Red Hat and Caldera, hold on tight — there’s a storm coming from up north! Those two companies have led the pack in enhancing the Linux user experience, but in spring of 1999 a new Linux distribution appeared on the horizon, one created by an unlikely suitor.
In March, Canadian software giant Corel Corporation decided to join the ranks of Red Hat and Caldera with its very own Linux distribution, Corel Linux OS, which was to be focused on the new user. Corel decided that rather than reinvent the wheel with a completely new distribution, it would instead draw its underlying framework from the noncommercial Debian GNU/Linux distribution.
A Rock-solid Base
Debian is known for its rock-solid stability, its excellent documentation, and the commitment of its 500-odd developers all over the world to base the distribution completely on free software. The distribution is also known for its unique software-package management and a flexible package-update system that lets you easily upgrade different parts of the operating system without much fuss. You can download everything from games to administrative tools to text editors — over 4,000 Debian (.deb) packages in all — from the main Debian distribution site (http://www.debian.org) and its mirrors.
Unfortunately, Debian is also out of date compared to some of the more popular distros. (The current Debian at the time of this writing, version 2.1rc, is based on a 2.0.33 kernel and uses glibc 2.0.) It is also considered one of the more difficult Linux distributions to install, which makes it unsuitable for your average Linux user.
Corel has decided to take the best elements of Debian — its stable foundation, its wealth of documentation, and its superior package format — and combine it with a no-brainer installation program and a desktop experience very similar to that of Microsoft Windows. Linux Magazine had the opportunity to play with the free (as in no-cost) version of Corel Linux OS 1.0, which was released during Fall COMDEX 1999. From what we see of the initial release, Corel Linux OS is shaping up to be the Cadillac of Linux desktop OSs.
Three versions of the Corel distribution are available: the free Corel Linux OS Download version that we looked at; the $50 Standard edition (which comes on a CD, with a user guide and e-mail support, and includes Netscape, Adobe Acrobat, and WordPerfect’s light version); and then there’s the Deluxe version. For its $70 price tag, you get everything in the Standard version plus a number of tricks and treats, including Advanced Software Technologies’ BRU backup software, Civilization: Call to Power, telephone support, and — most important — a three-and-a-half-inch penguin mascot.
The installation experience for Corel Linux is straightforward: Pop the CD into the drive, and if your PC’s BIOS supports bootable CDs, the computer will complete a hardware-detection sequence and boot straight into Corel Linux’s graphical installation program. You can also invoke the installation process from within Windows, but all that does is prompt you to reboot your machine.
When the installation program starts, the user is presented with four installation choices: Desktop, Desktop Plus, Server, and Custom. We found out the hard way that Desktop is strictly suited for users who will never run a configuration shell script, recompile their kernel, or compile applications from source code — there are no development libraries installed. Desktop Plus, which is the best installation option for Linux power users, provides you with everything you need for a networked workstation, including development libraries and compilers. The Server option gives you the bare necessities for running as a file-and-print or Web server, and the Custom option allows you to choose from the multitudes of Debian packages included on the CD.
After choosing your installation type, you are prompted to choose a partitioning method. You can either have Corel Linux wipe the disk clean and use the entire drive, or create a new partition using unallocated free space. This is a nice option for Windows users if they have free space remaining, but it would have been better if Corel had taken a page from Caldera’s book and provided an integrated Windows install using Partition Magic — if all the space on the PC is allocated to Windows FAT (File Allocation Table) partitions, the only option is to blow away the entire drive.
Once the partitioning is complete, Corel Linux installs all of the files and reboots the system. If the hardware-detection routine has gone well, then you are presented with the KDE login screen at high resolution. Our test system was a dual Celeron 466 using a Voodoo3 card and a PS/2-compatible bus mouse — using Beta 2 of the release, Corel Linux autodetected the Voodoo 3 and set up XFree86 3.3.5 and KDE 1.1.2 using 1024×768 resolution. Initially, there’s no root password; you can simply hit the enter key, and the default Corel Linux KDE desktop starts up with a prompt to change your password immediately.
Corel has added many new enhancements to basic KDE that make it more like running Windows. One of these is the Windows-style network-setup dialog in the improved KDE Control Center, which allows you to configure your Ethernet adapter and TCP/IP networking parameters, including DNS settings. While we were able to find this dialog easily within the Control Center, it would have been nice if the installation program had prompted us for this information, as other installations do. Apparently, Corel has decided that your average home user doesn’t have a LAN and prefers to have the least interactive install program possible — not a completely unreasonable position, but with cable modem and DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) Internet access becoming more and more common, tinkering with Ethernet cards is becoming part of the home PC package. End users will also enjoy the Windows 98 style Display Properties dialog in the KDE Control Center, which allows them to modify screen resolution and color-depth settings. This is a vast improvement over Red Hat’s Xconfigurator or XFree86′s XF86Setup utility.
In addition to the KDE Control Center enhancements, Corel has added the Linux equivalent of the Windows 98 Internet Explorer 5.0 interface by integrating the KDE built-in browser and file manager with a network browser that enables you to connect to Windows LanManager domain and workgroup shares on Windows 98/ NT/2000 machines, and NFS volumes on Unix computers as well. Full drag- and-drop is supported between multiple instances of Corel File Manager — we were able to connect graphically to shares on our Windows NT 4.0 server and drag and drop files back and forth between Corel Linux and NT with ease — so Windows users will find themselves right at home here. In homage to Windows NT, Corel also includes a KDE-based Samba server setup wizard and a Windows NT-style “Event Viewer” for viewing the kernel startup log.
There’s no question here that Corel really has a tight relationship with KDE, and the fruit of this marriage has been some very nice enhancements for the end user. However, in future releases of the product, it would be best if Corel would give the end user the option of switching back and forth between KDE and GNOME at will, as Red Hat and SuSE do — you can’t even run a GTK application in Corel Linux unless you install the GTK+ development libraries, which isn’t an option if you do the regular desktop install.
In a Nutshell
* Easy installation
* Provides the best of the Debian distribution along with an enhanced KDE desktop
* Poor disk-partitioning options for existing Windows systems
* Lack of built-in GNOME/GTK+ integration
Corel has updated many of the components found in the latest Debian release. Corel Linux includes version 2.2.12 of the Linux kernel, XFree86 3.3.5, KDE 1.1.2, glibc 2.1 and Netscape Communicator 4.7. If, however, new versions of programs come out and you want the latest and greatest Communicator, for example, the winning combination of Debian’s package format and Corel’s superb GUI package manager makes this a no-brainer. The Corel Package Manager (called Get_It) is a GUI interface to Debian’s Apt-Get package-update CLI utility. It is vastly superior to the package-management features of other Linux distributions.
By default, Get_It looks at the “stable” tree of .deb packages at the Debian master archive and the Corel Linux distribution site in Canada (you can also redirect Get_It to a Debian mirror, like Infomagic’s, if you wish), and it will allow you to upgrade on the basis of what the Corel Linux and Debian teams have certified as a stable software-package release. If you are adventurous, all you need to do is turn on Get_It’s “unstable” flag (there are also flags you can turn on for nonfree and international packages), and you’ll have access to all sorts of releases that you can have Get_It automatically download from the Internet and install. Good luck getting GNORPM to do that with RPM updates from the Red Hat mirrors!
If Corel solves some of the minor problems with this OS — with focus in particular on disk partitioning, initial network setup, and GTK integration — there’s nothing to stop them from unseating the big boys as the Linux desktop OS of choice.
Jason Perlow is a freelance writer, computer consultant, and Linux enthusiast based in New Jersey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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