==Usability data and experiences== (this is what the site is really about) 222
A software company (linux newbies, technically competent) tries some distros
I hope you'll allow direct input from a newbie. As I explained to PJ, we're taking a look at Linux anyway, and I'm willing to serve as a "guinea pig", to give you my direct and unvarnished impressions of moving to Linux. I am deliberately *not* going to use any of the information becoming available here on GrokDoc.
We are a software company using Windows. We all used Unix back in our student days, and liked it - but we were purely users, not administrators. For various reasons, we are interested in having a look at Linux within our company. In a nutshell: we are Linux newbies, but still a lot more technically competent that your average user.
One more comment, before I begin my tale: we have to earn our living, and cannot afford to spend weeks fiddling. If I can't get Linux installed, up and running using a few scattered hours over the next couple of weeks, then it's not ready for prime-time. I say this in reply to another poster who says "believe me, the first couple of installations is going to take days". That is just not acceptable.
Ok. the very first step. I've heard of RedHat, Suse, Knoppix, Mandrake. I'm sure there are other distributions out there. But I've no idea which one is best suited to our needs. It ought to run on our hardware without a lot of hunting for drivers, etc. This is reputed to be a mess with most Linux distributions. Also, I don't have time to waste doing lots of detailed administration - and this is also reputed to be a problem with many distributions. At the same time, we want a semi-normal version, in case we should decide to change later. I've heard, for example, that RedHat does everything their own way, and that moving between RedHat and other distributions is difficult.
Obvious answer: ask google. So I type in "linux distribution review comparison". This comes up with three promising links. However, it turns out that
- all of the articles are out-of-date.
- although they try to avoid technical talk, they fail. There are still references to things I've never heard of. And I'm technical. How is your average non-technical user supposed to know the important of GNOME, or apt-get, or any of the other myriad acronyms.
- none of the articles does a good job of comparing the distributions. It's useless to talk about how well/poorly the installation process on distribution A is, while discussing something completely different on distribution B. In the end, the same points have to be evaluated on all distributions.
What one needs is one of the comparative charts often seen in computer magazines, rating each distribution on the same points, and making a side-by-side comparison easy.
What definitely ought to be rated - comparatively across all installations:
- hardware auto-detection (yes/no)
- range of hardware supported (rate on a scale)
- automated configuration - does it "run out of the box" (rate on a scale)
- ease of making necessary configuration changes, i.e., language, currency, firewall, etc, etc (rate on a scale)
- quality of documentation
- quality of user interface
- included office suite
- ease of obtaining a free download
- cost for a licensed version
- included software (this is done well on www.distrowatch.com - see below)
...and probably lots more...
- - - - -
After reading these articles, I'm left with the impression that - 2 or 3 years ago - I should have gone for Mandrake, and as a second choice SuSE. More usefully, one of the articles mentions the site http://www.distrowatch.com/.
So I visited http://www.distrowatch.com/. Clearly up-to-date, and a click on "Major Distributions" brings up a lot of good information. But detail is sadly lacking, and it is still the case that different attributes are mentioned for different distributions, making comparison difficult. I still want that table!
Still, based on this site, I choose the following candidates:
Xandros: sounds really good, but I wonder (and this is where a comparative table is important) - does "user-friendly" also include hardware auto-detection, and general configuration? Or does it only refer to how the OS works after it has been successfully installed?
MEPIS: A very appealing description. Sounds like this one is designed to eliminate most or all of the configuration work, which is exactly what a newbie needs. I can live with a less-than-pretty default look-and-feel.
Mandrake: while there are some negative comments about Mandrake, it is clearly a much more established distribution with a lot more documentation and support available.
Downloading distributions for comparison
My next step is to download the free versions of these distributions, so that I can try them out and compare them. According to DistroWatch, the all offer a free downloadable version. One I decide which one I like, I'll buy the full package. But first I want to have a look at them...
The MEPIS web-site makes a terrible impression. It's difficult to find any links to documentation, difficult to find download links. Very amateurish. While there are free download mirrors, the ones I try are incredibly slow - the estimated download time is measured in days!
The Mandrake web-site is better. But it's gone the way of many older sites, and gotten overloaded. Moreover, their "latest" documentation is for version 9.2, when the download links are for version 10 - I'll have to hope that up-to-date documentation is included in the distribution itself. The first download mirror is ridiculously slow. But the next one mostly works: I had hoped to get all the downloads running, and let it complete overnight. But for some reason I'm only able to download one file at a time.
The Xandros web-site is the prettiest of the bunch, but I can't find any download link. The best bet was "Support:Downloads", but this brings up a knowledge-base search. I go back to www.distrowatch.org, where there is a direct link to the download page. But I find that I either must use BitTorrent (why do I want to install a back-door program on my system?), or pay for the download. Doesn't look like I'll be downloading this one...
Your average user would have given up hours ago. Free downloads are hidden, or do not work, or aren't free. One of the big arguments for open-source software is the ability to "try before you buy". But the distributors make this difficult or impossible.
I'm stubborn, I'll keep going. On the second day of downloading, I've given up finding a free download of Xandros. The MEPIS download has timed out yet again - when I resume it, I see that I'm 3% done - at this rate, it may finish next month. On the other hand, I have 2 of the 3 Mandrake CDs, and the 3rd one is in progress. So it looks like I'll be trying out Mandrake next week.
Frankly, the initial impression left by this really stinks.
Distros for Non-Techies
I'm not super technical, but I am moderately technical, I do some script writing, and I gave installing Linux a try once on my iBook. Maybe it is easier on a PC, but in general the loops you have to go through with formatting the disk, configuring some sort of screen reading property through the commmandline, and just the issue of compiling are way, way, way too complicated for the home user, and were even too complicated for me. I tried getting it right for about five days, searching the web, trying to understand the issues and how to use the command line, but ultimately I want to edit my photos and send email, not learn how a kernel works. Plus figuring out which distribution would be easiest, and what, I am supposed to go and try out four or five kernels? I dont even know what the difference between the OS and the kernel is. I think what Apple has done with FreeBSD is pretty cool. And I would love to become an advocate for Linux by actually run it for as many application processes as possible. But the install has to be a click. That's it. Picking the Distro will be easy then - it will be: "this is the one click Distro". Of course you'll want to stop using phrases like Distro too.
BTW - I think this is all a great question and method. Good Luck with Linux.
Insight into Distro Selection Methodology
Last week I decided to install linux on an old p2-333 laptop I have, to serve as a general purpose internet terminal for the living area for us and guests.
I began by googling for 'best linux distro' and found most opinions tend towards the notion of 'personal preference.' So I proceeded to use the metric of 'easiest distro to download'.
Boy, was that a mistake. The first one I found was Debian. I'm only technical within the scope of daily win32 computer usage. So midway through the installation process I was completely befuddled. I managed to blind select my way through the greek, fdisking my hd into a linux and linux swap partition (83, and 82, respectively) and successfully wound up at a login prompt. I knew enough to login root, but that's where my Debian adventure ended. Had no idea what to at the commandline to get a GUI.
The next distro I found was Slackware, whose installation was much clearer and intuitive, but it didn't get me any farther than the shell prompt.
Only after asking a linux guru at work, did he enlighten me with the knowledge that the irony is that the most intuitive distros' binaries are the hardest to find. He helped me hunt down the Mandrake distro, which I installed and was greatly delighted with.
Now I'm going to revert to win32 because none of the distros recognized either garden variety 11b wireless pcmcia cards I bought (D-Link and Netgear), and there's no way I'm compiling a kernel.
===Which version should I use?=== (or "Is KDE better than Debian?") A lot of beginners I found didn't really understand the difference between a distribution and a desktop environment.
==Information and solutions== (possibly will eventually moved elsewhere)
What is a "distribution"?
Linux is a group effort, and lots of people are building on it. Not all of these people agree on where to go with it, so naturally development is heading in all sorts of directions. These different "flavours" of Linux are called "distributions" (or "distros" for short). They all rely on the same core (the Linux kernel), but as a complete product they can look very different.
Some distributions also (or only) come as a "LiveCD". This is when you pop in a cd and it boots and runs entirely from there, without changing the hard disk at all. This way you can try Linux without messing Windows up, or you can use it as a diagnostic tool. There is a separate Grokdoc page about LiveCDs.
Best way to choose a distribution:
When I first started looking at Linux I was overwhelmed by all the different distributions out there. I began reading forum posts, which all seemed to suggest different distros for different reasons. I realized that I wasn't going to discover my Linux distro through someone else. The absolute best way to find your distribution is to figure it out yourself. I recommend buying another hard drive (so you can mess around with Linux without damaging your existing Windows system), downloading Knoppix (or some other Linux distro that runs directly off a CD, called "LiveCD" distros) and any other distro that you find, burning them to CD's, disconnecting your normal hard drive, clear your schedule for a weekend, then just keep installing and playing with the many distros.
And believe me, the first couple of installations is going to take days, then more days to find out which you like best. If you don't like one, try another before you ditch Linux altogether.
Get stuck? Pop in a Knoppix CD, reboot, then voila, instant internet resources while still in Linux! Not only will you discover what distro you favor, you will learn a lot about the Linux installations process and become more comfortable in a Linux environment, which are some of the most challenging things for a Linux newbie.
Seem like too much work for you, or do you just want to get the general feel of a Linux environment? Download any LiveCD distro and burn that to a CD. It will boot Linux without altering your current operating system in any way. In fact, Knoppix doesn't even need a hard drive to run. Just keep in mind Knoppix is just one of the many distros out there and all distros are not the same.
So when you have the time, keep installing and playing... that's the best way to find your favorite Linux distro.
A great place to find a distro is DistroWatch.com. It contains information, news, and links for all major distributions. Another great resource is Linuxiso.org which provides direct links to CD .isos for many major distros, as well as instructions on how to burn those .isos to CDs.
Grading Linux Distributions
I think that the beginner should be given some direction from more experienced users as to what an appropriate starting point distribution might be. There are a plethora of distributions, of course, so this would merely be a starting point. For example:
- Distributions for the beginner (and Microsoft refugees)
- Distributions for the non-beginner
More recent distibutions/tools (2004) =
After not using Unix/Linux for many years I've decided to give the latest capabilities a try. I found the following Unix/Linux flavors extremely useful in creating a new Linux based system.
1. Blueflops - Bootable Linux on 2 floppies. Uses menu based configuration. Provides a web browser (Links) with net connectivity.
2. Slackware's ZIPSLACK - Installs in a DOS partition (FAT) for a quick start. Good enough to keep adding functionality for Slackware distributions and use as a permanent system.
- Ilon Dalon -