Sunday, April 13, 2008

A "Flavor" of Linux That ... well ... WORKS!

Those who read my blog, know by now that I've been trying out the Linux operating system on some of my computers at home. First, let me start off saying that there are many "flavors" of Linux out there; they are called Linux distros (short for distributions). And the vast majority of them are FREE for the download. And each one of those "distros" have varying degrees of what I call finish and polish.

Ten years ago, when I first tried Linux -- RedHat Linux 5.2, to be precise -- Linux was relegated to an even smaller user base. It was perceived as a text-based, DOS-like operating system. It was a "tool" used by academia and geeks. It had a young, meager, and not-so-polished graphical interface, called X-Windows. While a step in the right direction, there just wasn't much you could do with it, aside from the specialized tasks that programmers and system designers allowed you to do. For instance, the hospital where I worked around the same time had a bedside charting system, all built on top of X-Windows.

And, at that time, DOS was on it's way out as an operating system, having been supplanted by Windows 95 and Windows 98, due to DOS's limitations and lack of an intuitive way for the user to interact with the computer. Text-based operating systems were on their way out, and the graphical GUI was in. Bad news for Linux, since it was still perceived as a text-based operating system, with fledgling and incomplete efforts to supply a graphical interface via X-Windows. Some people, including myself, saw X-Windows as an imitation of MS-Windows to give Linux some appeal to an ever-growing MS-Windows user base.

Fast forward 10 years, and Linux has matured. It is no longer perceived as a text-based operating system. In fact, many of the Linux distros are known by the graphical user interface they employ, along with the "whistles and bells" they supply. This is the world in which Ubuntu, Kubuntu, and Xubuntu exist.

The Linux community does not court MS-Windows users. They do not wish to force Linux down the throats of MS-Windows users. But they do welcome MS-Windows, who are exploring Linux for the first time as a Windows alternative, with welcome and open arms. To say that they are a friendly and helpful lot would be a serious understatement. No, the Linux community sits back and comfortably wait for Windows users to come to them. And come to them they do, in ever-increasing numbers, as the Windows users are faced with an increasing barrage of viruses, malware, and software failures. The Windows users get to a point that they want to see what other alternatives are out there. I am a member of that exodus.

Initially, my second foray into Linux started with Ubuntu. But the GNOME desktop environment felt foreign and unfinished to me. Then I discovered Kubuntu, built around the KDE desktop. Now this felt much more familiar to me -- an old Windows workhorse -- and seemed to have a bit more of a finished and polished feel to it. But then things just started to break under Kubuntu. Things that would work during one computer session would suddenly and inexplicably stop working in the next. Now, I'm not trying to "bash" any particular Linux distro, but things inexplicably breaking does not make for a smooth transition. And it doesn't help Linux's position as a replacement for Windows when users are facing similar problems that they are fleeing.

I, however, was not going to be deterred. I kept looking at the various "flavors" of Linux that were (and are) available. In my searching, I found occasional mention of one smaller Linux distro. Every person talked about how "it just works." And with having endured Kubuntu's "breaking" for no good reason, I had to take a look. And this is the reason for this blog entry.

That Linux distro is called PCLinuxOS 2007. "Born" as an off-shoot of Mandriva Linux, PCLinuxOS 2007 does exactly what all those forum posters say it does ... "it just works." Finally! I have found a Linux distro that works the way I do, that doesn't break for inexplicable reasons, and that has all the finish and polish of any commercially offered operating system. And all of this was discovered from just the LiveCD ... a version where you can run the entire operating system right from a CD in your CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive. WOW!

Back in the day, Texstar (the nickname of the guy who put together this "special" version of Mandriva Linux) was putting together a version of Mandriva that "just worked." Quite a few Mandriva users were cruising over to his site to download the latest package that he had put together. Before long, PCLinuxOS was spun off to become it's own "flavor" of Linux, with a loyal following. (At least, this is what I've understood from all I've read about Texstar's birthing of PCLinuxOS.)

Today, Texstar is still intimately involved with the maintenance and improvement of PCLinuxOS, along with a close-knit group of testers and programmers. Every program that goes into the repository is closely scrutinized, to insure that it works without failure and works without breaking other components of the installation. Thus, while the repository of programs available for PCLinuxOS isn't as vast as the Ubuntu (and related) repository, there also isn't the worry that installing one program will inexplicably break three others. The latter seems to be what's happening with the Ubuntu-related distros.

The Ubuntu-related distros seem to be more interested in meeting a self-imposed "deadline" to put out a new version every six months. This doesn't allow for proper or adequate testing to be sure that everything in the repository behaves and can co-exist peaceably. PCLinuxOS doesn't have such an ambitious release schedule. Instead, updates just "come as they are ready," and not before. The old adage that "too many cooks spoil the soup" seems to be what's happening to the Ubuntu-related distros, as there doesn't seem to be strong leadership driving the distro ... just the money of a rich guy and a much-too-loosely-organized set of stewards.

PCLinuxOS's slogan is "Radically Simple." For me, it should be "It Just Works." I can attest that PCLinuxOS works, and it works exceptionally well, with a high level of finish and polish. This makes a transition from the bastions of the MS-Windows world to the promise of the Linux world much less painful.

New Linux users, attempting to transition from Windows to the Linux community, rightfully expect any new replacement to work at least as well as what they are attempting to leave behind. They don't really like having to jump through hoops and to crawl through uncharted trenches just to get basic computer hardware up and running. Many Windows users are just that -- users who just want to get various tasks done. Many do not have a "geek-ish" understanding of how their computer works. Most can't differentiate between DDR-RAM and a hard drive (it's surprising how many people equate the two!). Their expectation level is to simply turn on the computer and be able to complete the task they set out to do.

PCLinuxOS accomplishes that. PCLinuxOS works at least as well as what Windows users are seeking to leave behind -- and often performs better! (I recently installed PCLinuxOS on my Sony Vaio laptop (Intel Centrino 1.6 GHz, 1 GB Memory, 60 GB hard drive, DVD-RW), after my copy of WinXP became corrupt, due to a corruption in the NTFS file system. That computer runs faster and better under PCLinuxOS than it ever did on the first day I got it with WinXP pre-installed. In fact, I was able to use the PCLinuxOS LiveCD to recover my files from the failed WinXP installation!)

The computer I spend perhaps the most time on with PCLinuxOS is a 7 or 8 year old, refurbished, IBM T23 ThinkPad, with a Pentium III 1.13 GHz processor, 512 MB of memory, a 30 GB hard drive, and a DVD-RW. And this laptop runs faster than many of the new laptops on the market with Windows Vista pre-installed ... or WinXP for that matter! I initially ran both Windows XP Pro and PCLinuxOS (as a dual-boot system). But I rarely, if ever, used WinXP, because everything I needed to get done I could do in PCLinuxOS. So I reformatted the hard drive with ONLY PCLinuxOS installed, and I have never looked back. So far, I have yet to miss Windows and I am able to accomplish virtually anything I want using PCLinuxOS. Now THAT is what I'm talking about! So PCLinuxOS has breathed new life into this older, no-longer-cutting-edge-state-of-the-art laptop. If PCLinuxOS can do that, and make everything work as it should, imagine what it can do with your more modern equipment!

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