Power to the people


Red Hat Linux 5.1, £30

Just like a favourite old car, jacket or pub, users tend to swear by (and sometimes at) their chosen "distribution" of the free operating system Linux. Distributions, usually on CD, bring together the operating system and programs to run under it, plus utilities for system set-up and maintenance. These utilities, particularly the installation routines, are what shape beginners' first experiences in the sometimes fraught world of free software.

Red Hat is one of the best-known Linux distributions, widely used in demanding roles by professional programmers. It received a major boost last month with the announcement of investment by Netscape and Intel (Computimes, October 5th). The company's experience shows in the well-presented installation manual which accompanies the three-disk set and especially in the Disk Druid utility that simplifies one of the most challenging first steps in setting up a Linux system: partitioning the hard drive.

Post-installation, things didn't go quite so smoothly, with some minor hassles in setting up new user accounts, getting the system to boot Linux from the hard drive and tweaking the configuration. No doubt many of these were down to this user's inexperience, but they were irritating nonetheless. Once they were overcome, however, there was the wealth of free software that makes up a powerful Linux system. Particularly useful is Red Hat's inclusion of the encoder, server and player used for RealAudio.

-info: www.redhat.com O Marcaigh

SuSE Linux 5.3, £36

Among the 100-odd emails that arrived in response to the recent articles in Computimes about installing Linux were several recommending the German SuSE distribution for ease of installation and use. The writers were right. After some initial wrinkles in disk partitioning (its Fdisk utility did not seem to like a drive with free space), this distribution almost walked off the five-CD set and onto the PC. Once there, it was a trivial matter to use SuSE's installation tool to modify the configuration. Among the notable software elements are the Applixware office suite, an integrated spreadsheet, wordprocessor, graphics and presentation package similar to those widely used on PCs.

The biggest revelation, however, was the KDE graphical desktop - also the subject of several emails. This looks terrific, and has a couple of good-humoured digs at Windows 95. (Putting the mouse on the start button, for example, raises a popup message asking "Where do you want to go tomorrow?"). Best of all is that on first starting KDE it is ready-configured with most of the software chosen at installation time. The browser-like interface and large help system add further to an all-round winner. This distribution has made Linux easier to use - and more fun.

-Info: my@clubi.ie,www.suse.com

The Linux Network, Fred Butzen and Christopher Hilton, IDG Books, 526pp £36.99

The logic is hard to fault: Linux can offer huge benefits to non-profit and educational groups who want to network their computers and connect them cheaply to the Internet. Many cannot use it, however, for want of the technical nous to move from a standalone Linux workstation to a networked server working with Windows PCs. This book aims to fill that gap.

For the most part it works well. Determined beginners, willing to learn quite a lot as they go, should be able to work their way through basic explanations of networking and then configuring a Linux server to provide print, email, intranet, Internet and file-server facilities on a local area network.