3 Distributions Power Up

By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2002-05-27 Print this article Print

Linux"> The power and fine-grained configurability upon which Linux has built its popularity as a network operating system are the same qualities that have tended to hold it back in the desktop world. However, the security and cost benefits of open-source software should compel IT organizations at least to evaluate Linux as a desktop operating system alternative to Windows.

eWeek Labs tests of SuSE Linux Inc.s SuSE Linux 8.0, MandrakeSoft SAs Mandrake Linux 8.2 and Red Hat Inc.s Red Hat Linux 7.3 revealed that the penguins have made some great strides in usability—to the point that users unfamiliar with Linux could comfortably find their way through a machine installed with any of these Linux variations.

In the case of SuSE Linux 8.0, which began shipping last month, we were impressed enough by the usability strides that the Linux distribution has taken, particularly in the area of system configuration, to award an Analysts Choice designation.

Mandrake Linux 8.2, which was also released last month, boasts great configuration tools, but they lacked the friendliness and wide scope of SuSE Linux.

Red Hat Linux 7.3, which became available this month, has been improved as well, but it offers much less in the way of configuration convenience than SuSE or Mandrake. To be fair, Red Hat concerns itself less with the desktop segment of the market than the others we tested. Red Hat 7.3 is a good distribution for established users or for companies that have standardized on Red Hat servers and that wish to maintain a single distribution across their enterprise.

All three distributions ship with versions of the 2.4 Linux kernel. SuSE and Mandrake install KDE (K Desktop Environment) as the default desktop environment. Mandrake ships with KDE Version 2.2.2, and SuSE comes with the newer KDE 3.0 (click for eWeek Labs April 8 review of KDE 3.0). Red Hat offers users a choice between KDE 3.0 and GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment) 1.4. KDE 3.0 is currently our favorite desktop environment, but an overhauled GNOME 2.0, due this summer, should be able to give KDE a run for its money.

Each distribution ships with an impressive set of open-source office applications—from OpenOffice.org and KOffice, for tasks involving word processing, spreadsheets and the like, to GIMP, or GNU Image Manipulation Program, for working with graphics.

SuSE Linux 8.0 ships in Personal and Professional versions for $39.95 and $79.95, respectively. The Professional edition ships with more bundled software than the Personal version, as well as with 90 days of Web-based support.

Red Hat Linux 7.3 comes in $59.95 Personal and $199.95 Professional versions—the Pro version includes a system administrators CD, 90 days of Red Hat Network Basic Service, 60-day Web-based support and telephone support.

Mandrake Linux 8.2 is available in $39.99 Standard and $69.99 PowerPack editions. The PowerPack version comes with 60 days of Web-based support from MandrakeExpert.com. Each of the distributions we tested ran on X86 processors.

Its Not That Simple

Linux is much more fragmented than Windows because the parts are openly interchangeable and are developed by separate parties. Although there are benefits to this structure, the fragmentation also results in a maze of configuration files and setup utilities, each with its own interface and location. And unlike Windows, which tends to make convenience the top priority in its design, Linux interfaces tend more toward complexity and can sometimes confuse users with nonessential options.

We can turn to our experience setting up a network printer with the distributions for a good example of this complexity. All three systems presented us with multiple, mutually exclusive ways of setting up our networked printer, with LPD (Line Printer Daemon) and CUPS (Common Unix Printing System) the most prominently placed in the interface. A separate print utility exists for setting KDE-specific options.

In all three distributions, there were separate setup tools for CUPS and LPD that sat together, with nothing to recommend one over the other to a new user.

We preferred SuSEs control panel, called YAST2 (Yet Another Setup Tool), to those in Mandrake or Red Hat. With sections for managing software, hardware, networking, security, system and miscellaneous options, YAST2 provided the widest range of utilities in a single space of any of the three distributions we reviewed.

We particularly liked the way that YAST2 provided brief, on-screen explanatory notes related to the tool we were using at the time. This helped a lot, since there are generally more configuration options from which to choose than on a Windows system. The Red Hat and Mandrake control panels offered no such notes.

Mandrakes control panel is very useful as well, and although it lacks a few of the features of YAST2, it boasts a couple unique to itself. Two such features are Mandrakes utility for configuring Samba file sharing and browsing and Mandrakes font installer application. Unattractive, out-of-the-box fonts typically plague Linux distributions, so a good font installer is a must. In tests, the Mandrake font utility was much easier to use than the KDE-based utilities upon which Red Hat and SuSE depend.

The Red Hat control panel includes 16 separate configuration applets for everything from hardware to networking to security—many of which have unique interfaces that can take some getting used to. We could place our Red Hat system into all of the same configurations as our SuSE and Mandrake machines, but it wasnt as easy or convenient to figure out.

Many desktop-related configuration tasks must be performed in a KDE Control Panel located away from the SuSE, Mandrake or Red Hat control panels—the same circumstances exist for systems with GNOME. Wed like to see future releases tie in more tightly to their desktop environments.

SuSEs software utility enabled us to change the source of installation, install and remove software, and access updates from the Web or from an installation CD.

When we fired up the software update tool, it told us if any of our installed packages had unfulfilled dependencies and whether any of them conflicted with any other. Mandrake offers the same functionality in its own software installer, and all three distributions enabled us to fetch updates through the Web.

The display properties section in SuSEs control panel was particularly nice—usually, configuring X for a Linux box is somewhat unpredictable. SuSEs X setup tool, called SaX, probed hardware for the appropriate settings and allowed us to make changes. The model of the monitor that we used for testing was not included in the list of monitors we had to select from, but we could put a Windows driver disk into the machine, from which SuSE gathered the appropriate settings.

Setting Up Security

All three distributions offer personal firewall software, but when it came to configuration, SuSE won out again. SuSEs firewall and security dialogs enabled us either to select a preset security level or to drill down into individual options. Mandrake Linuxs control panel did not contain a utility for configuring the systems firewall, and Red Hats firewall setup applet required more basic familiarity with firewalls to set up.

Speaking of system configurations, one quality of Linux that we appreciated in contrast with Windows was the ease with which we could assume administrative rights to make changes without logging out and back in as root. Upon launching a system setup utility in one of the Linux distributions we tested, we were prompted for our root password to make system changes.

In Windows, acquiring administrative rights to change a setting or to install software often requires logging out as a regular user and logging back in as an administrator. So poorly implemented is this facility in Windows that by default, Windows XP users are assigned administrative rights—a security faux pas, since limited user rights restrict the damage that a virus or a configuration error can cause in a system.

All three distributions were fairly simple to install, but we found SuSE the simplest. SuSE started us out with a set of default settings, the acceptance of which set the install process under way with a single click. We could also change each of the settings.

For users who wish to install SuSE alongside a copy of Windows, SuSE offers to re-size Windows partitions to make way for Linux. In one of the test systems, SuSE re-sized a 38MB Windows file allocation table partition to 19MB and installed SuSE in the resulting free space. We could then choose Windows or SuSE at boot. This feature does not, however, work with NT File System partitions.

None of the products we tested included configuration tools for wireless LANs in its control panel applications—this is a gap we hope to see filled in future releases.

As Editor in Chief of eWEEK Labs, Jason Brooks manages the Labs team and is responsible for eWEEK's print edition. Brooks joined eWEEK in 1999, and has covered wireless networking, office productivity suites, mobile devices, Windows, virtualization, and desktops and notebooks. JasonÔÇÖs coverage is currently focused on Linux and Unix operating systems, open-source software and licensing, cloud computing and Software as a Service. Follow Jason on Twitter at jasonbrooks, or reach him by email at jbrooks@eweek.com.

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