Welcome to part five 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. I don't want to waste space repeating my intro so please refer to previous articles, especially http://www.linuxforums.org/reviews/starting_ubuntu.html
Canada-based Vector Linux has been around about six years, the original version was a noble attempt to put a friendly face on Slackware and provide a minimalist distro that will run well on old/low spec hardware. Now at version 5.1 it still does that, but there is Vector Linux SoHo Edition too which is more like a 'normal' distro with Gnome, KDE, Open Office etc. Either version can be downloaded from www.vectorlinux.com or bought on CD from the Vector on-line CD store (though I bought mine from www.linuxiso.co.uk) The standard version is only 390MB which makes for a speedy download, the SoHo version is 690MB, still small enough for a single CD-R.
First, the standard version. As usual you put it in the drive and re-boot. Also as usual you get to specify your preferred language, keyboard style and time zone, and are given the option to mess with the suggested partition table if you really want. Installation is fast, about ten minutes, then another five or so to configure things, then you are ready to log in.
Right from the start it's clear Vector is different, the login screen is enlivened by little little Tuxes running around, even flying, which is a first for penguins, and when you drag the cursor across the screen it creates ripples like moving your finger through water. OK it doesn't really make the PC work any better, but it's fun. The log in screen gives you a choice of six window managers (excluding Gnome and KDE) or a simple X Terminal. Any will load lightening fast and all look great, and you can change between them without logging out and in again. IceWM resembles a Windows or KDE desktop and offers a choice of themes, including some 'XP' inspired ones which put a familiar looking green 'Start' button in the bottom left corner! Linux purists may shudder, but this sort of detail helps make newcomers feel at home.
Without either KDE or Gnome, a lot of familiar applications and applets are missing, but there is still quite a lot to keep you amused, even working if you want. There is no Open Office or Koffice, but AbiWord takes care of wordprocessing and is able to open and save both Open Office and MS Office formats (plus dozens of others). For email there is 'Sylpheed', which is a new one on me but does what an email client has to do, send and receive mail and allow you to file it for posterity. For Web browsing Vector provide Firefox and 'Dillo', the latter is another new program for me but one I could easily get attached to. It isn't sophisticated, it doesn't do clever stuff with tabs and pop-up blockers, but my it's fast. I'd always assumed browsing delays out here in wild Wales were due to our not-very broadband connection, but Dillo is a revelation.
My only disappointment is Gslapt, which is Vector's take on APT as used by Debian based distros to add new applications. Basically it just doesn't run, from a desktop menu or even from a terminal, so on to Vector 5.1 SoHo Edition...
Installation is once again straightforward, and given that this version includes KDE, Open Office 2 and I opted for the Gimp as well, remarkably quick at around 15 minutes. Configuration takes about another two minutes and we're ready to go. Vector Linux Soho edition defaults to the KDE desktop, and Vector have managed to speed it up, but if you are impatient Xfce is also available. As with Ubuntu and SuSE, Vector detects the sound chips set and on-board graphics perfectly, and sets up the network with DHCP.
One slight glitch on the network, Vector enables the firewall by default and prevent me connecting to the my home network. If like me you connect via a router with built-in firewalling you can just switch off the Vector firewall and hope the router's is good enough. If you don't have a firewall protecting you network, or don't trust it, then you can configure Vector's version using Vector Admin & System Menu (VASM). Once the firewall is out of the way VASM does a good job configuring Samba, locating a Samba/Windows network and connecting to any servers and shared directories.
VASM is also the place to be if you start messing with the hardware post-installation. When I added an extra hard drive VASM put a friendly GUI face on 'cfdisk' (similar to 'fdisk' on Windows) so I could partition it, format it and mount it where ever I chose. VASM doesn't have it's own print setup utility, but provides access to CUPS (Combined Unix Print System) admin through a browser screen. Simple but effective, which sums up the whole Vector Linux experience.
The selection of applications included in the basic Vector installation is very good, Open Office version 2, all the multimedia, Internet and email applications you are likely to need, and of course as it defaults to KDE, you get instant access to all the KDE applications and applets. Gslapt does work properly from the SoHo edition, making it relatively simple to add more applications. The Vector Linux repositories are no where near as comprehensive as those for Debian (and Debian based distros such as Ubuntu) but there is quite a lot there. If you want anything else though you are going to have to get source code and compile your own.
Vector Linux Verdict
Not as polished as SuSE or Ubuntu, but very quick and easy to install and configure. Runs fast too, especially the basic version, and is suited to quite elderly hardware. As an experiment I have loaned a Pentium 3 with Vector SoHo edition to my local school, the students there took to it immediately, frankly they aren't really bothered what OS they have providing they have an office suite and plenty of games. With Open Office configured to use MS file formats by default, they don't notice it's not Windows!
And the winner is...
None of them, or all, it depends what you want to do. Ubuntu 'just works', virtually no set up is required, but if you like tinkering and want to learn more about how Linux works you will probably come to a full stop pretty quick. Vector is faster and therefore better suited to older hardware. If you are going to set up a PC for regular use rather than playing with, either Ubuntu or Vector are fine. If you want to learn a lot, then SuSE. It too 'just works' but with YaST and its excellent on-screen hints and tips, and 'Help' system you can spend many an hour learning how to configure things, change obscure settings and generally work towards 'guru' status.
Internet connection is vital to most users these days so it's worth getting it right from the start. Unless you really like wrestling with hand crafted scripts and configurations do not try to use a USB ADSL modem, even if your ISP gives you one free. 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). Needless to say the driver software is Windows only and although it is possible to hack a working version for Linux, it is not worth the hassle. Trash it and get a router. You connect them either direct to your LAN port, or via a LAN switch, you configure them via a web browser, any browser on any OS, and they act as DHCP servers too so any PC you connect will acquire an IP address automatically. Not only that but routers usually have their own Firewall which means you can turn off the firewalls on your individual PCs and save your self a lot of configuration hassle creating exceptions.
Peripherals and drivers are a potential problem for Linux users. Most hardware manufacturers ship Windows drivers with their gadgets, but very few provide them for Linux. What tends to happen is that keen Linux developers get hold of each new device and 'reverse engineer' it to see how it works, then write a kernel module to support the device without any extra driver being needed. Some manufacturers co-operate with open source developers by making technical information available to facilitate this process, but most do not. Development of modules to support new devices can take a few months, so beware when buying new peripherals.
SuSE has a particularly good 'supported hardware' database on their website, so check it out before purchasing anything (http://cdb.suse.de/index.php?LANG=en_UK). Many devices (especially printers) are redesigned every few months, but actually change little. Buy one coming to the end of it's production life and you'll probably get a bargain and it will almost certainly work on Linux.
USB memory devices such as mp3 players, cameras, external drives and memory sticks are detected automatically.