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Rob Pegoraro
Rob Pegoraro
When Linux Met Laptop: Irreconcilable Differences (May 19, 2002)
The Office Suite That Lets You See Past Redmond (May 12, 2002)
Washtech: Personal Tech
Recent articles by Rob Pegoraro
Business Section
Business Live Online Transcripts
Talk: Business and Tech news message boards
Live Online Transcripts

Fast Forward: Beyond Microsoft OS
With Personal Technology columnist Rob Pegoraro
Monday, May 20, 2002; 2 p.m. EDT

Is there life on a PC without Microsoft? Of course! But it can be tricky.

Join Fast Forward columnist Rob Pegoraro for a discussion on computers without Microsoft operating systems.

Two Sundays ago, Pegoraro tried out OpenOffice, a open-source productivity suite that just might be the first real threat to Microsoft's Office monopoly in many years. It's hardly perfect, but--given that it's a free download--it compares quite well to Microsoft's $479 Office (which itself is a long way from perfect). It doesn't hurt that OpenOffice reads and writes Microsoft files and even looks and works a good deal like Microsoft Office.

This past Sunday, Pegoraro reported on his experience with the Linux operating system. It's also free to download and use, or you can pick up a boxed copy in stores for far less than any Microsoft operating system goes for. But even at free, it's not for the impatient, or those with the wrong kind of computer hardware. It's enormously powerful, but it's still a long way from being what an average home user would call easy to use.

Below is the transcript.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Rob Pegoraro: I didn't plan things this way, but the last two weeks turned out to be an interesting exploration of different ways to lead a Microsoft-free existence. First I tried out OpenOffice, a productivity suite that can make a pretty good replacement for Microsoft Office in many homes. Then I tried out Linux, and the results were... not so promising. I've gotten plenty of e-mail on both topics, I see plenty of questions below--so let's get started.

Alexandria, Va.: One of my biggest problems with Linux on laptops has been that it does not easily recognize the PCMCIA cards, 56K modems and cable modems without difficult configuration.

Is there any hope that Linux will someday be as easy to use on laptops as is Windows?

I would particularly like it if Linux could recognize my external cable modem, but I think that there is not much chance of that in my lifetime.

Rob Pegoraro: This is one of the biggest hassles with Linux. The problem is not Linux developers' fault; most modems in PCs are so-called "Winmodems," which rely on the processor to do most of the traditional work of the modem. This saves money and hardware, but requires some really specialized drivers for the modem.

Some Winmodem manufacturers now offer Linux drivers (see www.linmodems.org), but there is still a great deal of work to be done here.

Portland, Ore.: I work for a technology company that is migrating our software from Sun's Solaris to Linux. In general, we've found Linux runs faster, but is not as robust as the commercial Solaris. Some tools on Linux don't work very well and there are some aspects of network file support that just aren't fully there yet.

Still, it seems to me, that there is a real commercial trend towards embracing Linux. Its become the defacto version of Unix to run on your PC.

But while the cryptic Unix is for work, I personally use Windows at home, and expect to for years to come. I just can't see home users switching to something so arcane. Isn't Microsoft totally entrenched for good on the home PC front?

Rob Pegoraro: "Arcane" is definitely the word for many aspects of Linux, more than I could begin to cover in the story. However, there are also real opportunities for Linux at home--if, again, one of the distributors can craft a newcomer-friendly version of it. As far as reliability goes, Linux is a much better choice on an older computer than Windows 95, 98 or Me. Linux also isn't total virus bait the way Windows is. There's an opportunity there--but it's going to take some hard work to exploit it.

Annapolis, Md: How does the Macintosh stack up against
the others with it's OSX and Linux

Rob Pegoraro: Mac OS X actually runs on BSD Unix, not Linux. Those two platforms share a common ancestry and work similarly in many ways; a lot of Linux apps have been ported over to Mac OS X pretty quickly.

As far as performance, I would expect Linux to outrace Mac OS X in many respects, just because it doesn't have the graphics-intense interface of OS X. But in terms of usability, there is no contest: OS X beats the pants off of every Linux distribution I've ever tried.

Alexandria, Va.: I read your Sunday story. Laptops are probably the most dificult HW environment there is because there are no margins of error, particularly with memory and BIOS. Doesn't this highlight the principle problem with Open Source: coming up with the thousands and thousands of HW drivers that this platform is going to need?

washtech.com: When Linux Met Laptop: Irreconcilable Differences (Post, May 19)

Rob Pegoraro: Yes, it is a real problem. But it doesn't seem impossible; after all, the point of open-source development is that the efforts of thousands of independent developers will eventually outstrip what any centralized team of programmers can come up with. In theory, at least...

Cambridge, Mass.: First I would like to commend Rob for writing this and making the wider world aware that there are alternatives to Microsoft. As a long time linux user, it is frustrating to see people throwing good money at a product that is buggy at best, whereas GNU/Linux, FreeBSD etc. literally hand you to the keys to the bank and invite you to help yourself to anything and everything. Now, if only I could make my company managers realize the cost savings of linux, life will be perfect.

Rob Pegoraro: Glad you liked the story...

Laurel, Md.: Did you try OpenOffice.org 1.0 on your Microsoft Windows machine first? Or did you dive head-long into Linux and try OpenOffice.org there initially?

Rob Pegoraro: I installed it on Windows first and did almost all my testing on that platform. Why? That's where the bulk of my readers are. I finished up the eval by installing it under SuSE Linux, which made me realize that a) the installer needs a ton of work, and b) it otherwise looks and works a great deal like the Windows version.

Boston, Mass.: What about the Macintosh? Wouldn't the average at-home-non-computer-geek user be more comfortable with an easy to use O/S vs a linux product?

Minneapolis, Minn.: Try Mac OS X robbie my boy

Rob Pegoraro: I'm waiting to get a post labeled "Cupertino, Calif." making this same point :) However, it's a valid one. Mac OS X encapsulates an operating system, BSD Unix, that is every bit as arcane and perplexing as Linux, but the end result is arguably the most elegant, easiest-to-use operating system on the market today.

If Apple can do that, I don't see why at least one Linux distributor can't at least try to do the same thing.

Forestville, Md.: Read your recent article on Linux on laptops. Have you read the "Linux on Your Laptop" book by Bill Ball? It might help. Of course, just because I have it doesn't mean I've read it yet or taken the time to load my laptop either.

Rob Pegoraro: I have not and, honestly, don't plan to. You shouldn't have to buy a book to install an operating system. Until that's no longer necessary, it's hard for me to recommend Linux to non-gearhead users.

Washington, D.C.: Sony sells refurbished Clie N610s on its Web site for $249. Would I really be missing out on a lot of functionality by buying a refurbished Clie instead of the current 615 model? Did 615 fix a lot of problems that were in the earlier incarnation?

Rob Pegoraro: Here's a non-Linux question...

No, you're not missing out on much. The N610 is thicker than the T615, lacks that remote-control app and has half the memory. OTOH, it has a better screen and the stylus is not so uncomfortably small.

I would check to see how cheap you can get a T615, but $250 for an N610 beats any other price for a color handheld. It certainly beats the price I paid for my N610 :)

Arlington, Va.: Now that Microsoft has been found guilty of anti-trust violations, will Dell, Compaq, IBM, Gateway and other computer vendors be making OS an option on new machines? I will grant that Linux can be tough to install for a casual user; but then, so can Windows. Nobody installs windows at home-- at most they upgrade. I'd like to see Linux distros as options when I buy a new machine. I'd also like to see forums like this explain that once it is installed, it is as easy (if not easier) to use as Windows.

Rob Pegoraro: Dell used to offer workstations pre-configured with Linux, then stopped. It couldn't *possibly* have been the result of pressure from Microsoft, right?

The answer to your question is, yes, getting Linux preinstalled would avoid a lot of the problems I wrote about. But no major manufacturer seems interested in trying this--so far, at least.

Washington, D.C.: Hi Rob,

I reformatted my laptop's hard drive and installed XP Pro (non-upgrade version), replacing the XP Home OS that was originally installed. Everything works fine with the following exception: When I try to play a DVD movie on my machine, Windows Media Player says it requires some sort of codec, a problem I never encountered when running XP Home.

Any recommendations or suggestions?

Rob Pegoraro: You've just found out how cheap Microsoft can be. To protect its $40 billion cash hoard, it declined to add a DVD--decoding plug-in to Windows Media Player. You didn't run into this problem with XP Home, because your laptop's manufacturer provided that code. Now you'll have to buy a plug-in ($10 or so) or buy a separate DVD player app.

Omaha, Neb.: What platforms does OpenOffice work on? I am on a slower older Pentium running Win98, and I have mainly Corel products installed. I would like to install OpenOffice so I can open Excel files. (For some reason Quattro Pro just won't open them.) What do I need to know about installing these? Also, is there a PowerPoint equivalent in the OpenOffice suite? Thank you!

Rob Pegoraro: OpenOffice runs on Windows, Linux and Solaris. It does include both Excel and PowerPoint equivalents. But on a machine of your age, you may not like its performance all that much.

Washington D.C.: About two years ago I installed Mandrake Linux on my home p.c. as a dual-boot with Windows 98 on the primary hard drive and Linux on a second, older drive. I've since upgraded it to Mandrake 8.0. It has coexisted well with Windows. The only problem I had was when I swapped out the first hard disk - reinstalling Windows and getting the boot records straightened out so it found the Linux installation again was non-trivial. The only hardware conflict was a Winmodem.

The desktops provided with Mandrake have been easy to use, and the learning curve hasn't been too steep. People say that linux isn't "ready for the desktop," but the only hang-up I've found are some Windows-only programs, mainly games, that I'm not ready to give up. They and the modem have, however, kept me using Windows as my primary operating system.

I don't believe there's a cut and dried "readyness" threshhold. Could you speak briefly to the issue of who Linux will work for, and who it won't?

Rob Pegoraro: That's a good question. First, my standard is "home-ready." That's a higher standard than "desktop-ready," since it means you have to be able to install and setup Linux without the help of an IT department or any particularly geeky neighbor.

In that context, I think Linux will be "home ready" when:

* Its installer can park Linux on your existing Windows machine without requiring you to reformat the hard drive;

* It recognizes all of your existing hardware with at least as much reliability as Windows; failing that, it should at least offer clear explanations of what has gone wrong;

* Installing a program is as simple as double-clicking the file you downloaded and either dragging an executable file to the right spot or running an installer program;

* No user has to play "find the control panel" to do things like switch networking settings or edit the Application Starter menu.

I *don't* think the availability of commercial applications need be so important; that doesn't seem to stop the Mac OS from being an accepted home user system.

Washington, D.C.: Rob - I feel like I am that judge from the Microsoft Trial because I am having major problems with IE 6.0. For some reason, the darn thing locks up on me and I have to "kill" it (I am running Win2K). This seems to happen when I hit popup windows or something. My first reaction was to uninstall IE 6.0 (hence why I feel like that Judge) but that seems next to impossible. Any clues?

Rob Pegoraro: Try deleting everything in your Temporary Internet Files folder except the cookies. If that fails, then try downloading the very latest copy of IE and installing that, which should overwrite a good chunk of your old install.

Bowie, Md.: Hi Rob! I have a PowerMac 7500, with a 450mhz G4 upgrade, 832MBs of interleaved DIMM RAM and a USB2.0/Firewire PCI combo card running iMovie 2.1 with a Sony Digital 8 camcorder. When running iMovie 2.1, I get about 5 seconds of video/audio before I get a dialog box that says:

"The disk responded slowly. It may have been interrupted by something, or it may not be fast enough for your movie..."

The HD I'm using is an internal 18.2GB SCSI. I have 15GBs of free space and have ran Norton Systemworks, rebuilt and defragged it. I was under the impression that SCSI HDs ran faster than ATA/33/66 HDs. What could be the explanation for the 'slow' and shortened capture? -- Budding Movie Director

Rob Pegoraro: That's really hard to say. Do you have any other apps running at the same time? IT could be the Norton software itself, if it's set to do any constant monitoring of things.

But it could be any number of things. You are running a REALLY OLD computer--the 7500 shipped in, oh, 1995. It's a minor miracle it still runs today.

Belleville, Ill.: I'm a big fan of TeX/LaTeX, the Gnu formatting and typesetting tool. Have you tried it out?

Rob Pegoraro: I have not and am not interested in it. I don't want to do any typesettings and certainly don't have any funky math formulas to format; I would just like to write. For that, something like OpenOffice or KWord seems like enough for now.

New South Wales, Australia.: Being blind, when are operating systems going to have screen readers come with them as a standard feature?

Rob Pegoraro: It's overdue. My understanding is that the next version of the Mac OS will have much better accessibility features, including a screen reader. Windows XP doesn't include that, although third-party software can fill that gap. I'm not aware of any screen readers for Linux but haven't really gone looking for them yet either. I'm sure they exist in some form.

Fresno, Calif.: What is the status of Corel's WordPerfect Suite for Linex? Since Microsoft invested in Corel has it been killed? gutted but left alive? continued with reduced fervor?

What are currently the best available options with respect to word processint for Linex in the office?

Rob Pegoraro: Corel has basically walked away from its Linux business. I think OpenOffice/StarOffice are your best bet for now.

Washington, D.C.: Rob -
This isn't in regard to your recent articles, but maybe you can help me out with a problem that is driving me buggy at home.
About a year ago I purchased a HP laptop computer, with winME, 10gig HD, 128mb ram, 56 modem, etc.
The system worked fine for quite awhile, but now I find that whenever I try to open webpages with the installed IE the system brings up an error message ("an error has occured in trying to open this page, and IE will be closed, etc etc"). At first it only happened with a few pages, now it comes up when i try and open anything (even washingtonpost.com!).
Do you have any idea what could be causing this? I've checked for updates to IE, but none are available. I tried using netscape 6.0 but .. well, don't get me started on that.
Since IE is so deeply embedded into the operating system, is there anyway to re-install it without having to completely reinstall my OS?

Thanks for any help you can give.

Rob Pegoraro: I'll give you the same response I gave to the other guy: Try trashing everything in Temporary Internet Files except for the cookies (you can trash them too, but then you'll have to re-enter a lot of site passwords and preferences, and they shouldn't cause any crashes *that* widespread).

Laurel, Md.: I could ask a million questions about your experience with Linux, since the whole "open source vs. propietary monopoly" issue begs some fundamental questions about the relationship between consumers and business in our economy and society, but I'll limit myself to three focused questions and comments:

1. Was your unsuccess at dual-installing the laptop running Windows XP a hardware or OS limitation? If the latter, is Windows XP designed to prevent dual-boots, as a tool for Microsoft to enforce monopoly?

2. My own experiences with Linux 3-4 years ago convinced me that at the time, the primary market for Linux would be college stundents who know a lot about computers but have very little money. Which is really too bad, because it would seem that a good market for Linux would be people who don't need a lot from their PC, and could get by on a cheap operating system and basic-quality office suite. Is anyone selling AND PROVIDING TECH SUPPORT FOR low-end Linux boxes to the basic-needs user?

3. Much as I hate to admit it, the Microsoft near-monopoly has probably been good for the growth of PC's. It takes more than just having the best products to dominate this market, otherwise we'd all be using Macs. The fact that almost all software uses the same OS is one less headache for the purchaser, and can you imagine trying to get tech support for several subtly but significantly different Windows versions?

The fact that Linux IS open-source is one inherent limitation on the income potential of businesses based on it. As such, complicated networks of tech and hardware support necessary for mass distribution of any ONE version could be beyond the capabilities of Linux vendors. I suspect the most imortant contribution of Linux will continue to be a mere potential threat preventing the grossest market abuses by Microsoft.

Rob Pegoraro: 1) The problem with XP was solely the NTFS disk format on that machine. Since I hadn't installed more than a few programs in XP, I opted to reformat the disk, reinstall XP, then get started with Linux. This is *not* anything specific to XP, nor do I see as a fundamental plot. NTFS is a much more complicated, more capable file system than FAT32, but it's also much trickier to deal with.

2) Not that I've encountered yet. Really effective tech support--like, say, all the e-mail I've gotten from readers about how to configure that ThinkPad's sound card--would require either hiring a lot of really smart people or wriing a newspaper column about your experience.

3) Yes, having one standard has provided some help to the PC market. But at what cost? Did Microsoft need to break the law to get that monopoly? Does it help that 90 percent of our PCs can be taken out by the same viruses?

Annapolis Md.: Rob - Is it true that there is a "full" version of OpenOffice that is being sold for $29.95? I am told that the "full" version has a complete set of filters among other things.
Is there a corporate license policy.

Rob Pegoraro: The "full" version is better described as the commercial distribution, Sun's StarOffice 6.0. It sells for $75 or so and includes additional filters (for instance, I'm told it supports WordPerfect), fonts, clip art and tech support from Sun. Sun is providing it for the cost of shipping and handling to schools and is offering volume discounts to corporations.

Washinton, D.C.: Any conversation about alternatives to Microsoft
Windows (or Office) is probably for people who
either find Windows difficult to use or have a tough
time taking it seriously. And that conversation
should begin with talking about the Macintosh, not
Linux. There's plenty of software available and it's
inifinitely easier to use. Let's not forget that it's
based on UNIX, a much more mature OS than Linux.

Rob Pegoraro: But what about people who already own a PC? They're kind of stuck there--either Linux becomes easier to use, or they remain Microsoft customers until they buy a new computer.

Alexandria, Va.: Don't you think it's a little too late to try and circulate the Linux software to people whom use PC's at home? The reason why Microsoft is so widely used is how quick and easy it is to(point and click using a mouse).
People are naturally looking for an easy way to do things these and Microsoft used that it to their advantage. Good luck trying to convince a PC user at home working with Microsoft to use Linux..

Rob Pegoraro: I doubt it's an easy switch. If you enjoy tinkering with your computer *and* it's a desktop PC with reasonably standard components, I would recommend trying out Linux. But if it's your only computer and you're not in the mood to run Google searches on configuration tips, you may find Linux more trouble than it's worth.

But, if this isn't clear, I fully believe that Linux can be made as easy to use as Windows. It will just take a lot of hard work, both with hardware support and, even more important, with interface design. (Put another way, it's not like Windows itself is a paragon of usability.)

Philadelphia, Pa.: I have to buy a computer for medical school and wanted to put a Linux-based OS on it. I am worried because the faculty does everything in MS PowerPoint, MS Word and Blackboard. Also, for group papers and such, I imagine most of my peers will use Word. What software compatibility problems should I expect if I do everything with Linux? Will the new open-source office package for Linux allow me to freely interact with my peers/professors?

Rob Pegoraro: OpenOffice should coexist fine with the Office file formats you mentioned, but I don't want to guarantee that. I did my testing with all the files that I use in my day-to-day use, which I think are a pretty good representation of what most people see at home. In other words, you may not be able to reproduce my results with med-school documents.

I recommend you install the Windows version of OpenOffice on a machine somewhere and see how well it reads and writes those files.

Blackboard compatibility, I have no idea. If there isn't a Linux version of that, you may need to set up a dual-boot system or install a Windows compatibility/emulation program like VMWare.

Bethesda, Md.: I would recommend as wm for linux Enlightenment http://www.enlightenment.org, it allows to interchange themes and gives you better options in terms of configurations than the current wms for kde and gnome.

Rob Pegoraro: My problem with KDE and Gnome (both desktop graphical user interfaces) is *not* that they don't offer enough options. It's that they offer too many options while failing to make the basics simple enough. Good interface design involves a lot of saying "no" to feature requests.

New York, N.Y.: Funny you should have mentioned it in your Sunday column this week, but I have a five year old IBM ThinkPad 600 Laptop with a 3GIG hard drive and a couple of aftermarket chips which brought the SDRAM up to about 295K.

And funnier yet, just five minutes before picking up your column, I had just finished installing Windows XP where W95 had just been. Just so you should know, XP has certainly "consented to run on this antique IBM" and so far, everything -- the modem, sound card, wifi, etc. -- seem to be working just fine.

I used the system disk from a brand new desktop that I just bought and since I as usual skipped their request to register on the new desktop and nothing came up there, I did not realize that this registration thing purports only to allow only 30 days use on my other machine.

1. Is this standard and why did I not get the 30 day blinker on the desktop? I don't need any of their support and I have paid for a copy of the OS, so what's up?
2. Am I breaking any laws if I can fool the computer into not knowing the date so that the system doesn't know that the 30 days have passed? I don't even know if this is possible on XP as it was on the DOS shell systems.
3. Even better, would I be breaking any laws if I asked the kid downstairs who knows these kind of things how he would nullify the registration thing completely and then followed his advice? I would imagine that something like this was instantly broken into by the first one of these kids who came upon it.

Thank you for your attention, for ever since I came upon Fast Forward on one of my monthly trips to Northern Virginia, I have looked forward to your column and the sporadic e-mails.

washtech.com: When Linux Met Laptop: Irreconcilable Differences (Post, May 19)

Rob Pegoraro: 1) That's Windows Product Activation, which is separate from product registration. It's Microsoft's way of enforcing a "one copy, one install" rule. That's always been part of the deal with Windows, but Microsoft hasn't had a way of enforcing it until now. Bottom line: Either you download a crack to defeat WPA (which I won't tell you how to do, 'cause I don't know) or you shell out for another copy.

2) Resetting the clock won't work anyway, far as I know.

3) By cracking the XP activation, yes, you would be breaking the license, which Microsoft's lawyers (and quite a few other people) would regard as stealing.

BTW, the test laptop only had 64 megs of memory.

Washington, D.C.: You mentioned yesterday that Linux didn't recognize your soundcard at all. Any work arounds for this situation.

Rob Pegoraro: I tried a lot and eventually just got tired of all the BS. If you read the users' reports on linux-on-laptops.com, you'll see many people who reached the same point of exhaustion and decided to leave the soundcard for another day.

It shouldn't have to be this hard. I'm not saying what should be done to improve matters; I just know that, as a consumer, I'd like products to work properly.

Washington, D.C.: I think the "ease of installation" issue for Linux is a bit overstated. It's true that it's typically harder to install than W2k or XP; although even then, there can be specific exceptions, as I've run into machines where a Linux install went easier than did a W2k or XP install. But my main point is that current versions of Linux are, IMHO, easier to install than W98 (and SE) were; and people "way back then" were able to deal with installing W98, when they were typically less computer-clueful than they are now. If people could install W98 back then, they can certainly get through a Linux install now. So I don't think Linux installation is really an issue.

IMHO, a genuine issue is the comparative difficulty in system administration. Not that administering a home Linux box need by really hard; but it isn't typically as facilitated by nice GUI administration components as WinXX or Mac OS whatever are/have been. There are reasons why this is so, and there are ongoing efforts to change this; but the fact remains that administering the system -seems- more forbidding under Linux than under WinXX. This is unfortunate given the security advantages of Linux.

Rob Pegoraro: I would have to disagree with your XP-versus-Linux install comparison. XP requires more restarts, but it also requires far less user input. For instance, XP (and the Mac OS) doesn't require a separate disk partition for the swap file. So why's Linux making me go through that extra step?

King George, Va.: What is your favorite Linux distribution? Why?

Rob Pegoraro: Right now, none of the above! Lycoris has done the best job of simplifying the desktop. SuSE has the cleanest install, and I think I'll keep that around for tinkering purposes. (But it also needs more disk space). RedHat 7.3 shipped too late for me to get in any time with it, but my computer at home is downloading the disk images for it as I speak.

Alexandria, Va.: You should mention Walmart's OS-free (Microtel brand) PCs. Because the cheap modem wouldn't work with -nix, Microtel is switching to real modems. A victory for the zealots.

Rob Pegoraro: I'm doing that right now :) Wal-Mart started selling "naked" PCs a few months back, with no operating system loaded at all. Unfortunately, somebody forgot to look at the modem onboard, which was originally one of those Winmodems. Now Wal-Mart is including a real, hardware modem instead.

I wonder, however, what would have happend if Wal-Mart had instead lobbied the modem's manufacturer to write a Linux driver. That's how this problem has to be solved in the long run--like 'em or not, Winmodems are *not* going to be purged from computers some day.

Adelphi, Md.: I wonder what would have happened if you tried to install XP on a thinkpad 600 with a CD from the store, not preinstalled.

Otherwise great to see some more linux exposure in the paper.

Rob Pegoraro: That's what I did! The first version of Linux I installed on it was the copy of Mandrake 8.2 I picked up at the Best Buy in Bailey's Crossroads.

That was even worse about the sound card, as the "HardDrake" hardware-configuration screen didn't even give me a way to tell it to recognize the sound card. It simply reported that it couldn't detect any.

Then I installed Lycoris.

Somewhere, USA: Re: soundcard: I installed linux on an older thinkpad just a few months ago. The soundcard wasn't set up automatically, but it wasn't so hard to configure.

You just need to know some DMA and IRQ settings, which you can find on various websites. I've tried to post some IBM links outlining installation and sound/modem support, but I've been having problems submitting posts.

Rob Pegoraro: *That* is what is wrong here. I haven't had to look up DMA and IRQ settings since Windows 3.1. I would prefer not to have to accept a 1994 level of difficulty in a "new, improved" operating system.

Somewhere, USA: re: pre-loaded Linux: IBM pre-loads Red Hat Linux for those customers that buy Linux boxes.

Suggestion: If you don't know anything about unix or linux, get an education before trying to use/support it. The same is true for any application or environment that you know nothing about...

And, yes, Linux does run on Laptops and yes, if you konw what you are doing it's easy to support - despite claims to the contrary.

Rob Pegoraro: Again, this attitude is all wrong. What ever happened to the term "personal computer"? If you need to "get an education" to use Linux, then this platform will remain confined to the computing priesthood--deservedly so.

Last I checked, TiVo users didn't need to "get an education" on Linux to use those boxes, even though they run Linux on the inside.

Somewhere, USA: Codecs for XP: $10 for the DVD codecs for XP? Where did you get that price? I had to pay a bit more ($20).

Rob Pegoraro: Sorry, I mis-typed; $15 is the cheapest I've found for the DVD codec, or $20 for a WMP plug-in that combines DVD playback and MP3 encoding: http://www.intervideo.com/products/custom/ms/windowsxp/media_pack.jsp

McLean, Va.: I loved your article? The most important fact was that your WERE able to install Linux on an old laptop! How many times have you tried to install MS Windows on old hardware and it just refuses to install? No ifs or buts... Even XP refuses to install on machines less than 2 years old. How many reboots and time does the average MS Windows take compared to the average Linux install?

Rob Pegoraro: Ah, but I've got a post in this chat from a guy who said he had no problem installing XP on a ThinkPad 600... right up until Windows Product Activation tripped him up.

Pipersville, Pa.: As a Linux user for the last 6 years and computer systems designer for 45 years, I am very concerned with the monopolistic practice that Microsoft has of becoming a "business partner" with for example ESRI and Corel. Once Microsoft is a partner, these companies explicitly stop offering their Linux/UNIX preexisting products. Before Linux can survive, this practice needs to be stopped.

Rob Pegoraro: I would also imagine that, at some point, these companies would realize how these partnerships tend to... evolve. You'd think Corel would want to put WordPerfect on more desktops, not fewer ones.

Somewhere, USA: re: Washington, D.C.: ie problem: One important thing to remember. 'too much microsoft is not a good thing'. Or netscape (aol). Try opera and watch your headaches disappear.

Rob Pegoraro: Opera's a great alternative browser--it's fast (to download and to use). But it also comes with a big honkin' ad in its toolbar unless you pay $30 or $40 to register it.

Reston, Va.: Linux doesn't require a separate swap partition, you can use a swap file the way windows does. But the partition is faster. Especially if it's on another drive from the main one.

The same is true of Windows, by the way. Buy two drives, install Win on one, Linux on the other. Put the Linux swap partition on the Win drive, the partition holding the Windows swap file on the Linux drive. Really speeds things up if the RAM gets full.

Rob Pegoraro: My head is spinning from that last sentence :)

I would want to know how much of a speed advantage you really gain, especially with any kind of modern hard drive. It seems like a lot of extra work for a marginal benefit--in other words, the sort of thing that you could offer as an option in an "expert setup" mode, while letting inexperienced users go with the simpler option of a swap file.

Somewhere, USA: Argh, internal server errors..CP: My sister owns a cheap computer, one of those "free with internet" computers, it has a flaky hard drive. Every month windows would just give up on the machine. I had to re-install for her about every month from the restore disk. Well, inevitably, the restore disk was lost. I tried a real win98 install disk, but it refused...three times in a row. I installed mandrake, then eventually installed redhat, gave her a shiny new journaled file system, configured her lucent win-modem, installed abiword and open-office, and set up everything with pretty icons on the desktop. The first thing she said when I showed it off to her was, "This is better than windows." She can click an icon to write a paper, click an icon to connect to the internet. It's just as trivial to use linux as it is to use windows. She later came to me smiling, "It has so many more games than windows had." Mahjongg's her favorite. The best thing of all is that it is a computer that she can "just use," yet it hasn't crashed in a year. Despite its hardware problems.

Rob Pegoraro: BTW, I'm going to stick around for another 20 minutes or so, because we're getting so many questions... unpaid overtime :)

I've heard of stories like this and am glad to see them. But things will really have progressed when your sister can do this install herself, or maybe just with some help over the phone. I'd want to know, for instance, how long it took to configure the Winmodem on that computer.

Fairfax, Va.: Have you tried more than one dustro of Linux? Especially for the laptop. I use RedHat 7.3 and have it on a Siny Laptop and an HP desktop. The install went flawlessly, as did the OpenOffice.org install. The KDE 3.0 desktop is very user friendly. I've tried other distro's and had similar complaints about usability and how much I need to 'tweek' to get it working the way I'd like so I know they can make the difference between 'Cool!' and 'Argh!'.

Rob Pegoraro: I've tried three so far--actually four. (The fourth being LinuxPPC, which I put on my Mac at home a few years ago).

KDE 3.0 looks more polished and a little simpler than KDE 2.0, but it still has too much for the user to deal with all at once. The kicker still needs a thorough pruning and scrubbing, or at least icons that don't require you to read their tool-tips to figure out what they represent. The Application Starter menu is also still trying to do too many things at once.

Note: It's fine to offer extra features and complexity as options, but something like virtual desktops is far more likely to confuse a new user. I mean, even the allegedly simple Mac OS 9 can give a new user fits, and KDE is several degrees more convoluted.

Somewhere, USA:

I run Linux at home on a white box so no prob. Does that IBM 600 have one of those windows only sound cards? I've heard that those are a fairly common pita on the all-in-one mobo's.

Linux is definitely guru (or control freak) friendly. Much better that it used to be, but getting my cable modem working took editing a file in "/etc/rc.d/init.d/dhcpd"
to set the DHCP driver to use the -h switch. RedHat still doesn't know about cable modems.

Fyi, O'Reilly has released "Learning Unix for Mac OS X"
(http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/lunixmacosx/). Almost makes me want to buy a Mac. -- wiredog

Rob Pegoraro: I was waiting to see when wiredog would show up :)

Editing configuration files should *never* be required in any "consumer" distro of Linux. Just as you should never have to resort to the command line.

Somewhere, USA: See, drivers for linux are written for hardware itself, not for brandname products. The soundcard driver you need supports many many different products, and so can't be written in such a specific way. What is needed is a large product database included with each distro that contains all of the required settings, but aside from that, it's not such a big deal to look up settings online. Do it once. It's done.

Rob Pegoraro: The problem was, I *did* look up the settings. And they never actually took. All three distros coughed up different, equally uninformative error messages (SuSE offered the most help, which wasn't nearly enough). When entering the DMA, IRQ and port info you just read out of the BIOS menu won't work... well, that's where I started swearing a lot.

Washington, D.C.: What do you think of Mac OS X's Darwin?

Rob Pegoraro: Darwin, which is the version of BSD Unix underneath Mac OS X, is something I admire in a philosphical sort of sense--here is a major commercial software developer that's decided to make its core OS open-source. Good for them. Gives me the warm fuzzies every time I flip open the Terminal app (yes, I am that much of a geek) and see the "Welcome to Darwin!" prompt.

But as a user, I don't think about Darwin any more than I used to think about the Macintosh Toolbox or the Win32 APIs. It's just, you know, there, but it's not the part of the system I ever have to deal with.

Arlington, Va.: I have had just the opposite experience with regard to hardware support in Windows and Linux from the one you describe. Windows 2000 Pro refuses to recognize my ATI Radeon AIW video card. Both the video driver installer that came with the card, and the newer version from ATI's web site, cause a hard system freeze during installation, leaving me with unaccelerated VGA-mode video. By contrast, Mandrake Linux 8.2 with XFree86 version 4 automatically detected and correctly configured the card for accelerated video during installation. While it is undeniably true that Windows has more device drivers written for it (due in no small measure to Microsoft's unlawfully maintained dominance of the desktop market), there are a substantial and growing number of instances in which Linux drivers are far more robust than their Windows counterparts.

Rob Pegoraro: I don't dispute that, especially with respect to Windows 2000, which is the crankiest Microsoft OS around when it comes to supporting weird hardware. I wrote a review saying as much, back when it shipped.

But Microsoft at least tries to make it easier to get unrecognized hardware to work. Linux throws up a dialog box saying the sound card doesn't work, then leaves it to you to look for a how-to that might offer a clue on fixing things.

Redmond, Wash.: I'm considering a new PDA. Have you looked at the Sharp Zaurus, which also runs linux?

Rob Pegoraro: I have not. I did put in a review request a while back, but have yet to hear from Sharp's PR. But I'm not sure it's worth reviewing... yours is the first request I've gotten from a reader to review it at all. I suppose it could improve on Windows CE in the "desktop power in a handheld" department, but most people I talk to aren't even looking for that. They don't want to remotely administer the office network from a handheld; they just want to carry around their schedule and addresses.

McLean, Va: You wrote: "I haven't had to look up DMA and IRQ settings since Windows 3.1."
C'mon Rob! Thanks to Windows 95, we coined the phrase "Plug and Pray" because YOU HAD TO LOOK UP those settings... and pray they worked. Mac fans had their field day until 98!
BTW: try the Seul distribution at http://www.seul.org/
The end goal of SEUL is to have a comprehensive suite of high-quality applications (productivity applications as well as leisure/programming applications) available under the GPL for the Linux platform, as well as a broader base of educated users around the world who understand why free software is better.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the address. I'll have a look...

Tucson, AZ: Once again we're seeing that Linux has to be better than Windows in order to be "a viable desktop OS". Does XP resize Linux partitions on install? Does it even recognize them?

When XP doesn't recognize my soundcard, video, and ethernet (on my Compaq Presario 1800T laptop. It's only 2 years old) would it be fair to say XP isn't a contender for the desktop? (especially since Redhat 7.x recognizes all of those devices).

I'm sure that you've had driver problems in XP, but I'm also sure that in those cases, you blame the hardware. Remember, when something doesn't work in Windows, it's the hardware manufacturer's fault. When something doesn't work in Linux.. it's just further proof that Linux isn't ready for the desktop.

Rob Pegoraro: No, when XP causes that kind of problem I would say it fails the test as well. I just haven't had that level of difficulty at any point (I've had other issues w/ XP, which I wrote about three or four weeks ago.)

As for your first question: Hey, that's how the world works. The OS that gets loaded on a computer with a different, preinstalled OS has to make that transition easy. That's a business reality.

Washington DC: When do you see the emergence of web based office suites?

Rob Pegoraro: Not until broadband access is cheap, near universal and as reliable as the phone.

My syster\s WinModem: Less than a half hour to configure the modem. It was easy.

Step 1: Look at chipset. Ah, lucent winmodem.
Step 2: Download driver.
Step 3: ./configure;make;make install

Step 3 even edited the driver configuration file, as I remember.

Rob Pegoraro: It's steps 2 and 3 that conceals a certain amount of difficulty. Where'd you download the driver? Where'd you decompress it to? How many times did it take to memorize the command-line syntax to untar, configure and compile the file?

("make" is not the simplest command out there: http://www.computerhope.com/unix/umake.htm)

When I can double-click on a downloaded file, enter the root password and install that driver, then we'll have progress.

d.c.: Heh, I know this forum isn't really intended for back and forth; but I just wanted to elaborate on what I think was a miscommunication. In a previous comment, I wrote that while I thought that XP and W2k are typically easier to install than Linux, I've run into exceptions on individual machines. You disagreed with my comment, citing the larger amount of involvement the user has to have with the Linux install (e.g. setting up a swap partition).

I don't see how that invalidates what I said, however -- that W2k and XP are typically easier to install, but that specific machines can occasionally be exceptions. For example, I tried an XP install on a P3 machine recently where the install simply failed -- partway through the install, everything locked up. Restarting produced the same result. A subsequent Mandrake Linux install went off without a hitch. So while I agree with your statement (that a Linux install takes more input), I don't see that as contradicting mine (that XP and W2k are typically easier to install, but that specific machines are sometimes exceptions).

As for "why make someone create a swap partition," you don't have to -- swap files in an existing partition can be used, as they are in Windows. However, a separate swap partition is -much- more robust (in terms of OS stability).

Rob Pegoraro: OK, in that respect (and I hvae no problem with back-n-forth here), sure--there are always exceptions. I've got a colleague who keeps calling me for help with weird glitches with his iMac, which shipped with Mac OS X preinstalled--a combination of hardware and software that's never caused me any serious problems. (That will teach me to tell him what computer to guy :)

Hatfield, PA: I think that people expect too much "ease" from machines. How can people expect to benefit and use computers without being willing to learn more about what they are and how they work? People who drive cars are expected to be able to list a number of things, the type of motor oil it takes, the type of gas it uses, the rules for driving safely, ... minimal things. And yet, just as complicated a machine, a "personal computer", and i am hearing that a computer and it's operating system should be able to be understood with no education.
Ease of use comes with education, a desire to learn.

Rob Pegoraro: Actually, I just drop off the car at the shop and tell them I'd like the oil changed. There's a little label by the gas cap that lists the minimum octane--and there's only three grades to choose from anyway.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

Rockville, Md.: Hi Rob,

What OS do you feel stands to gain market share on the handheld market? Last I checked (a few months ago) the Palm OS had a solid lead but Microsoft's WINCE was growing at a far greater pace.

Will the future of handhelds be the equivalent of McDonalds VS Burger King (WINCE vs Palm) or do you think others still have a chance to make an impact such as Symbian, EPOC, Imode, etc.

In my view smartphones are the computers we will use in the future; Imagine everyone having smartphones as powerful as current PC's with mini LCD projectors built in along with laser keyboards (generate characters via your typing movements over a projected image.) Your entire office and entertainment system the size of a phone with an screen projector that allows you to have what ever screen size you want!! Based on all my persumptions the future of operating systems may very well be entirely up for grabs.

What do you think?

Rob Pegoraro: One other non-Linux question, and then I'll try to wrap things up...

I think Palm and WinCE are going to remain the dominant operating systems on handhelds. Symbian suffers from continuing irrelevancy outside of the European cell-phone market (which is big, but requires different technology than general-purpose handhelds).

I don't think handhelds or smartphones will ever replace desktops or laptops. You can display a lot of data on a small device, but for editing it or working on it at length, you need a real screen and a real (read: sizable) input device, keyboard or writing tablet. At least until voice recognition works a lot better than it does now.

Reston, VA: re: swap partitions.

Actually, there's not much need for swap files/partitions anymore. When you've got 512 mb ram, a swap is highly redundant. Well, unless you run OS's/applications that require that much ram. But even Windows doesn't require that yet.

Remember when a 10 mb drive, and 640k ram, were more than anyone would possibly ever need?

Rob Pegoraro: Yes, things used to seem simple back then. They never really were, though...

And on that note, I need to get back to work. Thanks for all the questions, tips and suggestions. I'll be back here at my usual time, most likely in two weeks.

- R

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