A waddle on the wild side

OS: Installing an alternative to Windows isn't for the faint of heart, but it isn't fatal. Just be ready for some glitches along the way.

October 10, 2002|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Contrary to popular belief, the cops will not arrest you if you don't use Windows. There are some interesting alternative operating systems out there -- and with perseverance, you won't go crazy trying to use them.

Chief among them is Linux, the largely free, enormously geek-popular system that hard-line anti-Windows users rave about, which has Tux the penguin as its mascot.

There are others, including FreeBSD, which has been around for more than 20 years in one form or another, and BeOS, which has such a hard-core following that "Be" fanatics stuck with it even after the parent company folded last year.

I tried out a free version of Red Hat Linux on my computer and found that it worked reasonably well once installed.

But let's get one thing straight up front: Installing any Windows-alternative operating system is not for the technologically squeamish. Unless you're a somewhat advanced Windows user, I wouldn't try it without a geek or doctor present.

No simple task

Even for an advanced user, getting a new operating system to do everything we take for granted with Windows can be a time-consuming and daunting task. Surfing the Internet, sending e-mail, and looking at digital photos require a labor-intensive setup with Linux and its brethren.

(If you're really dying to get a Linux system without the hassle of installing it, you can buy a Linux-based computer "out-of-the-box" at either www.dell.com or Wal-Mart.)

Another major stumbling block is software. Most of today's high-end and oft-used applications -- Adobe Photoshop Elements, Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, Roxio CD-burning software, and just about every cool game -- are written for Windows or Apple's Macintosh computers.

Sure, there are Linux-based alternatives, like the free Microsoft Word-emulating program OpenOffice, but in many cases they don't have the ease of use or firepower of Windows-based software.

So why do it? Why use a different operating system in this Microsoft-controlled digital world?

There are several reasons. First off, there's the moral reason offered by a growing handful of Windows dissenters, who have turned to another operating system in a virtual protest of Bill Gates' iron grip on today's PC.

Cheap, stable, secure

Another reason is financial. Linux, FreeBSD and BeOS can be downloaded free (although Linux, which requires about a 1.6 gigabyte download, can take a while).

You also can buy registered versions of Linux and FreeBSD at most computer stores starting at about $70. The big difference between downloading Linux for free and paying for it is that paid versions come with nifty software and even access to a tech support line that will help you set everything up.

Linux also ranks high in stability and network security. You're much less likely to see your system lock up or crash once Linux is installed, and the networking environment is generally considered much more secure than Windows, keeping hackers out.

Programming ease

Last, but not least, there's the programming angle. If you're someone with such proficiency that you're comfortable learning to compile or write your own software, the programming environment is more accessible in Unix-based systems like Linux.

My wife's 17-year-old nephew, for instance, is an aspiring programmer who loves Linux and can't do without it. Of course, he works for a government computer think-tank and scored 1460 on his SAT, so he's not your average computer user.

The uber-geeks that love Linux often point out that it and most of the programs written for it are "open source," which means the language of Linux is free source code available for anyone to understand and use. With lots of developers manipulating the code, the reasoning goes, programs will be more useful and bug-free over time.

To find out just how well Linux worked, I set it up as a second operating system on a 733 MHz Pentium III computer. Windows remained on the computer as the first operating system.

I recommend that you keep Windows on your PC if it's already installed and run the alternative operating system, whether it be Linux, FreeBSD or BeOS, on a second hard drive partition. This takes a little doing, but it's not too difficult and the documentation for all these systems spells it out what you need to do in step-by-step instructions.

Download vs. disc

If you want to go the free route, you'll need to download three huge Linux installation files. Even on a high-speed Internet connection like a cable modem or DSL line, this will take eight to 10 hours. So start the download and go to bed. Hopefully you'll check in the morning and it'll all be done.

Of course, you could just go to a computer store and buy the registered version on disc.

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