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

[ 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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