BOOT CAMP 320 (06/04/04)

Linux – what’s it all about? Part 3


The first thing that many newcomers to Linux comment upon is how similar it is to Windows. However it wasn’t always like that, the resemblance is only skin deep and distributions like Fedora Red Hat (the subject of this weeks Boot Camp) are a fairly recent effort to make Linux more user-friendly and acceptable to a wider audience.


Behind the scenes Linux can still be a awkward customer but that needn’t concern the average user who simply wants to be able to browse the Internet, send and receive emails, create documents, view images and the thousand and one other things we expect of multimedia PCs these days.  


The graphical user interface (GUI or ‘gooey’) that we are all familiar with in Windows, where you make things happen by clicking on icons, is generally known as a ‘desktop’ in Linux. Fedora Red Hat comes with a choice of two, called Gnome and KDE, plus a DOS-like text-based interface called TWM.


The differences between Gnome and KDE are mostly cosmetic in nature and you can switch between them but for the purposes of this article we’ll concentrate on Gnome as it is best suited to ‘home’ users, and has biggest selection of games...


Gnome is normally selected by default in Fedora Red Hat and the first thing you see after the computer has finished booting is a sparsely populated desktop with a taskbar at the bottom of the screen containing a handful of icons on the left side and a clock display, loudspeaker symbol and update button on the right. You should feel immediately at home and as with Windows you can fiddle around with a wide choice of background images and ‘styles’, chosen by right clicking into an empty area of the desktop.


Most of the taskbar icons are easy to identify. From left to right there’s a red hat, which is the Gnome equivalent of the Windows Start button. Next to that are icons for the web browser (Mozilla) and email program (an Outlook Express look-alike called Evolution). There are three icons for the OpenOffice.Org suite that comes as standard with most distributions (word processor, spreadsheet and a PowerPoint-type AV presentation tool). Beside that is the Print Manager icon, and finally a box-shaped icon divided into four squares. This is the Workspace Switcher, a clever feature that allows you to set up four separate desktops, each devoted to a different task or set of applications.


OpenOffice is a very creditable alternative to Microsoft Office. What’s more it is fully compatible with all MS Office file formats and can open, read, edit and save Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, spreadsheets and presentations. You’ll have no problems learning to use them either; Writer, the word processor looks and feels so similar to Word that the average should only need around thirty seconds to acclimatise.


Clicking the Red Hat button brings up a list of functions and applications, just like the Windows 9x start menu. ‘Accessories’ includes a calculator and dictionary. You’ll find chess, Mahjong and a lot of old favourites like FreeCell and Mines on the ‘Games’ menu. ‘Graphics’ contains an image viewer, digital camera tool and paint program. ‘Preferences’ is where the accessibility features, fonts, keyboard shortcuts, menu layouts, screensaver are kept. ‘Sound and Video’ has the CD and audio players, a CD Ripper, sound recorder and so on. ‘System Settings’, ‘System Tools’, ‘Help’, ‘Search’, ‘Networking’ and ‘Log Out’ all look and work like their Windows counterparts.


However, there is one aspect of Linux that may take a bit of getting used to and that’s the filing system. Instead of each disc drive (hard, floppy, CD-ROM etc) being separate devices, Linux treats all disc drives as a single entity. You have to forget concepts like root directories and the contents of all drives being instantly visible and accessible, instead CD-ROM, floppy and removable drives have to be ‘mounted’ (right-click on the desktop and select a drive icon from the menu) in order to see what they contain and move files around.


In Windows we are accustomed to the relatively easy to navigate world of Windows Explorer; the Gnome equivalent is a file manager called Nautilus (in KDE it is Konqueror), and whilst superficially they look and behave like Windows Explorer they are not as immediately intuitive to use. Don’t worry, it’s not a problem and something you quickly adapt to but it does require that you think and work in a slightly different way.


Linux distributions come with a very large database of drivers and in most cases will recognise and configure things like modems, printers and scanners as soon as they are connected. It’s also very good with digital cameras and removable storage devices like flash memory, though Linux drivers for the very latest hardware can sometimes take a while to appear. Setting up an Internet connection for web browsing and emailing is no more difficult than Windows though connecting your PC to a Windows network may involve some fiddling around.


Windows still has the edge when it comes to user-friendliness, adaptability, the choice of software and hardware and near universal compatibility but Linux is catching up fast. It’s well worth getting to know and I’m sure you will like what you see and who knows, it might even persuade a few of you to give Windows the old heave-ho…


Next week – Build your own PC





A complete Linux package containing the main operating software, a ‘shell’ or desktop program plus a selection of popular applications



The ground floor level of the type of hierarchical filing system or directory ‘tree’ used by Windows



Shorthand for pre XP Windows 95, 98, SE and ME




Whilst it is now safe to dive into the world of Linux I suggest that you do a bit of homework before taking the plunge. There are plenty of fine introductory books on the market (‘Idiots’ and ‘Dummies’ guides etc.) plus a wealth of information on the Internet. Here are a few beginners’ sites and tutorials to be get you started:

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