Sunday, 9 December 2007

Covering all bases: trying out Linux - part 1 (repost from other blog)

How can I possibly hold my head up as a certified computer nerd without knowledge of the third most popular computer operating system (and incidentally the one that runs most of the internet)?

I've had goes with Linux before, but each time it was a half-hearted affair, and by no means entirely successful. Nevertheless, I decided it was time to give Linux a fair trial, and by 'fair' I'm referring to the the fact that my previous attempts were on redundant hardware that wasn't up to the job.

In recent years the computer marketplace has changed. It's now possible to buy a basic PC, without monitor or OS, for under £250. But 'basic' is a relative term. This £250 PC has a 64-bit dual-core processor, 2 GB of system RAM and a 250 GB serial ATA hard disk - computing power that would have cost between five and ten times as much a mere five years ago.

So, I bought one. I already had a suitable monitor (a 19" widescreen LCD), and I'd downloaded the operating system in readiness for the 'experiment'.

And the OS? The word is, apparently, 'Ubuntu'. You can go to the website and download a CD image file, which you then use to make a boot CD. There are comprehensive instructions on the site if you don't know how to do this - it's not difficult (and if you use a Mac it is ridiculously easy). You can then use the CD to try out Ubuntu Linux on any PC (or even an Intel Mac, apparently) without messing with your hard drive. Then, if you wish, you can install it. That's when the fun starts.

The process worked well enough. I had to be careful adjusting the display settings (several of my attempts resulted in the disappearance of the mouse cursor), but I found that ignoring the 'test' mode and rebooting worked fine. Next on the list was connecting to the internet. Firefox is pre-installed, but because of the way my home network is set up I had to adjust the network settings to a static IP address and enter DNS addresses to make it work.

I gave up on the printer. I've no doubt that connecting a USB or parallel printer would be a doddle, but I have a print-server on my network that was extremely difficult to set up for my Macs, so I wasn't surprised to find the Linux set-up a little opaque. That's something I'll need to come back to.

Ubuntu Linux also comes with OpenOffice 2.3 pre-installed, though I did notice that it wouldn't read some of my ancient StarWriter documents, despite the fact that my PC version of OpenOffice (version 2.0) has no trouble with them. It's probably a simple matter of installing the correct filters.

One important thing I discovered, pretty much by chance, is that Ubuntu Linux does not, by default, check for updates. There are preferences you have to change to allow it to update itself - once I did this, it downloaded and installed about 40 updates.

One last gem I'll mention in this initial part of the saga - I needed to copy a DVD (home produced - not copy-protected). I put the disc in the drive, and found that if I right-clicked on the desktop icon there was an option to copy the disc. This was a breeze - it made an image, then prompted for a blank disc, and burnt the copy. This will definitely be my preferred method for making DVD copies in the future. No third-party software required - not even any need to launch another app.

So far, I'm impressed.
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