The magazine of the Melbourne PC User Group
Trial Linux the Easy Way
Rob Reilly walks us through the steps of installing and getting started with
Linux on a standby PC. He alerts us to areas that might cause difficulty and
provides suggestions of where we can obtain help and further information.
Why not? That's the answer I give people when they ask if they should try Linux.
Why not get your hands dirty, explore a few less travelled roads and then decide
if Linux will satisfy your computing needs.
And you can do it all with some old
PC hardware from your closet, a Linux CD-ROM set and a few hours of time over a
couple of weekends. By using a spare machine you can install, experiment and
learn about Linux at your leisure while not disrupting activities on your
working PC. Later, if you want to put Linux on your regular machine, you can do
that with complete confidence.
Lots of background information and Linux terminology was published in
PC Update, May 2003.
Readers completely new to Linux may wish to review that issue or visit the
popular online version at
www.melbpc.org.au/pcupdate/2305/index.htm to review the material
published in that month.
Rob has written other Linux articles in recent months. See PC Update,
October 2003 for "Benefits To Be Gained from Using OpenOffice.Org" at
www.melbpc.org.au/pcupdate/2310/2310article3.htm, and PC Update,
November 2003 for "Easy Browsing with Mozilla" at
You should always have a game plan before you start a project. Here was mine.
Here is a list of tasks we might want to undertake:
- List the tasks we would be able to undertake with our Linux PC.
- Round up some hardware - either a brand new machine or some bits and pieces.
- Obtain and install a version of Linux that would enable us to do it all.
In short, perhaps with the exception of sophisticated desktop publishing,
anything you might wish to do on any regular home or business computer.
- Set up an easy-to-use desktop, with icons, menus, a calendar, clock, etc.
- Connect to the Internet (either dial-up or broadband).
- Browse Web sites and use e-mail.
- Write documents, compute numbers on a spreadsheet or build a slide presentation.
- Touch up some graphics files.
- Track money with an accounting application.
- Listen to CDs or streaming audio.
The hardware I used for this one:
You shouldn't have too much difficulty finding the parts to build a similar
machine. You can substitute similar or newer components as desired or as
necessary but in any case a vast range of hardware is supported. Note, Linux
likes lots of memory, so put in as much RAM as possible.
- Pentium 200 desktop machine
- Toshiba 12x CD-ROM drive
- Western Digital 3 GB hard disk drive (HDD)
- 64 MB RAM
- Trident Blade 3D - 8 MB video card
- Intel - Ethernet Pro 100 network card
- 56K modem card (a real modem, not a WinModem)
- Creative Labs Sound Blaster 16 audio card
- Sony 15-inch 1024 x 768 colour monitor
- Keyboard, mouse, cables, speakers
SuSE 8.2 Professional is my top pick for an easy-to-use, full featured Linux
distribution and it's the version used here. It costs US$80.00 at the SuSE Web
store. You can also pick it up at any number of retailers (online) or check out
the sources listed in PC Update, May 2003. (See box above). SuSE 8.2
Professional has over 4500 programs that cover everything you could imagine for
a desktop, laptop or server. But, by all means if you have a copy of Red Hat
Linux 8.0 or Mandrake, install one of those. Many of the tasks discussed here
also apply to those distributions, except that their installation programs will
look and work a little differently.
Loading SuSE Linux 8.2
Commencing with inserting disc 1, the installation was about as straightforward
as you can get, although a tiny bit slow on the old Pentium 200. When the SuSE
installation screen appeared I chose "New Installation" and "1024 x 768 video
mode". Then the machine proceeded to boot.
A screen appeared that enabled me to choose a language. SuSE can be installed in
several languages. I'd love to get feedback from readers who have installed in
languages other than standard English.
YaST, SuSE's installation and configuration manager then began to analyze my
As you might expect an "Installation Settings" screen eventually appeared where
the mode, keyboard, mouse, partitioning, software, booting etc were set. The
settings could be changed by tabbing down and selecting the appropriate section.
As you build your system, you will want to change some things, for a number of
reasons. Some of my preferences for software were not included in the default
build, so this is an opportunity to see how to load software. You can always add
programs later as you become more familiar with Linux.
Here are the sections I customized and my reasons.
On the "Software Selection" screen I selected "Default system", then selected
The YaST software selection screen (see Figure 1, below), has a lot of good
information about the many programs that can be installed. When you've made each
choice, an "a" appearing in the left column indicates that a program has been
selected and will be added to the install list.
Figure 1. The YaST Software Selection Screen.
During the install I wanted to add a couple of packages to the default software
I selected Multimedia, Network/Server and deselected the Help Support
Documentation. This is a matter of personal choice and because the documentation
takes up about 300 MB and I preferred to keep that space free.
Lastly, I tabbed down and selected "OK".
This completed the default software package installation list. But, I still
wanted to add a couple of favoured programs to the list.
I selected "Search" on the software selection screen. I typed the program name
(in this case Mozilla) into the "Search Phrase" and selected "OK". Next, I
arrowed down and selected "mozilla". Lastly, I tabbed down and selected "OK".
This is how individual programs are added with YaST. I used the same procedure
to install Mozilla-mail and kppp (the modem dialer). KPPP appeared on the list
At this point, I had finished selecting software packages. The programs selected
satisfied all the functions we had on our job list. The lower middle part of the
screen showed the Required Disk Space. It was around 1.9 GB. That's how much
disk space the software and system required. That left about 1 GB of space for
user files. Not bad for a full function desktop machine.
Next, I tabbed down and selected "OK". An "Automatic Changes" screen appeared
and I just selected "OK".
By default, SuSE assumes Pacific Standard Time (PST). It should be changed to
fit your Time Zone.
All looked right on the Installation Settings screen so I just selected Accept.
Note, you can always go back later and change things if necessary.
The Loading Stage
SuSE then went through its gyrations of loading files and doing the "CD
shuffle". I just fed in the required discs as was indicated in the message
boxes. It took a little while. I also went through the "Update patches" process,
added a "root" password, a regular user and so on. Mostly, I just followed the
directions and the system eventually rebooted into my brand new Linux system.
The only real choice I had to make was during network configuration. YaST asked
if I wanted to set up networking with DHCP, so that's what I chose. If you have
a cable/DSL modem or a router, most likely you will be using dynamic IP
addressing. Generally a static IP address is used for servers and setting that
up is beyond the scope of this article. DHCP (Dynamic Host Control Protocol)
provides centralised control of address allocation for TCP/IP networks and
usually the IP address is assigned by the router.
SuSE found all the hardware, configured the video card, and loaded all the
chosen software with very minor changes on my part. This is the perfect version
for a novice to Linux. Now we'll cover how to log in and start up our programs.
Running Programs With The Desktop
Installing Linux using SuSE's YaST installer was really pretty easy. Trying out
a program or two is equally easy using the KDE Desktop. KDE is much like
Microsoft Windows in that it has a tool and task bar across the bottom, icons
for starting your favorite application and a pseudo Start button that lists
menus of programs. It is a graphical environment where you can use multiple
windows and desktops for your work. The multiple desktop feature is especially
useful to me because typically I have the Mozilla browser, mail client, the
Bluefish HTML editor and OpenOffice.org all running at once. Then, I just click
a button to alternate between desktops to use the different programs. This is
one example of why Linux requires lots of RAM, it's extremely powerful, very
stable and can handle multiple, concurrent tasks much better than other
Logging In With KDE 3.1
After the machine reboots, you'll get a user login screen. Simply type in the
regular user name and password you specified during installation. Select "OK"
and the KDE desktop will start up automatically (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. KDE Desktop.
Left click the round green icon (Start Applications) at the lower left corner of
the KDE desktop screen. The menu works just like the Microsoft Windows Start
Button. You can roll the mouse over the various applications and left click to
Some other items of note on the desktop include:
Rough Spots: The KDE settings can be changed with the Control Center. It gives
you choices about appearance, desktop settings, networking, system
administration, YaST and so on. For a full explanation see Chapter 5, the KDE
Desktop, in the user manual.
- The small boxes marked "1" and "2" in the middle of the tool bar at the bottom
are the "Virtual Desktops". You can start up one program in desktop 1 (eg.
Mozilla) then click on desktop 2 and run Mozilla mail. Whenever you want to
change back to Mozilla simply click the desktop 1 button and immediately you are
- At the lower right corner of the screen is the clock and date. You can left
click on the clock and instantly get a little calendar. It's very convenient for
when you are setting up schedules.
- The main KDE screen area is much like the Microsoft Windows icon area. You can
put a CD in the drive and click the "CD-ROM" icon and get a file manager window
showing all the files on the CD. In my case the OpenOffice.org icon was also
visible. We'll talk about that in a minute.
Using Dial-Up and Broadband
On with finalising my installation.
Dial-Up was handled with the KPPP program. It could be found under the
"Internet" and "Controlling" menus. On the main KPPP login screen I selected
Setup to input a phone number. Assuming that you have a dialup account and the
correct phone number for your ISP, KPPP will dial and connect to your provider's
Networking was configured when I did the installation. And, since I was able to
update the installation via the Internet, I knew that my broadband was working.
Rough Spots: Make sure that you have a real modem, not a "winmodem". Winmodems
(designed to work with and use software components from Microsoft Windows) can
be made to work with Linux, but it's not a simple task.
Using The Mozilla Browser and E-mail Client
Mozilla is the premier Web browser for Linux (see Figure 3). Its operation is
very similar to Internet Explorer under Microsoft Windows. It also has some cool
features like popup ad blocking and tabbed browsing. Tabbed browsing enables you
to connect to multiple Web sites at once. To switch sites you simply click on a
different tab. It's like magic!
Figure 3. Mozilla Main Screen.
Changes to the Mozilla settings were done under the "File", "Edit" and
"Preferences" menus. The main Preferences page enables you to change your home
page location. Tabbed browsing is set under the "Navigator" and "Tabbed
Browsing" menu items. I simply un-checked "Hide the tab bar" and tabbed browsing
appeared in the main Mozilla window.
Mozilla Mail (see Figure 4) is activated by single clicking the little envelope
icon at the lower left bottom of the Mozilla browser window. The first time I
used the program it went through setting up my e-mail user name, incoming and
outgoing servers and so on. I could have set up multiple e-mail accounts, if I
had more than one.
Figure 4. Mozilla Mail Main Screen.
Remember that incoming mail servers are generally the POP servers (Post Office
Protocol) and outgoing ones are SMTP servers (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol).
Your ISP will supply the details you need to enter for each.
Cashing In With GNUcash
GNUcash is a money management system. It's similar to other money management
packages in the Microsoft Windows world like Quicken. The program is simple to
start and goes through a basic setup routine to establish accounts.
Rough Spots: GNUcash is a very comprehensive personal accounting package. You
should probably set up some bogus accounts to familiarize yourself with the
program, and then use it for a while before putting your small business accounts
on the system.
Graphics With The Gimp
The Gimp is another old favorite that I tried out under SuSE 8.2 Pro. I use it
for photo touch-up and graphics resizing. The program is found under the
Graphics menu. The Gimp is a tremendously powerful graphics program.
Rough Spots: If you want to use the Gimp on a regular basis, I'd recommend
getting a copy of the book titled "The Gimp for Linux and Unix" by Phyllis
Tuning In With XMMS
XMMS is similar to the Microsoft Windows program named WinAmp. It enables you to
play MP3 files, OGG files and CDs. It can be found under Multimedia and Sound
menus. XMMS can play Internet streams by clicking on "Play Location" under the
main menu. Make sure you put http://(your streaming site name) in the box titled
"location to play".
Rough Spots: To play CD files, I had to go into the Play File menu. Then, I had
to double left click the "../" directory twice. Then I had to choose "/media",
followed by the "cdrom/" directories.
SuSE Linux 8.2 Professional represents one of the easiest distributions to use
for newbies or those people coming from the Microsoft Windows world. We've
touched the surface here but there is so much more to explore with Linux. The
excitement of building your machine, setting it up and getting it running
smoothly is a wonderful learning experience.
About the Author
firstname.lastname@example.org is a strong advocate of recycling and hot-rodding
obsolete PC hardware using Linux. Visit his Web site at
Reprinted from the December 2003 issue of PC Update, the magazine of Melbourne PC User Group, Australia