Last month, I waxed lyrical about the benefits of paying for Linux and recommended Xandros Desktop 3.0 Deluxe, but this probably had the die-hard Linux users out there casting their hands up in horror. Of course, you don't have to pay for Linux at all if you don't want to. That's one of the great things about the open source community. So here's my recommendation for the budget-conscious.
It's all about headware
This option is for those of you who don't mind getting their hands dirty, and want to explore everything that Linux has to offer while taking advantage of its free nature. This path won't cost you a cent, unless you count the cost of your broadband and some blank discs. If this sounds like the angle for you, then head on over to the Fedora Project and start downloading some installation CDs.
There are many benefits to running Fedora. First, it's more bleeding-edge than most distributions. The current version, Fedora Core 3, sports version 2.8 of the Gnome desktop environment; most other distributions are still stuck on Gnome 2.6, or even 2.4.
Second, the system scripts that handle various tasks (like connecting to a wireless network, or mounting a USB drive) strike me as rock solid. This may not sound like a big deal - a week ago, I was convinced that all distributions basically did the same stuff in more or less the same way behind the scenes. But after spending some time with Mandrake 10.1 and then Fedora Core 3 on the same machine, I came to realise just how bad some of Mandrake's plumbing is, and how great Fedora's is.
For example, when I plug my digital camera (or my MP3 player, or a thumb drive) into the USB port with Mandrake running, I get an icon on my Gnome desktop labelled "removable" - sometimes. Other times, I get nothing, and I have to dive into a command line session to figure out what's gone wrong and how to set it straight. With Fedora Core 3, I get an icon with a unique name for whatever device is plugged in, every single time.
Another example: my laptop, which is still running Mandrake, has a terrible time with wireless connections, leading to my desire to run NetworkManager, which I talked about in April's column. Fedora Core 3 comes with NetworkManager packages all ready to rock.
Third, Fedora is a wonderful Linux distribution to run because just about every free software project on the planet has precompiled binary packages available for it. This means you just download the package and enter one command to install a given chunk of software; removal is also one-command simple. It's very rare to find something that you have to compile from scratch, because it's practically assured that someone, somewhere, has already packaged That Thing You Need for Fedora.
There are some downsides to Fedora, too, the first being that there will be many Things You Need. Out of the box (not that there's actually a box in this case, but I see you're still with me), the system doesn't know a thing about MP3 files: it can't rip 'em, can't burn 'em; can't even play 'em. So you'll need to hit up a third-party package repository to install MP3 or CD-ripping support. Ditto
for a few other system libraries that are otherwise encumbered by licensing issues. There's more on this over at The Unofficial Fedora FAQ (www.fedorafaq.org). It's a handy place to visit during your first few days with Fedora, during which you'll need to invest some time getting everything working. If you get stuck, there are lots of genuinely friendly people at the Fedora Forum (www.fedoraforum.org) who can likely help you out.
Compulsory third partyWith previous Fedora releases, it was easiest to pull down third-party packages from the Fedora Extras and Livna repositories. With Fedora Core 3, these repositories have fallen out of favour and, in fact, aren't keeping up with the pace of Fedora development. I've had much, much better luck when procuring packages from the Dag Wieers, ATrpms, NewRPMS, and Freshrpms repositories (see Site List). Red Hat should be paying these people for the amazing services they're providing to the Fedora and Red Hat communities.
Five minutes with a text editor and your /etc/yum.conf file, and everything becomes automatic. Once the repositories are known to your system, there are no worries. For example, let's say you know you want The GIMP but don't know from which repository to get it. You open a terminal, type yum install gimp, and watch as Fedora figures out every last package The GIMP needs to survive, fetches and installs them, then fetches and installs The GIMP (gimp can be seen here). Or you can go do something fun while the bits are busy arriving.
With Fedora Core 3, there are many options for your base interface, KDE and Gnome chief amongst them. If you're new to Linux, I suggest trying each and deciding for yourself which one seems friendlier and more tailored to your needs. You can install both interfaces during Fedora's initial setup; you then select which interface you want to work with when you log in. Also, give the XFCE environment a spin, especially if you're running an older, slower machine.
One other wrinkle to note: Fedora's installation program doesn't know how to resize Windows partitions. Before you get started, you'll need to repartition with a third-party utility. If you feel like spending money, take a look at Partition Magic or Partition Commander - either one will do the job. Or you can go the free route and try the version of QTParted included on the SystemRescueCD (www.sysresccd.org). I've had mixed luck with that program, and I've always been glad that I'd backed up my data before mucking around with partitions. No matter what tool you choose, you should always take this precaution, just in case the unthinkable happens (see screen shot for an example).