Sunday, September 30, 2012

What about Linux?

Several years back, it was widely regarded that Linux would emerge as the biggest threat to Microsoft's dominant Window's operating system.  At the time Linux was very much in its infancy and casual peeks into this alternative seemed to suggest that Linux installers were very much left to search for benign software drivers.  Long story short, much tinkering was required to get the thing working... all things considered, I still shudder thinking of the grand fun (sarcasm) to be had trying to install a 33.6 modem into Windows 3.1.  Then came Windows 95, "plug and play" or as many preferred to refer to it, "plug and pray."  This was a mild improvement, but I still recall many hours spent trying to resolve all those pesky question mark "?" icons in Device Manager.  I was blown away when a colleague convinced me to install Windows 7 and to my surprise about 99% of the set up completed successfully - wow, we've come a long way.  Thus, when it came to Linux, the last thing I wanted to do was spend hours troubleshooting and looking for drivers.

In the past couple of years, Linux has largely been eclipsed by the success of Apple and Google emergence within tablets and smart phones (which should be considered hand held computers).  I have an iPad and an Android phone and love them both, but I'm typing this blog on a Windows laptop; however unlike my phone and iPad, I can't say that I "love" my Windows computers.  The iPad and Android phone are both "touch" devices so in fairness this may be regarded as an "apples to oranges" comparison.  However, I think many would agree that we do seem to be moving toward a convergence whereby the analogous "apples" are beginning to look more like "oranges" and the "oranges" are looking more like "apples".  There are 2 primary features that support my love affair with touch devices:

1.  Apps - I have blogged previously about apps that I love on the iPad (and plan to soon create a post for Android).  I'm sure readers could add many more apps that they absolutely love.

2.  Quick start up - let's face it, it's a drag waiting for Windows to boot up.  With either touch device, I press a button and access what I want within seconds.

Unfortunately, as I have previously discussed in an earlier post, tablets and smart phones leave much to be desired as "input" devices.

I (occasionally) listen to co-workers and on one such occasion, an IT staff member had remarked about installing Linux on netbooks, resulting in some really speedy netbooks.  At the time, I placed this in the back of my mind, being unmotivated due to my forestated bias regarding the hours required to get Linux to work.   Then one day of Internet surfing, I stumbled on a blog relating to fast Linux boot ups.  In particular, Ubuntu 11.10 was reflected as booting in 10 seconds!  Wow, 10 seconds - while I don't believe everything I read and what is notably left out of this blog is exactly what type of hardware configuration was used to achieve this result, this blog certainly got me thinking that if I could get a substantially better boot time than Windows, Linux might be worth a second look.

I have an old Dell Dimension 2300 with about 1 gig of memory that I have placed on Craig's list for $35 and no takers... I also found myself with a few flexible hours.  My first hurdle was to find a suitable Linux version for installation.  The most recent versions of some of the more popular versions of Linux have grown so large that they now require burning on a DVD or memory stick.  While these options might work for a newer netbook, these were not options for my old clunker.  I looked specifically for Ubuntu 11.10, but could not get what I found to work.  Ultimately, I settled on Linux Mint.  While I'm not too crazy about the theme colors (mint green), I love the way that Linux Mint provides a clear offering of both their new and old versions.  Linux Mint also provides a nice series of pictures of each version as well.  Many sites, hawk their latest and greatest version and you need Scooby Doo to help sniff out earlier releases.  While I liked the look of "Julia," I observed that "Isadora" was to be supported until April 2013 so I went with "Isadora."

After burning the CD (which took a couple of tries due to my inexperience - tip - if your burning software says something like "burn an ISO" or "burn an image" that is what you want - I was misled by a choice to burn the file and make it bootable - which I now believe meant to make it bootable using the underlying Windows operating system), I proceeded to attempt the install.  The first step with the install is to make sure that your booting sequence is set to boot from the CD/DVD before trying to boot from the hard drive.  This is always fun because at start up you need to enter the BIOS by finding the "magic button".  On my Dell 2300, this turned out to be the F12, on other machines it may be the F3, F10, Delete key, or sometimes a combination of keys.  Once set, the machine booted from the Linux Mint and surprise, surprise, Linux Mint gave me great OPTIONS... wow, among the choices I could try it out right from the CD or I could install it as a single operating system or I could install it with my existing Windows operating system.  Since my goal was to gauge the boot up time, trying it out on the CD wasn't too appealing to me.  I was anticipating just overwriting Windows, but since it offered the option of creating a "dual boot" machine I thought "why not".  (Note, in the "old" days, creating these "dual boot" computers were for true geeks and gurus only).  I made the selection, observed for a few seconds to get a feel that things seemed to be progressing then went about with other activities while the computer worked it's magic.  After returning to the computer, I received a message that the install had successfully completed.  I removed the install CD and the computer hung.  I tried putting the CD back in thinking that maybe it needed to "close up something" on the CD - no go - it remained hung.  Ultimately, I unplugged the machine to force a hard reboot.

This start was not very reassuring; however, the machine booted up providing a screen to select the operating system of my choice.  I selected the Linux OS and the computer booted.  I was able to shut down, restart and then tried a boot to Windows (XP).  Windows detected that something suspicious was up and performed a Check Disk upon the first boot.  Thereafter, I rebooted a second time to Windows and the machine seemed to boot flawlessly to Windows.  Next I returned to Linux to investigate 2 very basic needs:  1.  The need to connect (easily) to the Internet and 2.  The ability to print (to my old printers, an HP PSC 1210 and HP PSC 2100).

The answer to whether Linux would connect to the Internet was quickly answered - YES.  I plugged it into my router and, bam, I was easily able to use the installed Firefox browser to access the Internet.  Thereafter, I also searched, found and installed the beta version of Chrome (browser) for Linux - installed and worked quickly and easily.  As far as Internet surfing, it appears that Linux is good to go!

I then proceeded to the printer dilemma.  This is the area where I most anticipated Linux to poop out.  Both my printers are somewhat older and both, quite bluntly, are a pain to install on a Windows computer due to the extremely bloated software that HP provides.  First, I tried to install the 1210 without plugging in the printer - surprise, Linux offered an appropriate driver and quickly installed the printer.  Next, I plugged in the USB from the HP 2100 to the computer - bam, Linux found it, installed it and said I was ready to use it in seconds.  (This was much faster than I have ever experienced in Windows).  At this point, I truly believed my experience was too good to be true so I proceeded to print a test page and IT PRINTED!

Having now established that Linux was a viable option for basic computer work involving Internet browsing and printing as needed on this machine, I then returned to my initial reason for starting the investigation - boot times.  Having no clocks with a second hand in the house, I quickly installed a free Android timer app onto my phone for the test.  I booted into Linux several times (and would quickly select the Linux OS boot option - this dual boot feature is notable as it may add 2 - 5 seconds into the true Linux boot time).  Linux consistently boots on this machine in under 45 seconds.  (It is notable that this computer having a relatively slow processor, IDE hard drive and about 1 gig of memory).  Just for fun, I also timed the start up of 2 other Dell workstations that are running Windows XP (which had a bit quicker processor and slightly more RAM) and they clocked in at about 1 minute 45 seconds and 2 minutes 30 seconds.  I took a closer look at the slower machine and turned off some of the applications that had snuck into the start up over time and then re-timed it.  On this second run, it returned a boot time similar to the other Windows machine of about 1 minute 45 seconds.

Conclusions:  The Linux install was not nearly as painful as I envisioned and greatly surpassed my expectations.  Moreover, I am somewhat excited by it and should I spot a cheap netbook with an SSD hard drive, I may be teased into purchasing it and exploring how fast of a start up can be achieved.  It sure would be nice to have a computing device that has a viable input device (keyboard) that does not put you to sleep performing its boot up...

...and one last thought... anybody out there interested in a Dell desktop running Linux for only $35?

10/1/2012 Update - The $35 Dell computer sold the day after this post was published and therefore the links have been removed to the Craig's posting.  An interesting note is that the purchaser related that he was interested in it due to the Linux operating system... so the free operating system (Linux) was more of a draw than the commercial Windows XP operating system... if you are trying to sell and old computer, perhaps Linux may offer a twist.

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