Practical Technology

for practical people.

Linux is easier to install than XP


When you buy a new PC today, unless you hunt down a Linux system or you buy a Mac, you’re pretty much stuck with Vista. Sad, but true.

So, when I had to get a new PC in a hurry, after one of my PCs went to the big bit-ranch in the sky with a fried motherboard, the one I bought, a Dell Inspiron 530S from my local Best Buy came pre-infected with Vista Home Premium. Big deal. It took me less than an hour to install Linux Mint 5 Elyssa R1 on it.

As expected, everything on this 2.4GHz Intel Core2 Duo Processor E4600-powered PC ran perfectly with Mint. But, then it struck me, everyone is talking about having to buy Vista systems and then ‘downgrading’ them to XP Pro, how hard really is it to do that.? Since I had left half the 500BG SATA hard drive unpartitioned, I decided to install XP SP3 on it to see how much, if any, trouble I’d run into. The answer: a lot.

First, thanks to my Microsoft TechNet membership I could download an XP disk image, which included all the patches up to and including SP3. Many people aren’t going to be that lucky. They’ll need to install XP and then download perhaps hundreds of megabytes of patches. Boy, doesn’t that sound like a lot of fun?

If you don’t have a MSDN (Microsoft Developers Network) or TechNet membership, there are two ways to approach this problem. The first is to manually slipstream the patches into an XP installation CD. You can find a good set of instructions on how to do this in Slipstreaming Windows XP Service Pack 2 and Create Bootable CD. While the article is for SP2, the same technique works for XP SP3 as well.

The other way is use nLite. This is a program that allows you to customize Windows XP and 2000. While it’s primarily so that you can set up Windows without components you don’t want, such as Internet Explorer 6, Outlook Express, MSN Explorer, or Messenger, you can also use it to create fully patched-up boot/installation CDs. I highly recommend it.

This time I didn’t need to use either one. I simply put in my newly burned XP SP3 CD and went through the usual XP installation routine. Within an hour, I was booting XP.

If this had been Linux my work would have been done. With XP, I soon discovered my job was just beginning. I soon found that XP couldn’t recognize my graphics sub-system, a totally ordinary Integrated Intel GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) 3100; the audio system, the Realtek HD Audio chipset, or, most annoying of all, the Intel 10/100Mbps Ethernet port. How can an operating system in 2008 not recognize an Ethernet port?

Well, XP doesn’t.

Fortunately, Dell includes a CD with the full range of Windows drivers on it. With it, I was able to install the drivers for all the equipment without much trouble. Within another hour, I finally had a working XP SP3 system.

That wasn’t so bad was it? Well, here’s my problem, except for Dell, I don’t know of any vendors who ship their PCs with driver disks anymore. The usual vendor answer for when you have a driver problem is for you to go online, search down the right driver, download, and install it. Except, of course, had that been my only course of action, I would have been up the creek without a paddle because XP wasn’t capable of letting me talk to my network.

Mint, on the other hand, let me point out, had no trouble with any of my hardware. Thus Ubuntu-based Linux recognized the equipment, it set it up and let me get to work. It was Windows that proved to be a pain in the rump.

Greg Kroah-Hartman, a prominent Linux developer, is right. Linux Journal recently reported that he recently told an audience at the Ottawa Linux Symposium that “Linux supports more different types of devices than any other operating system ever has in the history of computing.”

Linux isn’t perfect that way, as Kroah-Hartman would be the first to admit. Based on what I experienced, though, Linux is much better than Windows at supporting modern hardware.

We have this illusion, that’s just because Windows works on the systems it comes pre-installed on, that Windows has great built-in driver support. No, it doesn’t. Once you move to installing Windows on a new system, you’ll quickly find that Linux, not Windows, has the better built-in hardware support.

Yes, that’s right. Linux, not Windows, is easier to install on a new PC. Just something to think about as you get ready to strip Vista off your new computer.