A Tale of Two Computers

Posted on 2010/11/02. Filed under: Apple, Computing General, Kubuntu, Linux General, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Ubuntu, Windows |

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times … (Sorry I could not resist. It has to be the best opening ever for a novel. Kudos to Mr. Dickens.)

My wife and I bought two computers at the same time. Hers was a laptop and mine was a desktop computer. Both came with Windows XP pre-installed. She uses Windows every day and I never use Windows, but instead have run a version of Kubuntu or Ubuntu since the day that I bought it, almost five years ago. Those are the facts.

In all of that time I have but one problem with my desktop computer; I had to replace the power supply and bumped up the RAM to run VMs. I have had no software issues. I have re-installed Ubuntu every six months or gone the upgrade route once or twice. I have run alpha versions to final releases of many distributions including the above mentioned.

My wife has had problems with several viruses, trojans and the like. She has used anti-virus software from all of the major distributors, Symantic, AVG, Panda, Avast, Kaspersky, and Trend. In addition, she runs anti-malware and anti-hijacking software that detects changes to the registry. She does not indulge in any risky practices. She uses lots of email and clicks on links that people send her. In short, she is a typical user with average skills.

Her computer slows down to a crawl much to her frustration every month or two and it needs to be defragmented, the system tray needs to be cleaned out, her desktop needs tidying, her menu need to be cleaned up, her temporary files need to be wiped, and her registry tidied up. I am not making that up. She cannot do these things herself, so I do it.

In comparison, my computer which runs Linux needs none of that. I run no anti-virus, anti-malware, anti-torjan, anti hijacking software in the background. My system tray has no applications running in memory that did not come with the OS. My desktop is clean of shortcuts. My menu does not need to be re-ordered. My computer runs as fast as it did when I got it almost five years ago.

When I have had to re-install Windows on my wife’s computer after say a virus infection which trashed the computer, I was able to back up all of the data (using a Linux Live CD, BTW) and get it back in running order. After dedicating a full day to do it.

Each time I had to re-install Windows. It takes at least three times as long to install Windows XP, as it takes Ubuntu and Ubuntu comes with much of the software that I use. I must add to my Windows installation time it takes to install drivers, install four years of Windows updates, download and install anti-virus, anti-malware, anti-trojan software, and re-boot countless times. Then I must install all of her applications and add updates to those. Yes, re-booting even more. Finally I have to put all of her data back in place.

When I re-install Kubuntu, I download the ISO, put it on a usb stick. I only back up my package list. I re-boot. I re-install Kubuntu to the same partition. I keep my home partition unchanged and re-use my user name and home folder. I re-boot. I do updates which are at best a few days old, so there are few of them. I do not have to play with any driver disks. Everything works out of the box. I open my package manager and point it to my text file of the software that I had installed before the re-installation. I hit Apply and it does its work. While it is doing that, I can use my computer with no problems and not once did I have to re-boot. The process is completed in an hour and a half or less. No fuss, no muss, no pain.

I could be accused of being a fanboy of Linux for mentioning the obvious differences. It could be just my imagination that Linux is better. Or it could be just my subjective opinion. But if anybody could choose to have Windows behave the same way, then my money would be on that they would choose to have Windows behave like Linux. They would love to have there computer run without anti this or anti that. They would love to have to not worry about viruses and the like. They would love it if their computer did not degrade in performance over time. They would love it if Microsoft actually improved things when they released an new version.

With all of the money that Microsoft has, they keep on doing things the same way. They churn out a product that is only marginally better and in some cases (Vista) worse than its predecessor. They do not fix the problem of lax security, but add glitz and add a few features to disguise it. Their code is bloated and still there exploits built in.

Once a security hole is discovered, it takes them days to admit it and weeks to plug it. Meanwhile it has travelled half way around the world and caused untold hardship. Yesterday, they discovered a security flaw in Firefox. It was fixed the same day. It is not Linux, but it is open source and follows the open source model which is collaborative. Things are shared. They are out in the open and fixed in a timely fashion.

In my opinion, this points to the glaring weakness in using proprietary software. You are paying for something that essentially belongs to someone else. They do not have to fix it. They can take their sweet time about it. And there is little that you can do about it.

Users have free choice and I would never deny them that. Use Windows if you want. Pay for the privilege. Just don’t cry and whine when you have problems. And don’t tell someone who makes a different choice that he is being a fanboy for telling people that it does not have to be this way.

The problem is that most users are prisoners. They do not know that there is such a thing a software freedom. They are denied that information. It is partly the fault of the software freedom community. We do not have an advertising budget. We tend to be quiet and just do our own thing for the most part. As a consequence people do not know of our existence.

It is also because those who sell proprietary solutions do not want the truth to get out. They launch FUD campaigns at great expense to counter anything that we might say. They pay bloggers and writers to deny the truth and to strengthen their own position. They use their muscle on hardware manufacturers to make sure that Linux does not come pre-installed.

Some people would say that desktop Linux is where it was several years ago. I say, no, it is much farther ahead. Its user base is much larger in absolute numbers, but it is proportionately the same. We have not grown in terms of percentage, but we are not going away either. But for me, progress isn’t in the numbers, but in the experience.

There was a time when you needed to be a total geek to use Linux. Now anybody can try it by putting the disk in your computer with the advent of Live CDs, and now DVDs. You can run it from a usb stick. You can install it from inside Windows  without having to partition, through the wonder of WUBI. If you choose to install it, it can share a drive with another operating system. It takes care of shrinking and partitioning. But that does not tell the full story.

Linux is on par with any OS in terms of its features. It can be incredibly stable if you opt for something like Debian stable. It can be bleeding edge if you opt for Fedora or Ubuntu. It can be in between. It can be a rolling release that you never have to upgrade or one that you can make new every six months. It can be a very basic system that you build from ground up yourself or a complete working system that is easy to install and use. There is nothing to compare with it. If I was a company that produced anything less than this, then I would be scared, too. I would set in motion FUD like you could not believe since ignoring has not worked.

Some people want us to be quiet. They cry foul when we mention the problems with other OSes. It is rude of us to gloat about the superiority of Linux. They denounce us as fanboys. There are trolls who masquerade as one of us and say that we are letting the side down, or worse.

But if people are to know about Linux in the face of the all of the FUD that comes out of Redmond and Cupertino, then how do we get the word out? If we stay silent then we are playing into the hands of people who want us to do just that.

My wife is not about to use Linux, just because I say that it is better. She has heard all of what I have written here. Sadly, for her. Windows is all that she needs and she does not have the time to try anything else. She uses Windows because that is what she uses at work. One operating system is enough to handle for her and many others. I get that.  I am not speaking to users like her when I write these things. People who are happy with Windows should continue to use it.

I am wring to people who are unhappy with Windows and want to try something different. I am writing about not only a different operating system, but  a different way of doing things. Many people accept the Windows experience because they think that everything has to be that way. They know that Macs exist, but are too expensive. They don’t know that they can transform their own PCs and enjoy a totally different experience.

You do not have to accept the status quo as normal. You have real choice. Some people will investigate. Others will not. Each is fine. After all, I believe in freedom to choose. But I won’t be quiet. It is not in my nature.

Note: This posting was prompted by criticisms of a previous post that accused me of being a Linux fanboy and that there is no problem with Windows or that Linux has no advantage or some such thing. 🙂

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Desktop Linux, Where the Fun Begins

Posted on 2010/10/29. Filed under: Computing General, Fedora, Gnome, KDE, Kubuntu, Linux General, Mandriva, openSUSE, Ubuntu, Windows |

Linux is my sandbox. It is where I go to play. It is also where many people go to be productive. Desktop Linux has many millions of users. You probably have not heard much about it because of the way that it is developed and promoted.

The Linux community is very fragmented which is a plus and a minus. It is a plus because it spawns much innovation and  a minus because things get done, or not, in a very different way. Linux is divided into communities and projects and resources are not efficiently used. People go where their interest lies. That makes for happy workers, and some projects get lots of attention and develop quickly while others languish and die on the vine. It is all part of the process.

Linux for the most part does not have a big name behind it. Sure, it has Google, Red Hat, Novell and Canonical, but that is it. None is as big as Apple or Microsoft and more importantly it does not have a history of working closely with OEMs. Linux does not have an advertising budget and it does not come pre-installed which is problematic for many new users. They do not know where to begin. Linux is mostly spread by word of mouth which is why we may come across as evangelists. We know that without our work it would not be known at all.

Linux is divided into three main categories. There are very basic distributions, very easy to use distributions and those that lie somewhere between. You may wonder why anyone would want  a basic distribution. Some people like to fix their own car or  make a cake from scratch. It is all about choice. Using a basic distribution involves getting closer to understanding what is going on and how it works and many people like that hands on feeling. Others do not want to roll up there sleeves, but like a quick and easy approach. Fortunately there is no shortage of either.

If you like to learn the basics you could choose any of Arch, Gentoo, Slackware, or Linux From Scratch. There are others. If you want an easy to use distribution where you basically never need to type a command then you can opt for Linux Mint, one of the *buntus (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, etc.), PCLinuxOS, Mandriva, SimplyMEPIS, or openSuSE. You are by no means limited to these, but they are the biggies. Distrowatch maintains a top 100 list. In between these options are many fine distributions that are regarded as being harder to use, but still fine. This would include Debian which is the basis for Ubuntu and its derivatives and which will run an just about any architecture and Fedora which is the testing branch of Red Hat. Again there is no shortage of choice.

So, the first question is what kind of user are you and what do you want to do? If you want to learn how Linux works then opt for the first category. if you just want it to work out of the box, then go to the second category and if you want to get things done but still have some control then opt for category three.

Something else to consider is package management. Linux has two main package managers, but here are several others as well. The two main categories for package management are DEB short for Debian and RPM which is short form Red Hat Package Management. Packages are the way applications and libraries are bundled together and installed. The manager tracks the installation process, puts the parts in the right places and makes them available to you by making a menu item (for graphical applications). RPM and DEB are incompatible and different. Each Red Hat-based distribution has a different front end for managing the packages. SuSE uses Yast, Fedora uses Yum, Mandriva uses Urpmi for example. DEB is more unified. They all uses apt and dpkg. There are different package managers, but the commands work the same way whether you use Ubuntu, Debian, or MEPIS.

There are more distributions that use RPM, but DEB is the most common because the biggest distributions like Ubuntu use it. In general, there are many more applications available for Debian based systems. So if your software needs are more modest then RPM is fine, but if you need access to the biggest selection then you will likely be happier with DEB. Unlike Windows, you do not install Linux software by buying it or hunting for it on the internet. Software is stored in secure locations called repositories. Each distribution maintains its own repositories and they are incompatible with each other. In fact, a different version of the same distribution usually cannot manage the packages of a previous or later version. Repositories mean that everything is made to work with that distribution and version, they are checked and are free of viruses and malware, and you can get updates to each package as they become available.

The next thing to consider is support. Linux is developed, maintained and supported by the community. This includes developers and users. There are forums, wikis, online help, FAQs and more. The larger the community the more support there is. Some communities are huge and the amount of information available is also huge. That can be good and bad. The answer to your question is likely to be there, but finding it can be something else of a problem.

Some communities are more helpful and open than others because each community has a history and distinct character. Some distributions that are considered more geeky, may not seem as open because they function at a level that you may not relate to. They may seem to talk over your head and use lots of jargon and even seem elitist. Others may be more welcoming to new users. Some may even surprise you by taking you under their wing and mentoring you. The key to gaining friends in Linux is to embrace the new and get rid of old preconceptions. The worst thing that you can do is assume that the way that you have done things in the past is the best or only way. You are sure to get your chain yanked if you try this.

The thing to do is to join a forum and look around and see how people have responded to questions of people like you. If they seem terse and give solutions that would not be helpful to you then continue your search. To find a forum just type Linux forum in a search engine. Some forums are specific to a distribution or family of distributions and others are more general, like Make a test post and see how welcoming they are. Be prepared to move on.

In general forums are frequented by people who try to be helpful, but not all help is useful to you. Many experienced users are comfortable with typing commands into a terminal and some even pooh pooh the GUI. If you are uncomfortable with the commandline then say so., otherwise you cna expect the to advise you to open a terminal and type commands and remember syntax. Although cut and paste works well enough if the instructions are clear.

The other thing to do is to test a distribution out. Most distributions use Live CDs or DVDs. This means that you can insert them in your DVD drive and boot from the CD or DVD. Nothing is written to your hard drive. You can test them out to see how they work on your equipment. You cannot install applications to a CD since it is read only and it will run slowly. You may be able to install an application to RAM disk, but that depends on your RAM and the distribution. You can do the same thing with a usb stick and it will run a bit faster.

To get Linux you download a compresses image file called an ISO which is available from the distribution or a site such as Distrowatch which specialises in tracking distributions. Once you download the ISO you can burn it to CD or DVD (depending on the size of the ISO) or write it to a usb stick. Follow the instructions here:

Distrowatch for ISOs:

For a usb stick look here:

I really like Unetbootin for this. It works in Windows or Linux and it can even download the ISO for you.


Another good resource is

You can get a free Ubuntu CD:

Also works for Kubuntu and one of the other *buntus. For example:

Buy a cheap CD for most distributions:

Some distributions sell it pre-installed on a usb stick, but you will have to search around to find it.

Almost all distributions are free of charge. A few are commercial only. Some have both free and commercial versions. All Linux distributions are also free as in free speech if they follow the GPL or one of the other free software licenses. this means that you can fork it and release your own variant, which explains why there are some many distributions to begin with.

How do you know what is available and how popular they are? Check out which is not definitive, but it does keep track of page hits over time. The undisputed king of distributions is Ubuntu which is the flagship of Canonical, the company that backs it. They also make other distros (short for distributions) such as Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Edubuntu and Ubuntu Studio. They have the same basic inner workings, but have a different front end or GUI. Other distributions of note are Fedora, Mint, openSuSE, Debian, PCLinuxOS, and Mandriva.

Some distributions such as the *buntus come with a specific desktop environment while others give you a choice. Fedora comes with both GNOME and KDE for example. Many distributions have both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, but some only come with 32-bit which will run on both chipsets.

The desktop environments are the graphical user interfaces by which you interact with the computer. There are several choices. Some are very full and others spartan with the difference being more features at the cost of lower performance. The two full feature ones are KDE and GNOME. GNOME tends to be more popular by virtue of the fact that it is the interface for Ubuntu which is the most popular distribution. KDE has its share of distributions though and Canonical makes a KDE distro called Kubuntu.

The difference really comes down to personal preference. KDE is older, but has had the most recent face lift with KDE 4. GNOME is undergoing a facelift now and will come out with GNOME 3 next year. KDE is written in Qt and GNOME is written in GTK with a few Mono apps thrown in. Both include a desktop environment and applications covering the gamut that one would expect. KDE apps will work in GNOME and vice versa. Many people choose to run a hybrid system by installing apps for the other desktop environment in preference to the ones that came with it.

KDE is fuller in that it has a bigger stable of applications and it is more configurable. GNOME is more tightly controlled, but knowledgeable users can configure it as much as KDE. Where there is a will, there is a way. KDE has many things built in that you would have to add utilities to GNOME to do. For example, KDE allows for wallpaper rotation, but GNOME requires a third party app to do the same thing. KDE’s built in compositing is more robust than GNOME’s. KDE has more widgets and toys.  But some people like it simpler, so it all comes down to what you want.

Some people say KDE resembles Windows more, but that is a superficial comparison. Windows is more locked down like GNOME. KDE uses single click by default and GNOME sues double click like Windows XP. KDE has the panel at the bottom like Windows by default, but it can be moved anywhere. GNOME has two panels with the top one being the main one, more like the Mac.

And all of this comparison will soon be irrelevant because GNOME will release a new and very different interface with GNOME Shell in version 3 (which you can try out now in the repositories of many big distros or will come by default early next year).

I use KDE mostly, but use GNOME on my netbook. Both are from Canonical (Kubuntu and Ubuntu). I also have seven or eight other distros installed on various partitions at any given time. I like Fedora which I always have installed, Aptosid (formerly Sidux), MEPIS, PCLinuxOS, Mandriva, Sabayon, and Arch. I test the most recent versions of most big distros and test Ubuntu from alpha to final release. I like Kubuntu and Ubuntu because it works best for me, which is not to say that it will work best for you. I run lots of applications and like the size of the repositories and I have several years of working with the community. It makes it hard to leave.

If you don’t like either KDE or GNOME there is no shortage of options. XFCE is a relatively full desktop environment that is neither like KDE or GNOME. It offers less, but has somewhat better performance and you can run both KDE and GNOME apps to your heart’s content.  If you want even more performance bang, there is Fluxbox, LXDE, Openbox, Enlightenment, Sugar, IceWm and more.

Further reading:

Screenshots of desktop environments:

Comparison charts of DEs:

Comparison charts of Distros:

Linux Timelines:


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Linux Can Be Complicated … Or Not!

Posted on 2010/10/29. Filed under: Apple, Computing General, Embedded, Linux General, Operating Systems, Windows |

Windows and OS/X are fairly straightforward in comparison. Mac OS runs on Macs and that is about it. Windows runs on desktop PCs, servers and a few devices. There are several versions of Windows, XP, NT, Vista, Windows 7 and Window Phone 7 to name a few. Linux is quite a bit more complicated.

Linux runs on servers, desktops, and devices, just like Windows does, but that is just the beginning. Linux runs on just about any architecture from mainframes to TiVo. It supports the PowerPC, Intel, AMD, ARM, Atom on desktop computers alone. You will find it on the world’s fastest computer and on your Tom Tom. It runs many music players, TVs,  phones, tablets and most e-book readers. It is the backbone of the internet and you probably are using it without even realising it.

On the desktop, you can run over 300 distributions or varieties of Linux. On any given distribution you can be running any of several window managers and desktop environments.  Choice is the operative word when it comes to Linux. Second to that would be flexibility. In servers, the choice is more limited, but no less impressive. You could be running Ubuntu as Wikipedia does, Red Hat as many Fortune 500 companies do, or CENTOS, a free derivative of Red Hat, or SuSE from Novell in an enterprise environment. It is really up to you.

You can install Linux to run on a hard drive, of course, but you can run it inside Windows using something like andLinux, install it in Windows but run it outside of Windows without partitioning using WUBI, you can run it from a usb key or CD or even a floppy, or run it in a virtual machine. You can install it on an Xbox, PS3 or on many music players using Rockbox (oops, see correction in comments). You can see how flexible it is. This is because the kernel is relatively small and Linux is modular. People can do remarkable things with it and they are trying new things all of the time. They can do this because it is free and open. As long as you obey the license you can do whatever you can imagine and have the talent for.

At the heart of any operating system is the kernel. Linux is strictly speaking just the kernel. Many other projects add to Linux to make it a complete operating system. There are various modules, libraries, daemons and other things that are loaded to make it work. All of them share something in common with Linux; they are free and open sourced. GNU makes many of them and for this reason some people prefer to call it GNU/Linux. GNU is also responsible for some of the licensing that makes free software available. It is often called the GPL for short.

With complication, also comes confusion. New users can be confused, and even overwhelmed, when there is so much choice and everything is new. But it need not be as confusing, once you understand the basics. You need to know what you want to do, what you are willing to do to get it, and narrow down your choices.

The first decision is what are you going to use it for? If it is servers then that limits your choice. If it is the desktop then you have many more decisions to make. You can narrow that down if you have an unusual architecture because not all distributions work on all architectures. Then you look at your equipment. If it has limited RAM for example then this further narrows your choices. If you want to have an easy to use distribution then it narrows choice or if you want to do most of it by hand building then it reduces choice.

The most complicated it gets is if you have a relatively new PC and want to run a desktop distribution, so let’s start there next time.

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