Kicking Linux's Tires

I've been working on a Linux Tips column for an upcoming issue of PC World--a much tougher assignment than my monthly Free Agent ramble, for two reasons: First, I've got only one magazine page to work with, so I'm a bit restricted in what I can tackle. Second, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of our magazine's readers run Windows, not Linux. Since we do our darnedest to make every page of PC World engaging to our readers, I'm out to craft a Linux column that might prove relevant to those who are still computing Bill Gates-style.

So the idea is to cook up some tips for kicking Linux's tires. Like I said, I don't have much space in the magazine, so I'm using this month's Free Agent to post some more complete thoughts on the matter. I'll also toss in a tip that may be helpful to readers who have written in to say that they've made the switch to Linux, but are soon going to switch distributions or reinstall, having not gotten it quite right the first time. (Don't feel defeated if you find yourself in that boat, especially if Windows is the only computing environment you've ever known. It's only natural that you may have made some assumptions that simply don't hold on Planet Linux.)

Test-Drive From a CD

In times past, the only way to see if Linux would work on a given PC was to install the OS. Times change. These days there are many so-called Live CD versions of Linux that boot and run from a CD-ROM. Ubuntu Linux, the winner of our 2005 World Class Award for Best Linux Distribution, has a Live CD version available for download.

Now, here comes the question that's arrived in my inbox so many times, I'm embarrassed for not having spelled out the answer before.

Question: "How do I download a stinkin' CD?"

Answer: Linux Live CDs and installation CDs are often made available for download as files with an .iso extension. These files are a snapshot image of a CD-ROM's file system. You grab the ISO file, feed it to your CD-burning software of choice, and a few minutes later you've got a shiny disc that will actually do something cool. (The command you use to burn an ISO image to disc varies between burning tools, of course. On my copy of Roxio Easy CD Creator, for instance, I use File, Record CD from CD Image.)

So, for the cost of a disc and the time and bandwidth it takes to download one ISO image (which varies widely depending on the size of the image and the speed of your connection), you get the chance to see if an entirely Free operating system--one that is virus-free, spyware-free, and so on (insert the rest of my typical "The Pleasures of Free Software" sermon here)--floats your boat. Boot up an Ubuntu Live CD and have a good look around. Kick the tires all you like. Surf the Web. Send e-mail. Open a spreadsheet you brought home from the office. Plot your enemies' destruction. Whatever.

Set Up a Dual-Boot System

If you like what you see, or you wanna see the real deal, why not set up your machine to dual boot? At power-up, you'll get to choose between Windows or Linux. On the Linux side, you'll have the increased performance of a true installation (as opposed to running from a CD), the ability to install additional software, a home directory to call your own, and so forth.

To walk that road, download an installation ISO from Ubuntu, or another distribution. Two other downloadable options:

  • Fedora Core, if you're feeling geeky. Like Ubuntu, Fedora is entirely Free--there is no version available for purchase. Unlike Ubuntu, it can be rough on Linux newbies. To install Fedora Core, you'll need to download multiple installation CDs.
  • The "Open Circulation" (read: demo) version of Xandros Desktop is a good choice if interaction with Windows machines on a local network is key to you. Be aware that the Xandros ISO provides an installation that is slightly crippled in functionality. Xandros is a commercial product that does not offer free downloads of its fully functional OS.

The Ubuntu and Xandros installers can shrink your Windows disc partition to make room for Linux; Fedora Core's installer can't do this, so you'll need to repartition your drive yourself using a third-party tool like Partition Magic or QTParted, which is found on the Free SystemRescueCD.

Before you begin a Linux installation, poke around your Windows system just a bit to get a few key pieces of information that the Linux installer might need. If you access the Internet with anything but a simple DHCP connection, write down the specifics, like your IP address and the IP addresses of your gateway and DNS server. Also note the make and model of your graphics card and your monitor just in case the installer can't detect them both automatically.

If you are not a stranger to hard-drive partitioning, I have another tip for you--the most important, killer Linux installation tip there is.

Partitioning the Drive

Most Linux installers default to using two partitions: one for the operating system and all user data, and one for the swap partition. (A swap partition is akin to Windows' swap file; Linux just happens to use a separate partition for virtual memory.) But there's a better way: Create one partition for the operating system, one for user data, and one for swap space. This way, if you ever need to reinstall Linux, you don't lose all your files and settings: You can tell the installer to format the OS partition, but leave others alone. In this fashion, you're far more protected from unintentional system hosings if you're the type to get under the hood and tinker around with your new OS. Your worst-case scenario is a reinstall that won't kill off your data.

The actual how-to for installing to three partitions differs for each Linux distribution; the point of similarity is that when you've got things set up right your installer will show a "mount point" of / (yes, just a slash) for the OS partition, and a mount point of /home for the user-data partition.

Longtime Linux users sometimes create even more partitions, for various reasons. On my home PC, for instance, I have a separate partition for /usr/local, which on a Linux system mostly contains hand-compiled software (as opposed to binary, or precompiled, packages installed by the package manager). For most users, though, splitting out /home into a separate partition is the only operation worth the effort.

More Free Software I Cannot Live Without

There's been a lot of buzz about the Palm OS-based Treo 650 PDA/phone hybrid since it launched last fall. Folks just love these devices. I can understand why. I've been a Treo 600 owner since that device debuted back in 2003, and though the 650's improved display makes me drool, my 600 is still plugging along and getting the job done.

J-Pilot showing off its datebook interface.
J-Pilot showing off its datebook interface.
It also talks to Linux just fine, thanks to J-Pilot, a very simple but effective clone of the Windows-based Palm Desktop software that ships with all Palm OS devices. J-Pilot houses and syncs your datebook, contact list, to-do list, and memo pad data, and can install new software to your handheld device. It also has commands for fully backing up all the data on your PDA, and restoring such a backup. J-Pilot is available through the package-management system on most distributions of Linux, or directly from its own Web site.

Have you found a Free Software app that you now can't live without? Which Linux is your favorite? Still scared to give up Windows? PC World's Free Agent wants to hear from you. Speak Freely!
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