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November 30, 2000

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FEBRUARY 25, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 7

Penguin Power
There is an alternative operating system to Windows. Here's how to load Linux - and live

Pick up any computer magazine these days and you're as likely to see a dumpy penguin staring out from the cover as you are Bill Gates. The reason: the increasing popularity of Linux, the free operating system that has the waddling antarctic bird for its mascot.

Linux has been gaining steam since 1991 when its creator, Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds, released it free on the Internet. Initially just a hit with techies, in the past year Linux has gained the backing of mainstream manufacturers like Dell and IBM and is now installed on 25% of the server computers used by businesses, snapping at the 38% of Microsoft's Windows NT. Next Linux has your desktop in its sights. Windows may be the 800-pound gorilla of operating systems, but the penguin is being fattened up into a credible challenger. Linux's 4% share of the desktop market is a mere percentage point behind Apple's, and that figure is on the rise.

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Switching from Windows to Linux brings three main benefits. First: fewer crashes. Linux is extremely stable and machines sometimes run for years without a reboot. Second: old PCs that buckle under the weight of Windows get a new lease of life. Penguinistas (as Linux evangelists are called) proudly run the OS on decrepit machines with pre-Pentium 386 and 486 chips inside. Third: Linux is free. Kind of. You can download Linux gratis from the Web, but this do-it-yourself option is not for the novice.

Step one to installing Linux for most of us is a trip to the store to buy a CD-ROM package. Priced on average around $60 they include vital extras like software applications, instructions and support. The first thing you'll notice is that there is no one version of Linux. A number of manufacturers distribute their own shrink-wrapped packages which pile features on top of a central "kernel" of Linux code that is common to all. The most popular is called Red Hat, while Caldera's version is recognized as the easiest to install. Choose a version that comes with a GUI (the graphical user interface of icons and mouse pointer familiar from Windows) or you'll have to learn an arcane language of typed commands.

The trickiest part of installing Linux is known as partitioning. Partitions are virtual walls used to segregate sections of your hard disk for different tasks. Unless you opt to wipe Windows from your system, you will need to shrink the partition already allocated to it to make room for Linux. You'll need at least 500 megabytes of space. If, like me, you have two hard drives, you can simply reserve the first for Windows and install Linux on the other. If you have but one hard drive, opt for a Linux distribution that comes with a software application, like Partition Magic, designed to make the process accessible to mere mortals.

Next place the Linux CD in your CD-ROM drive and reboot to begin the installation. First you need to split the space you made for Linux into smaller partitions using a program like Disk Druid or fdisk, which is included. The process is confusing at first, but don't be intimidated. All you are doing is labeling portions of your hard disk, telling the computer what they are to be used for and how big each should be. Follow the instructions closely and you will prevail.

The rest of the installation is (relatively) plain sailing, with on-screen instructions to guide you. Before you begin, be sure to have the technical specifications of your monitor, mouse, video card (your PC must have one to run the GUI, as I found out to my cost) and Internet connection to hand. When prompted, agree to install a program called LILO in the Master Boot Record. LILO lets you choose which OS to run on future boots by pressing the TAB key when the "LILO:" prompt appears and typing in your preference.

Once installed Linux looks fairly familiar. You can even make the desktop mimic Windows' livery. But forget about using Microsoft applications like Word, Excel and Internet Explorer. There is a program called Wine that enables Linux to run Microsoft titles, but its performance is patchy. There is no shortage of Linux software, however. Netscape Communicator and Sun's Star Office will serve most users fine and Linux is heir to thousands of programs written for the Unix OS.

As the buzz around Linux builds, more and more software titles are being rolled out - making the alternative OS ever more attractive. Corel's WordPerfect Office is due in April. Even Microsoft is rumored to be readying a Linux-friendly version of its Windows Media Player. There's a way to go before it tips 800 pounds on the scales, but the penguin is definitely getting bigger.

BIRDSPOTTING Where to get your Linux fix:

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