Book Review: Spring Into Linux

Spring into Linux, by Janet Valade, Addison-Wesley, 2005, ISBN 013185354-6 from Amazon, from Addison Wesley

The front page sums up the “Spring Into” series of books: “..short, concise, fast-paced tutorials for professionals transitioning to new technologies.” This particular book, as stated in the preface, is aimed at computer users who are new to Linux, and “just need a quick start guide for working on Linux.” The offering is for computer users with some good working experience using either Windows or Macintosh machines, but not necessarily experts. The caveat in the preface is not intended to turn away the novice, however:

It is not impossible to learn Linux from this book without a background in computers — just difficult. The book assumes an understanding of concepts and computer use that you may not possess. However, if you appreciate a book that assumes you can understand quickly and delivers information in a compact form, without distractions and repetitive explanations, give this one a try. It might work for you.

As far as its goal of delivering the information in compact form, the book certainly succeeds, but not without some repetitive explanations.

In her attempt to deliver simply a quick start guide, the author chose not to focus on one distribution, but to use three distributions: the two primary enterprise distributions, Red Hat/Fedora and SuSE, and a distribution targeted at novice and home uers, Mandrake (now Mandriva). There is an obvious lack of depth, but depth is not the intent of the book. In fact, the default subject is Red Hat, with differences in the other two distros explained along the way. True to the style of “tell them what you’re going to say, say it, and tell them what you said”, each chapter begins with an “executive summary” and ends with a summary, with the meat in between.

The first four chapters of the book introduce Linux and getting it installed, beginning with a fairly quick explanation of Open Source software and Linux. After briefly covering the three distros used in the book, Valade includes a quick summary of a few other distros, notably Xandros and Mepis. Ubuntu is notably absent from the group.

The installation chapters form the largest segment of the book. Although there are fairly good step-by-step directions for each of the three distros, the directions lack the depth needed for anything but a straightforward install. The pre-install chapter, however, points out some of the potential pitfalls, such as hardware compatibility and partitioning. Although the book is already dated (for example, Mandrake is now Mandriva, Novell provides SuSE as OpenSUSE), the instructions are still pretty accurate as far as the installation screens and procedures. The reader should at least feel more comfortable about the installation process after reading these chapters.

After the install process, there are several chapters on using Linux with KDE and Gnome. After an initial introduction to both interfaces, the author settles on KDE, as the default throughout the rest of the book, with stops for Gnome when there are significant differences between the two. While trying to keep the introduction to Linux on a graphical level, Valade frequently drops into the command line interface, using bash for the shell. Although the chapter devoted to CLI is light, meatier stuff is available at the back of the book for the more knowledgeable or intrepid.

Finally, about half way through the book are nine chapters on the application programs available, starting with how to get and install them. For word processing and spreadsheets, OpenOffice is covered. The chapter on graphics briefly covers several programs for different options: Dia, Konqueror, OpenOffice, and the GIMP. Mozilla is the featured browser in the chapter on using the Internet, which includes a section on getting connected. Multimedia coverage is light, with a caveat at the beginning of the chapter: “Although working with multimedia files is much easier than it used to be…it can still be problematic on occasion. You are more likely to encounter problems in this area than any other.” Although Valade includes brief synopses of other email software, such as Evolution, KMail, and Thunderbird,the instructions are for Mozilla, and include setting up an email account and address book. For instant messaging, she covers AIM, MSN, and Gaim.

The meat at the back of the book includes using the Kate and vi text editors, and writing shell scripts. Most will jump to the back of the book rather than slogging through the application chapters, especially if they already have the anticipated experience with computers.

The book generally delivers on it’s promise. The style gets to be tedious after a while, with the initial “tell them what you’re going to say” and final “tell them what you said” pattern. The applications chapters were also surprisingly elementary given the intended audience. But they are mercifully quick reading. There are several URLs for everything from more information to distribution-specific sites. Unfortunately, although many of the URLs have redirects, many others return 404 errors, most likely due to the age of the publication. Still, though dated, it is a good introduction to enterprise Linux distributions (and an easy to use personal version) for “busy” professional types.

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