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By rogere at 2006-03-22 19:10
Is 2006 the Year of the Linux Desktop? This banner was blazed across the front cover of a Linux magazine, so I had an opportunity to answer the question for myself. Having in the past tried to interest friends and neighbours in Linux, and having had problems with distros on their machines, surely the true test of the “Year of the Linux Desktop” would be to have a distro that installed problem free on a run-of-the-mill desktop computer.
Having tried many distros on a HP ZE4315 laptop, and having access to current distros as a subscriber to Linux magazines, I decided that with the necessary purchase of a new desktop computer to see if 2006 was going to be the year of the Linux desktop.
My requirements were simple. Dual booting, but Linux was required to handle e-mail, browsing, Open Office tasks, photo manipulation and KDE as a desktop. (I've nothing against Gnome, it just that after a few years with KDE, I'm more comfortable.)
The Objective: To install a Linux distro with the minimum of fuss and fiddling and to be able , with some degree of confidence, to start to “sell” Linux to the unconverted.
The target: A Compaq Presario SR1250NX desktop – 3.0 Ghz Pentium 4, 512Mb memory, 150Gb SATA drive, Intel 3d graphics accelerator, DVD R/W drive, CD ROM drive, 6 USB ports, Viewsonic 19” LCD monitor with a 1280x1024 resolution, and a memory card reader (all formats) . The Compaq SR series is pretty standard for the low end of the range, the major variations seemingly being in just speed and make of CPU, amount of memory, type and number of CD/DVD drives and size of the hard drive. I suspect the motherboard is also shared with the HP Pavilion range of computers. As such, the SR1250NX is representative of a large part of the branded market at the lower end/entry point level: therefore one would think that it would be fairly easy to install Linux.
In order to establish its suitability at purchase, Knoppix 4.0 live was tried, and seemed to function well. Having SuSe 10.0 already installed on the laptop, I decided to first try SuSe 10.0 on the desktop.
SuSe 10.0: Having used SuSe 8.1 and SuSe 9.0 for quite a while on my laptop, and only abandoning SuSe at 9.1 and 9.2 (because they forgot about including any form of PCMCIA support) in favour of Simply MEPIS 2004, I was extremely pleased with SuSe 10.0 on my laptop,especially as the Linuxant Winmodem driver installed and worked. Here I thought I could comfortably say that the time of the perfect disto had come. Full of confidence, I decided SuSe 10.0 should be installed on the Compaq desktop. In normal mode the installation froze before even reaching the GUI install stage. Install in safe mode had mixed results. Twice it froze at the “packages to install selection”, and twice it froze during the copying of packages to the hard disc. Trying all the workarounds I could find in the user community, including Linuxforums.org, I was still unable to get SuSe 10.0 to install.
Update: OpenSuSeSlick:I just received a disc with OpenSuSeSlick – a stripped down fork of Open SuSe 10.0. It installed, in safe mode, problem free and is up and running. A high speed connection is required in order obtain all the packages required to bring it up to desktop standards and there seem to be problems installing the recommended security updates.
PCLinuxOS 9: Another distro that worked well on the laptop, it worked in the “live” mode on the desktop, although there was the minor inconvenience of having to instruct it to recognize the monitor as 1280x1024. To offset this, there was automatic detection and configuration of the attached HP deskjet printer. PCLinuxOS installed without problems, but when trying to boot from the HD install, froze and gave the following message - “ Kernel panic – not syncing: No init found Try passing init=option to kernel”. Referring to the PCLinuxOS Forum (www.pclinuxos.com) indicated this problem may be related to LILO (why it is used it in preference to GRUB is a mystery to me – but, after all, Linux is about choice), or the failure to load required drivers. Appropriate workaround suggestions are given, but were not tried at this time. PCLinuxOS is a terrific live CD (I voted for it in the Linuxquestions poll) but as a problem free hard drive installation, this distro didn't work either.
Kubuntu 5.11: It ran in the “live” mode well, but the partitioner seemed to be weak (and confusing).I only proceeded to the HD installation after having pre-partitioned the drive (in Windows). Coupled with the fact that Ubuntu/Kubuntu ignores the basic UNIX structure of root and user accounts, didn't encourage me to pursue use of this distro. However, in its defence, it did install problem free and the update packaging is excellent.
Simply MEPIS 3.4: Previous versions of MEPIS have always impressed me, especially the hardware detection and probably the best partitioner/installer of all the distros. I used Simply Mepis 2004 for over a year on my laptop and loved it with only two reservations (1) The kernel headers were not present to allow the use of the Linuxant Winmodem drivers and (2) USB support was poor to non-existent. Simply MEPIS 3.4 installed easily on my laptop but I opted for SuSe 10.0 on it because even though USB support is now terrific there is still (1) dependencies missing for the Linuxant drivers and it was necessary to reload the bootloader twice – a problem referred to much too often in the Mepis forums. Not needing the modem on the Compaq desktop, I felt Simply MEPIS 3.4 would be an ideal candidate for desktop installation. It did eventually install, but using “Safe mode” only, and no matter how much I tried, I was not able to get the display to be satisfactory. With the setup configured to 1280x1024 still left the display about 1” too wide for the actual monitor. Manually adjusting the monitor resolved this problem.
Fedora Core 4: In default install mode caused a kernel panic, too fast scrolling did not permit it to be read. In “Linux Noprobe” mode, got to the “language”,”Keyboard” and “options for Install” menu. This menu had options for CD, HD, HTP, HTTP but no DVD. It opened the empty CD drive and refused to recognize the DVD drive, so no further progress was possible.
Madriva 2006: Attempting an install with the Alt0 option, the message “ Fatal error giving hand to second stage” was given, followed by “Exited Abnormally” message. The log displayed the cryptic message “/sysroot/tmp/stage2/etc/init: I/O error – pivot_rooting unsetting automatic. The whole system then froze. Mandriva 2006 was then discounted as a candidate.
Slackware 10: Couldn't get past the initial crude screen before freezing.
Debian 3.1. In default installer mode, went through initial menus – language choice etc – to the scan CD stage, followed by the message “ There was a failure reading data from CD ROM (Load installer components from CD)” and then froze. The DVD itself is not defective as I subsequently installed from this DVD on another computer.
Knoppix 4.0: As mentioned above, ran well in “live”mode. Also installed easily – but only after I had pre-partitioned the hard drive. (The lack of a decent partitioner seems to be the one ongoing weakness with Knoppix). Everything configured and worked, except for the 3D acceleration, but that I don't really need.
Of course, fans of the above distros will immediately comment on, and readily provide, suggestions and workarounds that would probably permit most of the above “failures” to be installed. This, however, was not the purpose of the exercise. Whereas there is a reasonable expectation that Windows will install, trouble free, on all newer machines, Linux has to do the same if we want to get more people to try an alternative OS.
So, is 2006 the “Year of the Linux Desktop”?. As someone who is committed to using Linux, but after having tried to change other users to Linux, a easy, trouble-free installation is a must in order to further the acceptance of Linux. My experiment had disappointing results with only Knoppix 4.0 , Mepis 3.4 and OpenSuSeSlick, (and Kubuntu possibly) actually installing – maybe 2007 might be the “Year of the Desktop”