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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It never created a boot disk during installation... even though the step was on the screen and I clicked the Yes button. Mandrake correctly spotted the printer and graphics card, but, as usual, nothing printed on test. There was no way to print out the help files, and the bottom of the configuration window was unreachable; there are no scroll bars, the text is too long for the window and the programmer should be flogged. Ironically, all I could read was the spiel about the wonders of configuring Linux.

There is excruciating detail in the Xconfig help files (I was having trouble with the screen size after installation), but there is no explanation of how to adjust screen size. Instead, a list of parameters is made available for those who already know what they are for. After installation, I tried to add additional software by installing GIMP. The dialog box told me I needed more files, but there was no OK box to click. Was I supposed to write these files down and find them manually? Did it install them? I have no idea. I tried to configure the printer with the Mandrake Control Center.

The system froze, and although the mouse could move the cursor, clicking got me nothing. Critical HardDrake problem: Every time I tried to open HardDrake, the screen locked up with a quivering fringe of pixels along the top. There was no keyboard response, so I couldn't switch to root or get to a command prompt. I had to use the reset button. Reboot took a long time because the file structure had to be fixed. The usual geek remedy of connecting from another computer on the network and killing the session was not available to me; this is the only computer I have.

System 3

This distribution correctly spotted the printer and the graphics card, but it still didn't print. HardDrake still locked up the system when I tried to access it, and the escapes listed in the manual didn't work. Killing the GUI left me with a blank, black screen instead of the text login I expected.HardDrake did not lock up the system, but that was the only difference. It still doesn't print.

Mandrake 8.2 Beta 1 and 2: Two steps back

Another gift from tOSG, freshly downloaded and already burned on CDs for my convenience. Unfortunately, neither of the betas worked. It couldn't print test pages during installation, and mystifyingly, this distribution was unable to get a GUI working. I selected the same monitor, graphics card, and settings that worked for Mandrake 8.1.

Yes, the monitor was old, but it worked with 8.0 and 8.1. What happened and who broke it? This brings out another frustrating aspect of Linux distributions: whom should I report the bug to? If you think the "it's the hardware, no, it's the software" tap-dance in the Windows world is annoying, wait until you see the "don't blame us we're only the distributor, you gotta talk to the dev team, no you gotta talk to the hardware maker, no it's the driver writers" boogie.

Mandrake 8.2 Official: Barely better

This managed to produce a GUI, but only after three tries with various permutations of generic SVGA monitors and refresh rates. Critical GUI-installation issue: If I tested the graphics setup, the screen looked OK (I saw penguins on colored stripes) then vanished into quivering colored confetti when I clicked "OK". As continuing with the installation was not possible, I pushed the reset button. The test routine is apparently the source of the problem; if I didn't run the test, the monitor worked.

This flawed program misleads potential users who take the time to run the tests into thinking the installation isn't going to work. It still did not print. Even when I cheated and installed the driver provided by tOSG in the location he specified, it couldn't print. Pages and pages of raw PostScript code came out of the printer, so that was perhaps progress. I abandoned this trial before testing the CD drives. My willingness to experiment is fading. This is looking more like the Donner party's trek than a migration.

Red Hat 7.3 Professional

I realize this is (now) a very old version of Red Hat. I tried it anyway. I never successfully installed Red Hat 7.3 on a pure Windows machine. However, it replaces other Linux distributions easily... and almost prints! The first time I installed this, I forgot to get rid of the existing Mandrake installation, so Red Hat installed right over the top of it. It correctly spotted my new 3-button mouse as "generic 3-button." It had a nice map of the time zones for me to select from. Both the CD player and the modem worked. It couldn't install a boot loader on the hard drive for some reason.

Maybe it couldn't figure out how to get rid of Mandrake's LILO? I had to make a boot floppy. Half a loaf may be better, but... although Red Hat correctly installed the printer and ASCII texts printed, the non-ASCII test page was split between two sheets of paper. Red Hat 7.3 doesn't play nicely with Windows! Unfortunately, with a pure Windows 95 machine just like the other distributions started with, Red Hat didn't ask if I wanted to create a dual-boot system. It didn't recognize existing partitions; it just showed me the two physical drives. Maybe there was some instruction I didn't notice, but I fared no better when using the wizard/druid/whatever-it-is.

I could make a swap file out of the free space on hda, but I couldn't get Red Hat to create a directory structure for itself in the reserved, formatted partition on hdb. This was enough to lose my recommendation for a dual-boot system for a non-geek. It might have done OK, but I couldn't tell what it planned to do to Win95 and my data.

SuSE 8.0 Professional: It prints perfectly, but...

The installation went well, but the drive-partitioning would be easier if it were graphical like Mandrake's. The hdxn notation was hard to comprehend, but at least it saw the drives correctly. Monitor: It spotted the card and accepted the settings. Printer: THE PRINTER WORKED! It actually printed graphics and ASCII text during the installation test! Is this going to be the one that "just works"? Is my search at an end? Sound Card: SuSE got smarter. It showed a dialog for configuring the mixer during installation. Modem: As a user, I tried to get on the Internet. SuSE said I didn't have something critical installed and to ask my sysop to do it. Well, I am my sysop, and I thought I had configured the modem during installation. I answered all the questions they asked. If there are additional steps involved in giving one's users access to features, please make them available when one creates the user account. The ^%@#!s killed Windows! After installation, I couldn't boot into Win95 from SuSE's boot screen. The system gave an "Invalid system disk" error message every time I tried. The usual rescue method of typing fdisk/mbr in MS-DOS mode didn't restore bootability either. I had to install Mandrake 8.0 over the top of SuSE to get my system running again. Why it works, I haven't a clue, but Mandrake8 makes a good Windows rescue disk even if it doesn't print. Later, I found out that tweaking LILO via YAST might have made it work. However, SuSE 7.1 was installed as a dual-boot system without any tweaking. They made it worse rather than better in the newer release, and a no-hassle, dual-boot installation is one of my requirements.

Mandrake 9.0: It prints! It dials!! Noise comes out of the speakers!!!

Finally! After many months and multiple distributions, I found a distribution that was able to create a system in which the GUI, printer, CD player and modem simultaneously worked. It was time to see if I could burn CDs, which is something I didn't bother to try with earlier distributions.

Minor printer issues: It correctly identified the printer early in the installation, but later indicated it planned to install drivers for a different model. I intervened and changed it back to the correct printer. This is NOT acceptable behavior from an installation program. They should remember what was accepted in earlier steps. ... but it printed! It really, truly printed!

Modem issues: One of the modem-setup programs lied to me. It said I wasn't connected, but I tried Mozilla anyway and had no problems. Anyone relying on these error messages is going to have problems. An error message ("pppd daemon died unexpectedly") appeared every time I tried to use one of the other connection programs. I was eventually able to connect to the Web and use a browser with one of the programs, but I was so stunned by the ability for Mandrake 9 to print that I forgot to write down which program it was.

CD-ROM issues: The CD player works with music, although Mandrake couldn't recognize the sound card and I had to run sndconfig as root. The installation process told me what I would have to do, which is acceptable. However, I am annoyed at the backsliding because earlier distributions recognized the card and there was no need for manual intervention. This is not progress. Mandrake correctly identified both CD-ROM drives during installation and showed them correctly on the desktop and in the Mandrake Control Center. However, I couldn't make a disk-to-disk copy of a CD-ROM because XCDROAST showed the CD-RW drive as both the reader and the writer. As a result, it couldn't find the other CD drive. GCombust only showed one drive and coughed up an error message saying that it didn't like the settings. However, the help file was no help in determining the settings it needed, so it was useless.

Gtoaster was dead on arrival. It opened and did nothing else. It wouldn't even close, and I had to kill the process to get rid of it. If the BIOS can identify the drives, the boot sequence correctly identifies them and they show up correctly in the control center, what's the problem? Why can't these burners burn?

Data issues: I was so stunned by being able to print that I forgot to make sure Mandrake could access the Windows drives before I tried Red Hat 8.0. On a repeat installation, it automatically mounted the Windows partitions.

Red Hat 8.0: It prints! It dials!! Noise comes out of the speakers!!! But where's my data?

Another system where the GUI, printer, CD player and modem worked simultaneously! That's two in a row! Unfortunately, it flunks the "all my data must be usable" condition. This version saw the right partitions and, with some prodding from me, installed itself into the right spot. After installation, it gave me a dual-boot system with a working version of Win95. The partitioning was not as convenient as Mandrake's, but it was clear enough. It went through the motions of creating a user during installation, but it did not actually do so. I had to create a user later. Red Hat performs no modem- or printer-setup during installation, so I had to do it later. This was inconvenient, but not a showstopper. The GUI-configuration manager proved to be adequate.

Graphics: Red Hat could not automatically identify the video card, but it had no problems after I told it what the card was.

Printer: The printer printed but still split the page. I discovered that it only did this at 600 DPI, and at 300 DPI the page was correct. I'm not sure my printer can produce 600 DPI, so this might have been the printer's fault. Every time I booted up, it saw the printer and wanted to configure it again. This is annoying.

Modem: The modem installed, and I experienced no problems dialing up and accessing the Internet.

CD player: Red Hat's hardware-detection couldn't see my sound card, and it offered no suggestions on what to do about this situation in the error message it showed. The earlier version had no problems detecting the card, so this is a second distribution that lost features in the process of "improving." Help was as unhelpful as usual. Running sndconfig (as suggested by Mandrake) was successful, and music CDs will play. On the next boot-up, Red Hat saw the card just fine and wanted to configure it.

Hard drives: Oopsie! I couldn't see any non-Linux drives as root or user, and that's where my data is. mount showed me my choices: two CD drives, a floppy and neither of the Windows partitions. The hardware manager correctly showed the drives, but I couldn't mount them from that interface. Searching the help files from the desktop had the expected results: "mount" not found. Looking at the man pages (yup, I actually looked for a man page) was less than helpful. Look at the index for man pages for "devices." See all the non-descriptions? Am I supposed to open every one of them hoping to find the right one? Is a drive even considered a "device"? On a repeat installation, I tried to mount the Windows drives at the same time as setting the Linux partitions. Red Hat refused to do so, claiming that the drives needed a "Linux mount point". I tried /home, /user and one other / kind of drive that was visible, and it rejected them all. Would it be so terribly difficult to give me an option that says "This is for Windows" and a choice to "make it available" or not?

CD burning: Either I have to be root (xcdroast, gtoaster) or it errored-out because a file was missing (KONCCD). Even as root, none of the CD-burning programs correctly detected the drives.

Mystery error: Something crashed on exit; it gave a "oops, crashed," a process number and wanted me to visit a Web site, but the error window closed out within seconds. I still have no clue what it was, and I'll never see it again because these CDs are headed for the trash.

Flawed testing and sloppy GUI: The Red Hat Alert, some sort of update feature, had "Click on 'Next' below" on the first dialog box. However, there was no button labeled "Next." Did they perhaps mean "Forward"? The "you have to be root to do this" dialog box had two buttons: OK and Cancel. When I clicked Cancel, it gave me an error about the password being incorrect. I cancelled; there was no need to check password and give an error message. Just close the window like a good operating system.

Knoppix 3.1: Oh, what the heck, I had the CD

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