Book Review: Test Driving Linux

Test Driving Linux: From Windows to Linux in 60 Seconds, by David Brickner. O’Reilly Media, Inc., 2005. Available from Amazon and O’Reilly.

This is definitely the book to start with if you are new to Linux. It comes with a live CD: Move, a version of Mandrake Linux that runs entirely from the CD, with no installation required. It is written in a personable, informal style which makes it not only interesting but often fun to read.

The intended audience is “Windows users who have heard of Linux and want to find out what all the fuss is about without committing a lot of time or hard-drive space,” and assumes no prior knowledge of Linux. But not wanting to exclude people like me, the book also claims it “can turn existing linux users into more effective Linux users.” But it really is for people who are currently using Windows, at whatever level. There are many references to Windows features and layouts for comparison. There are also many references to Windows problems as a reason to switch to Linux. The author is an unabashed Linux apologist.

I really like the organization of the book. It starts with the obligatory introduction to Linux, but in this case the beginning introduction is brief. Introduction is what the whole book is about, so “introductory” explanations and comments are throughout the book. The first chapter goes through starting up the CD, using the KDE desktop, and a “typical” application (KWrite). Chapter Two goes into web surfing, and Chapter Three covers file management. While there is a chapter at the back with “Solutions to Common Problems,” a lot of what you’ll encounter is included in the main material. For example, after the CD loaded, my screen went blank. Sure enough, there in the last paragraph of the booting section, I found, “One minor problem I have found on a few computers is that the screen will go blank and won’t come back up. If this happens, just press any key on the keyboard and the screen should come back up.” Yep, that worked. Oddly enough, the section on “Customizing the Desktop,” with all the great configuration details and tips, is stuck in between the chapters on applications. I suppose it fits there if one thinks of the chapters progressing along the virtual path most would take in trying out a new operating system.

Brickner is honest, but optimistic, about shortcomings in Linux, such as games and video. An obvious gamer himself, he devotes a lot of space to discussing the games that are available, and resources for finding them. He spends a lot less time on video, which is very briefly covered in the audio section. He also does not ignore other common programs and features available with Linux that are not on the CD, and even offers frank assessments of Linux distros to install after trying out the Move CD.

The application programs covered are the KDE suite of e-mail, organizer and Instant Messaging, Open Office Write and Calc, the GIMP, and GnuCash. Although very little time is spent on the GIMP, the necessary basics are covered: scaling, resizing, and cropping. It’s just enough to get one started. He includes a detailed explanation of how to remove red-eye, but only succeeds in making it look harder than it needs to be. A lot more space is given to the other programs, especially GnuCash. Brickner gives a great explanation of how double-entry accounting works by way of explaining how to use GnuCash.

There are plenty of screenshots. Some of the screenshot images produced text that was too small to be of much use, but I found that much of the text generally didn’t need the screenshots anyway. The only problem I had was trying to get an internet connection on one of the computers I tried it out on. I couldn’t figure out how to get a working connection over the local netwok, and the book gave no clues.

Despite the shortcomings, which are minor, this is an excellent book. It is the book to give (or recommend) to the skeptic or clueless person who asks what Linux is. It presents Linux as a friendly, usable alternative, with a manual that is anything but dry. We need more books like this.


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