Hooray For Linux

by Joel J. Adamson

[Disclaimer: the following is my experience, with my hardware, my software preferences and my own opinions. Although I will mention the other distro's that I tried to use, none of it should be considered "bashing" -- they may work for you and PCLinuxOS might not. All I know is that so far, PCLinuxOS is the only one that does work for me.]

I have finally installed Linux on my desktop and replaced the Microsoft monopoly in my house. A year and a half ago my wife and I decided that for her to keep up in school and for us to be up to date with technology, we needed a new computer. We, of course, went straight to www.Dell.com and looked things over. We found a system that was right for our house and offered everything we wanted, especially Microsoft Office, with PowerPoint, Publisher and everything else.

I remember being seriously bummed looking at the catalog and finding out all the other crap we were going to get "for free!" with this computer, meaning it was always going to be expensive, even if we left out all the stuff we didn't want. And with all the software we "had to have" it was going to cost $1,500 (USD). "Well", we thought, "it's the only way, and this is a necessary expense". Then we got the computer, it was easy to set up and despite being too small to fit my extra hard drive it had a cool design and we got lots of stuff with it. I could tell you how many hours I spent removing stuff that we didn't want -- and how many hours thence I spent trying to get rid of the annoying little advertisements that would pop up. Don't these people get it? I don't want to have this shoved in my face! I want it to work. And it was adequate.

Then one day I looked up "C compiler" on Yahoo! Actually, after I got a bunch of ads, I looked up "free C compiler." I found a link to the GNU project GCC page. "Oh, cool," here's one...but it doesn't use Windows, it uses some kind of Unix. I'd heard of GNU and seen the GNU all over the Internet and wondered what it was all about. Somewhere on the page I saw "GNU/Linux" and that jogged my memory: "Linux is Unix, but for a PC," a friend had told me in high school in the early nineties. I thought he meant "as opposed to a Macintosh" and I now know he meant "as opposed to a server or workstation".

So, I went to Wikipedia and looked up Linux. "Oh, cool, that's free too," I thought again. My experience with Unix was entirely console-based and I loved it but I knew my wife was going to need something more stimulating in her computer use so I was not immediately interested. Then I started seeing things like "live CD" and "distro." There was even a distro chooser. I clicked on that, answered a few questions and got a list: PCLinuxOS was at the top. I looked that up on Wikipedia too. What I found astounded me: it was a full-on system with a desktop, applications, all the stuff we were using and it was all for free. Plus, I could do my programming that got me interested in the first place.

My knowledge of computing took a huge leap forward that day. I really had believed that I had two choices in computing. I was wrong. I read about the philosophy surrounding open source, free software and a bunch of other cool stuff. I started daydreaming about how much money I was going to save people by insisting on free software for myself and for them because it's better and, of course, cheaper.

So, I downloaded the ISO, and after "turning several CDs into coasters" I got the Live CD set up and booted it. It worked pretty darn well. I had some trouble getting the Internet going and until then it was just a dead-end curiosity. After looking at the very helpful forum I did get it working with ndiswrapper. I was really impressed. I spent time programming in Python and checking things out in general. I tried out a few other distro's, including MEPIS, Ubuntu, Knoppix, Puppy Linux, Freesbie and a few others. I liked the ideas of BSD best and, out of the distro's I tried, I liked MEPIS. I talked to a friend who was a long-time Linux user and found out he uses Ubuntu, he said because, "I hate having to spend hours configuring. I just want it to work and I'll mess with it later."

I liked BSD because I really like UNIX. They say, "People use Linux because they hate Microsoft, people use BSD because they love UNIX." I liked that perspective, despite both statements being true of me. However, we only have one computer and I eventually resigned myself to the idea that Windows was "good enough" and started using XEmacs, TeX, Python, R and other things in Windows. Nothing ever worked quite right so when the opportunity presented itself, I said, "We're switching".

My wife was going out of town and that would give me a week to back up our files, install a few things and see what worked best. Plus it would be some good goof-around time. So I had the time pressure of getting everything up and running by the time she got back. My plan was FreeBSD, then MEPIS, then Ubuntu or Knoppix. Even though I failed to realize it at the time, PCLinuxOS was the only one out of all of these that had consistently worked. I didn't like it because it looked too cartoonish, too home-made to be my full-time desktop. Nevertheless, I knew it was the one that could get me a working Internet connection, so I kept the CD around just in case.


In this case that is exactly what happened. After the thrill of getting Windows off the machine, I was left with a FreeBSD console and just messing around trying to get X running. Then I realized what I really needed was an Internet connection because I needed it to get help and packages. So in went the PCLinuxOS CD and I had my Internet connection running. That could have been my solution right then and there; unfortunately for me, my girlfriends in high school and college and others, I am stubborn and work really hard to get things to work before I "give up." Sometimes giving up is the best solution; it actually leads to new things that were better than what I was trying to do and does indeed get me what I wanted.

After two days of fooling around with BSD I said, "She's coming back on Tuesday, I need to get the system running." So I installed MEPIS. That worked well. The Internet worked -- for a while anyway -- and the office stuff worked so I was happy. Then when I tried to watch Richard III starring Laurence Olivier, the DVD player kept crashing. Then I couldn't eject the CD. "You don't have enough rights," or "You are not root." The heck I'm not! I found myself logged in as root all the time which I knew was bad. Then I realized I was having to reboot all the time to get the Internet running. Then, when I did look at the forums I realized I was using an older version that included a lot of bad software. I said, "Time to try something new."

So I installed Ubuntu. That worked really well too. All around, it was very nice; I did a lot of shell work, installed the software I wanted and we could watch DVDs. Pretty cool. Then a funny thing started happening. The Internet connection would die after about five minutes. I went through hours and hours of entering the same ndiswrapper configuration and wireless configuration commands. I checked out Linux wireless books with hundreds of pages about Bluetooth specifications, and I reinstalled three times. I spent hours on their forums. I went back and forth with my landlord about the wireless Internet -- included in our rent. He came down with his laptop and we tried to map out the reception. We switched channels, we tried moving the antenna, all sorts of things. While he was sitting there he mentioned "I used to use Linux for my desktop, but I got tired of reinstalling it; whenever I would install a piece of software that it didn't like, I'd have to reinstall."

I found myself sitting there thinking I just want something that works as well as Windows. As WELL AS WINDOWS!" Was I out of my new super-computing mind"? Getting away from Windows was the whole point -- well, at least most of the point, inasmuch as Linux allows us to do things that Windows makes you pay for. Windows makes you pay for everything else too. I didn't want to go back there, however I was getting tired of disappointing my wife when, in her new-mother + medical-student weary tones she would say, "Does the computer work"? I felt totally impotent. This sucks. If I can't get this to work in two days we have to go back. We depend on it.

Then I realized, "This never happened with PCLinuxOS" and I popped in the CD for a reliable Internet connection and checked the Ubuntu forums. I found six other threads with people describing the exact same problem.

Then I found the proposed solution. It's a matter of the ethernet configuration when you install so you just have to reinstall until it works. That's not a solution. What if it dies again? Then am I going to back up thirty GB of data and then reinstall it six more times until it chooses to work? No way.

I also remembered that the Ubuntu forums reminded me of a chemistry TA I saw in the "help lab" one afternoon in my sophomore year of college; she would go from student-to-student purportedly helping them by saying, "I can't help you with that! What is that? I don't know what that is! I can't help you!" Whenever somebody posted a problem, saying they couldn't connect to the Internet, the Ubuntu forum people would tell them to connect to the Internet and download something.

Then I installed PCLinuxOS. This was version 0.92 so I got on the Internet using ndiswrapper and installed. The first time I rebooted I got a kernel panic. Great, it doesn't actually work any better than the rest of them. More problems. This is not what I expected when I decided I wanted to use Linux. I wanted WOW. I wanted to be able to have people come over and say, "Whoa, this is free" This is way better than what I pay for! I wanted to send cool, digital videos of our six-month-old son to our family and say, "This hilarious video was completely created using free software," with the implication that it's for real people too. I wanted my own computer the way I wanted it, not the way Dell wanted to sell it to me. I was disappointed. This is BOGUS!!!

Then I came to the PCLinuxOS forums where the people are always helpful and friendly. (Why is that so different from the other forums?) I found the solution: remove your USB flash drive -- fool! Also, while I was at work, I had a friend download and burn the "Big Daddy" CD. Then when I got home that night, I installed 0.92, cranked up the Internet and off I went. That was cool for a few minutes and then I wanted to see if Big Daddy would work as well. I always had the 0.92 CD if it failed.

It did not fail. It detected our much-discussed wireless adapter and connected to the Internet with only two commands (setting the ESSID and dhclient). It has its own Linux driver for an adapter that made people say, "You can't use Linux." I emailed Texstar right away.

This is what I was searching for: this was WOW. This is better than Windows like all distros say they are. This is cool. I feel relief, except it's better than relief. I'm really impressed. The distro that I had previously dismissed and said "Well, I'll just use it cause it's the only one that works," turns out to be the BEST LINUX DISTRO I'VE USED. Yeah, it's the only one that works; that means it's the one that works on very difficult hardware that the other distros reserve for people who they think should be satisfied either with a crippled (i.e., standard) MS Windows system or a crippled Linux system.

Now, I have had a couple problems since last night. The sound won't come on and the printer still is not recognized (it's a Dell/Lexmark -- I knew that would happen and it's okay). However, those are manageable problems. Reinstalling an operating system until it "gets things right," is an unmanageable, huge problem. An operating system that won't let me use my computer is an unmanageable, huge problem. PCLinuxOS solved those problems.

And as for the cartoonish, home-made desktop? Gone! I love the new desktop. One of my "big projects" that I planned on having to do was to totally mess with the desktop to get it the way I want it. I'm surprised to say I actually like the desktop on the new PCLinuxOS better than any of the others I've tried. It's really cool-looking.

Now I can deal with the real stuff, like installing the software I want (most of which I've done already in a few seconds last night), and oh yeah using the computer. HOORAY FOR PCLINUXOS! HOORAY FOR LINUX!