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Crossing the OS Divide With Linux

By Jack M. Germain
Dec 13, 2006 4:00 AM PT

Linux is fast becoming my operating system of choice because it lacks the software bloat and high overhead plaguing both Microsoft and Apple computing. Those words do not come easily to me. I have been a devout Windows user from the early days.

Crossing the OS Divide With Linux

I began experimenting with Linux distributions several weeks ago, trying a variety of Live CD sessions. Live CD allows users to run a fully functional Linux session from a CD without changing anything on an existing Mac- or Windows-formatted hard drive.

Unlike Windows and the Mac OS varieties, no single company has guided the development of Linux. Each Linux distribution offers a distinct look and feel; however, within the Linux platform you find the same libraries, or repositories, of hundreds of open source, free software packages.

I spent the last few weeks determining whether I could use Linux as a serious working environment rather than as the interesting distraction it first appeared to be. After all, my computing tasks are very different from corporate entities using Linux servers to run company networks.

I discovered that Linux is a very reliable replacement for the Windows and Mac platforms.

Narrowing the Choices

My Linux distribution of choice is Ubuntu. The latest version gets high marks for effort-free installation and setup.

I started running it on a 120 GB hard drive, sharing a partition with Windows XP. After a week of experimenting, I was convinced that I no longer needed the dual-boot option running on the secondary desktop PC, and I reformatted the entire hard drive in order to host Linux.

The entire process of reformatting the hard drive as an EXT3 volume for Linux and installing the Ubuntu operating system took about 20 minutes. The Ubuntu installation disk handled the entire operation. When the setup was complete, I did not have to reboot the computer.

Getting Software

Linux distributions come with one or more standard software installation programs that catalog the hundreds of available Linux offerings. Located in the System/Administration menu on the applications bar is the Synaptic Package Manager. The Add/Remove panel is the main application installer.

I succeeded in locating and installing Linux programs that performed most of the standard computing tasks that I use in Windows. These range from office productivity and multimedia programs to systems utilities.

Some third-party software requires special installation routines handled by manual commands typed into a command line in a terminal window. Finding the exact scripts takes searching through Linux support forums or help documents on software developer Web sites.

Discovering Automatix2 gave short shrift to my growing frustration over installing non-bundled software.

Automatix2 is a scripting program that automates the process of entering repetitive, lengthy commands at terminal prompts. It is a free utility that is available for many Linux distributions and installs in the Systems menu on the applications bar.

Installing Google Earth's satellite imagery and Picasa photo editing applications was a great hands-off solution with Automatix2.

Automatix2 also fixed a problem I had experienced, which was the inability to play both movie DVDs and Internet radio stations. Missing from the bundled open source software were the software codecs needed to play encrypted media files, but that did not stop Automatix2 from installing the missing audio-video components.

Office Equivalent Overviews

The open source software community does not lack applications. In fact, Linux users can spend hours trying numerous versions of software in every computing category.

Following is my list of must-use Linux programs. In every instance, these programs imported and exported to enough file types so that compatibility with other platforms was not an issue.

OpenOffice.org Writer is a full-featured writing program that is, menu item for menu item, almost a complete clone of Microsoft Word -- except it can not split the screen to show two parts of the same document or view two different documents at the same time. An exhaustive graphic gallery add-on is available.

OpenOffice.org Calc looks and feels exactly like Microsoft Excel, right down to the split screen and multiple sheet features.

OpenOffice.org Impress -- PowerPoint-like presentation software -- is loaded with bells and whistles.

OpenOffice.org Database's creation wizard is easy to use, and the application has a clean-looking interface that is less crowded than Microsoft Access.

E-Mail and PIM Overview

For me, the acid test in being able to migrate to Linux full time for work and personal tasks involves e-mail and personal information management (PIM).

I have used Microsoft Outlook on my Windows XP desktop and laptop. I rely heavily on its notes, contacts, to do lists and calendar features. I tried Evolution Groupware Suite by Novell, which is a standard in Linux distributions and is, to me, Outlook's "twin brother."

At that point, I was convinced about Linux as a replacement operating system.

Evolution's interface is a dead ringer for Outlook. The drag and drop mousing worked flawlessly, and I was able to import all of my Outlook files to Evolution. In fact, I have repeatedly imported and exported the entire PIM file structure (called a "PST" file in Microsoft jargon) between my Windows XP and Linux computers.

Burning Properties

Linux offers several options for burning CDs and DVDs. One of the most flexible and comprehensive choices is the GnomeBaker. Its click-and-burn interface makes creating audio, data and video copies as simple as the best Windows programs in this category. The only drawback is that there is no support for the ISO format.

A second favorite program in this category, K3b-The CD and DVD Kreator, supports the ISO format along with several other file formats not typically supported by most Windows-burning software.

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