Vol. XIV, No. 3
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Winter, 2002

The CSA Linux Workstation - a Work in Progress

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

I began my experiment with Linux just as the last issue of the Newsletter was being completed. I am still using it, and I would recommend it, with very serious reservations, to those who have a reasonably high capacity for frustration tolerance and a willingness to spend extra time at the computer in return for saving substantial sums of money.

I purchased a new PC with Linux installed, since that seemed to me to be the path most users would take. (Installing it as a second operating system on the Dell laptop I use for Windows applications may still be an experiment worth making. I have not decided whether or not to take the time to try that yet.) I had only to attach the monitor, keyboard, speakers, and mouse. Everything worked pretty well at the outset, and many programs are included in the basic installation, as is the widely used graphical user interface, called GNOME. I did have one problem with the computer in its early stages, and, absent my limited experience with UNIX, I think I might well have pushed the little red button marked "panic." As it happened, I was able to shut the machine down in an orderly fashion, and it popped back on as it ought.

The graphics card I purchased has two output ports so that I can use two monitors at the same time. This is, for me as a long-time MAC user, a very valuable feature. I am accustomed to having two large monitors positioned side-by-side, and that enormous "desktop" is very desirable. I habitually position email on the far left, with other windows -- word processing, browser, image processing, etc. -- arrayed in steps to the right; as much as possible, I keep the windows from overlapping. The Linux vendor and Matrox, the graphics card company, promised that feature on the new machine. (The feature is now available for Windows 2000 and later iterations of the Windows OS, with some limits.) There are hardware limits imposed by the use of special graphics connections in PCs; so the system is not as flexible as on the MAC. More important, setting it up was painful.

Installation of a special graphics driver supplied by Matrox was not a problem, but selecting the appropriate settings for the monitors (the settings apparently cannot be different for the two monitors) and getting them to respond was more a matter of alchemy than straight-forward application of rules. Indeed, both when the dual-monitor set-up was first made to work, and recently, when the dual-monitor set-up was re-created, I was unable to determine what actually made it work after several attempts at adjusting the system had failed. Not impressive.

On the other hand, Linux comes with a very useful feature that nearly makes dual-monitors unnecessary. Standard in the graphical user interface I am using (GNOME) is the capacity to use many virtual monitors. The virtual monitors can be aligned as I direct -- in a simple horizontal row or in a two-dimensional a grid -- so that, if I move the mouse off screen, I enter another screen and leave the one I have been using. I have four virtual screens in a box layout, two across and two high, each containing whatever windows has been opened in them. Moving the mouse from side to side or up and down transports me from one screen to another; more valuable is the simple set of icons at the bottom of all screens that permits me to select which screen to use at any moment. This is a very helpful feature, as I said, one that is almost as good as having two real monitors, and it works in the dual-monitor mode so that I have what amounts to eight screens available for working at all times. (The use of virtual monitors is available in Windows as an add-on, not a part of the standard installation package.)

So far, Linux is interesting, but it is only an operating system with some very nice features. To be useful, there must be applications. My first software task was to choose/install an email client. That seemed a simple task, but it turned out not to be. The standard email clients I first found all assumed that outgoing mail would only go via a single server. Since I have email accounts both at the College and on the CSA web hosting system (an outside vendor named DataRealm), I wanted the capacity to use separate email accounts for both incoming and outgoing mail. That is, I wanted outgoing mail to go through the same server as the incoming mail for that account. (That may seem unnecessary, but some filtering systems I have encountered check to be sure the sender's account information is consistent in all respects as a way of preventing spam.) At that point, I found Evolution, a new program produced by XimianTM, which was available in a late beta version. It could handle both multiple incoming and multiple outgoing email servers. As it happens, Evolution was moving rapidly toward completion and has been released in final form (version 1.0). I was able -- painlessly and semi-automatically -- to update as time passed and development continued; so I am now using version 1.0. Evolution is also supposed to be a personal information manager (PIM), with features similar to Outlook or Entourage (the MAC equivalent of Outlook). That part of the program is not impressive. Synchronizing with my Palm pilot (actually a Handspring clone) has not been possible, and I've found no way to import contact and calendar information from the MAC. (I tried again to synchronize with the Handspring and to import files from the MAC in preparation for this article, to no avail.) Thus, the Evolution experience has been good on the email side (importing email from the MAC was not particularly intuitive, but it worked and was, when figured out correctly, rather easy) but not on the PIM side. As a result, I would suggest that Linux users consider using the email client built into Mozilla, the web browser widely used with Linux, or the email client in Opera, another web browser that I have not yet checked.

Two very bright spots on the Linux workstation have been the image processing program called the GIMP and the spreadsheet that is part of the StarOffice package. Both have performed flawlessly. In neither case have I stressed the programs, but I have used both as I would similar programs on the MAC or PC and found these to perform just as well. The GIMP is a free package that is installed with the operating system. I have used it enough to be comfortable recommending it as a replacement for PhotoShop. It seems to me to be truly first-class.

The spreadsheet that is a part of the free StarOfficeTM package has worked well, but the package includes a word processor that I have found to be truly terrible. I am not using the current version (5.2) but a beta of the coming version, 6.0. I chose that version because the press had reported the beta to be a great improvement on the current official version, 5.2. If that is so, I cannot imagine how bad the word processor in version 5.2 must have been. As it is, even the simplest matter of all -- screen display -- is not good, with spurious characters showing up and awkward spacing. When importing Word files -- something StarOffice is supposed to do flawlessly -- I have found that such a simple thing as "curly quotes" (“ or ” in place of ") can cause a document to stop loading.

StarOffice's word processor has pretensions. That is, it pretends to do many of the things Word does. However, it fails regularly. The final straw came in the form of repeated crashes of the machine when trying to open StarOffice's word processor in multi-monitor mode. I had to return to single-monitor mode in order to use the program at all.

I have started to use AbiWord instead. It is an acceptable program, and it seems to do a better job of reading Word's DOC files. However, I've had considerable difficulty with HTML files. It seems to be impossible to open them for proper editing. In one instance, I was able to open an HTML file for editing, but it became contaminated in the editing process. In another instance, I was unable to open the file at all. Saving this Newsletter article as a text only document, with an HTML extension resulted in an unreadable document. Saving it as an HTML document -- permitting AbiWord to add some code -- also resulted in a document that AbiWord could not open. Worse, the code (which I could examine in another text editor) was the worst I have ever seen. It seems AbiWord would not open that file out of sheer embarrassment. AbiWord lacks some of the features of Word I find very useful. For instance, I cannot search for or replace non-printing characters such as the paragraph mark; nor can the program automatically replace specific abbreviations with words or phrases, something I use often for words such as archaeology and archaeological that I regularly type just fast enough to create problems.

AbiWord also does not upgrade easily. The current version is still not a 1.0 version; so it should be considered in beta form. Nonetheless, updating should be simple and direct. It is not.

The line art program that I have tried -- called KIllustrator (and developed for the competing graphical user interface, KDE) -- seems competent, but I have not used it very much.

At this point, I am rather committed to Linux, and I will continue using it for a few months at the least. During that time I will add a database management program, and I will look for CAD programs. I will also continue to seek a word processor that can measure up to the PC and MAC competition.

A last-minute addition. During the week prior to finishing up this issue of the Newsletter, I finally was able to install another office package - word processor, spreadsheet, drawing program, presentation program, and more -- called VistaShare (formerly Applix) Anyware Office. At academic prices it was inexpensive -- $50 -- and, so far at least, the word processor seems to be a major improvement. I have had no problems creating HTML files for the Newsletter, although I could not see the HTML tags in a document unless I left the extension as TXT. (I fail to understand why anyone would create a program to edit text and then not simply hide HTML coding but make it impossible to deal with them directly, especially since so many things can be accomplished in more than one way with HTML.) I have also been able to use various non-printing characters in the search-and-replace dialog box, but there seems to be no way to do a general search and replace in a large selection of text smaller than the entire document. Installing this program was inexcusably difficult. The install routine needed an earlier version of the Linux installation program that I had, and it took multiple calls to the service desk for them to realize the problem. Then the installation was messy and too complex for modern software, but at least it worked.

One concern that may make me change my mind is the problems I have experienced getting technical support. It has seemed to me that, perhaps because the software is not producing income, user support is very hard to come by. That may ultimately send me back to my MAC, but only time will tell. The VistaSource technical support line was slow to find the problem, but at least there was a support line. Evolution seems very unresponsive.

Another problem is the lack of reliable reviews rating Linux software. At this point, I have used enough programs that have received favorable reviews to realize that people who use Linux seem to feel obliged to say good things about mediocre programs. As a result, reviews I have found on the web have consistently over-rated Linux software. There are similar problems with MAC and Windows software reviews, but those reviews are more likely to point out real failures and shortcomings.

For those who are thinking about using Linux, I would offer a very cautious recommendation. The major software shortcoming is the absence of a good word processor, and that is a very important matter. On the other hand, the only software for which I have spent any money (Evolution) cost less than $40, and the Mozilla browser would handle multiple email accounts as I wish - free. Compare that to the upgrade price for Office, over $200 for the most recent upgrade on the MAC or PC side and nearly $300 to upgrade the version that includes Access, or the upgrade for Adobe's Illustrator, $140. (Prices taken from the Web site of a computer mail-order shop.) The savings are considerable, but some important software offerings are certainly less desirable. Whether or not they will improve significantly only time will tell, but the price can hardly go lower.

-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

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For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of use of Linux on the desktop, consult the Subject index.

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