Debian Gnu/Linux - A User's Perspective

from the March 2002 Newsletter
by John Anderson

Thanks, John, for your article. John Anderson works on the Actrix help desk, and is continuing his series on Linux. -Ed.

It's been two months since I purchased my Pentium 233 on which to run Debian GNU/Linux, and it has been quite a learning curve. However now I can say I'm getting a handle on how things fit together. In this article I will go through the experience of getting a running system that's as usable as my Windows setup. It's been fun getting to know a new system and also moving towards being able to solve problems for myself, something I've often not being able to do with various Microsoft difficulties over the years.

If you have any questions about this article, please contact me at janderson@actrix.co.nz.

Installation
Installation is relatively painless. I purchased the Debian GNU/Linux Bible by Steve Hunger which came with a CD-ROM. I could also have just made my own floppy disks by downloading them from the web. Anyway, the process for me was bug free. The menu system helpfully explains each step, from partitioning the hard drive to installing the modules or drivers for the hardware, to setting up an Internet connection. My CD-ROM, Modem, Network Card and Graphics Card were all recognised. After about an hour of tinkering I had a functional setup. I must admit I played around quite a bit more than that. I recommend doing a very basic installation and then adding to it progressively through the use of packages.

Package Management
Post-Installation there are still a host of applications that can be added. Debian makes this so much easier with packages. There are literally 1000s available. If you want to add a GUI or graphical user interface (pretty stuff), then just use dselect to install X Windows. The package system will warn you when you're about to remove something important and will also install additional packages needed by the program you are installing. The simplicity of installing packages is one of the great benefits of Debian.

Window Maker

GUI
This can be take a while to configure, although I'm told it's getting easier. I've found the program XF86Setup works for me every time. If you like variety then GNU\Linux is for you. There are many different Windows Managers that you can use, each with their own unique feel, I really found that Window Maker offered all I really needed. I haven't spent too much time looking at the full desktop suites available like GNOME and KDE. Although a recent install on another machine of KDE had me drooling, I'll be looking into this for the next article.

Mail and the Web
Here was where the acid test took place. I first tried Balsa, because it was light and it was part of the base install. Unfortunately it proved to be true to its name and was not at all sturdy. So, with reluctance I tried Netscape 4.77 and this did the trick. The e-mail system works well and allows all the funcitionality I had from Eudora. Browsing was slow on Mozilla, although I have yet to try Galeon or Konqueror which strip out a lot of the excesses of Mozilla. However browsing with Netscape proved to be nippy, even on my humble 33.3 K modem. I've also noticed that I stay connected longer with GNU/Linux, I've upgraded my distribution in about 4 hours and not been disconnected during that time. Overall a success and there are a wide range of other mail clients and browsers I can experiment with.

GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program)

Graphics
The GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is impressive. I've used Paint Shop Pro before and played around with a few other graphics programs. The GIMP is clean and functional and allows for varying levels of complexity. Touching up some of the wedding photos from the weekend proved to be a doddle, but you can see under the hood that there is a lot of potential for more complex operations. The only loss is the humble GIF file, which is patented and so unavailable unless you purchase a license from UniSys.

Networking
I set up a small LAN at home with the aid of someone more experienced. I admit I would have probably been lost without their help. They helped me configure my two machines so that they could talk across the network. We then set up a system so that both machines could share the Internet. We had to modify some text files to get it running, but within an hour, including time for reading documentation, we were ready to go. You can also quite easily configure a Firewall using a system called IP Chains. Firewalls help secure the system from external attack. I've tried setting up Internet Sharing between two Windows machines before and it failed dismally.

Wrapping it up
So, is the system as usable as my Windows one? Well, I still have to get sound working, currently one of the weaker areas with Linux. However I've managed to transfer the majority of my use to Debian, and the joy of it is, I know how to fix problems and can always learn more from the huge amount of knowledge available on the web. I've had some difficulties, but with a few investigative techniques I've managed to isolate the problems and fix them (sometimes with a little help from my friends). So, you ask, is there anyone to help me? Well, in fact there is. Here are a couple of Linux User Groups. Please let me know if you find any others.

Dunedin - http://dunedin.lug.net.nz/
Wellington - http://wlug.paradise.net.nz/
Hamilton - www.hamlug.org/

Next month, I'll look at Office Applications and Desktops for Linux.

John Anderson