Thursday, March 19, 2009

Open Up YOur OS | Open source operating systems

There are dozens of free and open source operating systems out there, like those based on Unix, BSD, even Amiga and MS-DOS. Some are very advanced and prime-time ready, others alittle more than programming experiments in perpetual alpha mode (i.e. not ready for the vast majority of computer users to install, especially not a primary OS). There are operating systems that are the result of one programmer's hard work, as a labour of love, there are others with a huge development community. There are those based on an open source foundation and built up then sold for free and there are others that are entirely free to use.

In short, there's enough fodder for discussion to fill a book... perhaps even a series of books.

We're not going to try to guide an authoritative guide on free and open source operating systems -- indeed, there are too many options to make that possible. Rather,we're going to give a run-down of some operating systems that we've tried, that we've liked and that we might even consider some command line tweaking and boot table configuring to run on our home systems as a secondary (perhaps even primary)
operating systems environment.

***How did we got here?***

It wasn't long ago that Linux was synonymous with command line hackery, obtuse text commands rather than the pretty graphical user interfaces that most of us are much more familiar with, incompatibilities with software we need to use everyday and so on.

However, open source and free software have made great strides over the past several years. Specialized applications aside, if there's something you do on a Windows or Mac machine, chances are there's equivalent software to do the same thing on an open source OS.

Many people's first real exposure to operating systems based on open source code came with the netbook trend. In keeping prices down, these diminutive mini netbooks cut back on system specs and used free, often custom, operating systems. The original Eee PC, the Acer Aspire One and even netbooks from companies like Dell and HP had a low-end model that used an operating system based on open source code.

Provided users weren't looking for a primary PC, which is to say assuming they had a desktop or laptop at home or in the office, the Linux based operating systems on the aforementioned netbooks and the provided software would be more than sufficient for general computing. Consider too that the whole netbook category is based on the "cloud computing" concept where your files are hosted "in the cloud" with services like Flicker and Picasa for pictures and Google Docs or Zoho for documents, spreadsheets and other office staples.

Current stable version: 8.10
Download size: 699MB

No discussion of open source operating systems would be complete without talking about Ubuntu (pronounced "oo-boon-too"). This Linux distro has reached the mainstream.

Ubuntu itself, along with derivatives like the KDE-based Kubuntu and the education specific Edubuntu install are intended to be used on reasonably good-spec machines. If you can run Windows XP on your PC, your in good shape. If your machine can run Vista without issues you can use all the fancy Compiz effects like3D desktop transitions, wobbly windows and so on.

Xubuntu is another Ubuntu derivative based on XFCE and is much lighter on system requirements. I travelled South East Asia for three months with just my Acer TravelMate 340T running Xubuntu 7.04 and was very happy with the results. I was able to do everything I needed to do: file stories, manage pictures, send and receive mail, use web services to book accomodations and the likes. The machine (which I still have and occasionally use) was "designed for Windows 98" and choked on Winods XP.

There are a number of Ubuntu derivatives, some of which we'll get below. These are application specific distos, tweaked with software and services for a specific application. Linux Mint for beginners, MythBuntu for media center PCs, Easy Peasy which evolved from the Ubuntu Eee project (not to be confused with Eeebuntu).

Ubuntu and it's offspring promote ease of use. Given a reasonable adjustment period, savvy PC users can expect to get used to Ubuntu's intricacies and, specialized applications aside, will be able to do everything they did on their Windows and Mac OSX machines.

Puppy Linux
Web site:
Current stable version: 4.1.2
Download size: 94MB

After I got back to Canada after the aforementioned SEA trip, I learned about Puppy Linux and made the switch on my old laptop. It's an impressive distro, the core of which is created and maintained by Barry Kauler. Whn I first tried Puppy Linux out, I was amazed by the fact that everything just seemed to work,

right out of the box ---or rather, right off the recently burned disc. Puppy Linux can be installed as a main or secondary operating system, but can also be run right off a live CD. Unlike many other live discs, The Puppy disc can be removed once the sysstem is booted: it's light weight and can be ran entirely in RAM. Since I discovered Puppy Linux, I always have a live disc on-hand as it boots on literally every machine I've tried it in and gives a graphical disk partitioner, a web browser, networking ( aftr a quick guide and install) and well thought out wizards that explain in plain English what's going on, Puppy Linux is what I turn to when all else fails.

In addition to running in RAM, Puppy can also be installed as a primary or secondary OS. It's perfect for older machines that have a hard time running Ubuntu or Windows and does basic computing tasks like word processing, sreadsheets, web browsing, e-mail and more without needing to install anything.

DSL---Damn Small Linux
Web site:
Current stable version: 4.4.10
Download size: 50MB

Another light install that seems to work. Damn Small Linux (DSL, not to be confused with Direct Subscriber Line Interneet service) started asthe web site says, as an experiment to see how much could be fit onto a 50MB live install disc. The idea was to fit as much as possible onto a business card CD (remember those?) as a live Linux distro. It has a long list of developers from all over the world and is well supported. And, like Puppy Linux, it can run entirely in RAM. Perfect for old machines that have been left in the dust by the marching-ever-on progress of commercial operating systems. DSL is light enough to run on 486 with a mere 16MB of RAM.

As the name suggests, DSL's highlight is the small footpriint. Though it's refined and works well, it's not as user friendly as some other distros we've tried. That said, the initial install process is simple and it does the basics well. If your Net connection sucks, if your service provider throttles bandwidth (hint:if it's one of the major, they do), if you're on a "Lite" connection or even dial-up or
if you suffer under draconian bandwidth caps, the small size of the install ISO download make it well worth a try.

Easy Peasy
Web site:
Current Stable version: 1.0
Download size: 865MB

EAsy Peasy evolved from the Ubuntu Eee project and changed it's name to avoid confusion with Eeebuntu.

As we hinted, it's based on Ubuntu, but it's lighter and uses a one click interface like the Linspire distro on the base model of the Acer Aspire One PC, System toools and applications are divided into categories that run along the left-hand side of the Desktop. Categories are broken down into Favourites, Accesories, Games, Graphics, Internet, Office, Sound and Video, Universal Access, Preferences and Administration.

Applications like Skype for VoIP calls, Firefox for browsing and Pidgin can be found in the internet category, among others. Office applications like word processing, presentations and spreadsheets are found in the Office category. Ther are a lot of free and open source apps installed by default so once you download the disc image and install it on your netbook or PC, you'll be presented
with a system that can do all of the basic computing tasks and more.

If you're a fan of the bse model Eee PC and Acer Aspipre One model of dividing applications into categories, doing away with the traditional desktop interface but suffer under the convuluted methods for installing applicatios you want (like Skype, Pidgin and the latest version of Firefox), Easy Peasy might be the answer.

Article by:Andrew Moore-Crispin
First printed in: Hub Computer Paper March 2009 Volume 22 Number 03

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