A Mac User Tries Linux Part 1

by James R. Stoup Aug 12, 2005

I recently talked my father into dumping his five year old Dell (it was running Me no less) and getting an iMac. Since he no longer needs it, it now sits beside my PowerMac on my desk at home. But I already have two Macs that handle my workload nicely and since I sure as hell won’t be running Windows (I have no desire to deal with the associated security nightmare that entails) that leaves me with one option, Linux.

The following is the first piece in a series of articles that detail my attempts at using Linux. As a long time Mac user I will be comparing the “Linux Experience” to the “Mac Experience” not to see which one is better (I have already made up my mind on that issue) but rather to find out what is involved in setting up Linux and using it effectively. So, for all of you Mac users out there who have thought about getting into Linux, this piece is for you.

Choosing a Distro
Let me give you some background first on my experience with Linux. I used it quite a bit during college but over the last few years I have steadily used it less and less. So, while I do know a few things about Linux I am approaching this project as if I was a beginner.

Choosing a distro is the first (and one of the most important) steps in using Linux effectively. However finding the “right distro” turned out to be one of the hardest parts of this project for various reasons. The main one being that there is no good place to go to get information and reviews on the best distros for beginners. All of you Linux patriots out there please contain yourself as I explain. I found plenty of websites that could give me detailed information about some aspect of Linux. I found plenty of websites that advocated one distro of Linux. I found a staggering amount of sites that had forums, screenshots, reviews, tutorials and explanations of the philosophy of the GNU/GPL/FOSS ideas etc. In fact, in the end that plethora of data turned out to be the biggest problem of all because I never really found any website that was geared towards beginners looking to choose a distro.

In fact if you google some combination of the words “what linux distro is best for beginners?” you will get either hundreds of links to forums or the philosophical answer of “whatever distro is right for you”. In the first case someone asks for advice on picking a distro and 4,000 people respond with 100 different answers. Clearly that is no help. But even worse than that is the Linux articles (and yes, there were quite a few that I found) that have authors who truely believe that telling a beginner “whatever distro is right for you” will actually help them.

Now, I can also list reams of sites that want to explain Linux to a beginner. Oh they go into insane detail explaining terminal commands, how to network computers, connect to the internet, play games, type documents blah blah blah but they never get to the heart of the matter, namely which distro should I choose in the first place?

So, failing at finding a good intro site I decided to look for reviews of all the current distros and pick one out that way. Sadly most of the reviews weren’t very helpful because they tended to fall into one of two categories:

Group 1: I like distro X using desktop manager Y because it’s the best. No comparison to other distors, few if any facts, annoyingly contrived data and overall useless in picking a distro for a beginner.

Group 2: I like distro X when I do this very specific task that a beginner will never do. I will now go into excruciating detail explaining why all microwave ovens should run Linux. This is also useless.

But at some point I managed to find enough reviews to help me make a semi-intelligent choice and so I downloaded Ubuntu. However, my story doesn’t end there. You see, since I couldn’t find anything on the web that was exactly what I needed I turned to several friends who are considerably more into Linux than I and asked for their advice. They suggested Fedora Core 4 and so I downloaded that as well and ultimately used that as my primary Linux distro.

If you are going into this alone then it looks like Ubuntu is one of the easier distros to use. However, if you have a friend (like me) who knows a distro very well and can help you to learn it, go with that (which in my case is Fedora).

Overall Experience:
With no good site geared towards helping a beginner find his or her way the vast number of Linux resources can easily overwhelm one. A site that lists the top three distros for each sector would be very helpful. By that I mean it would be very nice to see a site that broke distros down into categories like Mail Servers, Programming Work Stations, Linux for Beginners, Linux for Power Users etc. And then compared and contrasted the top three so one could make an informed choice. Additionally it is very hard to find an unbiased opinion about which is better Gnome or KDE? And once again a review of the strengths and weaknesses of both would have been appreciated.

Downloading & Burning
First I had to download the ISO files for each of the four Fedora install CDs. That wasn’t too difficult, time consuming but not difficult. However, before burning these disk images I needed to look at the checksums and make sure that everything was correct. Here comes my first problem. You see if the sums don’t match, when I try to install the OS problems will occur. So, it is in my best interest to ensure that I check everything down to the last digit. To that end I follow the instructions on RedHat’s installation page and type in ‘sha1sum FC4-i386-disc1.iso’ and am promptly rewarded with an error telling me that I don’t have the particular sum-checking utility sha1sum. Well, no problem, I will just download it from somewhere. And so after a few moments searching on Google I come up with a blog entry that details exactly the problem I am having. Even better they provide a link to get you to the download page of the utility that I need. Beautiful! So I download the correct files, peruse the README file, glance through the installation document and I am ready to get this thing up and running. All I have to do is MAKE the files. So, I fire up the Terminal, type MAKE and . . . it dies, telling me that it doesn’t understand MAKE and would I please go do something with myself.

Ok, a minor setback is all this is. In fact, this is my fault entirely because I didn’t install Xcode on this machine (its my wife’s laptop and I didn’t put it on there because she would never use it). But that can, and is, rectified fairly quickly. Ok, so, I have installed Xcode to compile the checksum utility so it can be run to verify that my ISO files are correct so I can burn them to CDs so I can then install Fedora. What could go wrong?

I installed Xcode without a problem and soon there after my sum-checking utility was operational. I then used it and found out that one of my four ISO files didn’t have the correct checksum, thus I had to download it again, after which everything looked good. As for Ubuntu, after I had gotten Fedora out of the way the rest was quite easy. After that all you have to do is drag the images to a blank disk and burn them.

Most of the delay was my fault for failing to have the correct utilities and compilers installed before I attempted all of this. It was easy enough to figure out but annoying none the less.

Overall Experience:
Downloading the files was very straight forward and the instructions on what to do before and after the download were clearly laid out. Though having to check the files to ensure they are viable, while a good idea, is time consuming and fairly boring.

Next article: Installation & Configuration


  • I converted my XP box to a Linux file server, just so I could use the 200 GB of hard drive space.  What an incredibly frustrating experience.

    Downloaded the RedHat distrubtion. 3 ISO images.  XP has no idea what to do with an ISO.  Bwah?? Fine, download a program that will write them to CD, but then realize that it can’t write it to a DVD, have to dig around in the closet to find CD-R’s.  Ok, fine. 

    The actual install went fine, the setup detected everything and got everything going.

    Started it up… no network.  No network card.  Ahh, I have a wireless card which RedHat just doesn’t know anything about.  Buy a new NetGear card which claims Linux support on the box.  Get home and install it, and their “support” is the source code that I have to install, yet since I was making a file server I didn’t install gcc and the like.  Grrr, install all that crap, compile the driver and put it in the kernel directory.  Try to load it up… hangs the computer.  Wonderful. 

    Eventually found a generic driver that worked, and then found that RedHat doesn’t support NTFS drives.  For the love of God… Found a way to do that, figured out Samba, and now… I haven’t turned the machine on in a week.  What a waste of time.  My “file server” is more hassle than it’s worth. 

    The default GUI - Gnome - has come a long way.  Unfortunately, it’s about 2 steps above a command line.  What a piece of crap.  To do anything you have to go to the Terminal window - which is buried in sub-menus.  To other options available via the X interface are barely informative and incredibly un-useful.  This OS is not even close to being ready for anyone other than a system admin pro.

    I’ve been a C/C++ for 10+ years, and I was stumbling around like Ray Charles in a Fun House.  What a pain in the ass, and what a disappointment.  I was actually hoping for a quiet OS that sits in the background and just accepts files and gives them to me when I want.  Is that so much to ask?

    BergenDog had this to say on Aug 12, 2005 Posts: 18
  • I, unfortunately, had a similar experience.  I had some outdated hardware that needed something other than Windows 98 (there was no way this old, slow POS was going to run XP).

    In order to try out distros, I downloaded many Live CDs.  For those of you who haven’t checked out the Linux side of life, a Live CD is a fully functioning Linux boot CD that allows you to play around with the OS without going through the install process. Live CDs are one of the best thing to come along for Linux in recent times.

    I immediately ran into network issues as well with the built in 10 base T, but fortunately, I had access to some old 3com cards which fairly standard equipment at the time (and therefore often are supported by Live CDs). I also had some issues with the video.

    Anyway, I tried installing a couple different distros and had some problems getting it all to work as well as I’d like with the legacy hardware. I think if you have something like an old Dell, Gateway or IBM machine with fairly standard components, you might do ok… With other manufacturers, it can be hit or miss. The Micron has been a bit finicky.

    In the end, I got distracted by other projects and my old PC hardware sits with Linux mostly-working but rarely booted. I was recently given a 1 GHz AMD machine (as it turns out, I’m like the Salvation Army of obsolete hardware) that I’m going to play with next, perhaps make into a MAME cabinet. I may have to give my Linux experiment another try.

    vb_baysider had this to say on Aug 12, 2005 Posts: 243
  • For finding an easy to use distro, check out Distrowatch.com. While it doesn’t directly say so, the top 5 distributions are probably some of the easiest ones to install and use for beginners. It’s no coincidence that they’re on top.

    The best place to look for help and support, if you don’t have any friends knowledgable about Linux, is the various forums on the web. The Ubuntu forums are supposed to be a great place to get help, if you use Ubuntu. Ditto for Gentoo (while whether or not the distro is friendly for beginner is certainly debatable, they have some of the best forums on the web).

    You can’t find an ubiased opinion about what’s best of KDE and GNOME, because there is no “best”. They’re both good, but they’re very different.
    In short (and I’ve seen this written several places on the web, and in reviews);
    KDE: Windows-like and the King of Configurability. You can configure everything to your needs, and then some.
    GNOME: Mac-like and the King of Simplicity. They’re aiming for keeping everything as simple as possible (and sometimes they overdo it), with decent defaults.

    dubbz had this to say on Aug 12, 2005 Posts: 2
  • I’ve tried many distros. I like RedHat, SUSE and Ubuntu. I’ve learned the most about Linux by installing Debian from sratch using the command line and following a very well written tutorial on their website. This was a great start as I learned how to use apt-get etc. I went about my way trying to setup an firewall, ftp, and http server. It’s pretty simple to install all these tools. Though I did get a few headaches on the way.

    If you make a mistake, it can take forever to figure out where you went wrong. Forget to install a vital component and you are screwed. Even when you get it up and running, there’s not easy way to remotely manage your server from OS X or linux. I’m sure there are tools, but their not easy to find. I like managing things with a GUI. I’m a visual type person.

    It would be nice as the Author said if there was a site that pointed out what the best ditro for what. Of course that could lead to a plathora of arguments.

    It’s my opinion the Ubuntu is great for people that are home users wanting to learn. Debian is for more advanced users and RedHat and SUSE are for people that want to spend money.

    I’d love an all in one package that had a stripped down Linux distro that included Apache, MySQL, PHP, PERL and PureFTP. Then possibley a list of easy to use tools to help you remotely manage these tools. Maybe this does exist, but I have had a heck of a time finding them.

    peter Walsh had this to say on Aug 12, 2005 Posts: 5
  • I’ve found Mandriva (Mandrake) has good hardware support but the plug and play still needs work.  Firewire and USB storage devices don’t always get recognized on reconnect and changing monitor hardware (ie: CRT to LCD with different res) requires manual xconfig editing as root.

    Not pretty.

    SMB is also a manual editing process. I’ve got a ton of experience with Windows server networking and while I feel Linux is a superior platform I occassionally long for the ease of Windows file sharing.

    I think OS X is the easiest UNIX variant out there.  I could go on but I’d be preaching to the choir.

    Eric Brodeur had this to say on Aug 12, 2005 Posts: 23
  • I ran linux on the desktop for 4 years before getting my iMac.  I’d have to say Ubuntu and kubuntu (surprisingly kde runs better on ubuntu than gnome)  was the best distro for desktop that I’ve used (started using Ubuntu when it first came out)  I also second looking at distrowatch.com if you’re trying to find a distro to use.  (although your right, catagorizing would be more useful).

    Kevin Burns had this to say on Aug 12, 2005 Posts: 1
  • Still waiting on a Linux killer app.  I am curious to try it, but it seems like a lot of trouble just to use it “because.”  The only thing I use every day that runs on Linux is Maya (and I’m not sure if that’s just a render node or the full software package), but Maya runs in both OS X and XP, so what’s the point?

    Any compelling reason to try it?

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Aug 13, 2005 Posts: 2220
  • Hahaha - sounds like BergenDog and vb_baysider are just learning how to use Linux then.  The advice given in the article is pretty good and happens to be the same advice I give a lot of people:  If you have a friend who can use Linux, start out with whatever distribution they have.  Dragging someone over to your computer to help you out is so much more efficient than sitting at a second machine and posting questions or chatting with someone on the IRC ##Linux channel.

    Fedora and Suse will probably run on the most hardware and are the least painful to install.  Knoppix and Ubuntu (both based on Debian) are the next easiest in my opinion, but may be lacking drivers because the Debian team is fanatic about the definition of ‘free software’ and puts a lot of effort into stripping non-free drivers from its archives.  (Some of which the Knoppix and Ubuntu maintainers then spend time putting back in!) 

    Personally, I have always used Debian.  Recently I spent 48 hours getting pure AMD64 code installed on my Opteron beast (thanks to a buggy install script… grrr… oh well, that release was not officially supported so I can’t complain too much).  But - despite all the hair rending, I’m happy with my Debian box.  I can’t wait until OpenOffice functions properly on an AMD64! 

    Uh - BergenDog - why do you want a graphical interface on a machine which is just going to be a server?  I read stuff like that and I just go:  “man, you’re whacked! - what a crazy idea - a GUI on a server!”.  Well, don’t give up - it’s definitely not easy to learn, but you are well and truly the master of the computer as opposed to being a slave of the GUI configurators.

    What I find really hilarious about reading how other people try, somewhat succeed and give up is that I knew someone who was 73 years old at the time (this was 2001) and he said one day “I heard about this Linux thing and I read somewhere that Debian was the best distribution to use so I thought I’d give it a try”.  I told him that Debian was one of the worst distributions for beginners, but he just wouldn’t listen.  Within a week he had it up and running and had configured Apache and set up his own website with photos for his children and grandchildren to look at.  I don’t know if I could have done that in a week as a beginner.  This guy was an electronics technician by trade - not a computer programmer.  So - there’s hope yet for you young ‘uns!  It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you have no bias and ignore people who tell you “that’s too hard!”  hahaha!

    pinniped had this to say on Aug 13, 2005 Posts: 1
  • Two of the easist distros around are Xandros, a “proprietary Linux” that cost $$ and Simply Mepis (free).  Both are based on Debian, which is more stable than Red Hat systems.  With the tweaks these two companies have done to their distros Debian becomes easy to use and figure out for a beginner.  If coming from the M$ Windows environment start with Xandros OS.  It is the most Windows like Linux on the market and software install is easy.  Pay the money though and get the deluxe system, stay away from the free download.  Simply Mepis is the best distro for those coming from Mac or other Linux systems.  It comes on a live CD and installs from a live session.  System installation is a pure joy with either system, Xandros will even set up dual boot with the NTFS.  Mepis is a little more difficult to dual boot but they have great website support to answer any questions you may have.  Again these systems are based on Debian but have wonderful graphical software installers (Xandros Networks and Synaptic for Mepis) and need very little if any command line work.  All the confusion with a Debian installation is gone from these systems.  You can even install RPM files with alien.  Xandros Deluxe uses Crossover Wine to run Quicktime and Windows Media and Mepis is configured to run most media by having a plethora of codecs pre-installed in its media players for those who do a lot of movie watching (like me).  Both systems come with Real Player 10 installed.

    tutnkmn had this to say on Aug 13, 2005 Posts: 6
  • I would highly recommend that folks new to GNU/Linux start with the Knoppix live cd. With Knoppix 3.9 there is just one iso image to burn:
    (http://debian.tu-bs.de/knoppix/powerPC/) (or go to knoppix.org for the pc version: lots of mirrors)
    and booting the image is as easy as inserting the disk into a cd/dvd device, rebooting and pressing ‘return/enter’ at the prompt. Instant, well almost, GNU/Linux system that uses free space on your hard disk and provides a nice ‘sandbox’ to learn what is what, see how things work and find information about programs (and commands) with ‘info ’ and ‘man <same as info>’ on the CLI.

    And speaking of the CLI, spend some time with the BSD CLI on OSX. It will help you be more at ease with the GNU/Linux CLI as they are very similar; both can be the ‘bash’ shell but there are file system differences.

    Don’t be intimidated by GNU/Linux. Just relax, have some fun and learn at the same time.

    yow had this to say on Aug 13, 2005 Posts: 1
  • There’s no way of deciding the best way to build a desk out of bare wood, but you can choose one way and give a consistant explanation in order to let a newbie do it and give him enough experience to build the next one on his own. In the same way you can’t choose one ideal Linux incarnation. As the article noted, several people have responded, giving their opinions on what is the best distro or distribution to use. What’s really needed, IMO is a site that chooses one reasonably useable version and sticks to it, explaining comprehensively as much as possible of what a begginner may need to get a system up and running.

    martunibo had this to say on Aug 13, 2005 Posts: 37
  • As a long time Mac user I will be comparing the “Linux Experience” to the “Mac Experience” not to see which one is better (I have already made up my mind on that issue) but rather to find out what is involved in setting up Linux and using it effectively. So, for all of you Mac users out there who have thought about getting into Linux, this piece is for you.

    No, actually.

    In that statement you’ve said you come at this “review” with a predefined and significant bias, which of course, greatly undermines the integrity of the article.

    Which means, I would expect this article to continually talk about difficulties. So before I even read it, I know you’re going to end up (either deliberately or not), telling me to steer clear of Linux. (Hey - I don’t disagree - Linux is not always for the faint hearted.)

    So give me a piece that is objective - and if you must be subjective - don’t tell me! smile

    Chris Howard had this to say on Aug 14, 2005 Posts: 1209
  • I agree with Chris Howard that you come to the review with a bias. Yeah, so what? We all have biases. Any journalism school drill that into their students. At least being up front about them is honest.

    My problem is the comment about approaching Linux from the Mac as a beginner. What beginner would know about the Developer tools, let alone make and checksum? A beginner will do as pinneped suggested and buy a CD. I actually think that the definition of a beginner would include inexperience with Developer or command line tools.

    That said, I enjoyed the article and I’m looking forward to upcoming installments. I recently put Yellow Dog on an old g3 iMac and am stumbling around in a very foreign country. I achieved my goals of using the purple box as a development server running L.A.M.P. for my small office, but it would be great to get more comfortable with Linux. (Yeah I know I could have used OS X for this but Linux is important)

    mystic had this to say on Aug 14, 2005 Posts: 2
  • Ho hum…..one more Mac user taking an opportunity to complain about how hard it is to install Linux.  Gee that’s new!

    Maybe I’ll write an article about how I tried and tried repeatedly to install OS9 on an old UMAX S900 and guess what? OS9 didn’t have drivers for the SCSI controller BUT Debian GNU Linux did.

    Maybe I’ll also write about the local Apple retailer explaining to me that an old Mac needs to run OSX or it won’t even be able to get on the internet but neither of those issues (like your md5sum problem) has anything to do with installing an OS.  You could just as well have written “Linux sucks because I don’t know how to download a large file.”  How did you download the .iso?  You should never use a web browser for such a thing.

    You say:
    ” in the end that plethora of data turned out to be the biggest problem of all “

    Well it used to be “hey there’s no documentation for Linux” now there’s too much?

    How can there possibly be a perfect list telling you which distro a noob should install?  Too many variables make this a nearly impossible task. 

    What hardware are you installing to?
    Dial-up or broadband?
    Server, workstation or desktop?
    Personal needs/preferences. 

    Why do you want to install Linux anyway?

    A: You have nothing better to do.
    B: You want to learn something new.

    If your answer is A then you probably have the wrong motivation, if it’s B then I’d say you’re off to a good start.  wink  Linux isn’t Mac and Mac isn’t Linux so you just can’t expect them to be the same. 

    Let’s also remember that Linux is free (no I’m not referring to a dollar amount).  Macos is not free in any sense of the word.  Nothing leaves Apple unless it has been blessed by the hand of Steve but there is no equivalent for Linux (thankfully) That fact alone (well that and the expensive proprietary Apple hardware) is more than enough to cause this average joe to to steer entirely clear of all things Apple.

    mzilikazi had this to say on Aug 14, 2005 Posts: 1
  • Here are a few comments to hand out.

    Chris Howard (12)

    Wow, I just can’t seem to win on this one can I? If I wrote this review without the statements you quoted then you would complain that I was a biased Mac user who is unable to give Linux a fair shake. So, to avoid that I inform everyone that I prefer Mac but am willing to try Linux and see how I like it now that it has improved so much. And when I do I am told that I am a biased Mac user who is unable to give Linux a fair shake. Sucks for me doesn’t it?

    Anyway, the reason I informed everyone ahead of time that I am biased in favor of Apple’s products was so that they could see where I am coming from. Yes, I will compare Linux’s features to those found in OS X. And yes Linux probably won’t come out on top, but that isn’t the point (something you seemed to have missed) of this article. I am not writing this article for people who know Linux intimately. I am not writing this article for Windows users looking to switch and I am only partially writing this piece towards new users looking to try Linux. But I am writing this to focus on Apple users who want to try Linux. And if you fall into that last category then you are going to compare everything you see in Linux to what you are most comfortable with, which is OS X. This isn’t a review of Linux, it’s a review of Linux from a Mac users perspective.

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Aug 14, 2005 Posts: 122
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