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Red Hat 8.0's bid for the simple, easy to use Linux desktop

We like it, but we're easily impressed

Review Desktop Linux and I go way back. By this, however, I mean I've spent an awful lot of time over the past couple of years trying and failing to get an acceptably working Linux installation onto the machine I use most often, which is an IBM ThinkPad. I have successfully achieved Linux installations on desktop machines, which is now easy-peasy, and even dual booting them with WinXP is something I can sometimes achieve first time, without perpetrating four silly screw-ups along the way. But what maybe we'd best call personal Linux on a portable is something that's been eluding me.

Where though, do you put that Red Hat 8.0 distribution they handed you the other week then, Mr Lettice? Ah yes, maybe we won't risk a dual boot with the current T21 working ThinkPad until we're absolutely sure we've got a reinstallable image properly backed up, but the previous working ThinkPad, the 600, is just there in the drawer. Battery's totalled, the screen matrix has come slightly detached, so you have to massage it to get a picture until it warms up a tad (tricky on cold winter mornings), but apart from that, it'll do.

This machine has tangled with Linux before, with I think Red Hat 6.x and Mandrake sort of gibbering on it before falling over, and Le Patron retreating after a few days of fruitless toil to wait for installs to get more 'out of the box'. Le Patron has also toiled fruitlessly with wireless Linux before, this being a necessity at home, where I need to use wireless to link the room where I keep the big stuff with the room where I keep the clear surfaces and the minimalist client desktop that plays the music*. Wireless Linux however I last abandoned about a year ago, having got as far as getting a Lucent Orinoco correctly configured and working (under SuSE, as I recall) but not actually doing much in the way of connecting. I think I read somewhere at the time this might be an issue. Oh good, I thought, it works really even though it doesn't work, and decided to back off for another year.

That year is now up, and here we are with Red Hat 8.0, a ThinkPad 600 with 96 megs RAM (very meaty for its day), and a Lucent Orinoco. I propose to approach the matter from the point of view of a dumb user just shoving the CD in and seeing what happens - this is a perfectly valid place for an assessment to start, and it is, after all, no more than the truth.

Shock number one was it installed without any hassle. No comments here on partitioning and dual booting, as I was happy just vaping the hard drive (which I appeared to have vaped already for some reason anyway), and accepting the defaults. This gives you what Red Hat terms a Gnome install rather than KDE. I'm more familiar with KDE, but I'm trying to keep out of the religious wars, and thought I might as well see where sticking with what Red Hat thinks best would get me. You also get the choice of various machine type configurations, and I went with the recommended one for dumb punters. Which is not quite how Red Hat puts it.

Tripwire number one was the network connection. The install may or may not have asked me for details, but if it did it was one of those things where it hangs around for a bit to see if you object, then presses on. If you're making a cup of tea or something, you're not going to notice this, so it's regrettable software companies do it, rather than just waiting for the OK click. The Lucent was recognised and apparently working, but as the machine didn't know the router address, the encryption key and the SSID it clearly couldn't connect. This is where it seems to me we get disorganised and counter-intuitive.

Going to System Settings, Network gets you to network settings, but the Orinoco is uneditable. Click on help, a browser window opens, click on connect to Ethernet, and it hangs forever. No doubt specific to my installation, but there's an exquisite irony. Rattle around Red Hat's online documentation for a bit (which is still as confusing and disorganised-looking as I remembered from previous bouts, not anything like as good as SuSE's), give up, scratch head, find Internet Configuration Wizard (System Tools - why Tools and Settings?), and running this and filling in the missing info seems to sort it. After which, I can edit the wireless setting under Network. Doh, a little more polishing needed here, I think.

Still, by previous standards that was all rather easy. With the ThinkPad there are two rough edges to sort out (possibly three, haven't checked the modem yet), but I do have an operational system that I could live with for a bit. It seems to have a go at suspending, emitting loud beeps when you close the lid but not quite getting there. And the sound system doesn't seem to have been recognised. Fixing both of these will require at least a little digging around, but I'll do that later.

The desktop and applications as assigned for me by Auntie Red Hat seem satisfactory for a simple, general-purpose personal system, and as I'm still not going to get religious I'm not going to object seriously. You've got Mozilla for browser, Open Office for productivity and Ximian for email, and a nice simple desktop showing Home, a tutorial and a waste bin, with large startbar icons for web, email and office stuff. The start menu is, in my view, progress, and here we may differ.

One of the difficulties for new users with Linux is that they really get too much choice. There's a huge shedload of free stuff they can install ('hell it's free, why not just install the lot?') and then they wind up with menus filled with strange names which lead to applications which all too often have help so minimalist that it's not entirely clear what they're for in the first place. So they run into trouble identifying the core apps they're actually going to use, and get confused as to whether an app is actually already installed or not. I know I do.

Although there's scope for arguments about which UI and apps a distribution of Red Hat's heft should default to, it seems to me eminently sensible for it to default to something, which will be enough to get people going, and then as and when they get a little more knowledge they can try out other stuff. Also important in the Red Hat desktop is the fact that stuff in the menus seem reasonably organised under headings in normal English, and these lead to things that tend to be called what they do, rather than something unintelligible to non-geeks.

Aside from the various desktop-related rucks (which I hope I've now sneakily scampered past), Red Hat 8.0 has come under fire for lack of multimedia support, and for executing some kind of chicken run regarding MP3. This is covered more fully than I could ever hope to in the OSNews review (link below), but I think I can see where Red Hat is coming from, although it's fallen down in the execution.

MP3 is only ever going to be a general standard if people are prepared to pay for it, and it is then included in prepackaged products that ship with the OS and that ordinary people can just use to point and shoot. MP3 is a sort of lingua franca, sure, but it's not going to stay that way unless we get beyond the 'some assembly required' stage. It's also important that we do get beyond that stage, fast, because the Beast of Redmond's proposed alternative is gathering steam, and we don't want that, do we?

Red Hat could have afforded the licence, that would have been an option, and a distribution of this weight could have made a difference. And maybe some kind of 'let's all pay for MP3' campaign would make even more difference. Or Red Hat could have done something radical like give Ogg Vorbis a big hug instead. Both of these have arguments in their favour, and against, and associated complexities. The difficulty, however, is that Red Hat has apparently decided not to do anything, so you go to Sound and Video on the menu and there's nothing there for ripping a CD. It's all, frankly, a bit sad and early 90s Windows, and it's a silly cop-out.

In point of fact, Grip was installed on my machine anyway, and kicks up more or less the same MP3 error message as I get when I try to run it under SuSE without checking first that I've assembled all the underlying and necessary bits. I accept that SuSE is not a good place to start when comparing multimedia functionality, but it's the one I know, and as with both Red Hat and SuSE I'm going to have to get the right stuff then shove it together, personally I see little qualitative difference in the experiences. One major difference is that on the SuSE installation I've been happily producing .ogg files via Konqueror, so haven't had any desperate need to do it the hard way. But Red Hat 8.0 didn't install Konqueror for me, so I'll have to take a look at it. Or install Konqueror.

No RealPlayer is another grouse about Red Hat 8, and is possibly even less explicable than the MP3 stuff. Real for Linux is an important part of the Lettice minimalist desktop music playing system, because it just sits there and does it, whereas the Windows version is always nagging you about something or other. So, what is it that Red Hat would have me do when I want to listen to Charlie Gillett's most excellent and wacky show on the BBC World Service? Well, go and download it from Real, I suppose, but it's not what you'd call an easy, pre-packaged solution and as 8 is supposed to be making it easier, this looks like another dumb one to me.

Other stuff? While typing this (on the T21) I've been idly poking the 600 for reference. I've clicked on the nice critical updates icon, clicked forward a lot, agreed they could have details of my machine, figure out what it needed and then install it, and yes, this is pretty much in the same department as Windows Update, about which I'd say something quite different. And maybe I should have read what I agreed to, but I have to do quite enough of that with Windows. Personally I view it as more a matter of how much you trust people than whether or not an automated update system is right or wrong. I'm prepared to trust Red Hat a little on this, and on that basis it's a handy service.

Overall, I'm quite impressed. It seems to me a credible first effort at simplification, and if Red Hat just addresses the couple of issues it's funked in this rev, it could really have something quite functional that you could seriously put in front of someone with zero experience of Linux. And some quite tolerable eye-candy by default too - cool sharks just kicked in as the screen saver, that's nice. But no out of the box audio support for the 600? Good grief, how long have people been putting Red Hat on 600s? And who's that big company Red Hat is supposed to be buddies with? OK, I'm off to for a root around now, wish me luck. ®

* Actually, with two ThinkPads out on the desk drawers on either side of the minimalist system's LCD and wireless lights blinking all over the shop, the place currently looks more like one of those IBM ads. All it needs for the marketing visual to be complete is for me to be a fresh-faced, attractive young career woman...

Much more structured and informative review than the one above:
Eugenia Loli-Queru on Red Hat 8.0

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