The magazine of the Melbourne PC User Group

Trial Linux the Easy Way
Rob Reilly
 


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.
  Linux Information

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 www.melbpc.org.au/pcupdate/2311/2311article6.htm.
 
 

Linux 101

You should always have a game plan before you start a project. Here was mine.

  • 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.
Here is a list of tasks we might want to undertake:
  • 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.
In short, perhaps with the exception of sophisticated desktop publishing, anything you might wish to do on any regular home or business computer.

The hardware I used for this one:
  • 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
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.

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 hardware.

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.

Software

On the "Software Selection" screen I selected "Default system", then selected "Detailed selection...".

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 package list.

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 as kdenetwork3-dialup.

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".

Time

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 Operating Systems.

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 select one.

Some other items of note on the desktop include:

  • 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 there.
  • 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.
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.

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 network.

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 Davis.

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.

Conclusion

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
Rob Reilly,
robreilly@earthlink.net is a strong advocate of recycling and hot-rodding obsolete PC hardware using Linux. Visit his Web site at http://home.earthlink.net/~robreilly/.

Helpful Web Sites

SuSE Linux:  http://www.suse.com

Mozilla Browser and Email Client:  http://www.mozilla.org

OpenOffice.org Productivity Suite:  http://www.openoffice.org

The Gimp Graphics Program:  http://www.gimp.org

GNUCash Money Management Program:  http://www.gnucash.org

XMMS Audio Player:  http://www.xmms.org

Reprinted from the December 2003 issue of PC Update, the magazine of Melbourne PC User Group, Australia

[ About Melbourne PC User Group ]