You can’t be a Linux user, you haven’t got a beard!

I have taken a step along the road to enlightenment. That is to say I have started experimenting with Linux. Again.

Not that one is obligated to look like Richard Stallman in order to use Linux or open source software but it appears to help – if most of the Linux users I’ve met are anything to go by. I grant you that the rebellious part of my nature has sprouted a goatee beard and a beret and has taken to carrying a placard and waving its philosophical fist in the air.

I’ve been using Windows as my primary operating system since May 1997 though I have trialled various alternatives over the years – FreeDOS, BeOS, early incarnations of Linux and OS/2, all with mixed success. Outside of SCO or BSD Unix at TAFE, my first proper taste of a Linux-like operating system was playing with Red Hat 5.0 way back in 1999. Though it looked impressive, getting anything useful done required much delving around in the Land of the Big Scary Command Line and editing scripts. It all seemed like too much hard work. More recent attempts tried to make use of some older hardware that I had lying around – mainly my Celeron 600 – and conservative installations such as Xubuntu. The software would install nicely but refuse to talk to my internet connection. I could use the operating system but couldn’t update or hunt for new software.

On my current system, I use Vista Home Premium on my notebook (and primary workstation) and XP Pro on my file and print server – Home Server being far from suitable for my requirements due to the strange “may corrupt your really important information without warning or apology” bug that I believe still hasn’t been fixed as I write this (at least, when I started writing back in July 2008).

Microsoft has received a great deal of criticism regarding their rather restrictive licensing schemes, questionable security and debatable stability – I’ve always seen it as “You don’t have to buy it, you know – you can always use an alternative system.” Other people have taken the attitude of “We want to use it, we just don’t want to have to pay for it. Repeatedly.” What really irritated me recently was Service Pack 1 for Vista was released earlier this year and the update manager has been nagging me for weeks to install it. I’d heard whispers that the upgrade often failed and ended up corrupting people’s installations so I made a point of doing a complete backup first. This was a very wise move as two thirds of the way through the upgrade, the system balked and refused to boot again. Six hours of frustration and restoration later and I’m back to where I was previously. And the update manager is still bugging me to upgrade.

So out of sheer irritation, I thought I’d have another go at Linux – this time on reasonably up to date hardware. I’d recently built myself a new server and so I had a spare system lying around looking for something useful to do. I’d been getting regular copies of Kubuntu since June 2006 and version 8.04 seemed to be mature enough to warrant a second look. Friend Style has been using Linux in various forms for as long as I can recall, dedicated enough to even have had Tux the Penguin tattooed on his arm, and has been an advocate for Ubuntu for some time.

Kubuntu seemed the logical choice since it came with a comprehensive install base (the only distribution of the primary three that came on DVD) and a familiar user environment. So where to start? I took the install DVD, started up my decommissioned server and waited for the system to start installing.

Since I started investigating Linux again, one thing has come to cause me a great detail of annoyance – the Linux Evangelist. Such people will talk endlessly about how much better Linux is than Windows at absolutely everything, often with such fanaticism that even seasoned Linux enthusiasts shudder at the mention of their name. Most people just walk away – this doesn’t seem to bother the Evangelist as they will quite happily continue talking, with or without an audience. If you can bring yourself to endure their incessant waffling, you will note that they often contradict themselves several times and bring their knowledge of their subject matter into doubt.

So after several practice installations and configuration sessions, I started to become familiar with the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Gnome and KDE, and their associated foundations – to the point of migrating a number of my daily tasks over the Linux system, and even to the point of installing Windows versions of some of the applications on my Vista notebook (notably OpenOffice, Firefox and Thunderbird since I had being using Lotus Smart Suite for over ten years and Opera web browser for the last eight).

Out of the box or – more accurately – from the base installation, Ubuntu does around 80% of the tasks I need. With around an hour’s tweaking, downloading and configuring, it can do about 95%. I figure that the remaining 5% has mostly to do with my inexperience or simply not having found an application that will do the task I require.

The environment reminds me rather a lot of the days spent working on my Amiga 500 and later the A1200. Much of the software is a little unpolished, a little rough around the edges, but include most of the features needed. As I continue to become familiarised with Gnome, I’ll likely find better programs, or new ones that do old things in a better way.

So where to from here? Whilst it nice to not have to spend money buying applications to perform the tasks I require, I now find myself pondering upgrading my hardware again. Having wasted yet another morning attempting to configure my Vista notebook for dual booting with Ubuntu – and failing miserably – I ponder upgrading my spare notebook with additional memory to improve performance. For some odd reason, 512MB doesn’t quite seem to be enough and the older video controller doesn’t want to recognise an external monitor (which may or may not be related to the limited memory). And you can understand my reluctance to spend $135 on upgrade parts for a six year old notebook that might die tomorrow.

Playing with Fedora Core 10 on another system implies that that would be a better solution, up until the point of not being able to access my Windows network. Does everything nicely until that point – though I have yet to test it accessing another Linux system on the same network.

As I write, I’m testing an installation of Xubuntu 8.10 downloaded this morning (Xubuntu tends to be a later release than Ubuntu or Kubuntu) – I’ll let you know how that goes.

It would be nice to be free of Windows though – maybe I ought to upgrade the hard disk of the Vista notebook just for a test…

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