VSJ – December 2005 – Sounding Board

Robin Jones makes a virtue of necessity and test-drives Kanotix.

Recently, my Sony notebook fell over. It had been misbehaving for some time, failing to shut down prettily and so on. Finally it died. So I decided to reinstall Windows. Sony provides a recovery CD that restores the hard disk to its ex-factory state so I ran that. It thrashed around for some time, eventually displaying the message ‘Please wait while Windows starts’. I waited. And waited. Nothing. I repeated the whole process. Same result.

At this point I had several problems. I couldn’t contact the Sony online help service because the machine to which it was registered had just died. I couldn’t easily boot to DOS – no floppy! I couldn’t send the notebook back to Sony because I couldn’t be sure that the hard disk didn’t still contain confidential client data. Even if that weren’t a problem, Sony has a 0870 number to arrange for returns and I don’t deal with companies that expect a financial return simply for allowing me to talk to them. Yes, I know there’s a geographical translation number on the ‘Say No to 0870’ Web site. But that’s not the point. I object to a customer care model that can be stated as  ‘Spend plenty of money with us and then we’ll charge you for the chance to spend some more’.

So rather than have £1400-worth of doorstop, I decided to install Linux. I chose Kanotix, a Knoppix/Debian-based version, because it can either be run directly from the distribution CD or installed conventionally. You can download and then burn your own CD or you can buy one from Wordit (www.wordit.com) Being an idle fellow with a less than fat pipe, I did the latter and paid the princely sum of £6.30 for the privilege.

To start with, I ran it directly from the CD. It happily identified all the Vaio’s devices including, rather impressively I thought, the wireless card. So I could simply launch Firefox (supplied on the CD) and be online in a little under 4 minutes. That compares with about 2 minutes for Windows on my desktop machine. Not too shabby considering everything is being done from the CD and from scratch! Next I plugged in a USB Flash drive. Kanotix recognised it without trouble. I opened it and clicked an Excel file on the drive. OpenOffice (version 2 beta) launched and opened the file. Next, I removed the flash drive, leaving both the Excel file and the drive directory window open. I’d never have the courage to do that on a Windows machine. I’ve heard too many doom-laden tales of irrecoverable crashes. Of course, in this case, I didn’t need much courage because, even if this had caused a crash, I would only have to switch off and reboot and there were no files on the hard disk to get lost anyway. However, I was mainly interested in how gracefully Kanotix would handle my misbehaviour. I closed the Excel file and then attempted to open another file on the (no longer present) flash drive. Konqueror (KDE’s default file manager/browser) mildly responded that the file ‘does not seem to exist any more’ and otherwise carried serenely on.

Doing a full install was pretty painless, once I’d realised how the supplied partition manager worked (which isn’t how the documentation says it works), taking about 30 minutes in all. Again, all devices were identified and set up correctly. However, for some reason it didn’t configure the wireless network card for DHCP (as it had done from the CD) so I had to do so manually.

Software download experiments met with varying degrees of success. Kanotix (together with OpenSUSE and CPX-MINI) has the klik client installed by default. This allows you to download and install software from http://klik.atekon.de/ by simply clicking on the relevant link. This worked fine on the whole but I did experience some problems with Beta software (unsurprisingly), such as Firefox 1.5. Software from other sources often proved to be more of a hassle. For instance, I could download RealPlayer and install it from a terminal window but it didn’t behave anything like as satisfactorily as it does under Windows. I haven’t had time yet to investigate whether that’s a function of the package or the way I installed it.

On the whole, I’ve been quite impressed with Kanotix. It’s easy to install, bundles a huge amount of useful software, including the OpenOffice suite (word processing, spreadsheet, database, graphics and presentation manager) and, thus far anyway, has been very stable despite my attempts to break it, both deliberate and inadvertent. Sure, it’s got a few rough edges but keep repeating the mantra ‘An operating system and a full office suite for six quid’. See my point?

[Something you’d like to get off your chest? Email me (Robin Jones) at eo@iap.org.uk.]

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