You know how it goes – you want to try Linux but you’ve heard horror stories from those who have had a go. A friend of a friend who once tried it tells you that he had to dig around on his disk, reformatting and moving stuff. Not only that but once he got it working he couldn’t get the damned thing to access the Internet!
Everybody who has tried Linux hits two major problems. The first is partitioning: when RedHat came along installation was made much easier with auto-probing of hardware, protecting users from having to enter nasty IRQ and memory address settings. But the issue of making space for Linux on your PC – which usually means getting Windows to shift over on your hard disk courtesy of repartitioning – is still something that many people find difficult, particularly those new to computing. It’s also risky and has the potential to wipe out your Windows installation.
The second issue is encountered once Linux is up and running: Linux is primarily designed for use on networked PCs and using it with a dial-up connection to the Internet via a modem can be a nightmare. Because of this many people give up before they’ve even given Linux a chance to prove itself.
Mandrake’s Linux for Windows attempts to solve both these problems. Died-in-the-wool Linux fans had better stop reading now because Linux for Windows commits sacrilege – it runs under Windows (well, sort of). It uses virtual partitions, negating the need for repartitioning – this is a version of Linux that actually runs in a FAT32 partition (it actually runs ‘on top’ of FAT32). Not only that but it needs a brief DOS program to get it up and running.
It works using the Loopback facility of the latest Linux kernel. On the Windows side of things, a utility called Lnx4Win is used to create ‘virtual’ partitions from within Windows. During the Linux installation, and when you choose to boot into Linux from a special boot-menu, these partitions are ‘expanded’ into the full Ext2 file system. As far as Linux is concerned it’s got it’s own Ext2 partition. It’s still running under DOS, though. Because of this there’s also a slight but noticeable performance depreciation. But let’s be honest: few people use Linux for its out and out speed.
The second problem of Internet access and user-friendliness is solved by Mandrake’s pre-configured desktop installation. It defaults to KDE, although the other X-Windows suspects of Gnome and NeXTStep are also supplied – you can switch into these at boot-up. Literally hundreds of programs come preinstalled too, including many you will never use (like a million desktop games). But most importantly, one of these preinstalled applications is a PPP dialler which, so long as you know into which com port your modem is plugged, allows you to dial up to the Internet with little or no hassle. And, of course, you get Netscape Navigator.
The only software missing, ironically, is the most useful of all – Sun’s StarOffice. Considering this is available free to most users, it’s absence is an irritating mystery, and will involve attempting an 86Mb download. You also get very little documentation aside from a couple of flimsy booklets taking you through installation.
Despite all its best intentions, the program still makes a few irritating slip-ups. The Lnx4Win installation program chooses absurdly small default partition sizes – 400Mb for the main partition and 64Mb for the swap. You really need to double these two figures to get acceptable results if you’re using X-Windows – something those new to Linux won’t realise until a little too late. The program also requires 64Mb of RAM to install because of the intricacies of Lnx4Win and virtual partitions.
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