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Every year or so, I take the time to install Linux on a spare PC, in order to see whether it's finally matured as a desktop-worthy OS. Allow me to begin by briefly summing up my experiences with various distros until today:
  • Mandrake Linux 8: Good but ugly installer, autodetected all my hardware except for my USB mouse(!). Very messy default UI and menus, ugly, tried to be newbie-friendly but failed. KDE was very unstable for some reason. Attempt to tweak graphics settings (in order to reach higher res than 800x600) resulted in XFree suddenly refusing to load. Could not get it working again.
  • Debian Linux (can't rember what version): Nice, simple installer very much aimed at the advanced user. No auto-detection whatsoever. Never got XFree working. Debian to me seems best suited for people who are already Linux gurus and want a solid server platform (why don't they use FreeBSD?). I'll be sure to try it again sometime.
  • SuSE Linux 8.2: Never even got to installing this. I read a review, saw some screenshots, and the general impression of it was that it was about as ugly and wannabe-friendly as Mandrake. Couldn't bring myself to waste the time and energy to try it.
Fast-forward to today. I should have tried Red Hat Linux sooner, of course. I found the ISO's were conveniently available via BitTorrent, allowing me to max out my connection downloading them. Less than half an hour for three ISO's is GOOD. After burning the ISO's to three blank CD-R's, I proceeded to install RH9. The following sums up my experiences thus far at the time of this writing:
  • Installation: Installation was very simple and straightforward. Just click Next and make sure everything's set up properly, fine-tune where necessary. Package management very nicely handled. I liked the RH9 installer better than Windows XP's, which is a first.
  • Hardware: RH9 auto-detected my hardware except for my NIC (3Com 3CR990) and there was an IRQ conflict with my sound card that fixed itself when I changed a setting in the BIOS. I found the 3c990 driver on 3Com's website, however it wouldn't "make" straight out of the tarball forcing me to edit the driver's C code by hand to get it to compile. The driver had been out since 2000, I wonder why it wasn't included in RH9 by default. Once compiled, installation of the module was fairly painless.
  • Looks: RH9 looks GOOD. Anti-aliased fonts, nice desktop backgrounds, slick and beautiful Gnome skin. Again, this is an area where I prefer RH9 over XP. Not that I place heavy emphasis on cosmetics, nooo :)
  • 3D Drivers: Installing drivers for my nVidia Geforce2 MX was fairly painless, with one minor problem: RH9 doesn't let me exit XFree(!) by default, I had to edit inittab.conf and reboot(!) for it to let me close the X server. After that, installing the nVidia drivers was painless and I was enjoying Tux Racer shortly thereafter.
  • Bundled apps: RH9 has a very nice set of included apps. OpenOffice.org is great (though not a full Microsoft Office replacement - I feel there's stuff missing). Mozilla Browser/Mail I already know and love from my Windows box. A simple but functional CD burning app was also included, along with just about every other app I needed. Thanks to the nice package system (see above), I did NOT end up with a thousand apps I didn't need, as happened with Mandrake.
  • Automatic updates: Automatic updates via RHN (Red Hat Network) were quick and painless. More convenient than Windows Update, and better since it's not limited to OS components.
  • Samba: Samba was tricky to set up (the graphical frontend is somewhat buggy) but I eventually got it working. Very useful when I need to move files from my Windows XP box.
  • Confusion: Why does RH9 auto-mount CD's, but not floppies? Took me a while to figure it out. Sendmail seems to have a problem, it hangs the system for a fairly long time when it loads during boot. Haven't found where to turn it off yet - unchecking it in RH9's services manager didn't work.
I'm gonna try installing Quake III Arena next. Wish me luck. So far I pronounce Red Hat 9 mature enough for Joe Sixpack to use as a home desktop/workstation (so long as he doesn't need to play too many games - not the fault of Linux mind, but of the game developers).

However, I wouldn't trust Joe Sixpack to install RH9 by himself. Anything that requires editing a .conf file by hand, or even worse, editing C code, is TOO HARD and shouldn't be necessary. Driver installation should be a three-click prodedure - two (a double-click) to launch the installer, another (single click) to accept the EULA. It is this simple on Windows, I see NO reason whatsoever why it can't be on Linux, except for lazy programmers. Yes, I know most of them don't get paid. No, I don't think that's a good excuse.

Another thing that could use some change is the attitude towards newbies that some Linux users harbor. I'm sure there are many that are very supportive of semi-clueless newbies like myself, but the most vocal ones - at least in the help channels I visited - are not. I get the impression that many Linux users don't WANT more people to use their OS, fearing it may attract the wrong crowd (much like Windows has) and consider the recent user interface enhancements bad. This is counter-productive to the wide adoption of Linux and the serious Linux community should take a united stance against such behaviour.

By the way, you will note that I say Linux, not GNU/Linux. While I agree that the latter is more technically correct, I have decided to subscribe to the notion that defines "Linux" as "an operating system built around the Linux kernel". Using this definition makes talking about Linux much easier, since it does not require distinction between the operating system and the kernel. It is arguable how often such distinction is actually necessary. Another reason why I don't use "GNU/Linux" is that I personally dislike RMS, mostly because of some of his ideals and beliefs, which I consider misguided. More about that in some other writeup. I do, however, like Linus Torvalds. He's an engineer and an artist, much like I like to think of myself.

For the interested, these are the specs of the computer I installed RH9 on: AMD Athlon Thunderbird 1GHz, 512MB PC133 RAM, Asus A7V, nVidia Geforce2 MX, Sound Blaster Live! Value, 100GB WD Caviar, 22GB IBM Deskstar, HP CD-Writer 9310i, 3Com Etherlink 3XP. Plus a bog standard CD-ROM reader and floppy drive. Everything was auto-detected by RH9 except for the NIC, see above.

If this was a review, I'd give Red Hat Linux 9 nine out of ten points for user interface, seven out of ten for technology, ten out of ten for installation, nine out of ten for the free support (docs, online help, automatic updates) and eight out of ten for compatibility. Score subject to change as my experience with RH9 develops further. Thank you for reading.

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