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When Microsoft announced the end of support for Windows 98 and Millennium Edition on June 30th, there was a lot of talk of these users migrating over to Linux Desktops. According to OneStat.com, this is approximately 4% of the total PCs in the world.
With Linux clocking in at only 0.4%, this means for every ten PCs, only one has Linux installed compared to these two Microsoft OS's that are no longer supported. Take into account Windows XP and 2000, out of one hundred PCs, ninety-three will be on Microsoft Supported OS's, four will have Microsoft Non-Supported OS's, two running Apple OS X and only one possibly on Linux. That leaves a lot of room for market share penetration that someone really could, and probably should for these users' sake, take advantage of.

In the few weeks since this announcement from Microsoft, there is a very noticeable increase of activity on community boards and web blogs for what Linux enthusiast generally refer to as Newbies, or new comers to the Linux world, asking questions about switching over to Linux, and how would they support their new systems. Now I wouldn't say that the 4% is rushing over to the land of Tux, but slowly these people are looking for something that will work on their older hardware and not require them to replace the system in order to be supported.

It is widely accepted that the largest hurdle that Linux currently faces is the perceived complexity to running a Linux distribution (commonly shortened to distro), and while there are a couple of companies trying to take advantage, like Xandros offering 50% off to these Microsoft customers here, it doesn't seem like this opportunity is getting fully exploited. While this can be true, it can also be said that the biggest hurdle is moving to the unknown from the known; a struggle for many new technologies as they emerge into the market. Remember how long it took the microwave oven, VCR's, and CD players to become main-stream?

While other articles seem to discuss the impact of this drastic change for some older Windows users, here we are going to discuss how those newbies looking to Linux can tell you if are truly ready for Linux, and which Linux distro would be the logical and best choice for their own needs and/or tastes.

Breakdown of Today's Linux World

Linux is an ever evolving beast, which has no clear direction, but rather several offshoots which breaks down to the fundamental ideals of the community or company behind the product. Some people are after nothing but open source, or totally free software. This can pose problems in that many of the latest hardware requires proprietary drivers, so these open packages suffer from a lack of hardware support, another of the key issues with the growth of Linux in the common desktop market.

Figure 1

In figure 1, we have created a little table to show some common distros found today and their relative placement in respect to others. The breakdown really focuses on four key differentiating principles of Linux for us: Commercial Office, Commercial Home, Community Based and Micro (Small) Packages. As you can clearly see, the Community based arena is extremely crowded and what differentiates each Community from each other is really the base package of the distro, i.e. Red Hat, Debian, Slackware, or Gentoo being the more common base system, but most of the more common of these are driven by a commercial company looking for additional development from its user base. Red Hat has Fedora, Novell has openSuse, Mandriva has Cooker and now even Linspire has Freespire. This does allow for people to acquire free distros, but typically these are all Alpha or Beta builds which are full of bugs and not for your newbie who will be coming over looking for something solid.

For our article here, we took this into account and selected one from each area that is considered to be stable and would be recommended by most all Linux enthusiasts on one that a newbie could expect to install and be operational within similar times that is takes to install Windows XP.

Figure 2

These are the descriptions of each distro as found on Distrowatch.com:

Ubuntu - Ubuntu is a complete desktop Linux operating system, freely available with both community and professional support. The Ubuntu community is built on the ideas enshrined in the Ubuntu Manifesto: that software should be available free of charge, that software tools should be usable by people in their local language and despite any disabilities, and that people should have the freedom to customize and alter their software in whatever way they see fit. "Ubuntu" is an ancient African word, meaning "humanity to others". The Ubuntu distribution brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the software world.

SLED - Novell Linux Desktop, powered by SUSE LINUX, provides a leading end-user productivity environment designed specifically to empower businesses to leverage Linux and open source with confidence. It can be deployed as a general-purpose desktop platform or tailored for use in information kiosks, call-centre terminals, or stations for infrequent PC users. Novell Linux Desktop also provides an ideal alternative to high-cost UNIX-based engineering workstations. Novell Linux Desktop users who are seeking to avoid single-vendor lock-in of their desktop systems can comfortably interoperate with Windows-based users, within or between organizations. Finally, Novell Linux Desktop, backed by Novell support, training and partners, allows businesses to deploy Linux systems with confidence.

Linspire - Linspire is a full-featured operating system (based on Debian GNU/Linux) like Microsoft Windows XP or Apple Mac OSX. Linspire offers you the power, stability and cost-savings of Linux with the ease of a Windows environment. In addition, Linspire features exclusive Click-N-Run (CNR) technology that makes installing software on Linspire fast and easy -- simply find the software you want in the Click-N-Run Warehouse, then click and run it!

Damn Small Linux (DSL) - Damn Small Linux is a business card size (50MB) Live CD Linux distribution. Despite its minuscule size it strives to have a functional and easy to use desktop. Damn Small Linux has a nearly complete desktop, including XMMS (MP3, and MPEG), FTP client, links-hacked web browser, spreadsheet, email, spell-check (US English), a word-processor, three editors (Nedit, nVi, Zile [emacs clone]), Xpdf, Worker (file manager), Naim (AIM, ICQ, IRC), VNCviewer, SSH/SCP server and client, DHCP client, PPP, PPPoE, a web server, calculator, Fluxbox window manager, system monitoring apps, USB support, and soon it will have PCMCIA support as well. If you like Damn Small Linux you can install it on your hard drive. Because all the applications are small and light it makes a very good choice for older hardware.

System Hardware Requirements

When people head off to their local car dealership, or even research their new auto purchase online, they generally know what they are looking for based on their personal or family requirements. I mean, I doubt people will run off to purchase a Ferrari if they have seven children, nor would you expect a 25 year old professional to buy a mini-van. So much to the same effect, what kind of hardware one has to work with really dictates a lot of what they can and cannot do within the Linux world. Each of our systems have pretty good details on their respective websites as to hardware requirements, both minimum and recommended, and table 1 tries to compile that information for you.

Min Req Windows XP Vista SLED Linspire Ubuntu DSL
Processor 300 Mhz 800 Mhz (1 GHz Rec) 500 Mhz 800 MHz 400Mhz 200 Mhz
RAM 64 MB (128 MB rec) 512 MB (1GB Rec) 256MB (512 MB Rec) 128 MB (256 MB Rec) 128 MB 64 MB
HD 1.2 GB 40 GB (15 GB Free) 2.5 GB Free 4 GB Free 2 GB Free None
Video SVGA (800x600) SVGA (800x600) SVGA (800x600) SVGA (800 x 600) SVGA (800 x 600) VGA 16 bit
Cost $89-109 Home-Pro Unknown Est @ > $100 $50/Year $49.95 – Basic CNR Free-Gold $49.95/Yr Free - $250/Yr Support Free

Table 1

So what does this all mean to the average PC user? Well, if it has been a while since you even considered what hardware you have, it is very likely that some of these requirements may be beyond your hardware's capability. If you still have windows installed, one can easily head to the control panel and check out what your system settings state the box contains. If that isn't a plausible action, say if your PC is dead and you need something now, what I would recommend is to try out a Live CD version of one of these distros. Linspire, Ubuntu and especially DSL all allow the user to try before you buy LIVE. This means you run the OS from the CD ROM rather than have to install the software to your hard drive. This not only will tell you if the system will work, but will also allow you to recover any data you might need off the older windows partition as well. One thing to note, never assess the performance of the distro solely on the Live CD because the CD-ROM speed, amount of RAM you have and other items could make the Live CD run slowly as compared to when you finally get the full system installed. Novell's SLED is the only version you need to fully install before you can test run, but unless your PC is relatively new, say only 2-3 years old, I wouldn't recommend this version anyway. So how does each really stack up?

  • Ubuntu: Designed for reasonably old machines (5 years or less), but Ebuntu (educational project) has specs down to 200 Mhz processors and small RAM. Anything better than 400 Mhz typically works with 128 MB of RAM. With the Live CD, one can always test to see if their system is operational before they install, which actually you install from the OS itself. Basically put, if it loads, you can install. Grade B+
  • SLED: Designed for newer machines. Simply put, this OS really is on par with Microsoft Vista and really wants the latest and greatest. Even though the minimum requirements are relatively low (500 Mhz Proc/256 MB of RAM) this system really needs the latest and greatest for the user to be happy with its performance. The one downside to SLED is that there is no Live option with the installable package (there are some live DVDs for openSuse) so you need to install to see if it works. If it doesn’t, well sorry for that. Grade C-
  • Linspire: In between Ubuntu and SLED on requirements, the system is designed for more modern PCs but has many features that helps people with little hardware knowledge to install on their machines. This Hardware Detector will generally install the proprietary drivers that will get the most out of your system. There are of course hardware components that just are not compatible, but the Linspire community has a good list of hardware compatible. This is especially true for Laptops which have built in wireless. Its Live CD is more functional out of the Box than Ubuntu, but the installer has to be run independently. This does require a reboot and sometimes what worked in Live mode will not work once installed. Grade B-
  • DSL: Well, this little distro works on pretty much anything that still works. Just like Ubuntu, the install happens from the Live CD while running the OS, so if the system runs on your machine, it typically will install with the same settings. This is really designed to run on the older, smaller machines so if your box is ancient (over 10 years old), then this might be a good starting point for you. Grade A-

Now, we will need to determine which route you want to head. This truly breaks down to cost versus functionality/complexity. From figure 1, the more you want to invest in functionality, then the farther right you need to travel. Conversely, the less complex you want the software the more you need to stay down.

Comfortable Versus Complex Base Packages

Linux has come a long way since Linus Torvalds first dreamed up his project in 1991. From a way to get a free version on Unix, used almost exclusively by corporations and universities of the time, to now actually being considered as a viable desktop replacement for Microsoft Windows or Apple OS X. Now with the kick-start Linux fans have needed, with Microsoft truly bailing out on millions of users, this next year might just become the Year of the Penguin.

The first question you need to ask yourself when looking at different Linux distros is what do you want your computer to do? Are you an internet surfer who plays free games such as solitaire, reads email and needs basic office applications? Are you a gamer, who has the latest and greatest video card? Are you a media nut, with MP3's taking up over 50% of your hard drive and DVD's ripped as well? A programmer, looking to develop the newest software with C, Python, or Java? The more you plan on one of these functions over another will really push your Linux distro selection. So which one works best for each of the following categories? Productivity, Media, Gaming, Programming.

  • Ubuntu: Ubuntu is really a package that starts off solid Open Source and allows people to build from there. It comes with the basic productivity package one would expect: office, internet, email, messenger and music players, but no proprietary codecs or drivers. This means that in order to watch a DVD, play MP3’s, or use the 3D functionality in some video cards one needs to install these packages after the fact. There are some nice tutorials on this located in the Ubuntu Wiki, or one can use a third party tool called Automatix (getautomatix.com) which can be installed and this will install these additional packages with one single click. This is a great way for newbies to get all the productivity they need without having to Google or search the Wiki’s, but one needs to know about it before you head over. For programmers and gamers, they will need to add their respective packages as well, so all in all, Ubuntu is a pretty basic install and requires some additional work to be truly functional. Grade C+
  • SLED: SLED is really designed to be the full Monty, everything anyone will need in one install. That is why it takes 5 CDs or 1 DVD to do it. The problem is that if you don’t know during the install that you need something, then you have to install it later from a package manager that is ok, just not very intuitive. Similar to Ubuntu, no proprietary packages are really included, so you need to add that functionality after the fact. This is pretty disappointing in that you have to pay $50 for the software; one would think that Novell would front their portion and just add these in during the install. Programmers will love the package selections available and gamers may like Xen being included. For the size of the install, the time it takes to complete, one would just expect more to work out of the box, so this one is more fluff than function. Grade C
  • Linspire: Linspire really gets it; a Linux package that includes what you need and lets the user customize from there. The only package not included that Productivity people may want is DVD functionality, which can be purchase within CNR. Other than that, you are working after install on pretty much all fronts. Add to that the CNR warehouse experience, which allows the user to sift through thousands of software titles via their categories, and people will be able to function in Linux with little to no knowledge that they are off Microsoft’s path. Any package you can think of typically is available with a single click, either in the CNR manager or online. One can even purchase proprietary third party packages such as Lin4Win, CodeWeavers, and games that are bundled to work with Linspire from the Warehouse, knowing that these will install and be functional. Once you purchase the software once, the warehouse keeps track so you can come back and re-install if you system dies or you add Linspire to another machine. Gamers should like that Cedega (Software to allow Windows games to work in Linux) is also available along with hundreds of other game titles designed for Linux. Grade A-
  • DSL: Well, when you put 60 MB of data in a Linux package, one cannot expect much. But it is just a starting point. Similar to Ubuntu, one can simply add packages they like moving forward with Apt-get Debian installers, so if you don’t like using SeaMonkey for internet, or AbiWord word processor, you have options. This system is just not intended for power users, such as programmers and gamers, so I would recommend that if that is your goal, pony up and buy a new machine and use one of the other packages to get the full potential of Linux. Grade D

Learning Your Linux

There is no question; the most daunting aspect for any newbie to Linux is learning what actually is happening. Yes, there will be times that you have to head to the command prompt to do something. The real question is how easy can each of these packages be managed by a newbie, and how long will it take them? This really falls back to support, either from manuals or by communities. If you can at least get online, then most of these offer support in one form or another. Let’s compare them.

  • Ubuntu: Ubuntu’s community is second to none. For a package that has only been around the world for a few years, this system is taken off like crazy. In one recent survey on Desktop Linux News, the data that popped up after I completed mine, showed that nearly 30% of all survey participants were using Ubuntu, or a derivative like Kubuntu, or Xubuntu. The next highest package was Novell, with SLED and openSuse accounting for about 12%. With this high of a user count, it is no wonder why the community surrounding Ubuntu is so strong. There are literally thousands of websites, community forums, Wiki’s, and then even commercial support (which is a bit pricy) to fall back on. In fact I find that sometimes there is too much support out there, so when you Google a question you get too much data back and it is hard to sift through the bad data. The main question is how long will it take someone to get up and running with Ubuntu beyond simple Productivity and that I would have to say with Automatix would be minimal. If we could rally the rest of the Linux world like Ubuntu has, Linux would be a long way farther towards serious market share. Grade A-
  • SLED: SLED is a commercial product for Linux professionals, really focused on servers, but offering a desktop for us normal folk. Given that, most of the support you see out on the internet is designed for complex issues, like kernel conflicts, driver interoperability functionality and really geeky stuff. For a newbie, this would really push them towards the built in help support within the tool and user manuals. I am not sure about you, but I would say at least 80% of the people toss those things and never crack it open. The built in support is decent, as one would expect for the $50 a year cost, but not bullet proof. As more users get involved in the openSuse project, then I think this will likely improve, but for now SLED is not what I would consider newbie friendly. Grade B-
  • Linspire: Linspire has a really nice database of questions and answers and a really excited community. Their only problem is that it is very small. Most of the time you log in, you see most questions answered by the same handful of people. Kendall, the community leader, is awesome, but can only do so much. With the advent of the Freespire project, this group is continuously growing, but not at a pace to even come close to Ubuntu any time soon. There are a lot of built in tutorials and online help, similar to SLED, but as the package really is designed to be Windows Like, most of the help comes from the Online Q&A. I have used the email support on a time or two, which they do email you back, but not always with the answer you need. All in all, Linspire really would need to get a lot more people involved, and hopefully with the Freespire project, that will happen. Grade C+
  • DSL: DSL is a small community of people who love it. That being said, they have the least to offer for people having problems and looking for answers. I have no doubt that if you post a problem on one of their sites, some DSL user will come on and help you understand how to fix your issue, but as for a large scale knowledge base beyond that, DSL lacks the community behind it to make support a real priority. Again, for what it is intended to do, DSL does a great job: work in a small package on older machines. Everything else beyond that, well small for some reason comes to mind. Grade D+

Wrapping Up

So how do they come together for a newbie trying to make a decision on which distro they would like to try? Well, one of the greatest aspects of Linux is that most every company has a trial offer, so even the commercial distros allow you to try before you buy. Add to that the Live CDs now offered, one really gets to try each of these out for themselves and the make the final decision when they are ready to fully commit to one or another. Add to that the ability to dual boot with Windows, so you can even leave that old Windows 98 or ME package (if you have enough hard drive space of course) and you can have the comfort that your old data is still accessible on the drive, even if the Windows doesn’t even work. This table shows the final grades on our three main categories: Hardware, Packages, Ease of Use, and an overall grade that really puts them into perspective. These are all good packages, so what is important for you will tilt the scale one way or another for you and your hardware.

Getting started in Linux is like going on a first date; you have all of these expectations and hopes, but the fear of failure is looming over your shoulder. Most people I know in the community shift their favorite distro more that twice a year. It isn’t that the one they were using was failing them, but rather that something has come along and offers something else that they are looking for. That might be better driver support for their hardware, larger community involvement, new functionality or eye candy desktop, or just plain wanting to try something new. That in itself is one of the beautiful aspects of getting involved in the Linux community itself; always something to learn and try out. With Apple OS X and Microsoft Windows, users basically have to buy third party applications to add flare and zest to their desktops. With Linux, it might be that you just need to try a new desktop manager like Gnome, Enlightenment, or XFce, try a Live CD version of XGL like Kororaa, or work on getting a great media player like Amarok working with your music collection, there is an unlimited world out there to play with and learn. Good luck and happy hunting for the Linux distro that will take back your PC and let you get back to what is exciting about the world of computing; the ability to learn while having fun.

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Comments about this article
I'm a Windows refugee!
writen by: Mike Gregg on 2006-10-11 12:49:33
I guess I'm one of the people Kevin Kleinsmith talks about. I have an old desktop that was running Windows 98, and two newer laptops running ME. In June I replaced the harddrive in my desktop, and decided that it'd be pointless to reinstall Win98 when it was unsupported. I put Red Hat Fedora Core 5 on it, and it works fine for me. I can do everything I need to do, while I'm learning more about refining and customizing Linux to suit myself. There's a wealth of information and helpful Linux users on the web. I intend to put Linux on my and my wife's laptops. Running Windows is insecure enough, let alone unsupported windows. Also, I note that Microsoft has ended support for Windows XP service pack 1 and encourages migration to SP2. I suspect MS is pushing a model of planned or forced obsolescence to be able to sell more software and hardware to benefit themselves and their partners. I think the hesitation to enter unknown territory and try Linux may be offset by all the annoyances the Windows world inherently has. Having to continually install security patches, update antivirus signatures and worry about infectious e-mail attachments is the worst. Paying so much for buggy software is bad too. And do I [i]really[/i] need an animated paper clip telling me how to type a letter? Most insidious is the forced obsolescence. I can't afford to run out and buy all new stuff every few years. I guess windows works after a fashion, but I want something better. Even after I buy or build a new computer (at a time of [i]my[/i] choosing, it will run Linux.
RE: I'm a Windows refugee! written by Mike Gregg:
paper clip...
writen by: Sam George on 2007-01-21 15:08:11
RE: paper clip... written by Sam George:

Comment title: * please do not put your response text here