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Linux and Windows Installation Compared

Aug 16, 1999, 04:42 (84 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Bill Stilwell)

By Bill Stilwell

[ The opinions expressed by authors on Linux Today are their own. They speak only for themselves and not for Linux Today. ]

We've all heard the stories about how difficult Linux is to install. Over and over and over again. I recently had the chance to install both Linux and Windows98 on the same machine and I think a side-by-side comparison might be interesting.

First, the machine in question:

  • ASUS P2B-F Motherboard
  • 128MB PC-100 SDRAM
  • Celeron 366 PPGA w/Asus slot370 to slot1 converter card
  • Asus V3400 (Yes, I like Asus products)
  • Western Digital 13GB Hard Drive.
  • Creative Labs Soundblaster Live! Value Edition
  • DLink PCI Ethernet Card
  • Generic 28.8 ISA Modem
  • Panasonic ATAPI DVD-ROM Drive
Second, the brain in question:

I've installed Debian before using their net installation; I had no prior experience installing Windows 98 (or 95 for that matter). I have never installed any operating system on a bare machine before. I'd peg my Linux and Windows expertise level at about the same place: Smart User.

Operating Systems Installed:

  • Debian GNU/Linux 2.1 4 CD Set ($20 from www.chguy.net; price includes taxes, shipping, and a $3 donation to FSF). 2 CDs are binaries, 2 CDs complete source code;
  • Windows 98 Second Edition Upgrade Version ($136 through Megadepot.com, price does not include taxes/shipping). Surprisingly, no source code is included.
Getting The Installation Started:


  • Insert 1st CD of Debian binary set. Turn computer on. Make sure BIOS is set to boot from CDROM. Installation process starts.
  • Insert win98 CD, turn computer on, ensure BIOS is set to boot from CDROM. This fails.
  • Read documentation, realize that system must be booted via some other method and the file setup.exe run manually. Documentation helpfully provides a pointer to a section called "Creating a Windows 98 Startup Disk" which, unfortunately, only provides instructions on how to create a startup disk from within Windows 98.
  • Go to old computer running win3.1, format a dos bootup disk, download appropriate CD-ROM drivers, create autoexec.bat and config.sys files, reboot with bootup disk, run setup.exe on the CD-ROM Drive.
  • Installation process starts, then aborts, informing me there is not enough room on drive c:. Seeing as drive c: isn't really partitioned yet, I get confused. Remember that Western Digital drive documentation referred to ezdrive software, which is necessary to prepare drive for OS installation. Return to old computer, download and run ezdrive, which formats another floppy, which is to be used to format and partition my drives.
  • Return to new computer, and reboot with ezdrive floppy. Ezdrive wants to see my system disk for the OS I wish to install. As the only system disk I have handy is the DOS startup disk, I feed that into the floppy drive. Ezdrive informs me I'll only be able to use 8GB of my 13GB drive, and I'll have to partition the 8GB into 4 separate 2GB partitions. I let it do this, it copies over system files and I reboot.
  • The CD-ROM drive now fails to initialize as there are not enough drive letters. Go back to the old computer, copy fdisk.exe to a floppy, return to the new computer, run fdisk, delete 2 of the 4 2GB partitions, reboot.
  • Run setup.exe from the CD-ROM drive. Installation has begun.
Running The Installation:


  • A simple character based application gathers information about my system, asks a few simple questions (color or monochrome, keyboard type, etc.), then asks me to partition the disk. I create one large partition and one swap partition.
  • All is now ready to install the kernel and necessary modules, and I'm presented with a myriad of choices of media and installation options. I, obviously, choose CD-ROM, tell the program where the CD-ROM is (a strange step considering the program was RUN from the CD-ROM, but there you go) and things whir away.
  • As I don't have to add any special modules (which I would need if I were installing via a network connection), I can safely skip ahead to Installing the Base System, which proceeds successfully. I'm now asked if i want to make Linux bootable directly form the hard disk, which I do. Now, a boot floppy is made in case something goes wrong.[*] [*] Something always goes wrong. Always make boot floppies.
  • Time to reboot. I remove the newly made boot floppy and the installation CD-ROM and restart. Linux start successfully and I'm prompted for a root password, then to create a normal user. Despite my firmly held belief I'm not really _normal_, I create a user account for myself. I'm prompted to enable shadow passwords (yes) and to remove PCMCIA (yes).
  • Now, it's time to Select and Install Profiles. Debian provides thousands of binary packages to install, and choosing which ones you need would take hours and likely be a bewildering task for the newcomer, so they've provided several different Install Profiles that install sets of packages based on the use the machine will see. They also provide task sets such as "HTML Authoring" if you want finer-grained control over what is installed. I choose the "Desktop Machine" profile, which promises to eat up 500MB of space while providing me with everything, including the kitchen sink (that is to say, emacs).
  • Debian trundles away as my disk space is steadily eaten up. Eventually it finishes installing programs, and begins configuring them. This step, which as far as I know is a peculiarity of the Debian Linux system, requires you to acquiesce to interminable y/n questions that you still feel the need to pay close enough attention to that you don't end up posting to alt.2600 saying "YOU'LL NEVER HACK MY 3L3373 COMPUTER D00DZ!!!!!!!!!" complete with credit card information and home phone number.
  • Eventually, installation and configuration is complete and I'm dumped down to the login prompt, and I can get on with post-installation tasks like configuring X-Windows and setting up a net connection.
  • First, I have to prove I'm eligible for the upgrade version of the software, so I have to dig up my WFWG 3.11 disks and feed a few of them into the computer.
  • I'm asked where I want to install Windows, and I choose the default of c:\windows. [*] [*] Always choose the default in Windows, unless you really want your operating system to be confused.[**] [**] You don't.
  • I'm now given 4 choices of what to install: typical, compact, laptop, and custom. I choose custom, and select nearly everything, including a frighteningly large selection of `Desktop Themes'.
  • Windows trundles away, detecting hardware and installing the OS. It reboots a couple times. The progress meter and "Time Remaining" counter prove handy distraction from the descriptions of OS features that are popped up selling me on a product I've already purchased.
  • After a final reboot, Windows 98 begins in earnest. I'm prompted for a password, which is optional. Time for post-installation tasks like installing the provided drivers for my spiffy new hardware and setting up a net connection.


  • First things first, get the net connection going. That's easy, of course, just run ppp-config. I run ppp-config, save the configuration file, run pon. (I have, of course, given my user account the correct permissions to do so; in Debian this means adding myself to the `dip' group. ILA[*].) The modem clicks, but doesn't dial out. Error messages in the logs are unhelpful.
  • [Several hours of unproductive cursing, reseating of modem card and spelunking in the BIOS ellided.]
  • FINALLY, reading the Serial-HOWTO (helpfully installed with Debian) twigs something and I realize the on-board serial port must be disabled so the modem card serial port can do its thing. One more reboot, a tentative pon and the modem dials successfully and makes a connection. I am connected! [*] I Love Acronyms
  • I can now download the updated version of XFree86 I need so X can run at a decent resolution and color depth with my video card. wget is a great program, by the way. Once that is safely installed, I run XF86Setup and I now have a GUI running! I log in and start playing with GIMP, which was tortuous to run on my old 486.
  • I realize I should probably set up email, so I quickly setup fetchmail and have it run. Problem: fetchmail fetches and hands it off the the local mail system, but it doesn't deliver. I recall seeing some discussion of this problem on the Debian-user list, so I fire up lynx and check the archives for "exim fetchmail" and discover I need to have localhost inserted in the appropriate part of exim.conf. Once inserted, mail starts being delivered.
I now consider the installation complete; the rest is fiddling to make things work the way I like them.

Windows 98:

  • I have multiple vendor supplied CD-ROMs to install to get various bits of the system in working order. Video card installation goes smoothly, requiring a single reboot. (Make snide comment to my wife about how I didn't have to do this w/Linux.) Sound card installation goes smoothly once I realize documentation is inaccurate - it tells you to insert the CD-ROM and then open up My Computer and click on the cd-rom drive and run the setup program, which is already running at this point because there is an autorun.inf file on the CD-ROM. Once I stop reading the documentation and just click on OK when prompted to everything goes smoothly, with only one reboot required. (Make snide comment etc.)
  • Time to create a net connection. Double click on Internet Explorer and it prompts me through the steps for a net connection. I'm online quickly, downloading the updated drivers for the video card, requiring another reboot (Make snide comment etc.)
  • Time to start downloading mail. I double click on Outlook Express, and am prompted through creating an account. As my ISP mail server supports IMAP, I select this protocol and create the account. Outlook Express then wants to refresh my folder listing and asks permission to get this from my server. I acquiesce and it starts downloading EVERY SINGLE FOLDER on the mail server. I cancel this after a few minutes and check the properties for the account. Under advanced setting I specify INBOX as the folder it should check for my mail. It is now able to download my mail.
I now consider installation to be complete.


Installation of both Linux and Windows 98 had their good, bad, and ugly points. Getting the installation started for Windows 98 was ridiculous, while some of the finer points of the Debian GNU/Linux install were flawed - having to approve configuration questions for hundreds of programs during installation is, in my opinion, not a good way to do things. I certainly wouldn't expect a non-savvy person to be able to install either successfully.

On the one hand, they probably wouldn't have been able to get the Windows 98 installation STARTED, while the Debian installation required several steps that required a great deal of background knowledge (e.g., knowing that the server would have to be upgraded to support the video card being used and knowing where to get the appropriate files, knowing where to look for mail delivery solution, etc.) Both systems required significant knowledge about the tasks being accomplished.

Bill Stilwell is a 27 year old living in Vancouver, British Columbia. He works for a public library as an administrative assistant and spends way too much time fiddling with his computer.