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Wednesday, March 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:54 P.M.
Information in this article, originally published March 6, was corrected March 10. Because of an editing error, a previous version of this Personal Technology story on Linux software improvements said two printers were installed and worked without incident under Xandros, a big leap from 1993. It should have read a big leap from 2003.

Upgrades make Linux so easy to use

By Paul Andrews
Special to The Seattle Times

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Don't you wish some days you could just toss that Windows computer out the, er, window and try something else? Something where viruses and worms weren't everyday occurrences, where you didn't have to suffer through lockups and crashes every few days? Where the screen wasn't cluttered with pop-up ads and strange spyware programs, snooping on your every move?

Welcome to the world of desktop Linux. If you really can't stand Windows or just want to try something new, the Linux operating system is right up your alley.

Available in a number of "flavors," Linux isn't perfect. But if there's one generalization that characterizes the state of desktop Linux today, it's that you finally don't have to sweat the small stuff.

Linux systems install easier, get you up and running faster, and interact with devices and content a lot better than a year ago, when I last reviewed desktop Linux (Jan. 18, 2003). You no longer worry about downloading and installing drivers for things like printers and cameras. And media — songs and video — automatically trigger an appropriate player: no fussing with downloading, uncompressing and installing arcane software.

There are exceptions, as I'll note. But Linux is more "ready to run" than ever, with far less worry than Windows over viruses and operating-system meltdowns.

If Linux continues to improve at its current rate, it'll be very close to Windows XP in a year or two. (By then Microsoft will be touting Longhorn, its next version of Windows. If Longhorn delivers on expectations — and that's a big if — it will raise the bar significantly in desktop operating systems.)

For last year's review, I used Red Hat Linux. This time, I looked at Xandros and Lindows.

Red Hat has decided to stop supporting its general-purpose desktop program and focus on enterprise software. It's backing a Fedora project for desktop users that may fill the void.

In any case, both Xandros and Lindows are far slicker than Red Hat, whose end-user version was sometimes a pain in the end of the user. (SuSE and Sun Microsystems also offer Desktop Linux, and other variations exist as well.)

For my tests, I used a vanilla $399 Intel Pentium 4 PC, a "white box" as it's called. The first surprise was how quickly Linux installed.

Xandros, first developed by inveterate Microsoft competitor Corel (which started with graphics programs and later purchased WordPerfect), installed in 10 minutes. Lindows took less than five. But Xandros partitioned the hard disk, which took extra time.

By contrast, Windows XP took more than 20 minutes to get configured, up and running. And that's with XP "pre-installed" on the PC. Also, there was no partitioning.

The partition feature of Xandros is a big plus in user comfort. Xandros automatically installed itself while keeping the Windows system, data, applications and configurations intact. Thereafter, the PC offered a dual-boot option.

This is a great feature for the Linux-timid, who aren't sure if they really want to dump Windows quite yet. If you don't like Xandros, you can go back to Windows. Or you can use both until you get comfortable with Xandros and then transition to Xandros only.

Conventional partitioning

Lindows offered the more conventional, but less convenient, approach to partitioning: Erase everything on the disk, split it in two, then install Lindows on one side and Windows on the other. But that forces the user to reinstall his or her whole Windows setup, a real nightmare. The Xandros approach is clearly superior.

Once Xandros was up and running, I ran through a basic round of user tasks: Office productivity, Internet/Web, peripherals (printers, digital devices), music, photos, video. Xandros (Version 2, available in $40 and $89 flavors), which uses the versatile KDE desktop and Debian project familiar to Linux wonks, handled most of what I threw at it. Lindows also stubbed its toe on a couple of points but generally got the job done.

Like all Linux desktop systems, both came with OpenOffice — word processing, spreadsheet, slideshow and drawing. OpenOffice is still on the slow side and not as polished as Microsoft's equivalents but it passes the "good enough" test.

I had no trouble transferring files back and forth between OpenOffice and Microsoft Office. There were issues with font display, justification and formatting. But I've found that's true between different versions of Windows and even between Windows PCs supposedly running identical versions.

My Hewlett-Packard printers installed and worked without incident under Xandros — a big leap from last year, when I had to search Linux user groups for the right driver and download and install it by hand. Xandros also recognized my Minolta and Olympus digital cameras and downloaded photos automatically, another giant step.

CDs and DVDs ran well in pop-up players. Copying CDs was no problem. (Since my white-box PC did not have a DVD-RAM drive I couldn't test DVD copying.)

I was surprised at how smoothly video downloaded from the Web, something I had no luck with last year. An application called xine handled downloading; the only drawback was a lack of buffering. You stare at a blank screen till the entire clip is downloaded, instead of getting to watch it while the download is in progress as on a Macintosh or Windows (after a few moments of initial buffering).

Xine ran Windows Media Player and MP4 movies but didn't cotton to Apple's format.

The one frustration with Xandros was my Canon digital camcorder. Xandros recognized my FireWire card but would not mount the camcorder. Lindows failed the test as well. My Mac and Windows XP computers plug-n-played the camcorder with no problem.

I ran into a couple of small problems with Xandros. Early on, it didn't recognize my nVidia video card and presented a black screen. The problem went away on reboot and ultimately vanished altogether. Xandros' tech support was baffled.

I couldn't figure out how to save CD songs in their original .cda format for copying onto blank CDs. I've been spoiled by Apple's iTunes' ability to convert and copy in different formats. The software handled MP3s fine, however.

I ran into this problem with Lindows as well.

Lindows shared most of Xandros' facility with installation and performance. Both handle Net access and Web browsing smoothly.

Almost like Windows

Lindows has a slicker interface and emulates Windows so well that it repeats several of my pet Windows peeves. Xandros' user-interface has more obvious Linux legacy to it but shouldn't stymie the first-timer.

The biggest gotcha with Lindows came with my HP All-in-One printer, the 6110. I found the printer in Lindows' list and installed drivers but got no handshaking between the PC and printer. Even test sheets failed to print.

I was told I needed to download a different driver from Lindows' Web site and that future Lindows would contain the driver on the standard CD.

Xandros, by contrast, found and activated my printer without my having to locate and install drivers.

Lindows (Version 4.0, $60) also opened streaming media inside a browser window by default, which limited functions such as stop and start and resizing. Lindows offers a huge reservoir of additional Linux software, however, available for download with Lindows' "Click 'n Run" subscription feature.

RealPlayer came with both Linux setups but wouldn't do much without service activation via the Net. The good folks at RealNetworks have an opportunity to become a de facto standard but they should run right out of the box.

In fact, if there's one complaint I still have about desktop Linux, it's that there are too many options. Few clear "best of breed" applications have emerged, and one still feels like Linux is the software equivalent of a pickup basketball game.

Before Linux geeks start piling on: I'm aware of workarounds for the problems I identified. They involve finding them on the Linux Web sites, downloading, unpacking, installing and so on. My point in this review, however, is to compare Desktop Linux with the Mac and Windows, which still hold advantages — albeit increasingly slimmer — in plug-n-play.

And remember, Linux may not do everything Mac and Windows do, but it costs significantly less (note that as the prices I quoted attest, Linux isn't free), especially if you throw in the price of Microsoft Office and other applications that come included with Xandros and Lindows. And the hardware is cheaper because you're not paying for Windows.

Bottom line: Desktop Linux is friendlier than ever and will do just about everything you need right out of the box. More promising, Linux has proceeded so far so fast that in the next year or two, its few remaining "user-confuser" traits should be gone for good.

Paul Andrews writes the weekly E-conomy column in the Business/Technology section.

Improving Linux
A general comparison of the state of Desktop Linux today from a year ago
FeatureLast yearToday
Installation30 to 45 minutes5 to 10 minutes
Internet accessManual configurationHelp "wizards" and guides
Device recognitionVideo card, disk drivesAdd printers, cameras, music players
Bundled softwareOffice-productivity tools, browserAdd photos, music, video
Streaming mediaDifficult to install, spotty performanceAuto-runs from browser
MusicPlayed CDs, MP3sPlayer software has improved
Digital camerasFew drivers, manual installationMore often plug 'n' play
Digital camcorderNot recognizedSame


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