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One Less Windows User

One Less Windows User

After nearly five years, I needed to update my personal computer. My old Dell Inspiron has long since been rendered quaint by advances in processor speed and hard drive capacity. Rather than buy a new machine running Windows Vista or take the Mac plunge, I decided to walk the open source walk.

By Jason Z. Cohen
08/27/08 4:00 AM PT

As editor for LinuxInsider for more than a year now, I figured the time was right to start walking the walk with my personal machine.

So I took my Dell Inspiron 1150 to this year's LinuxWorld Conference & Expo with the intention of switching my operating system to one of the many Linux distros.

I visited the booths of several distros, Ubuntu, Suse, Red Hat and even BSD (which is NOT Linux but is an open source operating system), grabbing disks along the way. The plan was to give each a test drive, then choose one based on my experience. I ran into a bit of difficulty right off the bat, because my dear Inspiron wouldn't let me boot directly from the CD. Only the Ubuntu discs gave me the option of installing a utility that let me boot from CD, so I test drove the Hardy Heron versions of both Ubuntu and Kubuntu.

While Kubuntu features the KDE interface, which I'm familiar with, I ultimately chose the standard Gnome desktop version for the sake of variety.

On My Own

I had a few questions going in, and while I wanted to pick the brains of the guys at the Ubuntu booth, they're not tech support. So I decided to try and figure everything out on my own, with only the help of the Ubuntu community as my guide.

I had a few questions when I started down this path -- the kind of questions a typical Windows user might have when considering a switch to Linux.

What about security? Do I need antivirus? A firewall?

Ubuntu Hardy has a firewall -- iptables -- that comes as part of the bundle. Since Linux isn't Windows, any exploits that are written for Windows will simply not work, so you're safe from those. However, there are some programs that are available -- such as ClamAV, which is mainly designed for Linux servers acting as mail gateways, or the free version of AVG, which doesn't require compiling. For a user switching from Windows on a personal laptop, that's probably the better option. However, if you avoid logging on as the root user, your system files will be safe from executables.

Can I use iTunes?

Nope, but there are a couple of apps -- such as Amarok and GTKPod -- that allow you to sync the device. You won't be able to use the iTunes store, but do you really want to pay Apple to tell you you can only make seven copies of your music?

How can I get my wireless networking card to work?

My old Dell has a Broadcom B43 wireless chipset. That's a problem with Ubuntu, not because of the driver but because of the firmware that is needed in order to run the driver. It took a small amount of poking around and searching Ubuntu's knowledge base to find out what I needed to do.

I found this page, which told me where to get the firmware package I needed. I used Synaptic Package Manager to locate and then install the b43-fwcutter package. Instantly, I was able to see a number of wireless networks that were in range.

Still, that hasn't solved all of my wireless networking issues. While I was able, for example, to connect to the wireless network provided at LinuxWorld, I wasn't able to duplicate that success once I got home. That's because I use encryption on my home network, as we all should, while LinuxWorld's network was open. However, when I type in my WEP key as prompted by the Linksys router I have at home, it doesn't accept the key.

I checked the Ubuntu Forums for information on this issue, and found a thread that might help. Problem is, the guy who asked the original question found his connection suddenly working for no good reason, so the advice doesn't carry through to the point where we discover what the actual problem is and how to fix it.

That's the way it is with open source -- tech support is the other users. So I'll be posting a new question in hopes of finding the answer. I'm just glad I can hardwire and get Internet access, or the problem would be a lot more severe.

Is there an automatic backup feature? Or an app available?

Not really, but Ubuntu Forums has a pretty detailed set of instructions on how to accomplish a full backup through the command line.

I think I'm going to go a bit more simple with my backup plan. Before switching over from Windows, I copied all of my documents, music, photos and videos over to an external hard drive. I carry around an Ubuntu install disk just in case I have to reinstall the OS. It might not create an image of my system as-is, but everything at least has a backup copy. Besides, if I really do experience a catastrophic meltdown, I'm not so sure I'd want to stick with Ubuntu anyway.

Is there a driver for my printer?

Yeah, but that doesn't mean it works out of the box, like it would with Windows. I'm able to print documents, no problem. Photos, well, that's another story. Apparently I'm not the only person with the same issue. Sure, there's a workaround -- there always is -- but it means I've got to transfer the photo to an SD card, which I then put directly into the printer.

One thing I noticed right off the bat was that the entire software bundle -- kernel, packages and all -- only takes up 4 GB of hard drive space. Since the old clunker only had 30 gigs to start with, space had become a rare commodity. Now, I feel like I've got plenty of room. The system boots up faster as well, which is a nice benefit.

I think the most complicating factor in this whole experience, though, has been the fact that the box I used was built and designed to run Windows XP. From the motherboard on up, every component is optimized for Windows, so making it work takes some tinkering. That's one of the charms of Linux: You can tinker with it and learn about it along the way, but it's a time-consuming process that probably shouldn't be undertaken on a machine that you need to "just work" right away.

Going forward, I plan to follow the advice of Foogazi blogger Adam Kane, a frequent voice in the Linux Blog Safari, who lays out his view of the best way to learn Linux, which is, learn the command line.

However, as a relative beginner and a convert from Windows, you'll no doubt understand that I come from a GUI world, and I'm used to the GUI way of doing things.

Once computer manufacturers see that there's an interest in Linux as an operating system, maybe more of them will follow Dell's very tentative lead and begin to build Linux boxes from the ground up. When the entire system is built and optimized for Linux, then maybe even my mom could use one.


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