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Linux vs. Windows installation, part 2: Shoot-out at the XP Corral

Can Red Hat take a 2-0 Installation World Series lead over Windows?

(LinuxWorld) - I've received a lot of criticism about a comparison I did recently about (re)installing Windows 2000 (W2K) and Red Hat 7.3 on my Sony Vaio PXG700K laptop. The comparison was based on real-world events, it was honest, and it was accurate. Red Hat emerged the clear winner in both speed and ease of install. Still, many people have claimed it was unfair to Windows. As a result, the editors at LinuxWorld.com have asked that I do a sequel.

Most of the complaints had to do with the fact that I used Sony's system-restore CDs instead of a retail CD. In a real-life scenario, I doubt that any of those complaining would rush out and plop down $200 for a retail copy of W2K in order to avoid using the system-restore CDs, but many said they felt that is what I should have done.

Others felt that my experience with Linux and lack of installation experience with Windows tilted the field in Linux's favor. Even though I tried to stick with the suggested default options as much as possible, I don't deny that I do have considerably more experience installing different versions and distributions of Linux than I do Windows.

The third major bone of contention from disgruntled Windows users stemmed from the fact that I used W2K instead of Windows XP.

To address these three specific complaints, we are doing a new series of installation benchmarks. This week, the operating system to be installed is Windows XP Professional 2002. In the coming weeks, we will report on Mandrake 9.0 and Red Hat 8.0.

Susan keeps it fair

To reduce the "home-field" advantage, I've asked my friend Susan to do the actual installs. I play the part of a sysadmin, someone she could turn to if she ran into trouble. But she does both the Windows and the Linux installs without interference from me. I'll assist only when necessary. Susan is an experienced programmer, but she has never before installed an operating system. She has much more experience using Windows than Linux or any flavor Unix.

Each installation begins with the laptop starting in exactly the same condition. The hard drive is stripped bare of all existing partitions. A Netgear PCMCIA Ethernet card is installed and connected to a high-speed cable modem. An IBM USB PC Camera is also attached. Regular readers will recognize that this is the same configuration used in the original comparison.

Finally, defaults rule. It is very likely that experienced Linux or Windows users could achieve faster results by straying from the vendor-recommended actions, but the idea is to keep the field level. If a default or recommended choice of action is indicated, it is taken. This keeps the focus on each operating system rather than how much or how little the person installing the OS knows.

Each install will be measured in three different areas:

  1. The basic install
  2. Applying updates and fixes
  3. Attaching the peripherals

The basic installation includes partitioning and formatting the drive, installing the OS and any applications included as part of the OS package. The second segment includes registration, download and installation of vendor-provided updates and fixes. The third and final category is getting the NIC and camera installed, configured and working. Naturally, the NIC will need to be working before updates and fixes can be applied.

Susan spent a few minutes glancing through the installation instructions included with XP (the time spent reading instructions is not included in the official installation benchmark). Normally, she would read every word before beginning both the Windows and the Linux installations. In the interest of time, and to mimic the OS's installation by non-professionals, she agreed to simply browse the materials for a minute or two before starting.

The test begins... now

At 8:35 AM, Susan powered on the laptop with the Windows XP Pro installation CD already in the drive. Two questions appeared and disappeared from the screen before she had time to respond to them. About 2 minutes after powering on, a Welcome to Setup screen appeared.

Windows suggests creating NTFS partitions instead of FAT32. We followed that suggestion and NTFS formatting began. It took about 25 minutes to format the 20 gigabyte drive.

Next, the install process created and copied a list of files to the hard drive. This was followed by a reboot. Susan was concerned about whether or not she should have taken the CD out of the drive, but it wasn't a problem.

A Windows XP Professional splash screen appeared, followed by a setup screen. After collecting whatever information was needed, the install application advised her that "Setup will complete in approximately 39 minutes."

There are blinking icons on the bottom right hand part of the screen, giving an indication that something is happening. You can also see the hard drive light wink on and off, so you know things are happening under the hood.

Susan comments that "Installing Windows XP is boring."

Then she gets a chance to participate in the process, as setup moved into its "personalizing software" phase. She accepted the standard English default, entered my name as User, LinuxWorld.com as the organization, and then keyed in the 25 character product key.

Next came a name for the system and an administration password. Setup continued and Susan entered the telephone area code, date, and time. Under Network Settings, she accepted "Typical" and answered "No" to the question of whether or not this computer would be a member of a domain.

Setup then began doing its own thing again: copying files, installing menu items, registering components and finally saving settings. A little more than an hour into the install, the screen goes blank and the system reboots itself for the second time.

When XP returns it does so with fanfare to show the sound card is working. Then a wizard appears, saying "I am here to help you set up your computer." The first thing the wizard does is to ask how the computer connects to the Internet. Susan indicates a LAN with automatic IP and DNS assignments.

Then it is time to activate and register this installation. Susan fills in my name and address information and my e-mail address at LinuxWorld. She declines the opportunity to receive promotional offers.

It is then made clear to us that the install is not yet complete when the registration process says "Unable to connect to the Internet. Your computer is not connected." We go off the clock while Susan's sysadmin figures out how to get Windows to recognize the Netgear PCMCIA card. She ignores the question asking who else might be using this computer.

I then fumbled around for a bit to figure out how to get the NIC recognized and configured. The diagnostic program on the Netgear CD tells me "card / socket service is not found."

The "Add Hardware Wizard" shows that XP does see the card, but that it doesn't have a driver for it. We go back on the clock as I click "Finish" in order to get debugger help.

In short order, we were installing the driver "automatically" from the CD. The wizard complains first that the driver is not digitally signed, then that the software has "not passed the Windows logo testing." But at least it allows us to continue, and finally -- at 10:12 AM -- we have Internet connectivity.

Update antics

Now we can register and install the updates. We're told there are 21 critical updates, 19 Win XP updates and 2 driver updates. One of these is Service Pack 1, which must be installed all by itself. Acceptance of a new end-user licensing agreement (EULA) is required to begin the SP1 update. Immediately thereafter, a second EULA must be accepted. Then the process begins. About 45 minutes later, SP1 has been applied, and the system tells us we need to restart.

The reboot takes a very long time, and there's no indication that anything is happening other than the sound of the hard disk churning. After XP finally restarts, a pop-up appears telling us that "You've just connected to the Internet. You need a Passport."

We restart the Windows-update process and learn that now 1 critical, 4 XP and 2 driver updates remain. We try to get them all at once. One of them, a security update, requires that yet another EULA be accepted. Shortly thereafter, we're told "You must restart your computer to complete the update."

As we wait for XP to reboot, Susan says "It is not clear to me whether we got all the updates or not." And she's right; we'll have to go back and check. But not before being told "You need a Passport in order to use Windows XP Internet communications features such as instant messaging, voice chat and video." Not to mention it is required to access dot-Net-enabled servies. The suggestion is to "Click here to set up your Passport now."

We ignore Microsoft's flexing of its monopoly muscle and return to the now-familiar Windows Update process. This time, no critical updates are found, but there is one that is "recommended" and two driver updates -- one for the video card and one for the Netgear. Wouldn't you know it? The recommended update requires the acceptance of another EULA.

One more task remains: getting the Web cam working. Susan tries to install it using the W2K driver on the IBM CD, but XP won't allow it. The "class manager" rejects the attempt. I take the helm at that point and start searching the Internet to find an XP driver for the camera. It took about ten minutes to locate, download and install it.

Conclusions

Actual elapsed time for the complete installation process was about 3 hours. As you can see from the chart below, however, we only counted 2 hours and 20 minutes of that. I didn't count time I spent figuring out how to get the drivers for the NIC and the camera installed, only the actual time it took to do it. More "lost time" occurred because we cancelled one task and had to repeat it because we thought the system had locked up when in fact it was just working silently.

 Windows 2000Windows XPRed Hat 7.3
Basic Installation0:421:030:52
Office Suite0:03 0:00
NIC/Network0:100:130:00
Updates1:060:540:43
Camera0:040:100:00
Total Time2:052:201:35
 
CD swaps823
Reboots861
EULAs840

While most of the install was easy, there were a number of things that merit attention. There were at least two points in the install where the machine sat quietly for several minutes, with nothing to indicate whether or not the install was still running or if it had frozen up.

Those two messages that flew past Susan right at the beginning of the install are indicative not just of poor design but of total disregard for the novice user.

And finally, the update process is still a disaster. It took three passes -- four if you count the one that had to be repeated because we were disconnected during the download -- to finish the updates.

As you can also see from the chart, the XP installation took longer than the W2K-system restore and much longer than the Red Hat 7.3 install. Yes, there was only one Windows CD this time, but there were still multiple reboots and a whole bunch of EULAs.

I doubt that one Windows XP user in 10,000 knows what they have agreed to by the end of the installation process. You can see why Microsoft is working so hard to get UCITA passed into law: they need it to validate the con game they are running on their customers by unilaterally changing contract terms on the fly.

In coming weeks, Susan will tackle not one but two Linux installs. We'll add Mandrake 9.0 and Red Hat 8.0 to the mix -- not just as a comparison to Windows 2000 and Windows XP, but to see which of them gives the best install. I've already erased XP from the laptop in preparation.

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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