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Community: Ease of Installation, XP vs. Mandrake--Or: When Not All is Well

Sep 07, 2004, 22:00 (18 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Richard Rasker)

[ Thanks to Richard Rasker for this article. ]

As an avid Linux user and Open Source advocate, I have installed numerous Linux systems in the past few years, mostly Mandrakelinux (for desktop use) and Debian (for server applications). In particular, during the Mandrake install sessions, I very rarely encountered the problems many Windows users keep hammering on, such as hardware compatibility issues and cumbersome install procedures. Debian, of course, is quite a different beastie, and not designed for a smooth, graphical installation by inexperienced users. However, I'm rather prejudiced when comparing Linux and Windows, and I wanted to put the "ease of installation" theory to the test in a fair way.

So today's match features Mandrakelinux 10, pitted against its arch-enemy Windows XP Home Edition, with a very special guest star: your typical Linux nitwit. And to spice it up even further, a bit of troublesome hardware was thrown in--albeit unintentionally.

This little experiment started as a friend of mine considered buying an extra PC for the wife and child. Nothing fancy needed, mind you, the cheaper the better, but with a DVD rewriter, and the usual trimmings. I offered to look around for a nice secondhand box, which was located and purchased within a few days. In return, I asked if my friend if he or his wife woud be willing to serve as a guinea pig, setting up an XP/Mandrake dual boot box under my very eyes, with as little help from me as possible. My friend's spouse had no objections, so one evening we sat down with nothing more than the new machine, four CDs, and my notebook computer for record-keeping.

With this experiment, I had several objectives in mind. First and foremost, I wanted to see whether Mandrakelinux was actually as easy to install as I continuously claim. Up to this moment, I always installed the boxes myself, and of course it's very easy when you've done it dozens of times on lots of different machines. I therefore wondered if someone who hardly knew the spelling of the word "Linux," and hadn't heard of "Mandrake" in her life, would be equally successful installing it. Second, I was somewhat curious about Windows XP--something which they wanted installed anyway, since Windows was all they ever worked with. Besides, they had an unused copy of XP Home edition laying around. My last Windows experience was with Windows 98, the 'features' of which were one of many reasons for my migration to Linux. I've barely ever touched an XP box, let alone installed one, so this was an excellent opportunity to make a first-hand comparison between modern proprietary and Open Source software, at least as far as the installation goes.

You'll find the full report of that evening's events here, but I'll summarize our findings here, for those among you whose attention span is limited to about a thousand words.

To put it short and bluntly: Mandrakelinux has won this particular round, on a number of points.

Admittedly, XP still offers a slightly less complicated installation procedure when compared to Mandrakelinux, but it failed miserably on some broken and unknown hardware: the network interface card (NIC) was broken, probably due to some obscure OEM settings, and the sound card was found, but not properly recognized. Yet in both cases XP never gave the slightest peep that anything was amiss, and cheerfully announced on several occasions that yes, everything is A-OK, and yes, everything is configured and working properly. Only after lots of deep digging, cursing several Wizards along the way (which quickly became all too familiar), and declining multiple offers for a modem connection (with no modem installed in the machine whatsoever), the suspicion emerged that the NIC might, after all, not be quite so A-OK; perhaps the message along the lines of "Network hardware failure" we stumbled upon in the end was what gave us some clue--so XP did know something was fishy. Why then were we kept in the dark? We're people, not mushrooms, for crying out loud.

As it was, the NIC didn't work under Mandrakelinux either (even though it was correctly recognized), but upon first boot, this situation was immediately signaled with a 'Failed' message in an alarming red color.

You want your computer to behave like a good kid: it should immediately tell you when something is wrong, and not just after endless digging, pleading and probing on your behalf.

The same story goes for the on-board sound card and USB controller. Presumably, these were too modern for XP, so they weren't properly recognized. Yet again, XP never complained that it had found something it couldn't deal with. Only after quite a while, the feeling emerged that something was missing; the very impressive silence accompanying the log-in was not something we'd expect from Microsoft. Yup, we should have heard some spacy jingle. And yes, the Device Settings revealed a big yellow question mark for the sound card and the USB controller. Why weren't we told? Why did we have to go digging to locate a problem which XP had already noticed but kept hushed up (in all respects)? Things like this tick me off. And oh yes, when trying to install downloaded drivers for the sound card, XP threatened hell and damnation, apparently because the drivers weren't blessed by Microsoft. The drivers, however, worked just fine, and it's unclear what purpose these harsh warnings serve.

Linux, on the other hand, recognized the sound card (and all other hardware) first go and without a hitch, and we were greeted with a swinging bit of percussion upon logging in.

As for our certified Linux nitwit: in spite of many years of experience using (though not installing) Windows, she quickly got lost in the woods when the NIC problem cropped up. There seemed to be no way to systematically tackle this problem; even worse, the network configuration tools and Help functions of XP give the impression of a spaghetti-like rag-tag of dialogs, settings and Wizards, among which it was virtually impossible to spot the simple essentials: a dialog with the settings and the current status of all network devices and connections--although we finally located it. As far as the Help system is concerned, we would have much rather preferred no help system at all, or a help system which links to Google on each and every question.

After all this ranting, I nevertheless have a few friendly words for XP. The actual installation was pleasantly smooth, simple and fast, not at all like the endless Windows 98 reboot feast I recall from my last days as a Microsoft user. And after solving the problems, both operating systems have been running without a hitch for a few weeks now, and that is something which I never accomplished with Windows either. And although in all likelihood I will never again use any Microsoft product myself, I can imagine that lots of people are quite happy with XP.

Again, a comprehensive report of the installation session can be found here.

"And, oh, as someone else pointed out to me: the Mandrake bit can even be used as a sort of elementary Installation How-To for Mandrakelinux 10. It's doesn't sport all possible installation and configuration details by far, but it gives a decent enough general guideline for installing Mandrake. The same goes for the Windows bit, of course. Enjoy.

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