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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro
Linux, Still an Awkward Alternative

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_____Correction_____
In some editions of the Post, the review of three distributions of the Linux operating system that ran in the July 4 Fast Forward column should have noted that while many Linux distributions cannot be set up next to a Windows installation without using separate disk-partitioning software, the Mandrake and SuSE releases reviewed in that column include that capability. The story also should have said that Red Hat Inc., is based in Raleigh, N.C.


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___Personal Tech E-letter___
Washington Post personal technology columnist Rob Pegoraro answers reader e-mail and expands on themes he touches on in his weekly newspaper column. The e-mail version of this weekly feature includes links to the latest gadget and software reviews.
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By Rob Pegoraro
The Washington Post
Sunday, July 4, 2004; Page F07

The choice of software to run our computers can get awfully depressing. On one hand, there's Windows XP -- expensive and woefully insecure, but it works on almost every machine out there. On the other, there's Mac OS X -- far more secure, but also expensive and restricted to Apple's own computers.

Where's our independence from this pair? For a growing minority of users, it comes in the open-source operating system called Linux. It's either cheap or free (depending if you buy a packaged distribution or download a version online), it's secure and it can run on any Windows-ready machine.

And because its code is open for anybody to modify, users, not marketers, can get the final say in this operating system's evolution.

But Linux doesn't offer up these rewards easily. At worst, installing it means hours of thumb-wrestling the software into submission, first tweaking it to work with a PC's hardware and then mastering the inscrutable routines needed to update and manage this code.

The first problem arises because many hardware manufacturers provide enabling software only for Windows, forcing Linux programmers to do that work on their own. The second is a consequence of how Linux was first crafted by hobbyists for other hobbyists.

With a lot of work by developers, those issues have improved greatly in recent years, and Linux has gotten easier to find in stores (Wal-Mart's Web site even sells desktop computers with it pre-installed).

To check up on Linux's progress, I tried two commercial distributions, SuSE Linux 9.1 Personal ($30, www.suse.com) and Mandrakesoft's PowerPack 10 ($85, www.mandrakesoft.com), and one download-only release, Fedora Core 2 (fedora.redhat.com), a community project sponsored by Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Linux developer Red Hat Inc. (Windows XP Home goes for $199 new, or $99 at the upgrade rate.)

All three incorporate the latest updates to the underlying Linux software, differing mainly in the programs wrapped around that kernel of code. All show the progress that has been made -- and the work that remains to be done.

At one extreme, consider the "LiveCD" SuSE -- pop this in your CD-ROM drive, reboot and you can run Linux right off that disc without touching your existing Windows installation. It's a quick and painless way to try out this system.

Mandrake's protracted setup routine, however, didn't configure a graphical interface automatically and kept asking me to confirm technical details like "mount points" that other distributions handled on their own. (Mandrake's cheaper Discovery edition includes a LiveCD, but PowerPack omits it.)

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