If you are a tech tinkerer at heart, have some free time on your hands, and embrace the sweat and tears that accompany a challenging project, perhaps youve contemplated setting up a Linux system at home.
Youre not alone. Countless PC Magazine readers have told us theyre curious about the Windows-free, open-source way of computing. But turning an old PC into a Linux box from scratch can be daunting, and the benefits of having one are debatable.
On the plus side, Linux appeals to those tired of the security woes that plague Microsoft Windows and, of course, to those interested in sampling thousands of free apps. As Linux is free, you wont be encumbered by potential software-licensing frustrations. It attracts developers in particular because of the plentiful development tools that are both powerful and free.
Those who venture into Linux fresh from the Windows or Macintosh worlds are often pleased to find that Linux distributions, or distros, approach user interfaces with much more flexibility than those operating systems do. If you install one distro and dont like its look-and-feel, you can switch to other graphical user interfacessome of which may be Mac-like and some Windows-likewithout reinstalling Linux.
Stability has long been cited as an advantage of Linux, although Windows XP has pretty much closed that gap. In fact, the introduction of fancier and more complex GUIs for Linux, with translucent windows and 3D shadows, has caused growing pains similar to those Windows has experienced.
Although there are many free, useful Linux applications, such as OpenOffice, the breadth of compelling apps is far smaller than it is for Windows or Mac. Also, relatively few peripheral devices like printers and scanners offer Linux drivers, and vendors often wont support a product used with Linux. If you end up wanting real-life tech support for the distro you choose, you may find that Linux isnt at all the low-cost solution you envisioned it to be.
On the other hand, Linux users enjoy a vast community of Web sites and discussion boards that often have good advice and answers to tech questions. A good resource for beginners is www.linuxfromscratch.org, where you can download a free online book with instructions for customizing a Linux machineregardless of which distro you chooseand participate in newsgroups and other community forums. Two other sites we like are www.linuxforums.org and www.linuxquestions.org.
Ultimately, many people who are interested in building Linux systems are drawn mostly to the pleasures of the project itself; installing Linux can be a fun experiment thats fully customizable and free. They also probably have one or two Windows or Mac systems that they dont plan on getting rid of anytime soon.
So tinkerers, if youre ready for the challenge, read on. On the following pages well give you the technical basics of Linux, plus step-by-step instructions for downloading and installing Red Hats Fedora Core 4 Linux distribution. Well help you familiarize yourself with the OS and configure and customize it to your liking.
More and more do-it-yourselfers are installing and exploring Linux. Follow along with us if you want to join their ranks.
Our Contributors: Sebastian Rupley is a senior editor of PC Magazine. Oliver Kaven is a lead analyst at PC Magazine Labs. Features editor Michael J. Steinhart was in charge of this story.