The view from 2003: Migrating to Linux not easy for Windows users

The marketing blather promises easy upgrades, but that's not what one newbie found

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DistributionGUI interfacePrinterModemCD driveNotes
Linux for Windows (Mandrake 8.1?)Poorly designed (sequence of HDA/B reversed)[not tested][not tested][not tested]Poor GUI design makes it easy to install on wrong drive, overwrite all data
LycorisYesWorks wellDid not workCD-burning only accessible as rootMSIE 4.0 or higher required for autorun installation; Help files lacking; Problems with default fonts and modem-recognition never solved
Mandrake 8.0Poorly designed (sequence of HDA/B reversed)Did not work[not tested]Did not have permission to burn CDs, even as rootSome graphics cards had ill effects on GUI; GUI design makes it easy to install on wrong drive, overwrite all data
SuSE 7.1 ProfessionalYes, but didn't display on System 1Did not work[not tested]CD audio worked after adjusting mixer settingsProblems with drive-recognition during install; Frequent lock-ups and forced reboots; Command for creating boot-disk listed in SuSE manual contains a typo
Mandrake 8.1 (Download Version)Poor design (some input fields cut off)Did not work[not tested][not tested]Could not create a boot disk during installation; Launching HardDrake often froze up system
Mandrake 8.2 Beta 1 and 2Could not get it to work[not tested][not tested][not tested]GUI did not work correctly, so installation abandoned
Mandrake 8.2 OfficialYes, after several attemptsDid not workCouldn't establish connection via GNOME dialer application[not tested]Couldn't switch from GNOME to KDE to test modem dialer; Graphics test causes problems
Red Hat 7.3 ProfessionalYesTrouble with non-ASCII text (split-page printing error)Worked wellWorked wellCouldn't install on a Windows machine; Could not create a boot loader on hard drive; Seemingly couldn't create dual-boot system or identify existing partitions
SuSE 8.0 ProfessionalYesWorked wellAfter configuring modem, SuSE claimed critical components still neededSolved mixer-override problem by allowing configuration during installationDual-boot installation did not work; No GUI for drive-partitioning
Mandrake 9.0YesWorked wellWorked wellWorked wellModem setup doesn't properly identify Net connection when connected
Red Hat 8.0YesWorked wellWorked wellPlays audio CDs, but drives not detected and root privileges necessary when attempting to burnHelp files lacking; Couldn't access data on non-Linux drives
Knoppix 3.1YesSplit-page printing errorWorked wellCould not burn CDs correctlySometimes boots with errors and odd behavior

As I noted before, I stopped testing a distro if it failed to meet one of my key requirements for usability, so that explains all the "not tested" listings in the chart. Read on for details.

Linux for Windows (Mandrake 8.1?)

This is merely a clever packaging job by Mandrake, and it has multiple booby traps in the installation. Even if I make allowances for a marketer's optimism when choosing the words to go on the box, this particular box lied to me. The words on the front of the box promised me, in bold red letters:

  • "Three easy steps to running Linux on a Windows machine".
  • "No disk partitioning or reformatting needed"
  • "Simply follow the prompted installation steps..."

... now that's an installation the non-geeks of the world could fall in love with. I bought it. Silly me! I expected that if the box says "Linux for Windows" and the CD says "Linux for Windows," they would contain an installation specifically and solely of Linux for Windows. I expected it would install from the CD-ROM like other Windows programs. I was quite mistaken.

If you follow the installation steps as prompted, you end up with a full installation of Linux and a partitioned, formatted hard drive, just as if you had bought the standard version. You would lose your Windows system and all your data. To install Linux for Windows you have to quickly click the "Other Options" button on a screen that appears early in the installation process, then type the right command. If you do not react quickly enough, the CD-ROM launches a full install of Mandrake Linux on its own. This is a very poor programming practice; computers should wait for instructions during installation.

The installation text is not specific to Linux for Windows, which means the user sees alerts about repartitioning. If the product's box says "no partitioning" and no repartitioning is going to be done, the installer shouldn't make users nervous by bringing up the subject. A Windows user is accustomed to software that checks for sufficient room before it starts, or at least seeing "not enough room" error messages partway through an installation.

Neither the manual nor the installer made it clear that Linux for Windows was going to forcibly make room for itself, overwriting any files that are in the way if you set the size slider too high. I tested it with a drive full of sacrificial data, and it killed it all. As another indication of the lack of care Mandrake put into this product, the window where you choose the drive upon which to install reverses the order of the drives; HDB is to the left of HDA in the dialog box with no clue of their names or assignments under Windows.

I could tell which drive was which because of the size difference, but it would be easy for anyone accustomed to a language that reads from left to right and using the European alphabet to select the wrong drive and lose all his or her data. It's sloppy GUI design and inadequate user testing. Anyway, it never worked... even when I took the correct detour to install it. The promised KDE GUI never appeared, and ls in text mode didn't show the usual Linux directory structures. Removing this pile of penguin poop was not easy.

The uninstall didn't work, because the uninstall BAT file is hard-coded to delete Linux for Windows from the C: drive. I installed it on D: drive. Dragging the dead penguin to the trash in Windows 95 worked, leaving nothing behind but grub, the boot loader. It took fdisk /mbr to pry grub off the hard drive.

Lycoris (Download)

I inserted the CD with Windows active and discovered that it requires an installation of MSIE 4.0 or higher for the autorun installation to work. Although MSIE was installed on the system, Lycoris didn't find it and closed out with a fatal error. MSIE is not mentioned in the system requirements.

Trying to run install.bat doesn't work either; it's still looking for MSIE. I snooped around the CD-ROM, clicked /winsetup/rlsetup.exe and it started an installation! Lycoris correctly spotted the video card and monitor, but it didn't identify the modem. There is absolutely no clue in the online help files on how to install extra software; the "install new software" choice just wants to go to the Lycoris Web site.

I blundered into how to do it, and there is no feedback to the user that anything is happening during the software-installation process. Somehow, it worked and NetHack is running. All progress on system testing came to a halt until a kitten killed my wizard on level 8 of the game I was playing. Another odd spot for Lycoris popped up when I tried to burn a CD. It required me to do this as root. While there might be a technical reason for this, it's a bad idea. In a family setup, "root" will either have to do all the CD-burning or the root password will end up on a piece of paper taped to the monitor.

The display automatically picked up the Windows fonts from the system, but the default display fonts are UGLY! I couldn't find how to change them in the help files. I also couldn't dial my ISP because the modem said it was "busy" every time I tried. I could find absolutely no help for "modem" except the procedure I already had followed to install it. Help files lacking: "How to Use Redmond Linux" just gave me the KDE help files, and they aren't searchable. A quick glance at the Lycoris site's support boards shows that I'm not the only one having modem problems.

Delving deeper into the system than I want to, I find that it doesn't seem to have created any configuration files for the modem. No modem shows up in any of the hardware lists; Lycoris has decided that I am not going to use a modem. But it printed! It really printed! Lycoris printed perfectly with "OKIPAGE 6e, foomatic lj4 using CUPs." I haven't a clue why Lycoris could do it while other distributions couldn't with the same settings, but it's an example of the frustrating and erratic performance of Linux distributions.

Mandrake 8.0 (from Cheap Bytes)

This had the same A/B position error for the hard drives that Linux for Windows did. How does a usability error this basic make it to release without getting fixed? Mandrake crashed on the first installation with a graphics failure, showing only a "Black Screen of Death." Later that day, after several installations, while attempting to find graphics settings that could give me a GUI, I realized Mandrake — or perhaps SuSE — had corrupted my Windows system. I had to reinstall Win95 and all of its upgrades from my backups.

System 2 Mandrake kept filling the screen with blinking technicolor characters instead of a GUI. I finally got it working as a generic SVGA. Play music? No such luck. I couldn't use the CD drives as root or user. Even as root, I couldn't open the configuration file to see what the problem was, because Mandrake said I didn't have the proper permissions. I thought root could do anything, but apparently not. Mandrake couldn't automatically detect the printer on installation; it claimed to install it when manually directed to, but it didn't print.

System 3

With the new graphics card, Mandrake installed more easily. To my surprise, the CD player worked as expected. I haven't a clue why a different graphics card would affect the CD player's access rights, but it did. I was still unable to print, although a number of entries could be seen when I looked into the printer-related menus. Among the entries in the listing: nozzle-alignment for a Z22. I'm sure I'll have an occasion to align the nozzle on a Z22 any day now and will be grateful that I have that particular utility readily available. Right now, I'd be more grateful if I could print with my OKIPAGE 6e. I installed Mandrake 8.0 on this system, but only to rescue Win95 from SuSE 8.0. It still would not print, so I didn't try anything else.

SuSE 7.1 Professional = SoSO

The SuSE manual gave instructions for making a boot disk from the CLI, but the command listed in the manual contained a typo. Needless to say, it didn't work. This simply isn't acceptable for any software. I never saw a GUI on this system, just a "Black Screen of Death." SuSE (or Mandrake) wiped out my Windows system.

I couldn't find the video-driver specific to the ATI card I had, so I installed it as generic SVGA. SuSE didn't detect the modem, but it could configure it correctly when I forced the issue. During installation, it didn't detect the printer, but it highlighted the right printer as soon as I selected "manual configuration." It gave an error, "no parport," but if I clicked TEST, it found the port. Despite this ability to detect ports and printers when ordered to, it did not print. It wouldn't let me play CDs! Why I could use the CD drive for installation but couldn't get the drawer open later for music is a mystery to me. Even root couldn't get it to open; no one on the system had the required privileges? Reboot didn't help.

The drive is permanently cursed. Mandrake had a similar problem with this system, and the problem vanished with a change of video cards. I remain baffled by the implied connection between useless CD-drives and video cards. Another weirdness: the toolbar clock toggled from civilian- to military-style and back again, without my doing anything. Does this mean it's cursed too? The preference panel showed AM/PM as the selection.

The system locked up when I told it to get WinFonts and locked up again when I tried to add an icon to the desktop. Of course, it didn't technically "crash," because the Linux kernel was still running in there somewhere. It just refused to respond to mouse clicks or keyboard commands until I hit the reset button.I restarted one more time and left it running for several hours, sporadically playing a board game. It went into and out of sleep mode a few times, and I ended up with multiple instances of x86 running, taking up most of the memory and making the system extremely slow.

Then it locked up again. It locked up yet again when I tried to open KDESYSGUARD and gave me the "Red Screen of Death" on reboot. Every time I rebooted after that, it showed a blank red screen. KDESYSGUARD seems to have permanently destroyed something critical. That's when I gave up on it.

Where did SuSE put the WINE?

I installed WINE with System 2, but it was nowhere to be found in the menus after the installation. It might have been somewhere in the menu system, but I didn't get lucky. Finally I found it with Konquerer's file search, but it wouldn't work because it couldn't find its own winesetup file. I'm biting my fingernails to keep from typing something obnoxious here.

System 3

My hopes rose when SuSE appeared to be working. It correctly identified the SIS chipset and monitor. I could not get it to start multiple instances of x86 by letting it go in and out of sleep mode, nor could I get it to give me the Red Screen of Death with KDESYSGUARD. Let's blame it on the video driver. Printer: SuSE didn't see the printer or the dual-pp card it was connected to (the printer had to be moved temporarily for something I was doing in Windows). I moved the printer back to LPT0, SuSE spotted the printer on the next boot-up and claimed to install it. SuSE claims to print, and the printer lights blink, but it's still just pretending to print. KDE CD player (kscd): This is representative of the problems that some programmers and distributors inflict on the world. My expectation when using these is that I will locate and open CD player software, insert a CD into the drive, click the play button on the interface and have music come out of my speakers.

Well, it acted as if it was playing a CD. The drive light was on, the faint noise of a rotating CD came from the drive, but no music came out of the speakers. The sound card tested OK during the installation, and CDs played under Win95, so the hardware setup and drivers were OK. Nothing in the CD player's help file was useful because there is no help file; clicking on the obvious button with the question mark did nothing. Whoever designed the interface thought that "?" is an intuitive icon for "shuffle".

Clicking on HELP from the configure window merely brought up the KDE main file. As usual, SEARCH installed as deadware, referring me to some software I needed to download and install before I could search for help on CD drives. A hint from tOSG led me to the cause of the problem: a well-hidden something called the "mixer," which was installed with the volume-slider and defaulted to zero by SuSE. The mixer overrides the CD-player volume level and the speaker controls. This important nugget of information was not mentioned in the help files for the CD-player software nor anywhere in the installation procedure.

System 4 or 4.1

This distribution could not correctly identify the drives during installation. It told me it saw more drives than I knew I had in there, so I cancelled the installation. Why a does a motherboard change affect drive detection when the drives are the same? The BIOS correctly identified them.

Mandrake 8.1 (Download version)

I didn't even try the CD drives with this version. Mandrake 8.1 did not work very well with my vintage collection of budget-friendly hardware. The hard-drive A/B sequence was fixed, and it was possible to cancel before partitioning without hitting the reset button. Some dialog boxes still cut off part of the input area, so it appeared as if the rest of the lousy GUI design had not been fixed.

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