Test Driving Linux/Great Programs That Aren't on the CD

From WikiContent

< Test Driving Linux
Revision as of 21:42, 11 March 2008 by Docbook2Wiki (Talk)
(diff) ←Older revision | Current revision (diff) | Newer revision→ (diff)
Jump to: navigation, search
Test Driving Linux

When you test-drive a car, your only option is to drive one on the dealer's lot. This car may not have the leather seats you want or may be the wrong color, but that's okay. You just want to see how the car feels and how it drives, and to make sure it's comfortable for you.

Test-driving Linux with the Move CD is the same thing. This CD doesn't include every available Linux program—there wouldn't be enough space for it. But it's still a good way to test-drive Linux because it gives you 90 percent of the features that you will have once you install a Linux distribution to your hard drive.

Still, there are a few programs of note that Move is missing, so I'll cover them here. These are by no means all of the programs Linux has to offer; they are just a few popular alternatives to the software covered earlier, as well as some useful programs that have no counterparts on the Move CD. My intent here is simply to inform you of other good open source programs, not to tell you how to use them.


There are thousands of open source programs you can try. Some distributions include multiple CDs or even DVDs to give you a convenient way to install these programs. Many more can be searched for at web sites such as http://freshmeat.net.

In a couple of instances I make note of alternative live CDs that will let you try out the feature described. You can also test-drive programs such as Firefox, Thunderbird, Nvu, and Gaim on your Windows computer. The more open source programs you are comfortable using in Windows, the easier your transition to Linux will be.


GNOME: An Alternative to KDE

KDE isn't the only desktop environment available on Linux. In fact, there are dozens, but the most well known after KDE is GNOME (pronounced Guh-nome, but people forget to say it that way all the time). Switching desktop environments from KDE to GNOME completely transforms the look and feel of your computer. You will not use more than one desktop environment at a time, but you can freely switch between them when you log into your computer.

The GNOME project started in 1997 as an alternative to the KDE environment, because some people didn't like that KDE was using a non-open source tool in its programs. Even though this sore point has since been addressed to most people's satisfaction, the GNOME project had a lot of talented coders working on it and has continued to be developed. It's debatable as to which is the best or most popular, but you would be doing yourself a disservice if you did not try out GNOME at some point.

GNOME takes a different approach to the desktop than KDE does. Rather than making every element tweakable, as KDE tends to do, GNOME prefers to hide its complexity behind a set of sensible defaults. There is still a lot of tweaking that can be done, but in GNOME it is just hidden under the hood, where its presence won't confuse new users.

The GNOME desktop as it appears in the Ubuntu distribution is shown in Figure 12-1. Note the presence of the bars at the top and bottom of the screen. The topmost bar contains the GNOME menu, which is similar to the K Menu and the Windows Start button. It is usually represented by a footprint icon, and in this screenshot has the word Applications attached to it. Next to the GNOME menu there may be more menus containing more program launchers or settings to control the computer. This may be followed by a few single-click icons to run some common programs, a bunch of empty space, and then a system tray that tells you useful things about your computer. The contents of the system tray vary depending on what you are doing on your computer; it always contains a clock, and sometimes items like a wireless signal strength indicator and a battery life monitor.

Figure 12-1. A typical GNOME desktop

A typical GNOME desktop

The bottom bar is dominated by the taskbar, which is where icons representing your running programs will appear. At the far left is a small icon that minimizes all your windows when clicked. Clicking it again raises all the windows. At the far right is a pager that lets you switch virtual desktops, and a small wastebasket where your deleted files will be put until you empty it.

The exact look of GNOME varies depending upon the distribution, but what you see here is pretty common to most setups. A few distributions don't use the top bar and move most of its functions to the bottom one, which makes it more like Windows. Users can customize their system either way.

The email client most often associated with GNOME is Evolution, which is described in the next section. GNOME is in the process of changing default web browsers to Firefox, described in the section after that.


A great way to try out the GNOME desktop, Evolution, and Firefox is to download the live CD for Ubuntu from http://www.ubuntulinux.org. This live CD also comes with several Windows installers that allow you to install Windows versions of many of the programs you see here. Just stick the CD in your drive while running Windows to see these installers.

The GNOME file manager is known as Nautilus. This simple-looking program has a lot of features that aren't immediately obvious, like the ability to burn CDs. What is obvious is that as you click through folders, each one opens in a new window. This is annoying to a lot of people because it clutters the screen, but familiar to classic Macintosh users and people who never changed the defaults in Windows 95 and 98. This is actually a recently introduced feature known as spatial views, and it is an improvement upon similar concepts that were implemented in earlier operating systems.

The idea behind spatial views is that each window will open in exactly the same place, with exactly the same size, using exactly the same view (list, large icons, small icons, etc.) as the last time you opened it (Figure 12-2). The GNOME programmers think this will make managing files easier because users will associate files with the appearance, location, and size of the directory window on the screen. This is different from users thinking of files as being located somewhere within a nest of directories and as something they have to "drill down" to get to. Personally, I don't like spatial views, but many people who have spent time with Nautilus love it. It can, of course, be turned off.

Figure 12-2. Each Nautilus window can have its own location, size and view settings

Each Nautilus window can have its own location, size and view settings

Evolution: An Outlook Work-Alike

Kontact is KDE's version of Microsoft's Outlook personal information manager, and Evolution is GNOME's. Though Evolution does bear a strong resemblance to Outlook in appearance (Figure 12-3), it has many advanced features that make it a very useful program in its own right. One such feature is called the Novell Connector, which allows a user to connect Evolution to a Microsoft Exchange Server so that calendars and contacts can be shared with Outlook users. Unlike Kontact, which is a parent program designed to hold several child programs like KMail and KOrganizer, Evolution was designed from the beginning to be a single application with calendar and contact features. As a result, it feels a little more polished, and you won't encounter any odd behavior when you switch between components.

Figure 12-3. The main Evolution window in email mode

The main Evolution window in email mode

Evolution provides the basic functions of email, contacts, calendars, and to-do lists. These features work, and they work well. If you are familiar with Outlook or Outlook Express you won't have any difficulty understanding how to use Evolution. One of the most notable advances Evolution makes over Outlook and other email clients is the notion of virtual folders. These folders are a lot like the saved searches for KMail described in Chapter 6, and the same advantages described for KMail's saved searches apply to virtual folders. My personal experience is that virtual folders work better.

Evolution is most often associated with the GNOME desktop. However, there is no reason you can't run it on a KDE desktop, and many people do just that. However, since it was programmed with different tools than KDE, there will be some slight differences in the look of the program. For instance, in a typical window the Cancel button is on the left and the OK button is on the right. But I think you'll be able to handle it.

Firefox: A Powerful Web Browser

Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser has been the dominant browser since about 1997. It is so pervasive that Microsoft has not felt the need to correct many of its flaws or security holes, a situation that has left Windows computers vulnerable to exploit by malicious code downloaded from web sites.

Firefox, shown in Figure 12-4, was originally called Phoenix because it rose from the ashes of the formerly dominant and now dying Netscape Navigator. However, that name was already taken by another software program, so the project went through a few name changes before settling on Firefox. Based upon the Gecko HTML rendering engine (the part of the program that determines how web pages look) that is at the heart of the Mozilla web browser, Firefox is a lean, fast web browser with a lot of built-in functions such as tabbed web browsing and pop-up ad blocking. It also supports all of the major plug-ins that run on Linux, such as Java, JavaScript, and Flash.

Figure 12-4. Firefox displaying the main page of the geek web site Slashdot

Firefox displaying the main page of the geek web site Slashdot

Firefox runs on 10 different operating systems, including Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. That means you can take it for a test drive on your current Windows machine by visiting http://www.mozilla.org and downloading the Windows installer.

Firefox can be improved through the addition of small programs called extensions. Anybody can program these and upload them for others to enjoy. There are currently dozens of extensions to Firefox that add such diverse functions as quick access to multiple search engines, a weather report in the status bar of the browser, and even automatic usernames and passwords for news sites such as the New York Times. Extensions are easy to find; just go to Tools→ Extensions and click Get More Extensions in the window that appears (Figure 12-5). All extensions can be updated with a single click of the Update button in the same window.

Figure 12-5. The Firefox Extensions window

The Firefox Extensions window

Recent evidence suggests that IE is starting to lose its long-held dominance on the Web, as Firefox and other browsers begin to erode its market share. It's hard to gauge exactly how much certain browsers are used, but there appears to be a consensus that IE has lost about 6 percent of its market share in the past eight months. Not bad, considering Firefox only reached Version 1.0 in November 2004. Though IE still has 89 percent of the market, further evidence suggests that computer power-users are switching from it in droves as webmasters at technical web sites report Firefox or Mozilla usage as high as 50 percent.


If you're running a version of Windows prior to Windows XP I strongly encourage you to switch to Firefox right away. Microsoft is providing patches and updates only to the version of IE on Windows XP, which means that your machine is becoming increasingly vulnerable to malicious code on the Internet. Firefox is largely immune to these security problems, and when problems do arise they are typically fixed very quickly.

Thunderbird: A Feature-Rich Email Client

While Firefox is based upon the Gecko HTML rendering from the Mozilla project, Thunderbird is based upon Mozilla's email client code. Think of it more as an alternative to Outlook Express than as a replacement for Outlook. Thunderbird supports POP3 and IMAP clients, and beyond the typical email features it also provides a highly accurate statistical spam filter and a newsgroup reader. A statistical spam filter determines the likelihood of a particular message being spam, based upon you teaching it what you consider spam. After a few days of training, it should achieve an accuracy rate as high as 99 percent. Figure 12-6 shows the main configuration screen for Thunderbird's spam filter.

Figure 12-6. Thurnderbird's main junk mail configuration screen

Thurnderbird's main junk mail configuration screen

Thunderbird also runs on Windows and Mac OS X, so you can try it out without switching to Linux. And you might consider doing so, because Thunderbird is more secure than Outlook Express, and also provides superior features such as the spam filter and an RSS news aggregator.


RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. It is just a method to have web sites tell you when they have been changed. When you subscribe to an RSS feed for a web site such as cnn.com, it will tell you when it has new stories without you having to visit. This can save a lot of time if you normally browse many web sites looking for one that has a new story to read.

Like Firefox, Thunderbird can be enhanced with the use of extensions. There aren't as many extensions as for Firefox, but that situation will change as Thunderbird becomes more widely accepted.

You can find more information about Thunderbird at its web site, http://www.mozilla.org/products/thunderbird/.

MythTV: TiVo for Your Linux Computer

If you're reading this book, you're probably tech-savvy enough to have heard of TiVo, the handy appliance that records television for you. Yes, that is what a VCR does, but the difference is that TiVo can hold 40 or more hours of high-quality video, provides a graphical and easy way to program shows to record, lets you jump around almost instantly in a recorded show, and even gives you the ability to pause the Superbowl while you go to the bathroom. TiVo is part of a new category of appliances known as Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) and sometimes called Digital Video Recorders (DVRs). TiVo has become so popular that TiVoed has become a verb. What few people know is that TiVos run on Linux. This makes it a lot like Google, which also runs on Linux and has its own verb—Googled.

Unfortunately, the TiVo program code is not available for download, which means you can't make your own. But about three years ago, someone decided to create his own alternative. Isaac Richards started the MythTV project in 2002 to create a PVR for himself. He opened up his code and made it available for others to contribute. The result is a very successful project used by many Linux users to create their own multimedia center for their home. You can find out more at the project's homepage, http://www.mythtv.org.

I say that MythTV is a multimedia center because it has moved beyond the basic recording abilities of TiVo. It can also play music files, display digital images, play random video files you create yourself or download from the Internet, play DVDs, check the weather, and even make long-distance phone calls over the Internet. And if you think the XMame program covered in Chapter 5 sounded like fun, you'll be happy to know that you can run classic arcade games on your TV using XMame and MythTV.

MythTV got its name because it is the mythical convergence box that tries to meet all your multimedia needs in one place. Microsoft makes a version of Windows called Windows Media Center 2005 that comes close, but doesn't quite reach the functionality of MythTV.

To create a MythTV box you need a computer with at least a 1 Ghz processor, a lot of hard drive space, a video capture card, and limitless patience. It seems like most people prefer the Win-PVR video capture cards from Hauppauge. Where you get your patience from is up to you.

MythTV downloads television programming information from a web site called ZAP2it. To get this information into your MythTV system so you can program shows to record, you need to register a free account with ZAP2it and answer a very short survey every three months. Figure 12-7 shows TV schedule information in MythTV. This screen is just one of the places where you can set your programs to record.

Figure 12-7. The recording scheduler in MythTV

The recording scheduler in MythTV

The Media Library screen, shown in Figure 12-8, is where you choose which of your recorded shows to watch. This screen conveniently groups your shows together, displays a description of each show, and lets you delete shows when you are finished viewing.

Figure 12-8. The Media Library screen lets you select shows for viewing

The Media Library screen lets you select shows for viewing

MythTV is in a constant state of development. If you choose to create a MythTV box, be sure to search the Web for the latest documentation on how to do it. A good place to start is http://www.mythtv.org/modules.php?name=MythInstall.


There is a live CD called KnoppMyth that helps you set up a MythTV system. You can download it from http://www.mysettopbox.tv/knoppmyth.html. You can't run MythTV from the CD; it simply helps you set it up quickly.

Running Microsoft Office on Linux

You may be one of those people who really need to use Microsoft Office. If you're like me, you use Microsoft Word because you collaborate with others who use Word, and fixing formatting problems across multiple exchanges of a document can be a hassle. Or you may be an Excel power-user with a lot of macros that you just don't have time to rewrite for OpenOffice.org Calc. Regardless of your reason, you just know that you can't use Linux until it runs Microsoft Office.

Well, the good news is that Linux can run Microsoft Office. A company called CodeWeavers (http://www.codeweavers.com) has created a product called CrossOver Office that enables you to run your Windows copy of Microsoft Office (not a Mac copy) under Linux. This book was written using this product to run Word on Linux. CrossOver Office isn't free, but it's only $39.95 for a single user. Obviously, you need to provide your own copy of Microsoft Office. CrossOver Office also supports other programs like Photoshop, Quicken, and QuickTime.

I can't say that it's flawless, but most issues are more quirks than real problems. For example, when I first open a long document, sometimes there isn't a scrollbar along the right-hand side. If I minimize the window and bring it back up, the scrollbar is back. Also, some programs work better than others. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint run nearly perfectly, but Outlook and Internet Explorer have more glaring bugs.


Rumor has it that CrossOver replicates the Windows environment so well it can run Windows viruses! Don't worry, though—even if it could, it can't infect your Linux system.

CrossOver Office is very simple to use. You install it through a graphical installer that asks only a few questions. To install Office itself, you have to launch the CodeWeavers Office Setup tool (Figure 12-9). From inside this program you can launch the installer for Microsoft Office. When Office is installed, it places icons for the components in your KDE or GNOME menu, which you can then use to launch the programs.

Figure 12-9. Use the CrossOver Office control center to install Windows programs

Use the CrossOver Office control center to install Windows programs

From this point on, using Office is just like using it on Windows. If you click an Office document it opens in the proper program, and all menus, options, and commands work as usual (Figure 12-10).

Figure 12-10. Microsoft Word running on Linux

Microsoft Word running on Linux


CrossOver Office can be used to install other Windows programs as well. You can see the supported programs on the product page for CrossOver, http://www.codeweavers.com/site/products/cxoffice/. It's possible that dozens or even hundreds of other programs also work; they just haven't been tested yet. Once you are running Linux you can download a trial version of CrossOver Office and try out any other Windows programs that are important to you.

CodeWeavers bases their program on the open source project known as WINE. This project has the big, hairy, audacious goal of allowing all Windows programs to run under Linux. CodeWeavers employs several of the main WINE programmers and contributes their improvements back to the project, with the exception of their easy-to-use installer. If you don't want to pay for a copy of CodeWeavers or are willing to invest some time installing Windows programs, try out WINE. The homepage for the project is at http://www.winehq.com.

Creating Web Pages

An operating system developed by people communicating over the Internet should have a program to develop web pages. Microsoft devotees use Frontpage, professional designers like Dreamweaver, and Linux purists use text editors. The somewhat less pure use Quanta Plus.

Quanta is a complete web development environment (Figure 12-11). It provides for easy management of multiple web projects, FTP upload of your files to your web server, a text editor view that color-codes your tagging, and even a WYSIWIG view that lets you see how your web pages will look as you are creating them.

Figure 12-11. The main Quanta Plus window with a web page loaded

The main Quanta Plus window with a web page loaded

Quanta includes a built-in syntax checker that checks not only HTML, but other languages like PHP, Perl, and SQL. This feature helps ensure that all of your web pages are standards-compliant and will display correctly in the widest range of web browsers. More information can be found at http://quanta.sourceforge.net.

Quanta isn't the only HTML editor for Linux. The Move CD includes a very basic one called Mozilla Composer. You can launch it from K Menu→ All Applications→ Internet→ Web editors→ Mozilla Composer.

Recently the Composer code has been improved upon, creating a product called Nvu (Figure 12-12). Nvu is related to Mozilla Composer in the same way that Firefox is related to Mozilla. You can find out more about it at http://www.nvu.com. Nvu runs on Windows as well as Linux, so you can try it out without installing Linux.

Figure 12-12. The main Nvu window with the oreilly.com web page loaded

The main Nvu window with the oreilly.com web page loaded

Quanta is a more mature and more powerful program than Nvu, but Nvu is much easier to use when you just want to create simple web pages or web sites. Beyond that, the program you use will probably depend upon your skills as a web designer.

KDevelop: A Complete Programming Environment

All the code that makes up KDE didn't write itself. It took—and takes—a lot of dedicated people working on the job and in their free time to develop all of these wonderful programs. One of the most important programs these people created was the programming tool they use to write more programs.

KDevelop is the KDE Integrated Programming Environment (Figure 12-13); that is, it's a one-stop program for all of your development needs. It allows you to work with several programming languages, such as Perl, Python, C, C++, and Java, and doesn't limit you to creating just KDE applications. A complete description and feature list for KDevelop can be found at http://kdevelop.kde.org.

Figure 12-13. The KDevelop Integrated Programming Environment

The KDevelop Integrated Programming Environment

I think the results that KDevelop produces, namely KDE, are a testament to its usefulness and to the ability of the KDE programmers. What's interesting and great about KDevelop is that it is completely free. Programming environments like this normally cost hundreds of dollars, if not more, and have to be licensed per individual programmer. This is cost-prohibitive for almost anyone interested in becoming a programmer, particularly young people.

But Linux, combined with free software compilers, debuggers, languages, and development tools like KDevelop, is a zero-cost environment in which anyone can learn how to program. Combine this with the availability of all the source code that makes up the open source world, the breadth of software projects eager to have someone help out, and the general friendliness of the open source community to people willing to learn, and you have a recipe for many people to find a lifelong hobby, or possibly an illustrious career as a programmer.

Scribus: Designing Magazine and Advertisement Layouts

The professional publishing world is dominated by just a few programs, most of them from Adobe. Chapter 7 already described the GIMP, an image editing tool that seeks to challenge Adobe Photoshop. This section introduces Scribus, an open source desktop publishing tool that seeks to rival Adobe InDesign and Quark XPress. Scribus is a long way from replacing either of these programs in all situations—even the commercial programs aren't adequate to all tasks—but still, Scribus has a few "wins." It is already being used by a small commercial newspaper, and recently the first professional book designed entirely in Scribus was published. Small victories to be sure, but all great things must start somewhere.

You might be interested in Scribus if you want to create a greeting card, design a flyer, or lay out a report for school. If you are a professional, you might have more ambitious needs, such as creating a marketing report, laying out an advertisement for a magazine, or designing a catalog to sell your products. Figure 12-14 shows the main Scribus window with a page spread loaded.

Figure 12-14. A page spread displayed in Scribus

A page spread displayed in Scribus

Visit the main web site for Scribus at http://www.scribus.org.uk/index.php to find out more about the program and see some screenshots that show off some of its features.

Instant Messaging with Gaim

Chapter 6 covered the multi-network IM program Kopete because it is a KDE application and comes on the Move CD. But Gaim, another IM alternative, is actually the grand-daddy of all open source IM programs and the one I still prefer. Gaim runs the protocols for all the major networks, such as AIM, MSN, Yahoo, Jabber, IRC, and so on. Just as with Kopete, you can be logged onto different networks at the same time. And it runs on Windows, making it a great, free alternative to other multi-network IM clients you might have to pay for. And when you're finally ready to switch over to Linux entirely, Gaim will be just one more application you're already familiar with.

Gaim's web site is http://gaim.sourceforge.net, and information on the Windows version can be found at http://gaim.sourceforge.net/win32/index.php. There are links on this page to download a Windows version with or without GTK. GTK is a requirement to run the program, so unless you already have GTK installed on Windows (which is unlikely unless you installed the Windows version of the GIMP), you should probably choose the download with GTK.

Gaim supports file transfer, away messages, typing notification, and those little smiley faces everyone thinks are so cute. My favorite features are the tabbed chat windows, which help me keep all my chats in one easy-to-minimize window, and the spellchecking. I lost my ability to spell when I started using IM almost 10 years ago, and Gaim is helping me to get it back. Figure 12-15 shows the Gaim buddy list and a typical chat window.

Figure 12-15. The Gaim buddy and message windows

The Gaim buddy and message windows

Personal tools