Test Driving Linux

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This book review was published by Slashdot, 2005-06-09.

Test Driving Linux

Among the multitude of PC users who are currently running Windows on their machines, an increasing number of them are no doubt hearing about Linux as an alternative operating system. Most knowledgeable computer users — except for the gang in Redmond — consider Linux to be more stable, more secure, and less expensive than Windows. Consequently, as Windows users hear more about Linux in the technical press and from their friends and coworkers, they may be intrigued to give Linux a try, if only to learn what the buzz is about.

But a major hurdle, possibly the most daunting, is how to obtain and install Linux on their PCs without disrupting their Windows installation. This process involves: downloading a common Linux distribution ("distro"), burning it to multiple CDs, creating a new partition on their primary hard drive or using a second hard drive, and installing Linux on the new partition without permanently damaging their current Windows boot loader. Removing Linux afterwards can be equally perilous to the non-expert. To the average PC user, the required steps are quite intimidating, if not impossible. To a computer newbie, they are out of the question. All of this work, just to try an operating system with minority market share? No wonder so few Windows users are willing to try.

But with the introduction of Linux in the form of "live CDs", trying out Linux is as easy as popping the CD into your computer and rebooting. The entire operating system is stored on the single CD, thus avoiding having to install it on the hard drive. There are now countless Linux distros that have each been shoehorned onto a single bootable CD.

A live CD for each one of these distros, can be created by downloading the ISO image from its website and burning it to a writable CD. Alternatively, it can be ordered over the Internet, for shipping directly to the user. A third and probably most convenient alternative would be to include a live CD as part of a book that explains how to use the CD. One example of such a book is Test Driving Linux: From Windows to Linux in 60 Seconds, by David Brickner, and published on 13 April 2005 under the ISBN 978-0596007546 by O'Reilly Media, whose user group representative kindly gave me a copy of the book to review. The book comprises 341 pages, and has plenty of screenshots, an appendix of solutions, and a Linux CD secured in an envelope within the back cover.

The distro provided on the book's accompanying CD is Move, which is based upon Mandriva Linux, which was formerly known as Mandrake. While most Linux aficionados have their favorite distro, and can argue vehemently in favor of one against all others, there is widespread agreement in the Linux community that Mandrake established itself as a solid choice. I can only imagine that the current incarnation of Mandrake is at least as good as the release I last tried, many years ago; that version worked without a hitch.

Brickner begins this manuscript with an enthusiastic first chapter in which he introduces the computer neophyte to Linux, using cars and test driving as analogies. He briefly mentions how Linux got started, how it fits into GNU/Linux, and what the terms "free software" and "open source" mean. He then describes how to get started with Move by booting off of the CD — assuming that one's computer has the minimum system requirements (detailed in the book's preface). Non-confident readers will likely appreciate the author's reassuring explanation that Move will not affect their computer's current setup. The chapter continues with an explanation of the KDE desktop, its "kicker" panel, the look and feel of a typical KDE application, window control, desktop background customization, KDE programs that replace Windows applications, and finally how to log out properly.

The next nine chapters of the book cover major application areas, and how to perform common tasks using the corresponding KDE applications of those areas: Web surfing (using Konqueror or Mozilla), file management (Konqueror again), music and videos, games, communication (e-mail and instant messaging), digital image editing (using the GIMP), desktop customization (using the KDE Control Center), office suite (OpenOffice.org), and money management. The final three chapters explore the Linux command line (Konsole), popular programs that are not included on the CD, and advice to those users who decide to switch over to Linux long-term.

In all of the chapters devoted to the major KDE applications, Brickner does a competent job of explaining the basics to the beginner, including handy summaries for more proficient users (such as keyboard shortcuts), and plenty of screenshots that help the reader to verify that they are running the correct application under discussion, and that they are looking in the right places within the application windows. However, all of the figures are in black and white, which makes distinguishing text extremely difficult in those cases where adjacent colors, that are typically well contrasting, merge into shades of dark gray. In addition, I spotted one erratum, on page 84, in which the first letter of "Booting advice for Move" is in a strangely different font, for no apparent reason. This is not representative of the book as a whole, which is well-made, neatly laid out, and uses a flexible layout-flat binding.

Brickner helpfully warns the user of potential pitfalls, such as showstopper dialog boxes being hidden by other Windows. He should be commended for advising the user to set their browser identification to alternatives other than Internet Explorer, if only to encourage website owners to not limit the browsers that will work with their sites. One minor error in the browser chapter is, when referring to the Gecko rendering engine used by Mozilla, the author incorrectly identifies it as "gecko", though that may have been an error on the part of the publisher.

Throughout the book, Brickner makes note of when the user can save data to a USB flash drive. Similarly, the early discussion of Konqueror in the book is valuable in that it explains how to access directories and files on the user's hard drive (assuming their computer has one), in case the user would like to save any of their data. The failure to do so is a common shortcoming in the documentation of many live CD distros. Another example of the attention to providing useful information, is the generous inclusion of websites, sprinkled throughout the book. One small fault with each of the addresses is that it includes the "http://" but not the trailing "/", which I have read actually generates an unseen error message from the server. But this mistake is quite common, even in the most technical of works.

The discussion of using the command line, in the 11th chapter, avoids many of the mistakes commonly seen in such material. For example, Brickner does not assume that the reader is aware of such Linux basics as the case sensitivity of commands, or the need to separate options from commands using whitespace. The chapter includes helpful navigation tips, editing keystrokes, and brief coverage of how to access the online manual pages. This information is of benefit to not only the user struggling to perform basic tasks, but also the reader who wishes to learn knowledge not covered in the text, or given only cursory treatment.

For those users who enjoy trying out Linux enough to consider abandoning Windows completely, the final chapter of the book will be most welcome. Brickner identifies which distros are capable of resizing an NTFS-formatted partition; this determines whether or not a user can install that distro on a hard drive already containing Windows, and thus have a dual-boot system. He also distinguishes between those distros that are Windows-like, in that the Linux characteristics are hidden as much as possible, versus those which make no such effort. One potential weakness in his discussion, is that he mentions the ability or inability of particular editions of various distros to authenticate against Windows servers, and yet he does not explain to the reader what that means. On the other hand, any reader who does not understand the idea, probably does not need to.

Brickner mentions the most popular live CD distro, Knoppix, and summarizes some of the differences between it and Move, which is the version he chose for his book's CD. One minor error is that he lists two websites for downloading Knoppix (http://www.knoppix.net and http://www.knoppix.com), but he apparently does not realize that the latter is not currently owned by the founder of Knoppix, Klaus Knopper, nor any other member of the Knoppix development community. I know this only because the domain name is actually owned by a friend of mine, who simply chose to forward it to knoppix.net. There is no guarantee that that will continue in the future.

The final chapter is wrapped up with a discussion of Linux-related books, magazines, websites, and user groups. The book's single appendix covers solutions to common problems, such as boot difficulties and configuration of a computer's monitor, network cards, and printer.

Overall, I found this book to be worthy of recommendation to anyone who would like to learn more about how to use a robust Linux distro on a live CD. The coverage of topics appears complete, at least for those tasks that the typical computer user needs to perform on a daily basis. There are few errors in the text, and the author has done an admirable job of warning the reader as to potential problems, as well as noting when certain features will not work when running off of the CD, and why. These explanations go a long way to assuaging the reader, who might otherwise become frustrated and conclude that either Move is not operating properly, or that they are doing something wrong. The publisher's choice to use only black and white images, no doubt has the advantage of keeping the book's cost reasonable (a list price of U.S. $24.95), but it has the disadvantages of reducing the utility of those illustrations — especially when discussing color customization — in addition to the aforesaid problem of adjacent grayscale regions merging into dark blobs that are difficult to distinguish from one another.

Test Driving Linux is clearly a step in the right direction, in better introducing the public to the power and promise of Linux. It is undoubtedly one of the most user-friendly tools that could assist Linux advocates in spreading the word, and encouraging computer users to break away from operating systems that are expensive, buggy, and non-secure. As Brickner notes in his preface, when people unfamiliar with Linux give it a test drive, by simply booting off of the CD provided with the book, they just might want to stay with Linux long-term. To that end, this book could prove quite valuable.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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