Saturday, 26 January, 2008

Help please: Which Linux distro is best for mom and dad?

-Akshay Ranganath


My Problem

Well, as usual, my desktop running Windows XP got infected by virus and died yesterday (Apparantly, AVG did not help). I was about to re-install XP on it when it dawned on me that ever since I'd installed XP, I was having trouble with the machine.

You see, my machine is an old Pentium, 555 Mhz with 192MB RAM. It takes eons to run XP and crashes with Windows defender, anti-virus, auto-updaters and a host of other software that my parents never knew existed. Everytime I am not at home or at onsite, the machine would end up getting infected. My parents who were trying to dip their feet quite hesitantly into the shores of internet would be then frightened. They'd believe that it was them to blame for the crash.. and totally give up using the computer. Hence, the thought, why not install Linux on the desktop and help them?

My problem though is that I am not sure which distribution to use. Before embarking on that let me give you the skill level of my parents

Parents skill level

Basically, both mom and dad have almost never used computers. The only keyboard they were happy to use was the remote for TV - that too to change channel and reduce volume. Now-a-days though, Mom has learnt to send SMS. Dad manages to read the missed call on the Call registry of mobile. Apart from this, the skill level on computers includes ability to switch on, switch off the computer, type on notepad and sometimes managing to send an email (if the email URL is bookmarked). With the childrental (as in parental) guidance, they can chat.

Requirements from OS

Knowing the fear of computers that parents have, important things for the OS are:

  • should be easy to use with a UI similar to XP - at least, the menu should be on left-bottom with On/Off feature being easily identifiable
  • a browser (guess Firefox is the best - i could always use an IE skin to make it look similar to what they know)
  • small program for creating documents (well, this is more of an overkill, but it is definitely something they could learn)
  • a chat program to integrate with GTalk - if I am not in India, I could (just about could) make them use the chat software to talk to them

That's about the requirements from the OS. With this in mind, I want your help in identifying a good disto to use.

Potential options

Ubuntu: I have used Ubuntu but, felt that it needs a bit more of CPU and RAM to work properly. Also, the GNOME interface is a very HUGE learning curve for parents. So it is a definite no-no!

Fedora: Again, it is quite resource intensive and would probably not work on my desktop. Although, I've not used it a lot, from the look and feel, I could configure KDE - again, will it work on my machine?

Help from Internet: I did read this article but, the guy's parents seem to be quite familiar with computers and manged to migrate to a (unnamed) Linux system. Not sure if it'd work in my case!

I also took the Linux Distribution Chooser but - the quiz seems to believe that the person installing the OS is the end-user. Since this is not the case, the results were not all that helpful.

I also read the article Choosing Desktop Linux Distro but, I'd like a second opinion…

Help Please!

And so, I am writing this blog - could you the readers of the blog help me out with this dilemma - what distro would work for my situation? Please let me know which of the one would serve the purpose. Thanks!

Note:

I'd originally put this post on our internal corporate blog. From some really helpful FLOSS enthusiasts, I got the following comments:

..try out Zenwalk Linux distro ( www.zenwalk.org ). It is pretty light-weight and doesn't need a high configuration at all..

PCLinuxOS ( download it..its worth it) or Dream Linux ( should be available with jan LFY issue) ..A new kid is alinux( peanut linux formerly). screenshots at http://alinux.org/linux-screenshots.html

Did you give Xubuntu a shot? I haven't ... but it is supposed to be pretty low on resource requirement, atleast lower than Ubuntu

"Linux Mint 4 " Is the OS which works Out of the box with Gui Better than Xp and Vista,It will have all Proprietary Codecs Installed and Most common Drivers Installed By Default. It's Built with Ubuntu as a base and Some Good Packages Like Mint-Install , Mint-Update which make Automatic updating simpler than Xp / Vista.

I heard of Something Called Puppy Linux For Low end Desktops , try to google for it for its features, and Also Vector Linux Specially made for low end pentium processors and ram

Well, in the lowest memory max usability area, Damn Small Linux is the best. Its all of 50 MB but contains browser, text editors, music players, etc.

..http://featherlinux.berlios.de/applications.htm

i suggest PClinuxOS. simple, does the job and fits well. Even vectorlinux is a better choice for your parents. there are others like linuxMCE, MEPIS if you want to try. If you want to have large application base, go with traditional (G)ubuntu or CentOS.

Thanks for the great suggestions guys! Looking at the help, I had tried PuppyLinux (review follows). Xubuntu would not boot - and when it did (just 2 times), it did not detect my mouse - so I could do nothing much. I keep getting the error - "Unable to load system description tables" and then some out of memory error. After the second error, the comuter just hangs and does not boot at all.

Short Review of PuppyLinux

PuppyLinux seems to be a really light-weight and useful distribution for really old machines. The total download size was just about 98 MB. At about 1/7th of a CD's limit, this was impressive. I did not actually install t - but, I did try from the LiveCD boot. Here's my opinion on the distro:

Pros of PuppyLinux
1. Amazingly small size
2. Comes nicely with a pre-packaged browser and email client by SeaMonkey. Never knew that it was a derivative of Mozilla - so, it was quite impressive.
3. Default install comes with AbiWord, an excel-type program, calculator, themes, wallpapers..
4. Four different games!!! (How on earth did these guys fit all of this in???)
5. Two different X managers - Xorg and Xvesa. Xvesa works like a breeze and makes your old machine feel like it is the top-of-line latest one!

Cons
1. UI is not exactly elegant. At times, feels more like UI for kids...Especially, the icon of a small pup for the 'Start' button
2. Mouse detection seemed to work only during even numbered booting - on 1st, 3rd and 5th time, it failed to detect
3. Distro says it has ability to save session information to make LiveCD boot faster - but, the save feature failed on all times.
4. Not sure of the continued support for project - it looks more like an effort by one person. (my gut feel, not verified thoroughly)

My Verdict
I'd recommend it for some really old system which desperately needs very small and robust OS. For my needs though, it would not exactly suit mainly because of the non-elegant look-and feel.