Learning to love the penguin
There may be one single penguin as the mascot for Linux, but there are countless Linuxes -- different versions that aim to fulfill different niches.
Some function as printer servers, while others as digital video recorders. And then there are also the large versions, complete with easy-to-use installation routines and large software packages.
There are so many choices, in fact, that those interested in making the switch to Linux for the first time will likely be overwhelmed with the choices.
The key factor in untangling the options is understanding how much prior knowledge one brings to the process, says Daniel Riek from Linux developer and distributor Red Hat.
"Anyone who can install Windows can install Linux, too," Riek says. He recommends, however, that new users choose a Linux distribution to which they have some connection.
It can be a real help, for instance, if a friend already knows his or her way around the same Linux package and can give advice in a pinch.
Andreas Gebhard, spokesman for the LinuxTag trade fair that recently took place in Karlsruhe, Germany, recommends a different approach.
"I would begin with the hardware," Gebhard says. Not all hardware makers provide drivers for Linux, since software is often only published after some delay, which means that new hardware is not supported.
Compared to just a year ago, the problem of missing Linux drivers for particular hardware peripherals has gotten better. But peripherals like TV cards and card readers can still present problems, says Oliver Diedrich from the computer magazine c't.
When in doubt, always inquire with the manufacturer of a hardware device, such as a graphics card, to ensure that drivers exist for any Linux iteration you plan to use.
There are other possibilities for determining whether Linux will run on an existing computer. One can test a so-called "Live Linux" like Knoppix or Kanotix.
These execute the Linux system exclusively from CD or DVD, without requiring a full installation. This allows one to see whether everything functions without actually tampering with the system, says Andreas Gebhard.
Users can then later go on the prowl for a Linux distribution to install permanently.
In Germany, for example, Suse Linux Professional enjoys wide distribution. The current version 9,3 comes with thick manuals and costs around $80 in stores.
This is cheap compared with Windows XP, particularly if one factors in the amount of software that comes included. Yet there are also many distributions like Fedora Cora, supported by Red Hat, that are free of charge.
"The advantage of Suse comes through its support," Gebhard says. Yet users of other distributions are not necessarily left to their own resources if problems surface. One of the advantages of Fedora Core is its large community of users, says Daniel Riek.
This community offers users both answers to problems and software updates. Oliver Dietrich from c't points out that Linux groups can now be found in every large city, usually with regular meetings. These users are knowledgeable enough to work through any problems with the operating system.
Advanced Linux users often reach for distributions from Debian, which unlike Suse or Mandriva has no corporation behind it. This means that there is no risk that a distribution will ever be restricted, Gebhard claims.
Another alternative is Ubuntu, which is based on Debian but is intended for Linux beginners. Like Debian, it is available for free on the internet.
The distributions often differentiate themselves through their included software packages. Multimedia and office applications as well as browsers and e-mail programs are considered standard, Gebhard claims.
The different distributors nevertheless often offer different programs. No current Linux distribution replays copy-protected DVD films on a computer, explains Oliver Dietrich. The problem is not a technical one.
To include the software, distributors would need to pay high license fees to the film studios.
There are currently two graphic interfaces available for Linux: Gnome and KDE. Some distributions allow the user to choose either of the possibilities; others rely on either one of the two interfaces (such as Gnome for Ubuntu).
"Which one is used is a question of personal taste," Dietrich says.
Linspire goes out of its way to ease the switch from Windows to Linux. It is based on Debian, but its interface looks very much like Windows XP.
Most distributions can also be easily run parallel to an existing Windows installation so that you can "jump" between the systems. Suse Linux, for example, automatically reduces Windows' partition down to the size that it really needs on the hard drive.
"I would make a backup ahead of time in any case," Dietrich recommends. If the power goes out during an installation, the files on the hard drive could potentially be irretrievably lost.
By Patrick Fauss