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Finally, Linux With a Lot Less Fuss

By Rob Pegoraro

Sunday, December 1, 2002; Page H07

Over the past few weeks, I've installed Linux on three computers without breaking into fits of cursing. That's a novel development in my experience with this open-source operating system.

The version I've been using is Red Hat Linux 8.0, shipped by Raleigh, N.C.-based Red Hat in late September. This is the first Linux distribution I've tried that hasn't made me feel as if I'm about to step on a rake and have its handle swing into my face.

Parts of this are still infuriatingly convoluted, but if you've been thinking about trying out Linux on part of your hard drive -- or about dumping Windows entirely -- this is what I'd recommend.

Why would you want to do that?

One, Linux is cheap or free -- your choice. The personal edition of Red Hat 8 sells for $40 in stores, or you can download three CDs' worth at no charge (www.redhat.com). Nearly all Linux programs are also free to use.

Two, Linux is free in another way: "Open source" means anybody can look at a program's code and tinker with it.

Three, if you are inclined to tinker and try out new programs, Linux can be an interesting place. It's one of the most customizable operating systems, and quite a few Linux development projects -- for example, DVD playback -- seem to be hitting their stride.

Four, while Linux has plenty of bugs and security issues, it is virus-free compared with Windows.

All these qualities come with trade-offs, the big one being an often agonizing inscrutability. Red Hat 8 doesn't abolish these shortcomings but does bring them to a more manageable level.

Its installation is quick and clean. Notwithstanding a clumsy disk-setup module (either partition your hard drive with another program or be prepared to wipe it clean), you can blithely go with the default settings and have a working desktop in less than 45 minutes.

That includes functioning audio and video hardware, something beyond my reach in earlier Linux experiments. On each of three test PCs -- an old IBM desktop, a moderately recent IBM ThinkPad T21 and a brand-new Hewlett-Packard Media Center PC -- Red Hat 8 automatically and correctly set up the sound and graphics cards.

It then accepted a digital-subscriber-line or office-network connection with no more configuration than Windows would require, and with the proper firewall protection enabled by default.

A modem connection, unfortunately but predictably, was out of the question. Most PCs' internal modems require some fairly complicated, proprietary Windows software to function, and many manufacturers don't offer Linux versions of this software or documentation that would let other programmers handle the job.

Red Hat 8 also couldn't do anything with the USB 2.0 ports on the HP, although it's supposed to support them.

Red Hat 8's biggest departure from Linux convention is in its look. The company replaced the usual Linux front end with its own streamlined "Bluecurve" interface, which looks vaguely like Windows XP scrubbed of the neon colors. It also swept the system task bar and menu largely free of redundant or useless extras, although it lacks a simple way to edit the layout of those menus (say, if you'd like to consolidate the five or so system-options entries).

Red Hat's software bundle focuses on the basics: the excellent Mozilla Web browser, the OpenOffice productivity suite (which read all of the Microsoft Office files I tried), and Evolution, an application featuring e-mail, an address book and a calendar that feels like a simplified version of Microsoft Outlook.

What you won't find, however, is multimedia capability beyond a few image viewers and editors. Red Hat 8 ships without any way to play MP3 files, let alone create them. The company says it's concerned about the MP3 format's licensing requirements, but those issues haven't stopped other Linux distributions from including MP3 software. (Red Hat 8 does support an open-source music format called Ogg Vorbis, but its CD-ripping program isn't set up by default to use it.)

MP3 software isn't hard to find and install in the "RPM" download format Red Hat developed, but you have to know where to look.

And that's the thing: Red Hat 8 gets enough of the basics right to let you go online without injuring yourself (well, provided you don't need a modem). It could serve somebody well as a basic Web, e-mail and word-processing desktop. But going beyond the basics requires a willingness to learn.

For instance, Red Hat 8's included digital-camera program took hours of tweaking before it would intermittently download pictures from a Canon S100 digital camera. I still can't get the Pilot-Link program to work with a Sony Clie handheld, although an upcoming release is supposed to fix that.

Non-RPM software installs, which require mastering command-line syntax, are another problem. Sometimes things work out -- copying and pasting the right commands had the ThinkPad playing back a DVD in about half an hour -- and at other times you're stymied by missing or mismatched files. And many add-on programs, unlike Red Hat's core software, come with clumsy, user-hostile interfaces designed by programmers for other programmers.

Ultimately, there's no substitute for personal help from a Linux veteran, whether online or in a local user group.

All this self-inflicted effort might seem like a big waste of time. Then again, so can cooking, woodworking, collecting baseball cards or many other things people do to amuse themselves, and without getting a working PC in the process.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at [log in to unmask].

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