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A Linux you can try before you even install it

Plus, a reaction to reader's flames about our Windows vs. Linux installation comparo

(LinuxWorld) -- It's strange how things work out sometimes. I was feeling a bit burned out by the install wars. I don't mean the difficulty of getting an OS to lay down politely on a system. I mean seared by the flames from those whose belief systems were shattered by my column last week. There were more than a couple Windows users who became "excited" by my report that Red Hat 7.3 was a better, faster, and easier install than Windows 2000.

"It's an unfair comparison!" was the most common whine. It wasn't unfair at all -- it was an honest, uncontrived real-life experience. However, I do agree with the readers that there are many unfair things in the whole scenario.

First, it is unfair of Microsoft to force the OEMs to use restore media instead of including an OEM CD version like the one they used to be able to do. As bad as most Windows users I heard from believe the restore process to be, and in spite of their desire to blame Sony for that, it seems to me that Microsoft is trying to gouge its consumers by getting them to pay for a second copy of Windows in order to avoid the dreaded Windows "restore experience." I was amazed at how many Windows users felt that was the best course of action.

Next, it is unfair that I have to explain the facts of Microsoft's business practices to its users. Count each and every angry, red-faced Windows user writing in to tell me I was a clueless idiot (or worse) for using the restore disks as a person completely ignorant of the impositions Microsoft places on the OEMs. For this sizable and special group, I offer to them whatever solace and encouragement they might find in the words of Microsoft's CEO, Steve Ballmer: "Eat the dogfood."

Of course, it is unfair for the vast majority of Microsoft users, those who have gotten their Windows preloaded, using the restore disks as I did is the only legal way they have to reinstall Windows. That is unless they fall into that category of user with enough money and so little good sense as to rush out and pay for a new retail version. All that in order to save the extra 5 or 10 minutes the restore actually takes.

The unfair thing of all is the evil EULAs with which Microsoft binds its victims. Customers buy Windows under one license and then find that the license is actually living document that can be updated and changed unilaterally by Microsoft. One thing is certain. Microsoft's dot Net project must really be hurting. Otherwise they wouldn't be trying to steal their customers' right to free speech, they would be paying customers to publicize it.

After the hundreds of emails I got on the column, I was tired of discussing installations at all. I needed a quick fix. Something easy. Something good. I noticed some folks on a mailing list I subscribe to talking about Knoppix. Then a reader commenting on last week's column mentioned it as well. I had to try it. I found it to be all I needed: quick, easy, and good.

Knoppix, the painless Linux test drive

Knoppix is an "instant demo" distribution. You make (or buy if you don't have a CD burner or the bandwidth to download the ISO image) a bootable CD, plop it in your CD drive (for you newbies, CD drive is the technical name for the coffee cup holder that slides in and out on the front of your computer), and reboot.

Voila. THAT is your install. Now you are running one rad Linux, dude. On your Knoppix desktop (built atop a Debian base) you'll find Knoppix provides KDE 3.0.2 with its Konquerer browser, the GIMP for images, Kdevelop for coding, and - hold on to your hats, folks -- Open Office 1.0. In all, more than 900 executable programs are included in the ISO image. It's amazing.

In about 2 minutes time, including the boot sequence, Knoppix has sniffed all your hardware, configured itself for you video card and your Internet access, and loaded the KDE 3.0.2 environment. A svelte female voice announces the KDE startup. When you exit the demo, the same voice tells you it is beginning to shut down. Shut itself down it does, turning off the machine as it leaves.

Knoppix doesn't interfere with anything on your hard drives. Makes no never mind if you are running Windows or Linux. Any partitions it finds are opened in read only mode. This makes it perfectly safe for even the rawest newbie to surf and explore Linux right from their own machine.

You can, however, unmount a partition and remount it in read-write mode. You're on your own then, however, as you can certainly mess something up if you're not careful. You can do it with a couple of mouse clicks in the GUI. No MSG (Masters degree in geek) required.

See the image below? That is of me running Knoppix on this very machine. I was using vi from Knoppix to edit this story. The text file lived on my hard drive. I captured the screenshot using the GIMP and saving it to the /tmp directory on that same drive.

All I had to do was right-click on the icon representing my disk partition, select the properties tab, and un-click the Read-only property. Then I mounted the drive by clicking on Mount. It's very easy.

Knoppix desktop view
Editor's note: The above image is reduced in size and color palette to allow it to load quickly. Click on the above image to see the original. Or, you may view a full-sized, reduced-color version that will load more quickly.

Of course just because you can write to the hard drives doesn't mean you should. Knoppix is, after all, a "live demo" distribution and it isn't meant to be a way to run Linux on a fulltime basis.

The real message is this: if you've wanted to give Linux a whirl but were afraid to ask, don't be any longer. Get Knoppix. Boot the CD. You're there, baby. Surfing, playing, checking out Open Office, the KDE desktop, the development environment. Whatever. It is a great learning tool. When you're finished, you are right back where you started without a hair out of place.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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