Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
 Product Review 


Exploring Linux - Part 1
by Alan German

Members may have noted my recent interest in all things open-source. So, from the title of this article, it might be tempting to assume that I am now documenting my switch away from the big-W and a move completely into the Linux camp. Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not that brave – at least - not yet, I'm not!

But, I have always had a hankering to take a serious look at Linux. Unfortunately, I missed the club meeting where members of the Ottawa Canada Linux Users Group provided their demo. The good news is that one of our always-friendly OPCUG members provided me with a copy of the Ubuntu distro (a Linux distribution disk - see, I'm already into the Linux jargon!) that was handed out at the meeting, and so I thought I should start by giving this a shot.

If you have one of those red and grey cardboard folders, and have opened it up, you will have noted that there are two CD's inside. The text on the left side of the inside cover tells you that: “The default installation will erase existing software and data from your computer”. OK – hands up – how many of you closed the folder and put it on a shelf somewhere to get dusty? Big mistake! You should have read the text on the right side of the cover that talked about the “Live CD”. [In fact, you should have read the left-side text a little further and taken note that, while the “default” installation can delete everything, there is also a manual installation process that avoids such dire consequences – but, that's a story for Part 2 of this article.]

I can’t believe that it’s so incredibly simple to install and run a powerful operating system, together with a fully-featured set of applications programs. The Linux-Live CD's (the Ubuntu distro is only one such beast) are marvels of technology. Essentially they are boot disks that load the Linux operating system into the memory of your machine, and provide a wide range of system tools and applications that run directly from the CD, so that you can try many of the features of Linux on a temporary basis.

The process is simplicity itself. Put the live CD into the drive and turn the machine on. A prompt indicates that you should press Enter to boot the machine. Linux shows its command line roots with dozens of lines of information scrolling down the screen, as various processes load and work their magic. In reasonably short order, the strings of text give way to three prompt screens that ask you to specify the language you would like to use – English, your location (country) – Canada, and a keyboard layout – American English. Now sit back and watch as the installer detects the available hardware, loads additional modules, and configures various options, preparing for the upcoming live session.

After a couple of minutes (depending on the speediness of your system) a screen opens with a graphical user interface (GUI) featuring an almost blank desktop, an icon for the CD-ROM, and menu-type bars across both the top and the bottom. The top menu is especially interesting as it has options for “Applications” and “System”, plus an icon in the shape of a lifebelt that suggests Help. Hovering the mouse over the latter brings up a “Get Help with Gnome” message so it is evident that we are now using the Gnome GUI.

For me, the applications' menu proved to be staggering. The Ubuntu distribution provides access to loads of games, graphics packages, Internet applications, an Office suite, multimedia programs, and a host of system tools. The raft of available games includes the ubiquitous Solitaire, Minesweeper and Mahjongg, plus programs I have never heard of. The Graphics tab provides access to GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), a couple of image viewers, a postscript file viewer and a scanning program. Internet applications include the Firefox web browser, mailer and chat clients. All the programs in the OpenOffice.org 1.1 suite of applications are listed under the Office tab. So, a special bonus is that you can run OpenOffice Writer, Calc and Impress right from the Live CD. If you want to play a music CD, run a DVD movie, rip or record some sound files, or control various aspects of sound reproduction, check out the selections under the Sound and Video tab. So, you can see that, not only can you very readily try Linux, you can also run many useful applications directly from the CD.


Ubuntu desktop and apps

I have to say that, at present, I find Linux’s file system a bit of a mystery (but I haven’t spent any time trying to find out how it works.) Under Applications – System Tools, you will find File Browser which is a Windows' Explorer-like tool. However, it wasn’t immediately obvious how (or even if) I could access my machine’s hard drive from the temporary boot setup. But, one extremely useful feature became apparent when I plugged in my USB key. A “262M Removable Media” disk icon appeared on the desktop, and a “usbdisk” window opened up displaying the file structure of the key.

The reason for finding a writable disk was that I wanted to capture a screen shot of the desktop (so that you too can marvel at the Windows-like qualities of Gnome, the powerful applications, and the neat games that Ubuntu provides.) I tried running GIMP to see if it had a screen capture facility, which indeed it does. It was when I tried to save the resulting file that I ran into the problem of where to actually store it. But, while I was searching through menus, looking for a familiar disk, I also came across System – Take screenshot. Evidently, Ubuntu Linux has this feature built-in. And, so it is, that you get to share with me the wonders of Mahjongg running under Linux from a CD-ROM!

The final thing you need to know is how to shut the computer down. Not too hard to guess. System – Log Out – Shut down – OK does the trick very nicely. A few more scrolling lines showing the system stopping modules, terminating and killing processes, and everything comes to a graceful halt and, next time, your machine boots back into your familiar Windows’ environment.

Another famous Linux-Live distro is the Knoppix Linux Live CD, available for downloading from
http://www.knoppix.org/ through links to a number of mirror sites. However, be aware that the download is over 700 MB. Downloading the image and burning it to a CD-ROM gives you the live CD which works pretty well the same as described above.

The command lines displayed on boot-up are multi-coloured (some would say gaudily so). On my machine, the resulting desktop ran in a moderately-sized “window”, which I couldn’t expand by dragging a corner, as opposed to Ubuntu which ran in full-screen mode. The Knoppix desktop has more stuff visible, including a Konqueror window, a sort of web/file browser, offering instant help. Knoppix uses the KDE interface in which the main menu/task bar is at the bottom of the screen. This includes a number of icons linking directly to things like Firefox and OpenOffice. The screen shot shows OpenOffice Writer and Calc windows, and GIMP's main window, open on the desktop. Note the multiple drive icons down the left side of the screen. These have names like Hard Disk Partition [hda1] (which is actually the C: drive).

This distro seems to offer even more applications that Ubuntu. The Windows “Start” item on the task bar is replaced by a capital K (for Knoppix or KDE?) which leads to many menus and sub-menus. Several text editors, including Emacs and Xedit, are included on the Editors’ tab; the Multimedia tab includes Audacity (a sound editor), and the Graphics tab once again includes GIMP. But, in this case, the latter program isn’t pre-loaded; it requires installation.


Knoppix desktop and apps

For this article, under Knoppix, I used GIMP to capture the screen shot and save it as a JPG file. Whatever GIMP needs in terms of installation is done in seconds and the program is ready for use. Capturing the screenshot was easy – File – Acquire – Screen Shot - Full Screen - Grab. However, now I needed to save the image as a JPG. Remember all those hard drive icons? It turns out that, under this Live-Linux regime, most of these are write protected. And, inserting my USB key didn't pop up any windows, so I was initially unable to locate a permanent storage location for my image file.

A little searching on Google suggested that I should try inserting the USB key before booting into Knoppix and, sure enough, once I did this, a viable option to save the file became available. The USB key is “hidden” from mere mortals as Hard Disc (uba) [/mnt/uba]. But, it isn't too hard to guess that uba, being different from hda, must be a different sort of “hard disc”. And, indeed, running Konqueror provided a display of the familiar file structure of my USB key.

Saving the screen shot was then simply a matter of using GIMP's Save-to-desktop option and then copying the file to the uba disk in Konqueror. There is no doubt a much more efficient way to do all of the above but, hey, I'm just learning my way around Linux! The good news is that, if you want to run applications from the Linux-Live CD, there are ways to save files generated so that they can be used elsewhere later – i.e. in a Windows-based image manager, a word processor, or a spreadsheet program.

So, don't be timid. Trying Linux using one of these live CD's is a piece of cake. If you like games, there are lots available on the CD. It's even possible to use some of the Linux applications, such as the various modules of OpenOffice.org, to produce useful output files. Insert the CD into the tray, switch on your computer, and enjoy...


Bottom Line:

Ubuntu – Linux for human beings (Open-source software)
Version 5.04 for Intel x86
http://www.ubuntu.com
To request free Ubuntu CD's, visit
https://shipit.ubuntu.com/
Current Version: Ubuntu 5.10

KNOPPIX (Open-source software)
Version 3.8.2-2005-05-05
http://www.knoppix.com
Current Version: V4.0.2-2005-09-23


Click here to view the full OPCUG website with frames.

Copyright and Usage
Ottawa Personal Computer Users Group (OPCUG), Inc.
3 Thatcher Street, Ottawa, ON  K2G 1S6

The opinions expressed in these reviews do not necessarily
represent the views of the OPCUG or its members.

Send comments or suggestions to the .