Test Driving Linux/Pre-Switching Information

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Test Driving Linux


Years ago, many Windows users had a hard time understanding that Windows Me was an upgrade to Windows 98, and that Windows 2000 upgraded Windows NT. Today, many users are confused about the differences between Windows XP Home and XP Professional. Imagine walking into a computer store and finding 300 different versions of Windows for sale, each created by a different company, and none of them from Microsoft. You would probably feel overwhelmed and confused about which version to buy. Well, I've got news for you: there are over 300 distributions of Linux available. Choice is good, but it can definitely be overwhelming.

A Linux distribution is a compilation of the Linux kernel and hundreds of other open source programs and utilities. Remember, by itself the Linux kernel is not a complete operating system. It is only when it is combined with other programs that it becomes a capable alternative to Microsoft Windows. Distributions are created and sold, or provided for free, by a company, group, or individual. It is up to the distribution creators to choose which programs to bundle together to make a complete OS. The distributors also create installers, hardware detection programs, and special configuration programs to aid in the installation, configuration, and maintenance of a Linux system. The choices made by these distributors are what gives each distribution its unique flavor and focus.

The diversity of Linux distributions is possible because they are all based upon free and open source software. That means anyone who wants to can take that software, customize it in whatever way they please, and create a new distribution. That is exactly what hundreds of people have done. You can find the results of their work at the distribution tracking web site http://www.distrowatch.com.

However, there's no need to let the diversity in distributions overwhelm you. Though all distributions have their merits and reasons for existence, there are really only about a dozen or so that are of interest to most people. A dozen isn't so bad. It's kind of like buying a car. If you can recognize the difference between a Ford and a Honda, and are capable of deciding between purchasing a Focus or a Civic, you can find a Linux distribution that suits your needs.

To extend the metaphor, a Focus and a Civic are different cars with different features and price points, but in the end, they're still just cars. They have steering wheels, speedometers, and radios, and you drive them using the same skills you learned in drivers education (or, if you're like me, on a dark road at five in the morning). By the same token, Mandrake and Debian are different distributions with different features, but in the end, they are both operating systems. They are controlled by a mouse and keyboard, offer features to listen to music and watch videos, and allow you to surf the Internet using the same skills you learned on Windows, a Macintosh, or from this book.

The Linux distribution on this book's CD is known as Move , from the company Mandrakesoft. Though this provides a great test drive of Linux, it shouldn't be your only Linux. Just as you can't use a test-drive vehicle from a dealership as your daily transportation, you shouldn't make Move your daily Linux desktop. This chapter is an overview of the most popular Linux distributions, and will help you make a decision as to which one you should try next. The end of the chapter lists some resources you can turn to for more information about Linux and the open source community.

Contents

Choose Your Linux

There are several ways to categorize the different versions of Linux. Most methods organize distributions by technical merits that have very little to do with the interests of the beginning Linux user. I've chosen to categorize the distributions by those that are most Windows-like and those that are most Linux-like.

Windows-like distributions are intended for people who want to switch from Windows but don't want to learn Linux itself. These users are usually looking for an operating system that is cheaper, more stable, and more secure than the Windows environment they are using now. They want a distribution that hides the complexities and uniqueness of Linux behind a veneer of simplicity and ease of use. To achieve this near-Windows experience, these distributions often heavily customize the open source software they use and limit the programs available to users.

Linux-like distributions are also easy to use and simple for Windows users to figure out, but they don't try to duplicate the Windows experience. These distributions provide easy access to the command line, use artwork and desktop metaphors that are very different from Windows, and provide configuration tools and utilities that allow the user to manipulate practically everything about the environment. These distributions provide the most flexibility and do very little to limit the user's choice of software.

Which distribution is right for you is really a matter of personal taste and can often only be determined by experimentation. Most Linux users try out several distributions before finding one that they really like. Many distributions provide live CDs like the one in this book; others make their software available as a free download. The commercial vendors may not provide their software for free, but there are some web sites, such as http://www.cheapbytes.com, that sell you legal CDs of these distributions for just a few dollars. You won't get support with these cheap CDs, but if you decide that you want that after trying the distribution out, you can always just purchase a boxed set later.

Windows-Like Linux

Most Windows-like distributions use a customized form of the KDE desktop environment, which means that nearly everything in this book is directly applicable to using one of these distributions. Windows-like distributions make great desktops, and can be particularly good for limited-use machines, like a second computer for your kids or spouse. They are fast, secure, and stable, they install easily on modern computers, and they provide a great set of applications for typical desktop activities such as surfing the Internet, sending email, writing letters and reports, and chatting with friends.

As mentioned earlier, I call these distributions Windows-like not because they are easier to use than other distributions, but because they attempt to hide the complexities, flexibility, and power of the Linux operating system behind a user interface that is as much like Windows as possible. You don't have to learn any complex Linux commands or features in order to get enjoyment out of your system. Though this means that the software is very easy for Windows users to learn, it also means that some of what makes Linux unique and powerful gets lost in translation. It's a bit like owning a Porsche 911 with an automatic transmission. It's still a Porsche with a powerful engine, great handling, and head-turning looks, but a driver who really wants to get in touch with his car would want a manual transmission.

You will not find as much community support for the three distributions below as you will find for the Linux-like distributions in the next section. In most cases you should start your support search by visiting the company's web site and reading the FAQ or forums you find there.

Linspire

The Linspire distribution was originally marketed as Lindows, an obvious play on a certain operating system name. Microsoft sued the company for trademark infringement in several countries, and the whole matter was eventually settled out of court with the Linspire company getting $20 million from Microsoft to stop using the name. When this distribution first came on the scene in late 2001, it was almost considered a joke by the Linux community. Though it originally promised to run many Windows applications, it never did, and the name Lindows just wasn't taken seriously. The fact that it jumped from a pre-release version to 3.0 in about a year didn't help matters. The open source community takes version numbering quite seriously, and doesn't like it when a distribution tries to make itself seem better than it is by giving itself a high version number.

However, something changed around Version 3.0, and the distribution and company started to get some respect. It might have been CEO Michael Robertson's tireless evangelism efforts, the lawsuit with Microsoft, the company's support of community projects like http://www.kde-look.org and http://www.kde-apps.org, or just plain technological improvements. Today, at Version 5.0, Linspire is one of the more popular Windows-like distributions available. In fact, because of an aggressive OEM program, you can purchase new computers with Linspire preinstalled from dozens of computer vendors. (No, not Dell or HP, but you can get these machines from http://www.walmart.com/ and http://www.idotpc.com/.)

The distribution itself uses a KDE desktop environment that has been cleaned up, simplified, and modified to appear as much like Windows as possible. Most of the changes are cosmetic, so in the end, KDE behaves almost exactly as it is described in this book. However, you'll need to choose something else if you want to use GNOME as your desktop environment, as it is not provided on Linspire.

The real selling feature of Linspire is its CNR program (formerly called Click-n-Run), which allows you to easily install Linspire-approved applications, patch security holes, and update existing programs. This program is very simple to use, works quite well, and solves one of the most troublesome problems that new Linux users have: installing software.

Linspire provides a free live CD version of their software. Unlike the CD you have been using with this book, the Linspire live CD does not allow you to save changes to a USB key. In fact, it is more like a demo CD; it allows you to touch and use, but not modify and save. Still, it is a great way to try out Linspire for free before deciding whether to buy it. More information about Linspire is available at the company web site http://www.linspire.com.

Lycoris

This distribution is developed just down the road from Microsoft's Redmond campus. In fact, it was originally named Redmond Linux.

Like Linspire, Lycoris does not include the GNOME desktop environment and provides no means to install it. (This is part of the tradeoff for getting a polished, Windows-like KDE.) Lycoris is probably the most Windows-themed of the distributions, as it makes use of Windows desktop metaphors similar to My Computer, My Network Places, and My Documents. Even the file browsing experience and device managers feel a lot like Windows XP.

IRIS is the name of the Lycoris software installation tool. This program connects over the Internet to the Lycoris software repository, where you can search for software or choose programs from a convenient category menu.

Lycoris contains some licensed software, most notably Bitstream fonts. Though using these fonts can enhance your computer experience, it also means you can't install Lycoris on multiple machines without purchasing a separate license for each installation. Lycoris also comes with a partition-resizing tool, and it can resize the NTFS partitions that Windows 2000/XP machines are often configured with. Using this tool, you can set up your computer to dual-boot Windows and Lycoris. There is no Lycoris live CD, so you can't try out this distribution without installing it.

Xandros

I can't think of a single Linux vendor that has done a better job than Xandros at identifying and addressing the most pressing problems a desktop user typically faces when using Linux, particularly on a Windows network.

The Xandros Desktop Business edition is well designed to be a drop-in replacement for a Windows computer in a business environment. It can be easily configured to authenticate off of a Windows server, just like a Windows machine. It comes with CodeWeaver's CrossOver Office, which means you can run Microsoft Office 2000 and higher on your Linux desktop. And it has a custom file manager that discovers and mounts file shares provided by Windows servers and desktops. Based upon KDE, Xandros has been modified to hide some of the complexities of that desktop environment, and provides a smaller set of default programs. Like Linspire, the GNOME desktop environment is not available on Xandros.

Xandros also has Deluxe and Standard editions. The Deluxe version is similar to the Business edition, except that it does not provide the ability to authenticate against Windows servers. The Standard edition lacks this ability as well, and does not include CrossOver Office. Because of the inclusion of proprietary, licensed software like CrossOver Office, Xandros Deluxe and Business edition can only be installed on one machine per purchased license; the Standard edition can be installed on as many machines as you wish. The Deluxe and Business edition boxed sets come with a pretty good users guide.

The Xandros Networks feature makes it easy to install new software, upgrade existing software, and integrate security patches. Only a limited set of programs is available through Xandros Networks, but because it is based upon the Debian distribution, it is a simple matter (for a knowledgeable Linux user, that is) to connect to Debian software repositories and download additional software. This is usually a very smooth process, but it should not be used to modify software that has been customized by Xandros—most notably, KDE itself.

Xandros is easy to install, has excellent hardware detection abilities, and is a great first distribution for users coming from Windows. There isn't a live CD to allow you to give it a test drive, but there is a free download edition, called the Xandros Open Circulation edition, that can be freely used and distributed for noncommercial use. That means you can't use it for your business, but you can use it at home on as many machines as you want.

All versions of Xandros have an easy, four-step install routine that automatically partitions your hard drive for you. Since Xandros includes software to repartition NTFS-formatted hard drives (common on Windows 2000 and XP computers), it is usually a simple process to create a dual-boot system.

Linux-Like Linux

Linux-like distributions have long been the mainstay of the Linux world, and remain the most popular choices for both existing users and new users. These are the distributions to turn to if you are after a Unix-like work environment, if you enjoy tinkering with and customizing your OS, and if you are really interested in learning a new way to use the power of your computer, and not merely duplicating the functions of Windows on a different OS.

Debian

Debian is possibly the most respected Linux distribution. Started in 1993 by Ian Murdock, the name is a combination of his name and that of his wife, Debra. Debian is known for its community, openness, and adherence to free software principles. So strong is this philosophy that Debian has created a Social Contract, which you can view at http://www.debian.org/social_contract. Debian has an international community of developers, which means it comes in many languages, and that many support resources on the Web will have users who speak your language.

This distribution has long had the conflicting reputation of being difficult to install, but very easy to update, upgrade, and maintain. Debian Versions 3.1 and higher will include a new installer to make it easier to get this distribution on your computer.

Debian is a minimalist distribution. A Debian release defines a base set of programs that are necessary to have a working system, but after that, it is entirely up to the user which programs get installed. This philosophy, combined with Debian's reputation for security and stability, make it a popular choice for server installs. But these same features also make it attractive for desktop use. Because Debian doesn't have a default desktop environment, you will find that it supports both GNOME and KDE equally well.

According to the Distrowatch web site, over 90 distributions are descended from Debian, including two of the Windows-like distributions covered earlier. One of the newcomers, Ubuntu, has the backing of many core Debian developers and has a desktop focus. The developers are currently focusing upon GNOME integration, but plan to provide better KDE support in the future. If you are interested in trying both Debian and GNOME, I highly recommend Ubuntu. You can download a live CD from http://www.ubuntulinux.org, which is a great way to test-drive this distribution. There are several other live CDs that are based upon Debian. The most popular of these, Knoppix, is described in detail in a later section.

Debian is not sold in retail stores, but it is freely downloadable from the Internet. It contains no proprietary software, which means you are free to install it on as many systems as you want. However, the installer does not have the ability to resize NTFS partitions, which means you will need to make other provisions if you want to set up Debian to dual-boot with Windows on an NTFS-formatted hard drive.

Information and support for Debian can be found in dozens of places on the Internet. Here are just a few resources available to you:

http://www.debian.org
#debian channel on IRC freenode
Several newsgroups, including linux.debian.user

Fedora

Fedora is a new community project started by Red Hat in late 2003. When Fedora was first released it was pretty much the same distribution as Red Hat Linux 9. Red Hat plans to use Fedora as a testing ground for new technologies and to periodically roll improvements in Fedora into their flagship product Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Think of it as Red Hat making their product development cycle completely open.

Fedora calls their releases "Fedora Core" with an incrementing number. Currently at Fedora Core 4, this distribution has been advancing rapidly and includes the latest versions of GNOME, KDE, and the 2.6 series of the Linux kernel, which has improved performance, particularly for desktop users. Fedora is also breaking new ground with the inclusion of Security Enhanced Linux (SELinux), a special feature set developed by the National Security Agency to make Linux extremely secure.

Like Red Hat Linux, Fedora concentrates upon GNOME as a desktop environment. Though it includes KDE, it has been modified to look more like GNOME, and most KDE users do not like the Fedora implementation. However, if you do want to try out GNOME, Fedora is one of the best ways to use this excellent desktop environment.

Though Fedora is a community-based project, it is sponsored by Red Hat as the development branch for the flagship product Red Hat Enterprise Linux. That means it is supported and advanced by people who are both passionate about Linux, and are also paid to work on it.

Unfortunately, continuing a policy started by Red Hat Linux, Fedora does not include support for MP3 playing or NTFS partition resizing out of the box. For legal reasons that don't seem to bother other distribution providers, Red Hat decided not to put these features in. The inability to play MP3 files is easily fixed with a simple download once you've installed Fedora, but the inability to resize NTFS partitions means that the Fedora installer won't be of any help if you need to make room for Linux on your Windows XP machine. There are some third-party and downloadable tools that can do the resizing for you, but it would be nice to have it included in the installer.

Fedora is not available in retail stores, but is a freely available ISO download. It contains no proprietary software so you can install it on as machines as you like.

The Fedora community is not yet as strong as that of other distributions, but there are still several useful resources, like:

http://fedora.redhat.com
#fedora channel on IRC freenode
Several newsgroups, including linux.redhat

Gentoo

Gentoo users are the true fanboys of the Linux world. They lurk on online forums and tell everyone how great their distribution is, boast about how much faster Gentoo is than other distributions, and extol the virtues of portage, their program installer. For all of their enthusiasm, these users are greeted with ridicule and scorn. There is even a web site, http://www.funroll-loops.org, that pokes good-humored fun at Gentoo users. And yet, these days there are more new Gentoo users than you can shake a herring at. I became a Gentoo user about two years ago, and I've stuck with it longer than any other distribution.

Gentoo is a lot like Debian, with the exception that instead of having an easy-to-use system for installing program binaries, it has an easy-to-use system for compiling and installing programs from source. Installing and configuring a Gentoo system is a great way to learn more about how Linux works, and the Gentoo web site provides a complete instruction manual. Despite this, installation can be a frustrating and time-consuming experience with a high potential for error. I wouldn't recommend Gentoo as a beginner distribution, but do give it a try after you have been using Linux for about a year. You might find something you really like.

Gentoo is known for having a vociferous but helpful community. You can find evidence of this in discussion forums at popular web sites like http://www.slashdot.org, on the #gentoo IRC channel, and on the Gentoo forums at http://forums.gentoo.org. In fact, this friendly community is what keeps many users around despite the initial difficulty in getting the distribution installed.

Online resources for Gentoo are available at:

http://www.gentoo.org
http://forums.gentoo.org
#gentoo channel on IRC freenode

Knoppix

Knoppix is a live CD distribution similar to the one you have been using with this book. It has more features and more software than Move, but these additions make it slightly more cumbersome to use. If you want to continue testing Linux by using a live CD, Knoppix is a good choice to continue your exploration.

One of the best features of Knoppix is its hardware detection capabilities. If you are purchasing a computer at a retail store and plan to run Linux on it, bring a Knoppix CD and try to convince the clerk to let you boot the machine with Knoppix. Doing so will let you see how well Linux supports the computer's hardware.

Knoppix is based upon Debian. In fact, you can use Knoppix to install Debian on your system. This is particularly convenient because the installer is simpler to use than the one provided with Debian, and it uses the hardware configuration created when Knoppix booted to set up all of your hardware. O'Reilly has provided instructions on how to use this installer at http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/knoppixhks/. (This is just one of the 100 hacks in the O'Reilly book Knoppix Hacks.)

For more information about Knoppix, or to download it, visit:

http://www.knoppix.net
http://www.knoppix.com

Mandrake

By this point in the book, you should be quite familiar with the Mandrake distribution because the Move CD is based upon it. Mandrake is produced by the French company Mandrakesoft, and is considered by many to be the best Linux distribution for new Linux users. This is because Mandrake does an excellent job of providing a simple installation program, a great selection of default applications that work well together, an improved menu structure, and an easy-to-use application installation program called urmpi . If you talk to a lot of Linux users, you will find that many of them tried Mandrake first and have since moved on to other distributions, but over four million of them have stuck with Mandrake. And, although many people think of Mandrake as being a distribution for the desktop, it is also a very capable server OS. Mandrakesoft estimates that about 40 percent of Mandrake installs are on servers.

The default desktop environment for Mandrake is KDE. Though Mandrake features the applications I've covered in this book, it also provides all of the applications mentioned in Chapter 12. You shouldn't expect any surprises with Mandrake; it's just a hard drive install of the live CD you have already been using. The difference is that it boots faster, runs quicker, has a greater selection of applications out of the box, and lets you install even more applications.

At the time of this writing, the current version of Mandrake is Version 10.1. It is sold via the Web from Mandrakesoft and on Amazon, and you may see it at Borders bookstores. Once you purchase or download Mandrake, you are allowed to install it on as many machines as you want. That means that if you have 10 computers in your business, you can put Mandrake on all 10, but only have to pay for it once—that's something you can't do with Windows! (At least, not legally, and without threat of Federal Marshals storming your business.) However, note that any support included in the purchase price is applicable only to one machine.

Mandrake comes in several different versions, which can be distinguished by the amount of software on the CDs they include and how much support you get from Mandrakesoft. In the U.S., Mandrake Linux is sold in two book and CD sets under the names Discovery 10.1: Your First Linux Desktop and PowerPack 10.1: The Full Power of Desktop Linux. The books are written by Mandrakesoft and provide a nice complement to this book, since they cover how to install Linux on your computer, add new programs, and configure hardware.

Mandrake Linux also comes as a free download edition. You can get this from numerous places, but the most popular way is through the peer-to-peer distribution method known as BitTorrent. Just do a web search for the terms Mandrake and torrent to find a site you can download from. (This is perfectly legal, by the way.) The limitation of the download edition is that it does not come with some of the proprietary applications that are in the other versions. This includes Adobe Acrobat Reader, RealPlayer, and FlashPlayer, as well as some accelerated video card drivers for the latest graphics cards from ATI and NVIDIA. It also does not come with any support or documentation.

The Mandrake installation program can resize partitions, including NTFS-formatted ones. This means you can easily install it alongside Windows and create a system that can boot either Windows or Linux.

More information about Mandrake, Mandrakesoft, and the MandrakeClub is available at:

http://www.mandrake.com
http://www.mandrakesoft.com
http://www.mandrakeclub.com
#mandrake channel on IRC freenode
The newsgroup alt.os.mandrake

Red Hat

Red Hat is the largest Linux vendor. This distribution has been around since 1994, and it used to be one of the primary distributions for hobbyists. However, when Red Hat released the community distribution Fedora in late 2003, they stopped providing the freely downloadable version that made them so popular. If you are interested in Linux for your desktop and you want the product that is most like commercial Red Hat, take a look at Fedora. On the other hand, many previous users of Red Hat find this recent change a stimulus to try out other distributions.

Red Hat sells commercial offerings under the umbrella name of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). This is the most popular commercial Linux version ever and is widely used in businesses and universities. Technically, the software itself is free. When you buy a license, you are actually purchasing a support contract, which entitles you to installation and configuration support as well as security fixes and program updates.

The true value add of RHEL is the Red Hat Network. This collection of services makes it easier to deploy large numbers of systems, install new software, maintain your system, and even roll back to earlier program versions if something goes wrong. This is one of the enterprise-class features that make Red Hat so popular in the business world. You can read more about Red Hat and its offerings at http://www.redhat.com.

SUSE/Novell

SUSE Linux was originally produced by SUSE, LLC, a company based out of Germany. In early 2004, SUSE was purchased by the well-known American software company Novell, which in 2003 had also purchased the highly respected Linux developer business called Ximian. With these recent acquisitions, Novell is showing that it believes in the future of the Linux operating system. In fact, it is betting its business on Linux becoming a dominant force in computing.

SUSE has long been a favorite of European users. The company has been a strong backer of the KDE project, and SUSE features one of the nicest implementations of KDE. Now that it has been teamed up with Ximian, a major developer of the GNOME desktop environment, you can expect releases going forward to include well-featured versions of both desktop environments.

SUSE is known for its powerful but confusing YAST configuration utility. With this program you can configure your Linux system, add and remove software, create users, and perform other administrative tasks. After Novell acquired SUSE it open-sourced YAST, but don't expect it to show up in other distributions anytime soon.

The current version of SUSE is the Professional 9.3 boxed set, sold at stores like Best Buy, Comp USA, and Fry's, as well as from various online vendors. It comes with over 1000 pages of documentation in two books, one focused on using the OS, the other on administering it.

SUSE 9.3 has the ability to resize hard drive partitions, including NTFS ones, so you can easily install it alongside existing Windows installs to create a dual-boot system. SUSE provides a downloadable ISO image of the Personal edition, but only the Professional edition is available via an FTP install; see the instructions on the SUSE web site. SUSE also offers a live CD that functions as a demo, and is a great way to try out SUSE and see if it recognizes your hardware. SUSE should definitely be on your short list of distributions to try out.

More information is available from these resources:

http://www.suse.com
http://forums.suselinuxsupport.de/
#suse channel on IRC freenode
The newsgroup alt.os.suse

Slackware

Though Slackware isn't the oldest distribution, it's the oldest one that has been continuously developed. It was created by Patrick Volkerding in 1993 and is currently maintained by him. Slackware is free software, so you can install it on as many computers as you like. A supported version can be purchased from http://www.slackware.com.

Slackware is a no-frills distribution that does little to customize the desktop environments or other software packages. That's bad news for someone who wants a Windows-like experience, but fantastic news for someone who wants a very clean, uncomplicated, and stable system.

The simplicity of a basic install of Slackware combined with its very Unix-like approach to Linux makes it popular as a server distribution, but usually only experienced Linux users use it as a desktop. Though it requires a knowledgeable user to configure it properly, the reward is a secure and stable operating system. As with Gentoo, I wouldn't recommend using this distribution until you have tried a few others. As users gain experience, they often find that they actually prefer working with hands-on distributions such as Slackware, Debian, and Gentoo.

Slackware favors KDE over GNOME, but maintains packages of both. For the best GNOME experience on Slackware, use Dropline GNOME available at http://www.dropline.net/gnome.

To test-drive Slackware, check out the live CD distribution called Slax. It is available at http://slax.linux-live.org.

Getting More Information

Learning about Linux is an ongoing process, and the more resources you have available the better. Linux users are a technically savvy group, so they make use of a variety of information channels.

Books

For initial forays into Linux, it's best to have a comprehensive guide. Hopefully, this book has provided you with the information you need to move beyond introductory Linux books, but obviously it can't be all things to all people. If you want another take on the subject, check out Linux for Non-Geeks (No Starch Press). This book focuses on the GNOME desktop environment, which makes it a nice complement to this book and a good introduction to the Fedora distribution.

If you're ready to tackle more than the pretty desktop environment in Linux, try Running Linux (O'Reilly). This is the best-selling Linux book of all time, and it provides everything you need to know to become a power Linux user. This includes not just understanding how to use a desktop environment, but how to administer a Linux machine and set up network services like web, file sharing, and email servers.

Sometimes you just need a quick reference to turn to. Once again, O'Reilly provides the two best-selling reference titles with Linux in a Nutshell, a detailed 1000-page reference book, and Linux Pocket Guide, a mini command reference that fits in your coat pocket. (Don't let the Fedora banner on the pocket guide fool you; the commands covered apply to all Linux distributions.)

And finally, if you're intrigued by the power of live CDs, you might want to look at Knoppix Hacks (O'Reilly), which provides 100 cool things you can do with the most popular live CD variant, Knoppix.

Magazines

There are several Linux-oriented magazines that you can find at most bookstores:

Linux Journal
This was the first magazine on Linux in the United States, and the editors still seem to relish their role of keeping readers current with every aspect of Linux. The journal's focus is administration, but its articles range from end-user tools to journalistic reportage on the most cutting-edge projects. Insightful overviews of political, legal, and market issues get tucked in around the edges.
Linux Magazine
Another magazine with practical information for Linux administrators, similar to Linux Journal but with generally shorter and more basic articles. There is less interest in highly advanced topics and more articles on everyday components such as MySQL and Perl.
Linux Format
This is a British magazine that is often available in the U.S. at bookstores such Barnes & Noble and Borders. It is flashy and hip, and contains a lot of useful tips and tricks for desktop-focused users, but it has far less coverage of Linux as a server system than the previous two magazines do. Linux Format is often bundled with a CD, which raises the price substantially. The software on the CD is usually downloadable for free, so if you have plenty of bandwidth it is seldom worth the cost.
Tux
Tux magazine, named after the lovable Linux mascot, is a new digital magazine that is available for free at its web site, http://www.tuxmagazine.com. It is focused on the particular needs of the growing number of Linux desktop users.

Web Sites

A large number of web sites provide information about Linux. Some cover specific problems people have solved with Linux; others give exact instructions about how one person installed and configured Linux; and many others are general Linux and open source software news sites.

If you're interested in freely available Linux documentation, your first stop should be the Linux Documentation Project at http://www.tldp.org. This web site is a collection of HowTos and Guides for all aspects of Linux. It is particularly good at providing information about specific problems, such as making fonts look better (anti-aliasing) or getting wireless network cards to work.

For an invaluable resource to installing Linux on a laptop, there is no better place than the Linux on Laptops web site at http://www.linux-laptop.net. This is another example of how the Linux community provides for itself, not just with software but with documentation. The site is really just a bunch of links to individual pages written by Linux users that provide detailed instructions about how they installed Linux on their laptops. Laptops contain a lot of proprietary hardware that may not be fully supported under Linux, so it is often very helpful to learn from other users' experiences. If you haven't yet purchased the laptop you intend to run Linux on, visit this site first.

The Google search engine has a nifty feature that makes it just a little bit easier to find Linux-related information. Simply go to http://www.google.com/linux to get a specialized search page that will only return information from Linux sites. If you go to this page and perform a search on "wireless", for example, Google will only return results that relate to Linux.

There are dozens of web sites out there that provide helpful information to Linux users. One of the best for new users is found at http://www.linuxquestions.org. You can learn a lot just from browsing the forums or wiki and reading entries on topics that interest you.

There are several news sites that Linux users frequently visit. The most popular of these is http://www.slashdot.org, the self-proclaimed news site for nerds. This large community of technology enthusiasts has a very open source slant, but it is not exclusive to Linux. The news articles it links to run the gamut from Linux-related issues to how current patent law has the potential to ruin the software industry.

Another great site is the Linux news aggregator http://www.linuxtoday.com. This web site has links to all of the most popular or relevant Linux and open source articles posted on the Web that day.

When you purchase a new sound card, scanner, printer, or other peripheral, it will almost always come with a CD that contains drivers and program installers for Windows. It is very rare to find a vendor that provides Linux drivers in the box. Sometimes you will find drivers on the vendor's web site, but these will usually be listed as beta and unsupported. However, none of this means that the hardware will or won't work with Linux. If you want to know if your particular hardware works with Linux, check a hardware compatibility list. There are several such lists; here are just a few:

http://www.linuxcompatible.org/compatibility.html
http://hardware.redhat.com/hcl/
http://cdb.suse.de/?LANG=en_UK

Other sites of general interest include:

http://www.newsforge.net
http://www.osnews.com
http://www.desktoplinux.com
http://www.lwn.net

Linux User Groups

In cities around the world, Linux users gather on a regular basis to talk about things that interest them. As you can imagine, much of this talk revolves around Linux itself, but it also extends to discussions of open source software and technology in general. Recent meetings of the Boston Linux User Group had presentations on making your computer into a TiVo-like video recorder using the MythTV software, converting PCs into useful thin client desktops with the Linux Terminal Server Project, and an InstallFest to help new users get Linux installed and configured on their machines (a great way to get someone else to help you with any difficulties).

To find out if your city has a Linux User group, visit http://www.linux.org/groups/index.html or http://glue.linuxgazette.com where you can perform a search for your city.

Summary

Henry Ford is reputed to have said, "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black." One reason he may have said this was because black paint dried the fastest on the assembly line. That means the choice of paint color was expedient for the manufacturer, not for the customer. Thankfully, the automobile industry has changed since his time, and it is now possible to buy cars from dozens of manufacturers, in hundreds of styles, painted in practically every color under the sun.

Unfortunately, the same has not yet been true of the computer world. You can buy a PC computer from dozens of vendors but they all come with just one operating system: Microsoft Windows. Though it is expedient for Microsoft to continue to sell an overpriced, buggy, and insecure operating system, the situation really isn't that good for you, the customer.

Don't let this test drive of Linux be the end of your Linux experience. Pick a distribution to try out; in fact, pick several. Most are free or can be obtained at little expense. (If you can't decide, I recommend trying both Mandrake and the open circulation version of Xandros.) Though it does take a little bit of time to try each distribution, your gain is a stable, secure, and low-cost operating system that will enrich your computer experience.

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