a way to fix them; it would just take some more research and fiddling. And I believe him. However, the question for any potential Linux adopter is, how much time and patience do you have?

The Sticking Point

I set up Ximian Evolution, a Linux e-mail client, to fetch mail from my personal account. If it weren't for the different icons, I would have sworn I was in Microsoft Outlook. The two programs look and operate so similarly, it's eerie.

But at work we use Lotus Notes, not Outlook, and that presented a snag. Most people who switch from Windows to Linux will probably discover that there is at least one Windows program they need that no Linux alternative will successfully replace. In my case, that application was Notes.

Fortunately, there is Wine, a system for running Windows programs in Linux, and I found that Notes is one of the apps that runs fairly well over Wine. I used CrossOver Office, a $60 downloadable version of Wine whose creators, CodeWeavers, work on making various apps behave. When Notes crashed, I did a "simulated Windows reboot," which takes 20 seconds and does not affect any other Linux programs.

I decided to try Microsoft Office 2000 in CrossOver Office as well. It didn't take long to realize that this was a mistake. Working in Word was a bit like watching television in the 1950s. The window would flicker, and strange artifacts would appear. If I scrolled through a document, the appearance would sometimes break down, with lines repeated over and over.

The solution was easy and free: OpenOffice.org, a suite with word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and drawing programs. The OpenOffice apps were rock-solid, easy to use, and filled with a wide variety of features. OpenOffice allowed me to save files as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, so my colleagues using Microsoft Office had no problem opening and editing them.

The only features from Microsoft Office I couldn't find in OpenOffice were the ones I could never see much need for anyway. I couldn't use a Smart Tag to get a stock quote about a company whose name I'd just typed into a file, as I could in Word. But really, does anyone do that?

Smooth Surfing

I can't say that my experience of the Web was much different in Linux. In Windows I used Mozilla because I liked its capabilities much more than Internet Explorer's. In Linux I also used Mozilla, and this edition of the browser worked identically to the Windows version, as far as I could tell. (I installed Internet Explorer through CrossOver Office but found that it was even shakier than Word.)

In some parts of the Web, though, Linux users are not invited. I'm a fan of RealNetworks' Rhapsody, a subscription music service. But the required Rhapsody player works only on a Windows PC running IE. Real has no plans for a version for Linux users, and I can't blame them. A group with a hostility toward paying big companies for computing resources doesn't seem like the most fertile market.

So I was back to playing the MP3 files stored on my hard drive. But at least I could get to them. One nifty thing about Linux is the ability to access files on your Windows partition. I used Totem, a video player with audio playback that--along with thousands of other applications--came free with Mandrake. Using Totem after using a Windows player such as RealOne is a bit like camping after staying at a hotel: You have to do a lot more things for yourself.

RealOne will scan your hard drive for music files and arrange them in a library. To play them, you don't have to know the files' location--you just click the album name you want. And, using ID3 tags, RealOne knows what order the tracks were in on the original CD. But Totem has no library. To hear anything, you have to find the files in their folders. And if the folder has scrambled the order of the tracks, you need to drag them one at a time to hear a symphony, say, in order.

One other critical difference separates Totem and RealOne: Totem didn't pop up messages on my desktop every time I logged on to my PC. It never urged me to listen to the latest hit by 50 Cent. And it never harangued me about upgrading to the paid version (because there isn't one).

Upgrade Upheaval

Flphoto, a basic Linux image editing program, allows you to automatically correct contrast or focus problems.
I was fortunate to have help setting up my Linux system. But sometimes you want to change your setup, by adding either new hardware or new software. My results doing so were mixed. When I plugged in a USB flash drive carrying MP3 files, I was allowed to transfer the files easily. When I connected an Olympus C-750 Ultra Zoom camera, the system not only mounted the camera but also popped an icon onto my desktop for Flphoto, an image editor I never knew I had. But when I plugged in a Gateway DC-T20 camera, Linux failed to recognize that anything was attached to the PC.

I also wanted to find a Linux substitute for FileMaker Pro 6, a database program. I couldn't find anything among the software packages included with Mandrake. So I searched on the Internet and found Gaby, which sounded like it might be a Linux alternative. Then I found out how different installing software in Linux can be as opposed to doing so in Windows.

Windows programs generally have everything they need to run, or they know where to find the required resources on your system. But Linux programs are more reliant on other programs that--you hope--are already on your machine. If those other helper programs aren't on your PC, you end up in what Linux veterans call "dependency hell."

In my case, Gaby squawked that I didn't have a certain necessary component. Once I found the file on the Internet, I saw the list of programs it needed and began to despair. I didn't know whether I had this stuff or not, or how to check.

I asked Matthew for help. He went to RPMfind.net and found a version of Gaby that was built to automatically install in my configuration of Linux. If he hadn't unearthed it, I don't know whether sorting through all the dependencies manually would have been worth all the trouble.

The Big Question

Wacky Word: Running Microsoft Word on Linux can result in weird line spacing and random underlining in the text.
I installed Linux a month ago wondering if I could get my work done. The answer is certainly yes. Not only that, but in some ways I prefer working in Linux. It boots up quicker than Windows, opens folders swiftly, and allows me to personalize my desktop easily--much more so than I could in Windows.

But the bigger question is whether moving to Linux is worth the hassle. If you are simply disgruntled about Windows, its lax security, and its occasional instability, migrating to Linux probably wouldn't be the best move. You'd have much to learn, and you'd end up scrapping lots of software you paid for. And Linux is not completely free of security holes, either.

But if you rankle at the limited customization options Windows often gives you, if you want near-total control over your PC, and if you can avoid the temptation of the latest software and hardware, the journey to Linux-land may be just the ticket (try running Windows and Linux on one PC, a typical dual-boot setup).

Four weeks after my experiment began, I'm still running Linux on my work desktop PC. But I have a Windows XP laptop for running the Windows apps I just can't let go of, and for trying out new software.

Why aren't I rushing back to Windows on my desktop PC? It boils down to this: peace. Working in Linux seems quieter; I don't feel under attack, my programs are not trying to sell me something, and they don't try to do things for me that I don't want done. Computing in Linux sometimes requires more work, but it also imposes fewer annoyances. And so far, that's a trade-off I'm willing to make.

Programs In Linux: How Well Do They Behave? (chart)

Switching to Linux meant using a slew of native Linux apps and finding out whether Windows apps would cooperate. In our experiment, Windows apps didn't fare too well, but most of the free Linux alternatives got the job done. Here's what our editor encountered.

Get the Linux Help You Need

Ready to take the plunge and install Linux? If you don't know a friendly Linux enthusiast to show you the ropes, the next best thing is to head to the Web.

Google Groups

Search the newsgroup archives, hang out at a specific forum, plug in a search term, or post your questions.

LinuxQuestions.org

The site pairs users who have questions with other users willing to answer them. The site's forums are a great place to lurk.

RPMfind.net

Browse through the exhaustive list of free RPM downloads. An RPM is the closest thing Linux has to an executable file. The packages work with many Linux distributions, including Mandrake and SuSE.

Linux Documentation Project

An Oxford English Dictionary for Linux. LDP volunteers have spent the last ten years compiling how-to information and FAQs.

Get sound advice on a variety of topics from the die-hard fans at LinuxQuestions.org.

Mandrake Linux

Get free access to forums, a hardware configurator, and documentation. Pay a monthly or yearly membership fee ($6 or $60, and up) for the Mandrake Club, and you'll receive added benefits, such as early access to new software. Post specific questions to Mandrake experts.

Lindows.com

Check out this site's searchable knowledge base and community forum for free. A $99 lifetime membership gives you access to interim releases of new LindowsOS versions, the private "Insider's Forum," and more.

SuSE

Take advantage of this site's free support knowledge base, its installation advice, and its hardware database, which covers processors, graphics cards, peripherals, and more, organized by manufacturer.

Alexandra Krasne

Choose Your Flavor of Linux

Photograph: Rick Rizner
Linux is available from various organizations that add their own configuration tools and installers to the OS's basic core (or kernel). A couple hundred of these Linux distributions are available to be downloaded for free (see Linux Online for a long list). If you want a boxed copy, you'll have to pay for the privilege. Here are some of the most popular distributions.

LindowsOS

This operating system is geared toward newbies with its simple one-click $50 software download service. The boxed copy costs $60 (no free version is available).

SuSE

Acquired by Novell, SuSE is one of the most popular European distributions. You can opt for an $80 Professional version or a $30 Personal version (among others). SuSE offers lots of easy-to-use configuration tools.

Mandrake

Promising to be the Linux distribution for everybody, Mandrake is easy to install and has a slew of configuration tools. The popular Discovery version costs $39.

Lycoris

Aimed at Linux newcomers, the Lycoris distribution ($40) also comes loaded on Toshiba Portégé Tablet PCs, starting at $999 and on Element Computer's sub-$1000 Helium 2100 Tablet.

Knoppix

The whole distribution fits on one CD: Simply run it from the $4 disc; when you reboot, you're back to your existing OS.

Xandros

Formerly Corel Linux, Xandros balances the core developed by Debian with tools for new users. It includes CrossOver Office. The boxed version costs $39.

Alexandra Krasne

Edward N. Albro is an executive editor at PC World. Associate Editor Alexandra Krasne and Editorial Applications Development Manager Matthew Newton also contributed to this article.

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