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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

VMware and me

It's not a complete waste of a day, but it's close: I installed VMware on my Windows laptop, then set up a couple of virtual machines to test: Bodhi Linux and the latest Peppermint OS. Both are lightweight distributions based on Ubuntu. Both are minimal installations, that then take a little while to customize.

Live CDs used to be the way I would take a look at a new distribution. But that process uses up CDs (and now DVDs), most of which I never look at again -- and Linux distributions change rapidly. The other problem with the Live CD is that you don't really know how easy it is to work with it until you've installed it. But nobody really wants to partition, install, and wipe out something that doesn't work.

I played around with USB distro installs for awhile, but they didn't always work, and still require rebooting.

Virtualization is the answer. You set up a software-only machine, just a file within your regular or "host" operating system. With VMware, which is a free download, you "install" the distribution into a file, instead of the hardware.

So that piece worked great. Easy to do, fast. But then the distribution was in a little window on the big Windows screen. I eventually puzzled through the process of downloading vmware tools, extracting them, running the embedded files, then clicked the "full screen" button to actually get a full screen. If you haven't played with Linux before, this kind of thing is completely mysterious, and without it, playing with virtual machines is kind of a pain. The box is just too small to get a real feel for the operating system. VMware needs better documentation for this.

But once I did install the tools, and expanded the screen to fill in all the screen real estate, it was exactly like running the new operating system, except that I could toggle back out to Windows at any time. I didn't have to reboot. And when I was done, I just exited from the software. It's still there, if I want to mess around with it again, and just the matter of a click or two when I want to get rid of it.

So what were they like? Bodhi uses the Enlightenment window manager. It's speedy, pretty good looking, and not all that different from Windows, KDE, Gnome, or the Mac. While the download itself is really stripped down - not much more than a browser, a terminal, a file manager, and a text editor - the documents point you to a web-based software center. From there, I could do a one-click download of what passes for a full package for most distros. Enlightenment is a little different in feel and look from other things I've used, which was why I wanted to play with it. On the whole, pleasant enough.

Peppermint I liked even better, with one exception. Instead of an office program (like LibreOffice), it uses GWOffice -- basically, a web app that links to Google Docs, but with some synchronization built in between the cloud and your computer. I have come to really dislike Google Docs. Its interface is unpredictable on different devices, it doesn't use space well on screen, and I have no idea what its file format is. I tried to use GWOffice with Peppermint, but it kept telling me that my fresh new download was an outdaed version of Chrome. So I downloaded the latest version right from Google -- and got the same message. Linux uses Chromium, not Chrome -- maybe that's the difference? But I found it slow and unresponsive.

Finally, because both distributions are based on Ubuntu, both make it easy to download things from the vast Ubuntu repositories. So I just installed LibreOffice. All of this stuff is free, so one may as well use what works.

Bottom line? Here is yet another way one might install Linux on top of a locked down Windows 8 machine. Virtual machines are also easy to back up, which is why so many server farms use them.

Right now, I feel like I can use just about anything anybody puts in front of me. (I haven't tried Windows 8 yet, and haven't really lived with a KDE distro.) It's good to play around and keep the old brain cells lubricated, though. Both distributions take a little fiddling to get everything you want, but when you're done, they just have that, not all the bloat, adware, crippled demos and programs you'll never touch.

Like I say, it's not a complete waste of a day. At least I did push ups and situps whenever I was waiting for something to complete installing. And maybe I learned something.

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