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Is Linux Really Ready for Simple Users? (Part 6 of 8)
by Kim Brebach (Sept. 11, 2007)

This is the continuation of an eight-part series that explores the suitability of desktop Linux for ordinary computer users. Follow Brebach's often-amusing foils and fumbles as he investigates a veritable alphabet soup of Linux distributions -- from Damn Small Linux to Zenwalk.

Is Linux Really Ready for Simple Users?

Part 6 -- Return to the Mountains

by Kim Brebach


This time I was equipped with a better map and a smidgen of local knowledge.

I also had a plan. The man from Mandriva had invited me to view their latest Spring creation, 2007.1, but I wanted to revisit places that had left me with mixed feelings on my last trip, and check out one or two others I didn't get to.


In my first piece I mentioned how much work Novell had done on SLED 10 and how you could add a couple of OpenSUSE 10.1 sources to expand the choice of software. Once I'd done that, I received a long list of OpenSUSE updates that left me wondering what conflicts they would cause with SLED 10 - there's always a chance that apps form 'unofficial' repositories will make your system unstable.

When I came across an OpenSUSE 10.2 DVD in a PC magazine, I thought it might offer the best of both worlds: the maturity of SLED 10 and easy access to a wider range of apps. Sadly, SUSE still had trouble with the Dell's wide screen, even after I'd installed 915 resolution and rebooted and double-checked the settings. That puzzled me since SLED and OpenSUSE were twins. Was Novell short-changing OpenSUSE to make SLED 10 look better?

Then I found the review of OpenSUSE 10.2 by Clement Lefebvre I mentioned in my last piece, the one about SUSE's poor hardware recognition. It made me feel better but still didn't answer my simple question, so I set off for other destinations.


The folks at PCLinuxOS (whose leader is the fabled Texstar) asked me if I'd like to try Test Release 3 and give them my feedback. I'd written that PCLinuxOS had a lot of potential, and it was beginning to show: the install took less than 30 minutes and the Wizard turned the process into a scenic cruise. There were no steep hills for Windows users to worry about here.

PCLinuxOS got the internet connection up automatically and didn't lose it again. As soon as I went to Display Settings, it offered to download 915resolution and then installed it for me. 3D effects turned on and worked without dramas and PCLinuxOS configured my HP Laserjet 1300 in a couple of minutes. It had no trouble working with my USB stick and played video clips without dramas.

PCLinuxOS boots in just under a minute, which puts it among the fastest distros I've tried, and it comes loaded with apps that include MPlayer and Scribus. I installed Inkscape just to test the Package Manager - tick the box, click Apply and the rest is done for you. Upgrading installed software is just as easy: select 'installed upgradeable' and click Apply. Synaptic is like that, but finding it on duty here surprised me since PCLinuxOS is built on a branch of the Mandriva family which uses URPMI/RPM to fetch, install and update packages.

PCLinuxOS also provides simple users with a really sensible Control Centre:

(Click to enlarge)

There were a few glitches, as you'd expect from a beta: Konqueror would hang from time to time, turning an unresponsive grey but coming good again after taking a deep breath. I had trouble getting PCLinuxOS to recognize a movie DVD, and Amarok wouldn't play a single note of a music CD until I figured out how to add songs to its play list. That produced sound.

I admit that I'm as dumb as they come on this score, as I don't use my PCs for audio/video reproduction I only tried these apps to test the multimedia metal of Linux, a well-known black spot that sends many distros into a reverse spin. There are legal reasons for this which are beyond my tiny brain. All I know is that I can pop a disk into XP and a sign pops asking me what to with it. When I hit play, it plays the disk, simple as that.

The PCLinuxOS website tells us that the blacksmiths are hard at work on the final version. I'm looking forward to it since this distro comes close to the ideal for speed, application choice and ease of installation/use. Auntie Nell would have little trouble working with PCLinuxOS, and have no need to go looking for more software.

The beat of the drums

Many readers wrote that they'd had no trouble running Ubuntu on their laptops, so I made another trek to the Highveld and downloaded 7.04 Feisty Fawn Herd (beta). The name puzzled me until I realized that we were talking about Impalas. A wildlife website explained that fawns must learn to fend for themselves during the onset of 'rut', when does can be lead astray for several days by the dominant buck. 'During periods of intense mating the buck vocalizes loudly,' the website adds, 'making a sound between a lion's roar and a dog's bark.

Exhausted by such activity, males can seldom hold their territories for more than a few months at a time.' Could Feisty Fawn hold its own against so many fierce competitors in the mountains? Ubuntu had impressed me with its slick partitioner, but this time the wizard excused himself (departed, not Gparted) once I chose the custom install on existing partitions. That meant I had to 'mount' the right partitions for 'root' and 'swap' and that made my head ache.

Ubuntu tried to fob me off with 1024 by 768 resolution again, so I went straight to Synaptic's list to look for the 915resolution. After the install and a reboot, I got a clear view of Ubuntu at last and wondered why this distro didn't offer to sort out the wide screen the way some of the others do - even distros based on Ubuntu can do it, as Linux Mint proved.

(Click to enlarge)

7.04 includes 'desktop effects' like wobbly windows and the full 3D cube, but they come with a warning and wouldn't work for me once I'd activated them. I've read that Ubuntu's architects aren't happy with the stability of the 3D fancywork, but the old question arises once more: if others can make it work ... ?

The Fawn played music okay but couldn't produce pictures for the video clips I'd loaded. He offered to install extra codecs, which raised my spirits, but they didn't produce pictures either.

A visit to the forums turned up a list of additional codecs I had to install, but that long and winding road only got me stuck in another bog.

On the sunny side of the veld, installing and removing software couldn't be easier, and Ubuntu's repositories are as vast as land it comes from. Sadly, Mplayer wasn't on the list, nor in the Universe or even the Multiverse -- it seems parallel realities have their limitations too.

Maybe I visited Ubuntu at the wrong time of the year or perhaps I didn't find the right guides to show me around.

Keep your hat on

A few people wrote saying I was wrong to bypass the village of Fedora and its fancy hats, so I made a point of stopping there. The Fedora Core 6 DVD from a Linux mag refused to load so I took a shortcut and burnt a live CD ISO of the Fedora 7 Test Release 2. It booted okay and I loved the picture of the pretty hot-air balloons over the blue clouds.

(Click to enlarge)

What I didn't like was having to hunt around for the 'install to hard disk' option, which turned up under the System menu - most live CDs give you a desktop icon you click for the install, a smarter idea for simple minds.

The partitioning was as tricky as Ubuntu's but F7 thwarted my persistence by advising that the installer had struck a problem and couldn't proceed. I had to make do with working on the live CD, which got the internet connection up in no time but not the screen resolution -- 1024 x 768 was its best offer. The system settings showed an Intel 810/915 graphics option and the 1280 x 800 resolution to go with it.

I was intrigued that Fedora was prepared to download and install it from a live CD -- how, and where? After a reboot, bits of screen appeared with perfect clarity and then F7 gummed up like glue in cold weather. I searched the internet for guidance and ran into Clemens Lefebvre once more. I hope he doesn't mind me leaning on him like this but I needed to know if it was me or the hat that didn't fit.

In a review of Fedora Core 6 on Clemens said: 'Package Updater applet is good, Yum is good, but its interface Pirut is one of the worst graphical tools I've seen.

You can't ask a novice user to rely on the command line all the time, and if you combine that with the fact that both hardware recognition and multimedia support need extra configuration, you simply get a distribution that will not "work" out of the box for many novice users.' Clemens adds that Fedora is a much better proposition for savvy Linux types.

Dreaming of a Mac

DreamLinux had me intrigued. This creation from Brazil aims to provide an alternative to Macs rather than to Windows, and it promises better multimedia performance than other Linux distros. With the problems I'd had in this department, I felt like dreaming a little -- of dense green jungles and the richly textured music of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

I was in for a rude awakening when the dream appeared in 1074 x 768 resolution and the Dreamlinux Control panel wasn't prepared to negotiate. I couldn't fix it, neither by installing 915resolution nor by digging into the settings of a Debian config box I found hidden under 'Services'. 915resolution was listed and ticked there but I was stuck with dreaming about it -- even the trusty Google wasn't much help since DreamLinux is a new kid on the block. This is what it should look like:

(Click to enlarge)

DreamLinux was the only distro that didn't connect me to the internet -- it didn't even offer to - so I had to do it myself. Its GUI is Xfce, which I fumbled through with growing frustration. I couldn't find a HELP button to consult for guidance but I did find an option to switch to the more familiar Gnome, a lifeline I grabbed with both hands until DreamLinux informed me that the Gnome wasn't home.

The desktop does look like a MAC with the big icons at the bottom that bulge when you run your mouse over them. And yes, it has a strong multimedia focus with everything here including Audacity, MPlayer and Kino, but neither of the two CD players would play a simple music CD the easy way a Mac or XP system would, or any other way I tried.

DreamLinux was so busy dreaming that it even lost track of the time -- it was 3 hours behind on the Sydney setting and nothing I did could shift it. There's a ton of potential here but a little more work is needed before this dream comes true.

SimplyMEPIS, moving target

I installed 6.5 RC3, and it set up the crisp wide screen all by itself. The installer was among the best I've come across, including the partitioner. I had a working system up in half an hour, was hooked up to the internet without a single question, and installing the Laserjet took just over a minute.

The KDE menu offered more settings than I knew what to do with. If you love switches and levers, Beryl and its Emerald Theme Manager give you a whole new mixing desk to play with. I pushed all the right buttons on Beryl's control panel to enable 3D effects, but she didn't respond. It wasn't until I turned to Beryl's Manager in despair that desktops began to spin.

Sadly, Beryl seemed indisposed and kept fainting and crashing into the stage props. Later on I found the KDE 3D option at the login prompt under the Sessions tab. KDE didn't faint or crash but lost something in the translation to 3D: the Close, Max and Min buttons on the application windows were missing and the only way to get them back was to return to the 2D world.

Mepis played music and video out of the box, the second distro to do that for me after Linux Mint. Real Player, Flash Player and even Java 6 are enabled out of the box. Now I could see what these Ubuntu-based distros offered that Ubuntu does not.

Mepis not only rocks but is stuffed with apps like an old Chesterfield lounge: in addition to the usual set, you get Xara Extreme, a webcam utility, PIM and KEEP Backup, Guarddog firewall and Klam AV, Skype and even an eBay bidding tool. There's support for dial-up, WiFi and Bluetooth as well. How did they get all these apps on a single CD?

While I was testing the RC, the final version of Mepis 6.5 was released, so I installed it. The partitioner gave me the option of leaving my home folder intact and half an hour later I was working on a new OS and my old data files still intact. All I had to do was add a few extra programs with Synaptic and the whole upgrade was done.

Adding software couldn't be simpler: Prefer Opera to Firefox? Snap your fingers twice and Synaptic will take care of it. Evolution? Same thing, including any dependent programs.

None of these additions caused any kind of instability, apart from Beryl. She was still prone to headaches but, this time, KDE 3D worked without the buttons falling off the panels. And it kept on working.

SimplyMEPIS isn't just solid, it's fast to respond to the helm too. I noticed how much quicker Synaptic was than YaST on SLED 10 when connecting to repositories and grabbing new software or updates. YaST is the front-end for the RPM package manager and also provides the mixing desk for SUSE's system settings and functions.

A central control panel like that provided by PCLinuxOS was something I missed in SimplyMEPIS but, aside from that, there's little to complain about. This distro is close to the perfect for newcomers: it's a doddle to install, detects and configures the hardware for you and comes with just everything you need. Kitted out with a nice Emerald theme, it looks gorgeous too.

(Click to enlarge)


I thought I'd finish off with the fancy Italian dessert, Sabayon. This distro that has shot into the top ten on the Linux hit parade and the release of a live CD 'mini' version has made it easier to download - usually Sabayon comes fully frothed up on an equally full DVD.

The Start menu was the first surprise, offering options ranging from 'Anonymous Internet Browsing' to 'Play with Sauerbraten' (an odd choice at dessert time) and 'Play with Cold- War' (?!). I chose the simple option of running the live CD.

One of my cookbooks says you whisk up a Sabayon from 3 egg yolks, castor sugar and a few shots of Marsala or Sherry, but there was nothing frothy or sweet about the welcome screen that greeted me: with its blood-red chicken foot on a charcoal background, it could only appeal to ghoulish Goths. Adding further menace to the scene, the steel colored progress bar on the bottom grew to the size of a long range artillery gun. Program panels came up in a glossy purple-bronze, perhaps in a vain attempt to add back some misplaced finesse.

I felt as if I'd stumbled into a horror movie set instead of a cosy Italian restaurant. Sabayon is clearly aimed at a different brotherhood than the one I belong to: Linux connoisseurs with a leaning toward the macabre. Sabayon's developers boast of delivering bleeding edge applications to the Linux desktop, which explains the blood-red red chicken foot if not the name of the distro.

I couldn't get a screenshot of the live CD, or find one anywhere else (the ones on the Net are blood-red and orange, not blood-red and charcoal) but this shot from Sabayon's website shows what I mean:

(Click to enlarge)

On a brighter note, 3D worked right off the live CD. Sadly, the plain old 915resolution did not and the Display settings don't give you any choice other than the older 1024 x 768 but leave you staring at a prehistoric 800x600. I had a quick look at what else was on offer, found some of the usual apps and others I'd never heard of, but I wasn't tempted to spend more time here. I'm not that fond of the macabre.

Sabayon doesn't claim to be an easy dish for apprentice chefs. It's based on Gentoo, a source code distro favored by those who like to whip up their desserts from raw ingredients.

Doing that can produce a better dish, but compiling programs from source code is not for the Innocenti.

Continue reading here:

Part 7 -- Notes From the Second Trip

Copyright (c) 2007 Technoledge. All rights reserved. Screenshots courtesy of OSDir; KnoLinux; TuxMachines. Reproduced with permission by

About the author: Kim Brebach is a consultant with Technoledge, a specialist technology marketing group based in Sydney, Australia, which focuses on IT, biotechnology and healthcare marketing. Kim's articles on technology and marketing can be found here.

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Is Linux Really Ready for Simple Users?

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