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Mandrake 8.1 easier than Win-XP

Practically installs itself

Windows addicts curious to see how the other half lives but wary of the installation challenges Linux is supposed to present will find Mandrake 8.1 considerably easier to install and configure than Win-XP. It's quite nearly Harry Homeowner-proof.

Ready for some cultural tourism? No need to hesitate; the full Pro package sells for a mere $150.00, compared with XP's $300, so it's hardly a major investment even if you should run home to Redmond in the end.


The Mandrake installation beats even SuSE's, which is relatively comprehensive and trouble-free. The first issue for me was whether I'd get the same fatal read-errors I got from Red Hat and SuSE with my CD-ROMs set to cable select, as the Dell factory likes them. This is important because Compaq, Gateway and HP also like this arrangement, and Harry is most likely using an OEM box.

With Red Hat the installation failed, and the documentation was inadequate to sort out the issue. With SuSE it failed as well, but the YaST installer prominently offers a safe-mode installation, and the documentation prominently urges this whenever there's a problem. The user may never know why his first attempt failed, but his second will go all right so long as he follows directions.

Again I set up my two CD-ROMs and two HDDs with cable select, and ran Mandrake's DrakX installer. It handled the CS arrangement flawlessly. I was so surprised that later I switched everything back to master/slave configs and re-installed, but that worked fine as well.

So on the Harry test I give an F to Red Hat for having no knowledge of the CS issue and no useful recommendations; a C+ to SuSE for making it easy for Harry to get it right the second time around; and an A to Mandrake for having no such issue at all.

The second issue for me is my networking scheme, which, while not quite an out-of-the-box setup, is by no means over the top. Perhaps a bit eccentric by Harry standards, I'll allow.

I'm using a DSL modem, ethernet cards and a router to connect my machines to Verizon's DSL service. I need a PPPoE client running. Red Hat took me hours to configure; and SuSE never did work due to some lame-assed PPPoE client I was told to fetch from their Web site (hello!). Win-XP never worked either, because it was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that it had already installed all the software needed to run my hardware and arrogantly refused to be corrected.

And Mandrake? It detected my ethernet card correctly, and when I installed ADSL it popped in a handy PPPoE client and connected the first time. I mean, immediately after configuring it, without any subsequent tweaking.

As for other hardware detection, Mandrake was infallible. The drives; the wheel-mouse, the keyboard, the monitor, the video card (nVidia Ge-Force AGP 64 MB), the sound card (SoundBlaster Live), all of it. All I had to do was confirm its choices every now and then.

Disk partitioning and formatting is an absolute breeze in expert mode, with a graphical menu showing all your hard drives and partitions. You just click to select a partition or a chunk of free space, and it's selected in the configuration menu. It's a mousey affair, with little sliders to set the partition sizes. (Mousey is OK with me, as is texty; what irritates me is a combination where I'm shifting back and forth between mouse and keyboard.)

Video gremlin

Ah, but there had to be at least one hitch. The driver for my video card with hardware acceleration which I was offered froze my machine during the boot and nothing could make it start, not even a boot floppy.

There was an "experimental" driver which I didn't try. The one I did try wasn't flagged for danger, but should have been. So I had to use the driver without hardware acceleration which worked fine, and then download the right RPM from nVidia's Web site. Not a lot of trouble, but this is precisely the sort of little oversight which will drive poor Harry to distraction; and it's the only thing I encountered during several different Mandrake installations which mars an otherwise outstanding Linux eXPerience.

What to expect

There will of course be some trade-offs if you migrate from Windows. You'll loose the Microsoft puppy yapping at your heels, harranguing you to 'activate' and get a Passport. You'll finally be permitted to configure your machine pretty well as you please, which may take some getting used to.

But regardless of whether you choose to run KDE or Gnome, the Linux desktop definitely isn't as pretty. It's more configurable, certainly; the OS is more stable; you get lots of free applications and utilities; and your machine will be a lot more secure, if for no reason other than your immediate escape from that premium virus propagator Outlook.

If you're into graphics work, Linux is not your environment. But then you're already using a Mac. If you're heavily into games, then you're definitely stuck with Windows. Linux's multimedia support is crude out of the box, but there are heaps of applications and codecs for download, so this limitation can be overcome.

So what's it good for? Everyday chores with a lot less noise and nonsense, especially those related to the Internet. It's a fine choice if you want to surf the Web and take control of the information you're leaving behind, and which Web sites are leaving on your machine; it's good for using e-mail with far fewer malware dangers (start by displaying all received messages as text only); and of course it works well for chatting and trading files with your friends on line.

In other words, it's better at most of what the majority of Windows addicts use their computers for: wasting time on line.

Office applications are adequate, but not great. Personally I never use anything but a text editor, though many people seem to relish the distractions of word-processors and spreadsheets. Here you have several choices, none of which is as slick as its MS Office counterpart. Sun's StarOffice 5.2 is particularly loathsome, but recent reports indicate that version 6.0, due out in early 2002, marks a giant step forward.

Of course Linux is a great development platform if you like to roll your own progies, and perfect if you want to run a little Web or FTP server off your home machine. It's far cheaper, simpler and safer than using IIS over NT or 2K. (Also excellent in the enterprise space, but that's another story.)

Other virtues include the simple pleasure of 'getting clean' following years of addiction to the Microsoft upgrade dependency scam. The sweet sensation of rehabilitation alone is worth the purchase price.

If you'd like to eXPerience that sensation, Mandrake 8.1 is, hands down, the easiest way to get started. ®

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