Previous articles in this series:
Linux & Open Source Software: The History
Linux & Open Source Software: The Present
Welcome to part three of a series for beginners explaining what Linux is, where it came from, where it's going, how to use it and why you should. Regular Linux users or Linux Forums gurus, are free to add helpful comments and clarifications, but remember, you are clarifying Linux for newbies, not seeking to score points over your fellow gurus.
Why bother with Linux? The worthy but boring answer is all to do with freedom, human rights, privacy and security, but frankly I use Linux because I like it. It's fun to try something different, it doesn't cost much even if you buy boxed sets, if you have broadband it is free apart from the cost of a few blank CD-Rs. The question ought to be, why pay more for something that offers less?
Ubuntu? SuSE? Vector? What's in a name?
For newcomers, choosing which flavor of Linux to go for is confusing, like a kid in a candy store you can prevaricate for ever. Various magazines and websites have attempted 'roundups' in the past, but there are so many distros the feature is out of date before it reaches a conclusion! I am going to be looking at three quite different, readily available 'distributions' of Linux, all of them suitable for beginners' to use on a standard desktop PC. For a wider choice try the 'Distro Chooser' at www.zegeniestudios.net/ldc/
I tested each of the three on a fairly basic office workstation, a Celeron D335 running at 2.80GHz fitted to a DFI 661FX-MLV mainboard loaded with 512Mb of RAM. It has a single hard drive, a DVD ROM and no floppy drive, I'll be adding extra drives later to see how each distro copes with hardware changes. The mainboard features LAN, sound and graphics. If you have a fancier computer things will work better and faster, but it's reassuring to know you don't need to spend megbucks to get a useful system.
Internet connection is vital to most users these days so it's worth getting it right from the start. In the UK at least most ISPs provide a free USB modem. To keep the cost down these rely on software running on your PC to make up for deficiencies in their own hardware (much like the the internal 'Winmodems' of old). The driver software is Windows only and although it is possible to hack a working version for Linux, it is a lot of hassle and even then not very reliable. They are not not that great on Windows either. Invest in an ADSL router or cable router, they work flawlessly, provide IP addresses to all your PCs via DHCP, enable several PCs to share a connection and provide a hardware firewall.
Ubuntu is developed and maintained by Canonical Ltd, and largely funded by African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth. It is a relatively small download, a single 650Mb CD ISO file. Many other distros need either multiple CDs or a DVD-RW, and even with broadband that's a lot of stuff to download. The single CD gives you all the basics to get started, extra packages can be downloaded as needed later. Ubuntu is based on Debian, one of the more conservative distros and one which is maintained solely by volunteer effort. To produce Ubuntu, Canonical take a development version of Debian and polish it up for release, thus including later versions of many components than the current official Debian release. Download Ubuntu from www.ubuntu.org and burn the .iso file onto a CD.
Here we go
Check the PC boots and runs OK, and set 'CD' as the first boot device in BIOS, put the Ubuntu CD in the drive and re-boot. The drive will wind up to speed and a boot prompt appear on screen. If you have a peculiar system or want to boot some non-standard kernel, this is the place to make changes, 99.9% of us just hit [Enter]. A few seconds later you will be asked to specify a language, and location. Then Keyboard, there are many styles to choose from and a test line where you can try out those pesky things like £, $ and @ that go wrong if you're not careful.
Then you're into partitioning the disk, if you are not planning on dual booting or doing anything particularly unusual with this PC, just settle for the defaults, which is a small 'swap' partition and the rest of the disk given over to / (root). If you're totally new to Linux, 'swap' is similar to 'virtual memory' under Windows, and / (on a single PC with a single hard drive at least) is pretty much the same as 'c:/' Partitioning takes just a few seconds, then the installer will begin copying Ubuntu to the hard drive.
File copying takes about ten minutes, then you will be asked to specify a 'Time Zone', and to create a user name and setup a password. About fifteen minutes after starting the CD will auto-eject, the PC reboot and begin to configure the operating system. This takes half an hour, but requires absolutely no input from you, when it's done you will be presented with a nice bronze colored Ubuntu login screen and a discreet bongo riff, indicating the graphics and sound are configured properly. In fact almost everything is configured. If the PC is connected to a network with a DHCP server the IP address will be set up automatically. If you have a Windows PC on the network running a Workgroup and Shares Samba will take care of those. Firefox will connect you to the Internet.
The Gnome desktop has a brown theme which makes a change from the usual variations on blue and gray. At the top of the screen there is a 'Updates available' message, there were 224 of them when I tested Ubuntu, there will be more by now. Clicking it brings up a password dialog, users new to Debian based distros might be baffled at this point, at no time during the installation are you asked for a 'root' password, so what do you use? Simple really, your normal password. If the security implications of this bother you, especially if you share the PC with other people, create two 'users' for yourself, one for normal everyday work, and another called perhaps 'Super User' or 'Admin' for doing installations, upgrades or configuration stuff.
Once the password is accepted you have the chance to review all the available updates, unless you have reason to believe you know better than the Ubuntu packagers just accept the lot and leave it for an hour or so.
Considering Ubuntu is a single CD, there is a lot of software included, for graphics there is The Gimp (photo-editing and pixel graphics), Xsane (for scanning) and gThumb (image viewer). The Office selection is Open Office version 2 plus Evolution the Gnome email client. 'Internet' includes Firefox, Gaim (instant messenger) Xchat (IRC) and BitTorrent. 'Sound & Video includes CD creators, rippers, Totem (media player) and Rhythmbox (music player).
I found a problem running Rhythmbox and decided the easiest solution was to replace it with XMMS (X Multi Media System). Debian based distros use a package manager called Apt, but for those of us with an aversion to command line stuff there are GUI front ends for it, Synaptic for Gnome users such as Ubuntu and Adept for KDE users. Synaptic presents you with a simple searchable database of applications, select what you want, click 'Commit changes' and few moments later it's downloaded, installed and ready to use. Once XMMS is installed right click an mp3 file, go to Properties > Open with and selected XMMS as the default player.
Ubuntu (and most other varieties of Linux) handle peripherals very well. Plug in a USB memory stick and within a few seconds a 'removable disk' icon appears on the desktop and then the file browser opens 'usbdisk' ready to write to. Couldn't be easier. Unplug it and it goes away without a fuss, no nasty warnings about safe removal or anything like that. External hard drives are automatically mounted in the same way, as are MP3 players, except you get an icon loosely styled on an iMac.
USB printers take a little setting up. Plug it in, go to System > Administration > Printing and click on 'New Printer'. The drivers are already available for most printers, just select from the list and that's it. Parallel port printers are even easier as Ubuntu will automatically detect the printer for you, so you don't even have to search a list for the driver! You can connect to network printers too via various protocols, but on a mixed Windows/Linux network Samba makes the most sense.
Being based on the Gnome desktop, Ubuntu uses the Evolution email client. There's an icon on the taskbar, click it and you are straight into setup mode. There are three dialogs to complete; your ID, your POP3 details for receiving mail and your SMTP details for sending it. Finally a timezone chooser so your mails will be correctly marked with time and date.
My final test was to add an extra hard drive. This does involve some basic command line work to mount the drive, but it's not hard. The new disk is 'seen' by Linux as hdb1 (possibly with hdb2, hdb3 and so on if the disk has multiple partitions) and will show up in /dev. To mount it open a terminal and type:
sudo mount -t [file system type] /dev/hdb1 /[path where you want to mount the disk]
You can 'mount' the new disk anywhere you choose in the file system. Popular places are /mnt (the traditional mount directory) or /home (to give your users more space).
Note, 'sudo' gives you temporary 'root' privileges (you'll be asked for your password), if you don't know the file system on the disk it won't work, if the disk is new and not formatted you need to format it first. This is not something I'd recommend to newcomers, but if you are familiar with fdisk on Windows and want to try the equivalent on Linux then:
sudo fdisk /dev/hdb
NB hdb is your second hard drive, type hda and you risk wiping your master disk!
Given that it takes less than an hour to install Ubuntu from start to finish, it's easier to re-install. Or put all the hardware in place first.
Ubuntu is intended to work for inexperienced Linux users with little or no intervention, and it does. Hardware detection on installation is perfect, Synaptic makes adding new software simple, setting up a network connection is automatic.
Coming Soon: Starting SuSE