Come on in, the Linux is lovely!

Every month, I get a rush of e-mail from readers who have one question for me: How do I get started with Linux? It's a simple question, and I wish there was one simple answer for the folks who've decided they've had enough of Microsoft Windows. The good news is that you don't need to be a geek to install Linux these days.

So here, dear readers, is my advice for you if you're done with the spyware and the adware that keeps creeping in from new directions. Here's the plan if you want to leave your virus scanner behind and grab most (perhaps all) of the software you'll ever need off the Internet. It is a road less travelled, and it makes all the difference.

Buy a box

I'm recommending two different courses of action, depending on what sort of user you are. The first option is for folks who want to engage in some hassle-free computing today, as in right now. For the second option, you'll have to wait until next month.

If you're not a tinkerer or a self-confessed power user, and if you use your machine mainly for a few key tasks (Web, e-mail, office apps, music, photos), then what I want you to do is shell out some cold, hard cash for a copy of Xandros Desktop OS Deluxe Edition 3.0. This is about as friendly as Linux gets (see here). The box, which is covered mainly with an impressive list of features, should have a "Linux Experience Not Required" sticker on it. Inside, along with the installation discs, is an extremely well laid out, 350-page user manual with a 24-page index. It's likely to be all the handholding you'll need.

As always, the proprietary Xandros File Manager functions as a Windows Explorer clone that beats Windows Explorer at its own game, providing easy access to both local and network files, along with integrated CD (and now DVD) burning. The ability of Xandros, fresh out of the box, to interact with file and print servers on a Windows network remains unparalleled among Linux distributions.

There are other niceties, too. A "First Run Wizard" will come up the first time you log in, helping you to set up a printer and do a few other post-installation bits of configuration. A "Switch User" button on the taskbar functions just as it should, unlike similar attempts I've seen on other Linux desktops. (You don't lose any functionality by using the feature, either, as you do with the Windows equivalent, Fast User Switching.)

New to Xandros 3.0 are encrypted home folders (see screen shot). All your personal documents and settings can live in an encrypted folder that is decrypted on the fly when you (and only you) log in. Converting my user account to an encrypted home folder took about 10 minutes, but then I couldn't log in to that account; the password was rejected each time. So I logged in as root and reset the user's password. My encrypted home folder has been working just fine ever since. This feature is very nifty, even if setup is a bit rough around the edges.

The newer Firefox and Thunderbird Web and e-mail applications have replaced the old Mozilla 1.7.3, making these tasks faster and slicker. Then there's the Xandros edition of the OpenOffice.org productivity suite. Most distributions these days take great pains to produce customised OpenOffice binaries so that the suite's applications fit in with the rest of the system's look and feel. I've criticised Xandros before for not taking this step, and I'm doing it again here. The OpenOffice apps (version 1.1) included with Xandros 3.0 simply don't look right. Perhaps the Xandros folks assume that most of their users will use the included Crossover package to run Microsoft Office (see this image).

At any rate, there's nothing difficult about using a Xandros system, and there's nothing difficult about installing the OS, either - unless you deliberately invoke some advanced options, the installer will not ask you a single question that will make you blink. It will automatically shrink your Windows partition and set things up for dual-booting. It will install all the packages you need. And after less than a dozen clicks, it will ask you to reboot into your new world.

If you're ready for Linux and are willing to fork over some dough to keep the geeky set-up work at bay, you cannot do better than Xandros Desktop 3.0 Deluxe. The package retails for $135, though you'll probably find it easier to find online rather than at retail outlets (try www.groupaware.com.au or www.akatech.com.au). There's also a less expensive Standard Edition, but this doesn't include Crossover or the printed manual. n

A CAUTIONARY TALE

The other night, while typing a Web address into the location bar of my Web browser of choice, Galeon (screen shot), I realised something was wrong. The W's (in www and elsewhere) were missing. I tried again. Every key I pressed put a letter on the screen - except for the W key.

I opened another application and typed in a W. No problem. I switched back to Galeon to enter a W. No dice.

It took me a good long while before I figured out what had happened. You see, Gnome apps have a nifty feature (turned on by default in some distros, including mine; turned off in others) that lets you reassign keyboard shortcuts for menu items in the simplest manner imaginable: hover the mouse pointer over the menu item, and press the desired keyboard shortcut.

Somehow, while the Edit menu was exposed and my pointer was hovering over the Cut command, I managed to type a W and not notice that I'd just reassigned Cut to W from its usual < Control > -X. So now, every time I pressed W, a Cut command was issued (picture here).

I realised this was going on because the new shortcut was listed in the Galeon Edit menu. So I hovered over the mistake, tapped < Control > -X, and my W key came back to life. I think the shortcut reassignment routine should be restricted to key combos - that would deflect inadvertent reassignments like mine - but until the Gnome hackers agree with me, you might want to be aware of this gotcha in case one of your keys goes dead in a Gnome application.

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Matthew Newton

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