Linux bundles group test review

Open source Linux alternative to Windows
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£44.99 + VAT

Linux Mandrake 7.2 offers the most advanced user interface design of all the distributions here and impressed us not only with its outstanding installer, but also with the inclusion of the new KDE 2 as the default graphical desktop environment. RedHat 7 also included KDE 2, but it was not installed as the default. KDE 2 is very slick and a great improvement over KDE 1, offered by all the other distributions, and Mandrake has customised the environment well to make it easy to use straight from the box. This is one to watch out for as other distributions adopt the new version.

Installation using the updated ‘DrakX’ installer created a good first impression. DrakX is unique in giving the opportunity to change your mind about decisions you made several steps ago, and also offers an intuitive partitioning tool, which will help avoid trashing any Windows installation on the same disk.

Hardware support extends to GeForce II graphics cards and the very latest printers. Mandrake uses the CUPS (Common Unix Printing System) printing system, which provides an interface to printers that users of Windows will find familiar. CUPS offers extensive model support, covering even the very latest inkjets on the market very well. Support for anything other than Postscript or PCL is not exactly a strongpoint of Linux in general, so if you intend to use an inkjet, you’re probably best going with Mandrake.

Mandrake is rapidly gaining popularity for good reason. It is a superbly configured, very well thought-out distribution that has all the ease of use of Corel Linux without leaving users feeling distanced from the ‘Linux experience’.

SuSE has a reputation for providing a wide range of software. The company has reached the stage where it now provides everything on one DVD to save customers from constant swapping of CDs during installation (as an aside, RedHat would have benefited from this). It doesn’t seem so long ago that software vendors turned to the CD to prevent constant swapping of floppy disks!

SuSE has quite a good graphical installer, called Yast 2, which provides a decent level of control over installation. To us, a measure of a good installer is how it deals with partitioning of the hard disk, since this is where issues with dual boot of Windows and Linux and other boot problems occur. Yast 2 has an intuitive approach to this minefield in the install process.

In use, SuSE encourages good practice by altering the background to a red and black bomb design when users are logged in as the ‘root’ user (Admin), to highlight the fact that it’s generally not a very good idea to log in as root for the sake of it. For this reason, most Linux packages actually take you through the process of creating an ordinary user account during installation. Correct practice is to use the ‘su’ command to temporarily gain root privileges from a terminal window. This avoids any unintentional deletion of important files.

Our one caveat when installing SuSE is to think about what software you need. We foolishly installed everything to see how much of our massive test hard disk we could fill, and were then faced with the install process taking the best part of a day! Realistically, you won’t use anywhere near the 1,800 packages included. Still, if you want to play around with Linux, SuSE will keep you occupied for years if you let it.

TurboLinux made its name as a server OS, and this is quite evident in the Workstation version of the distribution that we reviewed. In other words, it’s more complicated. An early indication of this for us was the absence of any KDE or Gnome information in the manual.

The text-based installation is relatively straightforward if you’re happy playing around with hard disk partitions and understand your hardware, but will probably faze the inexperienced user.

We also encountered some incompatibilities with our Pentium III test machine that meant we had to change the graphics card to complete the installation. Although there was a driver for the chip in our ATI graphics card, we experienced bad screen corruption. Upon visiting the TurboLinux hardware compatibility database on their Web site, we discovered that they were having problems their end as well, so we resorted to e-mailing tech support (telephone support is not provided with this retail distribution).

There are better introductions to Linux than this. Probably best left to the professionals, this one, although it’s certainly powerful enough once installed.

These distributions have a great deal in common, but the lineage of each remains clear. Some, such as TurboLinux offer a traditional, almost purist approach to Linux, but are too arcane and unintuitive for ‘newbies’. RedHat and SuSE are very flexible packages, and would both be very capable running on an office server or as a Web server for a company intranet, without requiring expert knowledge. Both can be used on a desktop system, but Red Hat is quite clearly a server-oriented company, while SuSE suffers from software bloat so badly that even Microsoft operating systems look slim by comparison (although at least here it’s all optional!).

At the other end of the scale, Corel is a desktop operating system at heart, with few server features, but would fit in well with existing Microsoft machines on a network. But for us, the clear winner for use on workstations was Mandrake. This new version delivers even greater ease of use than the renowned version 7.1. It offers a well thought-out graphical installer, DrakX, with good features, excellent hardware detection and support, well thought-out default configuration of the desktop environments, and a broad range of software packages.

What’s more, it’s got good server features such as pre-configured Web administration tools, all the usual servers such as Samba for sharing files with Windows machines, and Apache for serving HTML pages. Whether you’re new to Linux or an experienced user, Mandrake deserves a look. While not the cheapest distribution reviewed, it won’t break the bank or the budget, and we think it represents the coming of age of Linux as a desktop operating system.

Although we wanted a workstation version of Linux for this group test, RedHat chose to send us the Professional Server edition. Essentially, the main software is the same, and the workstation CDs are even included in the pack. For comparison purposes, we’ve listed both the Deluxe Workstation and Professional Server in our feature table.

The reputation of RedHat as an OS for servers is far-reaching. RedHat boasts on the packaging that ’72 percent of the 850,000 Web sites world-wide running on Linux, run on RedHat Linux’. It certainly is a very professionally presented package, with good documentation and a mountain of software to rival even SuSE Linux. One neat touch in the Server version is a small credit card-sized bootable CD with 30MB worth of Linux programs, designed for System Administrators (we’d recommend giving this CD a miss if you’re not an expert, although it looks pretty funky!).

In installation, RedHat 7 posed no problems. It uses a plain but functional graphical installer, and gives you the choice of which graphical desktop environments to install, offering both KDE and Gnome, which are the two most commonly used and widely supported. Since RedHat 7 is among the newest of the distributions reviewed here, it comes as no surprise that it also offers among the best hardware support.

If you intend to use Linux primarily as a server, you might find that it is worth the extra money for the server edition. Once you have it, of course, you can also install it on a new PC as a workstation and play some of the included games, such as Railroad Tycoon II, Descent 3, SimCity 3000…

Linux isn’t just for servers, you know. IBM recently demonstrated Linux running on a wristwatch. A bit Star Trek, but clever. Of course, very few people are ever going to want to run Linux on a wristwatch, which is probably why IBM only made about 20 of them. But many will want to run it on a PC.

Disaffected Microsoft customers everywhere are turning to Linux. This evolving demand means that Linux companies are creating ever easier-to-use versions for those ‘microsofties’, and there are even ways of running all your Windows programs under Linux. In fact, Corel helped develop one of them (WINE), partly to make the job of porting PhotoPaint easier, so they didn’t have to write as much new code. Very clever.

Unlike Microsoft software, with Linux you can try before you buy via a CD writer and a downloaded ISO disc image. In fact, you never actually need to buy, which saves on those pesky licence fees, but it does pay to invest in the Linux culture by buying a retail package. By doing so, you’ll get up to 1,800 applications on CD or even DVD, plus paper manuals and installation support.

The Linux ‘Kernel’ is what makes Linux what it is. Being ‘Open Source’ (the source code is freely available to anyone who fancies themselves as a programmer), the Kernel is not actually sold, and like much of the software for Linux, can’t legally be sold for profit. This is where the concept of Linux ‘distributions’ comes in. A Linux distribution is a collection of customised software programs, along with an installer. Most are of the user-friendly, graphical variety these days. Each distribution has its merits, and justifies the (low) price by including paper manuals, support, several CDs, and so on.

You might think that if the Linux kernel is the same, each distribution will be the same. However, our tests show that nothing could be further from the truth. Each distribution has a particular target audience, and the configuration, including software, manuals and support, varies accordingly. Additionally, some offer a wider range of hardware support than others.

So if you’re interested in experimenting with Linux, or would like to set up a capable office server that won’t cost the earth in software licences, or maybe you just want to see what developments are happening outside of the influence of Mr. Gates (although we might have spoken too soon…), we look here at the pros and cons of buying different distributions.

We set about the difficult task of choosing a favourite by installing each distribution and evaluating its default configuration, manuals and support options. We didn’t expect to be able to choose easily between distributions, but in the end one stood out as a clear winner. Click the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.

Corel Linux may not be ranked as highly as the likes of RedHat in the Linux World, but the reality is that it offers an excellent introduction to the OS for Windows users. This is largely due to its installer, which offers excellent hardware detection and a friendly graphical interface to hide all the complex stuff going on in the background, and it has to be said that Corel did a much better installation job on our test PC than some of the other distributions.

Microsoft recently invested $125 million in Corel, which has helped Corel stay in business. There are many rumours flying around as a consequence – none of them substantiated – but judging by our tests, Microsoft couldn’t have chosen a better Linux company to ‘buy’. Corel Linux installs everything necessary to participate in a Windows network, so network shared drives can be mapped, printers accessed, and so on. We were also impressed by how well the graphical environment, KDE, was configured. Corel has provided a good choice of applications, but not so many that users will be scared off. This is in marked contrast to the 1,800 applications supplied with SuSE on DVD.

Although probably not the Linux of choice for system administrators or small network servers, Corel Linux is a good choice as a desktop operating system, and is targeted primarily at home users. However, this version is not so easy to buy in the UK. It seems that Corel is only selling this new version through retail in the ‘states, and in the UK it can only be purchased through Customer Services. Time will tell if this is sufficient to reach Corel’s target audience.

Company: SuSE

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