Looking at a few Operating Systems

The last few weeks have seen me poking around with a few different operating systems to see how they perform. None of these were particularly in-depth in their nature but brushes with alternatives to what I currently use for much of the time. While I am too sure what exactly has kicked off all of this curiosity, all of the OS’s that I have examined have been of the UNIX/Linux variety. With the inclusion of Unity in the forthcoming Ubuntu “Natty Narwhal” 11.04, I am mindful of the need to be keeping an eye on alternative options should there ever be a need to jump ship. However, a recent brush with an alpha version has reassured me a little. Then there are interesting OS releases too and I recently forgot the Ubuntu password (a silly thing to do, I know) for my Toshiba laptop too so I suppose that a few things are coming together.

It was that latter development that got me looking in amazement at the impressive minimalism of CrunchBang Linux before settling on Lubuntu to see how it did; these were Live CD runs so I tried before I committed to installing. It helped that the latter was based on Ubuntu as its name suggests so I wasted little name in finding my way around the LXDE desktop. By default, everything supplied with the distro is lightweight with Chromium coming in place of Firefox. There’s no sign of OpenOffice.org either with offerings like Abiword coming in its stead. For the sake of familiarity, I started to add the weight of things without reducing the speed of things, it seems. Well, the speedy start-up wasn’t afflicted anyway. Being an Ubuntu clone meant that it didn’t long to add on Firefox using the apt-get command. LibreOffice was downloaded for installation using the dpkg command and it seems much more fleet-footed than its OpenOffice.org counterpart. As if these nefarious actions weren’t enough, I started to poke in the settings to up the number of virtual desktops too. All in all, it never stopped me going against what be termed the intent of the thing. In spite of what Linux User & Developer has had to say, I think the presentation of the LXDE desktop isn’t unpleasant either. In fact, I reckon that I quite like it and the next thing to do is to restore the entry for Windows 7 on the GRUB menu. Well, there’s always somthing that needs doing…

While I may have learned about it after the event, the release of Debian “Squeeze” 6.0 was of interest to me too. Well, I have used it a fair bit in the last few years and retain a soft spot for it. The new release comes on two kernels: GNU/Linux and FreeBSD. Regarding the latter, I did try having a look but it locked up my main home PC when I tried booting it up in a VirtualBox virtual machine. Given that it’s a technical preview anyway, I think it better to leave it mature for a while no matter how fascinating the prospect may be. Or is it VirtualBox 4.x that hasn’t around long enough? Debian’s latest Linux incarnations showed no such inclinations though I found that the CD ISO image that I’d downloaded didn’t give such a complete system when I fired it up after doing the installation. Being someone that knows his way around Linux anyway, it was no problem to add the missing pieces using apt-get though that’d stop it being an option for new users unless the DVD installation yields more complete results. Other than that, it worked well and I lost no time getting to grips with the OS and it’s gained a much fresher feel than version 5.x (“Lenny”). In summary, I look forward to continuing my investigations of the new Debian.

To round up my explorations of different UNIX/Linux operating systems, I have updated my test installations of Ubuntu 11.04. Initial looks at the next Ubuntu release weren’t so encouraging but things are coming along by all accounts. For one thing, Unity can be switched off in favour of the more familiar GNOME desktop that we’ve had for the last few years. The messages that popped up telling you that there’s no 3D graphics support on your machine have been replaced by graceful degradation to the GNOME and that’s no bad thing either. In case it hasn’t been so obvious, I am one of those who needs convincing by the likes of Unity and GNOME Shell so I’ll sit on the fence for a while. After all, there always are alternatives like LXDE if I want to decamp to something else entirely. One of the nice things about Linux is the amount of that we all have; it might be tricky to choose sometimes but it always is good to be able to find a niche somewhere else when someone makes a decision that doesn’t suit you.

Booting from external drives

Sticking with older hardware may mean that you miss out on the possibilities offered by later kit and being able to boot from external optical and hard disk drives was something of which I learned only recently. Like many things, a compatible motherboard and my enforced summer upgrade means that I have one with the requisite capabilities.

There is usually an external DVD drive attached to my main PC so that allowed the prospect of a test. A bit of poking around in the BIOS settings for the Foxconn motherboard was sufficient to get it looking at the external drive at boot time. Popping in a CrunchBang Linux live DVD was all that was needed to prove that booting from a USB drive was a goer. That CrunchBang is a minimalist variant of Ubuntu helped for acceptable speed at system startup and afterwards.

Having lived off them while in home PC limbo, the temptation to test out the idea of installing an operating system on an external HD and booting from that is definitely there though I think that I’ll be keeping mine as backup drives for now. Still, there’s nothing to stop me installing an operating system onto of them and giving that a whirl sometime. Of course, speed constraints mean that any use of such an arrangement would be occasional but, in the event of an emergency, such a setup could have its uses and tide you over for longer than a Live CD or DVD. Having the chance to poke around with an alternative operating system as it might exist on a real PC has its appeal too and avoids the need for any partitioning and other chores that dual booting would require. After all, there’s only so much testing that can be done in a virtual machine.