Can a Red Hat Guru Survive on a Lindows Laptop?
I have been looking for a laptop for a long time. My old IBM Thinkpad, being a 90MHz Pentium with a maximum RAM capacity of 40MB, is no longer useful for the things I need.
I had decided I wanted a modest machine that I could use on the road; I did not want this laptop to be a desktop replacement. I merely wanted to use it for Web surfing, e-mail and the occasional presentation while on the road. My primary workstation would continue to be the tower I have in my home office.
I finally found a Dell Inspiron 5100 with a fast processor and 512MB of RAM at a price I could afford. I got a 14" screen and the default 30GB hard drive to save money. It also has a built-in modem and Ethernet adapter.
My new laptop came with Windows, which I will not use. To give you some sense of where I am coming from, I have used DOS, OS/2, TopView (remember that?) and Linux but never Windows as the primary operating system of any of my computers. I have been using Red Hat since version 5, and I even worked for Red Hat for a while, teaching RHCE classes, so I am quite familiar with the Red Hat and Fedora distributions. Now, however, I just wanted to get this laptop up and running with as little hassle as possible. It sometimes can be a struggle to install and configure Red Hat correctly on laptops. A lot of help is available, but it can take a great deal of time to find, install and configure the correct drivers.
My objective with this laptop is to have a relatively lightweight means of accessing my other computers, so I can manage them while on the road. I need LAN and dial-up communications, and I would like to have wireless as well, although that is not yet a necessity. I want the ACPI power functions to work, and Lindows recently (as of this writing) released their Laptop Edition. Because Lindows advertises it as being configured to work with many different laptops, I thought I would give it a try.
I decided to install Fedora Core 1 as a control to get a basis for comparison. It took about 10 minutes to go through the configuration portion of the Fedora installation, and about an hour to complete the installation.
Fedora had trouble probing the standard Dell laptop LCD screen, but it did find and configure properly the video adapter, an ATI Radeon Mobility 7500, and the Broadcom NIC. It did not recognize the modem, and power management did not work. The 5100 uses ACPI rather than APM, which is how the Fedora kernel is compiled. I could have recompiled the kernel, but doing so would not allow me to meet my objective.
I purchased the digital download of Lindows Laptop Edition from the Lindows Web site. After $49.95 was charged to my credit card, I attempted to downloaded the ISO image. The download took several attempts, because I would get only half of the image before the download would hang. After a couple of frustrating hours, I finally was able to burn the image onto a CD-ROM.
I popped the newly minted Lindows CD into my laptop's CD-ROM drive and rebooted the system. I was not fast enough on the F2 key, and Windows XP insisted on booting quickly and going through its installation configuration. I had to unplug the charger and pull the battery in order to reboot, because the configuration had blocked Ctrl-Alt-Del. I managed to get into the BIOS setup after about three tries and set the boot sequence to CD-ROM. I then finally made it into the actual installation.
The installation gives you two installation options: you can choose to install in an existing partition or you can take over the entire disk. I chose to take over the entire disk, because I really wanted to get rid of that other OS. After a few minutes, the installation crashed and returned the message that it had failed to create the new partitions.
A reboot showed that all of the existing partitions had been deleted, and the second attempt worked fine. All I did to complete the installation was enter the computer (host) name and an administrative password.
It took only five minutes or so to do the complete installation. When it finished I thought there had to be some mistake, but it really was finished.
Booting into the installed Lindows Laptop Edition for the first time is very clean, but it might be somewhat frustrating for expert Linux users. None of the boot time messages we are used to fly by, but considering the target audience, this is probably a good thing. I know too many people who would panic over all those messages.
The loud music emanating from the built-in speakers told me in no uncertain terms that Lindows had found the sound chip.
After I agreed to the EULA, the tutorial started automatically. I glanced at that, but closed it and got on to the important stuff. The EULA is what Lindows calls a Family License, and each user must agree to its terms the first time he or she logs in. New users also are treated to the tutorial, which is well done and looks to be thorough and complete for a typical user.
The ACPI power functions worked correctly, and I actually could see the state of my battery on the battery icon. Lindows also detected both of the CUPS printer shares on my print server. So far so good.
Because Lindows boots to root, I used the User Manager to add an account for myself as a regular user. The command-line useradd is not configured to provide the same defaults in Lindows as it does in Red Hat. If you choose to use useradd for adding new user accounts, you will have significantly more manual work to do, including specifying the home directory name and default group. You also have to create the default group.
I opened the browser, a branded version of Mozilla, and discovered that Lindows had found and configured the integrated Ethernet adapter to use DHCP. Fortunately, I have a DHCP server configured on my home network, so I was able to communicate immediately with the outside world.
Because this is Mozilla, I tried to copy the .mozilla directory from my home directory to my desktop. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that SSH is not included in the basic installation. I used the Lindows Click-N-Run to install SSH with a single-click installation, after locating the appropriate package. This single click installed both the client and the server side of SSH, and automatically configured them so that SSH was operational for both inbound and outbound connections.
With SSH installed, I was able to copy the .mozilla directory. On restarting Mozilla, I had all of my bookmarks, and the Mozilla e-mail client was configured properly to allow me to get to all of my many accounts.
Because I need this laptop for connectivity on the road, I tried the built-in modem. Lindows was able to detect a modem, but I have not been able to make it open the modem for communication. Of course, I have never used a Dell laptop on which Linux could use the modem. After considerable effort, I resorted to a U.S. Robotics PCMCIA 56KB Modem that worked flawlessly.
At this point I explored the system to try to find out which tools were available. The short answer is, "not very many." I ended up using Click-N-Run to download common tools, such as mtr.
I also downloaded sendmail, because on the road it is much easier to have my own MTA than to try to configure different SMTP servers at various ISPs for the many kinds of situations I might encounter. The installation procedure took me through a series of questions and used my answer to configure sendmail. Once installed it worked as expected, but the configuration procedure asks questions that an average user, or even many above average users, would not know how to answer. This is the nature of sendmail, but I cannot imagine many people of the type who would purchase Lindows being able to answer those questions. On the other hand, they might not even know that using sendmail might be a good idea in some circumstances.
Also missing from the basic installation are the man pages, which are indispensable. So I used Click-N-Run to download and install those as well.
I also tried to use a wireless PCMCIA adapter with this laptop. Wireless is not yet a big priority for me, but I am interested in exploring it.
I purchased a new Proxim Gold ComboCard with 802.11a/b/g compatibility and a LinkSys wireless Router. Unfortunately, I purchased the most recent latest Proxim card. Proxim uses the ORiNOCO drivers for Linux, and these generally are regarded as among the best Linux wireless drivers around. It appears that the current set of drivers work only with older cards, however. I checked SourceForge, which is where the Proxim Web site directed me, but SourceForge has not released any files yet for this project. This means the Proxim Gold wireless card will not work under any distribution for the foreseeable future.
I found Lindows 4.5 Laptop Edition to be a mixed bag for experienced users. It installs easily, barring download issues and getting into the BIOS to change the boot sequence. But beyond the basic install, it took a lot of work to get everything else installed and configured the way I wanted it.
By the end, I spent more time downloading the tools and programs that I needed with Lindows than it took for me to install and configure Fedora Core 1. I ultimately reinstalled Fedora and managed to get everything working, except wireless and the ACPI power functions. If I recompile the kernel I can get the ACPI power functions working as well, but I have not had time yet to go that route.
Although Lindows is a good choice for many users inexperienced with Linux, I would not recommend it for power users or sysadmins. This is not because Lindows cannot be configured to meet the needs of advanced user, but because it takes so much less time to accomplish the same thing using a distribution that provides the required tools on the ISO images.
David Both is a Linux geek who resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, Alice, and cat, Squeaky. He has been in the IT industry for nearly 30 years and taught RHCE courses for Red Hat for a time. He currently works for the State of North Carolina and manages the state's e-mail system. David can be reached at email@example.com.