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Windows Vista: Kill Switch or Linux Switch

Windows Vista, the new version of Windows due out Real Soon Now, will have an anti-piracy *cough* feature *cough* that people need to be aware of.

If your copy of Windows Vista is “identified as counterfeit or non-genuine” you’ll be kicked into “reduced functionality mode” … There is no start menu, no desktop icons, and the desktop background is changed to black … After one hour, the system will log the user out without warning … Sounds like a kill switch to me. [Ed Bott via]

This is like Windows “Genuine Advantage,” only more so. WGA has made a name for itself by interfering with people’s legitimate copies of Windows, forcing them to call Microsoft, and prove their legitimacy by climbing through the usual time-wasting voicemail jungle jim after digging up their software serial numbers. I think Microsoft is assuming that the new, improved Vista version of the kill switch will never, ever, ever make any mistakes. Personally, I would not want to bet my ability to meet a deadline on Microsoft’s idea of a mistake.

So maybe it’s time to take another look at Linux. I’ve used Linux for years (Red Hat 6, 7, 9; Fedora Core 3; and Ubuntu). Linux is an open source operating system, free as in free speech, which is famous for being suitable only for geeks. That is not entirely true anymore. It’s also important to remember that there’s no need to choose either/or. If you have the hard disk space, you can set up a dual boot Linux system and keep your Windows system exactly as is. That way you can use Linux and learn your way around, but if you need to use some of your old software, it’s right there. You can also try Linux out by booting and running off a CD, without installing at all. More on that below.

[Standard disclaimer: I’ve tried to make these pointers as clear and correct as possible. However, I can’t vouch for their suitability or fitness for any purpose whatsoever. Nor can I promise that they won’t turn your computer into a brick. Or whatever the correct terminology is. I throw away all the EULAs without reading them, just like everybody else.]

Let’s get to it. What’s involved?

First of all, there are many different kinds of Linux. Ubuntu is one of the easiest and best-supported types, or “flavors,” or “distributions” or “distros,” of Linux. It takes a couple of hours to get everything installed. It’s not any different from installing any other new software, but since there’s more of it–we’re talking about the whole operating system and office software, after all–it takes longer.

Step 1a. Check for compatibility. The simplest way to do this is by booting Ubuntu from CD, without installing. If something critical, like your display or keyboard doesn’t work, it’ll soon be obvious. However, if you’d rather do it by the book, or if you want to buy new hardware and need to know whether it’ll work with Linux, then you can look through the compatibility lists. If you have common hardware that’s two or more years old, you can be pretty sure Ubuntu will install and run. Three compatibility lists: Ubuntu lists with a link to which is as complete as it gets, and a huge list where you have to scroll down to find the search bar,

1b. Check whether you have enough system memory and hard disk space. The current version of Ubuntu (6.06, Dapper Drake…) requires 256 MB RAM (also known as “system memory” as distinct from hard disk space) at the very least. 512 MB of system memory is the lower limit in practice. One gigabyte is better.

Space needed on the hard drive: The operating system itself plus basic programs take about 1.5 GB. Linux, like Windows, reserves space on the hard disk to swap files in and out while you use them. The Linux swap file takes 1.5 to 2 times your system memory. So if you have 1 GB RAM, you want around 2 GB space for a swap file; 512 MB RAM, you want about 1GB swap; and so on. You might want space for other programs you install later. As far as your data is concerned, Linux can read Windows-based files, so you can either use your existing Windows space, or reserve extra space on the Linux part of your hard disk. In the latter case, your Windows programs will NOT be able to read those data files.

Step 2 Download the latest version of Ubuntu to your computer. This is a large (approx 600MB) file that can be written straight to a CD. Alternatively, there’s an address to request a CD to be sent to you, which they do free of charge. (Thank Mark Shuttleworth)
2b) Boot from that CD.

Step 3. Try out Ubuntu. A screen with several choices appears. One is “Start or Install” (the default). Let it boot using that. It won’t install unless you tell it to after it boots up. You can run Ubuntu from the CD, so you can see what it looks like and how you feel about it without installing it on your computer. Since it’s on a CD that you can’t write to, you can’t change settings permanently, but it can give you an idea of what the operating system (OS) is like. Start by clicking on the icon in the top left of the screen, which acts like a Windows Start Menu. (Ubuntu has a somewhat unfortunate brown color scheme. This can be changed in preferences.)

Step 4. Install If you decide to install, you’ll eventually click the “Install” icon after the CD boots up. Not yet. Have your ethernet cable plugged in, if you have one. The installer sets up your network connections in that case, which is much nicer than doing it yourself. It also goes out on the web and looks for software it thinks you need while it’s installing. This is actually very useful, and not nearly as sinister as it seems beforehand.

Adam Pash of Lifehacker has written a number of helpful posts on Ubuntu (check under their linux section. There’s even a post on how to set up a triple boot system, which works just as well for dual boot if you ignore the first step about adding Windows Vista on top of your existing WinXP, and go straight to Step Two, installing Ubuntu.

The scariest part of installing is setting up an Ubuntu “partition.” Partition is Linux-speak for “drive.” If you were in Windows, this would be like formatting a new drive so that you could put a totally separate set of files on it. The installer can set up partitions as part of the install process, but it is actually easier to do it using a program that is on the Ubuntu CD. [correction Oct. 8th: The installer can set up partitions, but not the ones you want if you want to keep your Windows intact. So, it would be more correct for the purpose here to say that it cannot set up the necessary partitions. You have to do it ahead of time.]

–once you have the opening screen after booting from the Ubuntu CD, go to “System” on the menu bar at the top, choose “Administration” from the drop down menu, and Gnome Partition Editor from the submenu.

–there’s a table with one of the headings being “filesystems.” ntfs is WinXp native format, fat32 is used by all recent Windows, and fat16 is old Windows. Select the biggest one and click “resize.” (Don’t touch any smallish ones at the very beginning or the end. Sometimes they’re called “pqservice” or something obscure you’ve never seen before. Those are put there by the manufacturer to contain rescue information in case your Windows blows up. Sometimes they’re way bigger than they need to be, and can be resized, but tread carefully here.) Resize the big partition to something smaller that still leaves enough space for what you want to do in Windows.

–the “free space” liberated by the resizing can be formatted as ext3 (Linux partition) and swap (swap partition. I’m sure you’re surprised.)

——select the “free space”. Choose Partition, Format to, ext3. It will then let you stipulate the size. The Linux partition has to be at least 1.5 gigabytes, just for the OS and the usual complement of programs. At least 2 GB is better. This has a “mount point” of “/” (which equals “root”, so called because it’s at the beginning of the whole tree of folders and files that you’ll have. Folders, by the way, are called “directories” in Linux.)

——Select the remaining free space, and choose Partition, Format to, swap. The swap partition should be about twice the size of your system memory, aka RAM. Say 1 GB. In practice, you will have cleverly left about the right amount of free space for this purpose, and can just tell it to use all the remaining free space.

——[Added Oct 8] Write down the sizes and types of format of all the listed partitions. Linux uses its own naming conventions, and size and type of formatting may be the only way to know that, for instance, /media/hdc1 actually refers to the Windows part of your computer.

–Once it’s all done, exit GParted.

It actually takes longer to read about it than to do it. It’s intimidating, but very easy.

Install. (This section expanded and clarified (?) Oct 8th)

Once you click the install button, you get a series of screens labelled with steps 1 through 6. Only the very last one has the install button itself and commits you to the install process. You can cancel at any time before that.

The first three steps are no-brainers and involve 1)choosing your language, 2)choosing your geographic location and time zone, 3)choosing your keyboard layout. Step 4) is where you establish your name, login or user name, password, and computer or “host” name. The login and host names are very important for networking. These are not throwaway names unless you have a standalone computer. The user account that you’re setting up has privileges almost as great as the Administrator (known as “root” in Linux), so be prepared with a good user name and password AND BE SURE YOU REMEMBER THESE.

Step 5) is the biggie. The partition program starts up and presents you with two choices:

x   Erase entire disk         [Do not accept this default!]
     Manually edit partition table

Erase entire disk is the default selection. DO NOT HIT RETURN OR CLICK THE FORWARD BUTTON. Do change the selection to “manually edit.” Then hit the forward button.

The next screen is still Step 5). It shows the partitions you saw before in GParted. Make sure the list includes an “ext3” partition and a “swap” partition that you made earlier, and that they’re the size you expect them to be. Since you don’t actually want to change anything, accept the partitions as they are, and hit “Forward.”

You reach the third screen of Step 5) (The Ubuntu folks obviously cheated a bit here.) It shows all the partitions on the disk, and has boxes next to each one at the right showing which ones will be reformatted to hold your new Ubuntu operating system. By default, it leaves Windows partitions alone, and only the “ext3” and “swap” should have their reformat boxes checked. Make sure this is the case. One of the partitions has to be “ext3” and have a “/” (which equals “root”) “mount point.” Translated into English that means that one of the partitions has to be in native Linux format and has to tell Linux “boot from here.” Once everything is right, hit “Forward.”

Step 6) lists what will be done during the install. Double check that to make sure that only the partitions you intend to reformat will be reformatted. If everything is as expected, hit “Install” and either watch curious things scroll by on the screen, or do something else. I don’t remember how long it takes, but it’s at least half an hour, I think. Check back periodically in case there’s a problem. Do not worry about bizarre computer gobbledygook that goes scrolling by too fast to see. All of that is going into a file an expert could use, but has nothing to do with an ordinary user, even if it says stuff like “error.” If the install process stays stuck at one point with no sign of any progress for more than, say, five minutes, it’s a likely bet that some hardware in your computer is hopelessly incompatible, and the thing to do is give up.

If, because of an install problem or just because, you decide to go back entirely to Windows, see below about how to get all your hard disk space back into Windows.

Note that if you’re installing both Windows & Ubuntu (if, for instance, you bought a used corporate laptop off ebay that had its disk wiped clean), Windows has to be installed first. It doesn’t play well with other OSes, and needs to think it’s the only thing on the drive.

By default, if the installer detects Windows (or any other operating system) on your computer, it assumes you want a dual boot system, and gives a choice of operating systems when you start back up. You’ll get an ugly text screen showing the choices, one of which is regular Ubuntu (don’t choose rescue, or safe or any of that stuff), and the other is Windows. The default will probably be Ubuntu, but that can be changed to Windows later, if you prefer. You have 30 seconds, by default, to make your choice.

Things the installer does for you
Ubuntu includes OpenOffice, which is a full Office Suite donated by Sun Microsystems and hundreds of programmers. It can write and read Microsoft Office files without issues, unless you have complicated Powerpoints with animations. Those haven’t always worked for me. Ubuntu includes Gimp, a PhotoShop analog with about 90% of PhotoShop’s abilities. (No easy way to do high dynamic range, for instance.) CD burners, mp3 players, Firefox to browse the web, EvolutionMail, will all be there once the OS is done installing.

5) Getting help. As with any new software, you do have to learn your way around. The “OK” button is not in the same place, and that kind of thing. If there’s something you need outside assistance on, unfortunately the help files that come with the system tend to be obscure. The way to get help in Linux is via forums on the web. Users helping users seems like an iffy way to do things, but it has worked 100% better for me, with far less aggro, than “real” technical support. Ubuntu, has some of the best help forums around. (Support page with links to documentation, FAQs, mailing lists, and the forums. The Ubuntu wikis are also a useful resource, best used by using the search feature at the top right. is one of the biggest general linux forums. Another neat trick if you get a specific, incomprehensible error message, is to search Google for that exact phrase (enter it into the Google search bar with double quotes around it.) More often than not, the answer is in the first few search results.

I have a post about some of my favorite Linux programs here. There’s an open source animation program (Blender), photo gallery software (JAlbum), (one example using photos from Fiji) and other links.

Likeliest Problem Areas

In order to do anything system-wide in Linux, you have to be the Administrator, known in Linux as “root.” However, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can cause huge security holes or crash your system as root. Ubuntu has therefore made root inaccessible. If you need Admin/root access, there are instructions at Ubuntu Community Help: Root-sudo

The weakest links in the Linux world are wireless, home networking, and font files.

Fonts. Adobe and Microsoft don’t want other people using their cool fonts. Obviously, a page formatted in some new, unplanned font can look very weird. The workaround is to find where the fonts are stored on your Windows system (search for *.ttf, and note the folder. E.g. C:\Windows\fonts.) You probably don’t use all of them, and if you want to save space you can just copy your favorites. With a bit of imagination, you can usually guess what’s what from the file name. These are then copied to /usr/share/fonts/truetype. (Note that this isn’t illegal, even in the alternate universe where the megacorps live. You have paid for the right to use those fonts when you bought your computer.)

Jeremy at has a brief rundown on exactly how to do this, after you open a command line (=terminal) window:

Installing True Type Fonts

If you own a new flat-panel display, but your web pages and documents just don’t “look right,” perhaps you need to install True Type fonts. Many web pages and documents use True Type fonts, but by default, Linux doesn’t have any installed. Luckily, Xfree86 4.0 and above supports True Type fonts. (If you’re using an older version of X you can either upgrade, or install a font server such as xfsft.)

The first thing to do is find a copy of each of the fonts that you’d like to install. The easiest way to do this is to copy them from a Windows machine or from a CD-ROM. Some True Type fonts can even be downloaded from the Internet.

Once you’ve found some fonts, choose where to install them, such as /usr/share/fonts/truetype/. Then copy all of the .ttf files into the directory and run the following commands as root: [note: in Ubuntu you’d preface each command with sudo, unless you’ve enabled root as described in the link above. If you’re root, the prompt is #, as below. If not, it’ll be $ most likely.]

[Piffle. The following does not work under Ubuntu 6.1, Edgy Eft. Does work on Fedora Core 3.]

# cd /usr/share/fonts/truetype
# ttmkfdir > fonts.scale
# mkfontdir
# chkfontpath -a /usr/share/fonts/truetype
# fc-cache

Now, the True Type fonts in that directory are available to your applications.

The instructions above should work for most distros. Some distributions include configuration tools or tricks to make font installs even easier.

Home networking. Ubuntu has something called Zeroconf, which should find your home network for you the same way Windows does. I haven’t used it yet, so I don’t know if it’s effortless or not. In Ye Olde Days, networking was dealt with by Samba, which I, personally, hate. After a labor of what feels like decades expended on it, you have a house full of machines eyeing each other suspiciously and refusing to talk.

I use a command line program called ssh (stands for secure shell, which means “secure way of giving the computer commands”). There’s a good intro by Gina Trapani of Lifehacker here. Ssh allows you to use the computer accounts already set up on various machines to log into those computers and get files from them or write to them, as needed. It’s not pretty, unless you get a GUI frontend.

Wireless As a relatively new technology, wireless is one of the iffiest parts of running Linux. It’s getting better, but if you’re having problems, it’s probably not you. It’s the operating system.

Where Linux Gets Really Difficult

If you have any sort of specialized software or very new hardware that does not have Linux drivers, then you shoot straight into the geek stratosphere, and should avoid Linux for now (unless you’re a geek, of course, but then you probably stopped reading this after the first sentence).

Recovering the space given to Linux requires the following steps:
–boot from the Ubuntu CD
–when the opening screen is there, go to “System” on the menu bar at the top, choose “Administration” from the drop down menu, and Gnome Partition Editor from the submenu.
–in the table, under “filesystems,” find any called “ext3” or “swap”. Start by selecting ext3 with one click because it won’t let you touch the swap file until ext3 is gone. You have a couple of choices:
—-if you want to keep them as separate, but windows-readable, drives, go to Partition on the top bar, choose Format As, and choose any one of the windows-readable formats, ntfs (WinXp native), fat32 (all Windows), fat16 (old Windows). Do the same with the “swap” filesystem.
—-if you want to return them to one big Windows drive, select “ext3” and “Delete.” (Sounds scary, but that frees it up.) Do the same with “swap.” The WinXP partition (labeled either ntfs or fat32 in the table) can then be “Resized” to include all that free space.)

Update a few hours later: It seems today is the day for posting about installing Linux. Lifehacker has a link to a site giving simple instructions on how to use Linux. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek in spots, but that’s better than a sea of acronyms. The instructions are for the Debian flavor of Linux, which is the most closely related to Ubuntu. Well worth a visit.

Also, in comments on the Lifehacker post, Tephlon also has a good howto on installing a single-boot Ubuntu system, –>with pictures!partition where you put it. In a dual boot system you install Ubuntu in a separate partition, so it does NOT wipe out your entire hard drive.

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