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Windows vs Linux

Wednesday, Apr 14, 2004

True Stories

Here's a blast from the past. This article originally appeared on, I believe, the third iteration of my personal website, which has been phased out in favor of the web comic. Since this article was my 15 minutes of fame in the open source world, I thought I'd keep it. However, a few notes:

  • This is an OLD article. Obviously.
  • I'm no longer married to the wife that is the subject of the test here

So, without further ado, the article!

A response to a challenge, the challenge being "Linux is too hard to install". So I set out to prove the guy wrong. Here are the results.

There is a French translation of this article over at Framasoft, if you would prefer reading in French.

Windows vs Linux - Which is easier to install?

Well, from my point of view, Mandrake Linux 9.2 is extremely easy to install. Then again, I know a lot about computers. The debate revolves around whether or not your average 'idiot' user can install Linux. The various distributions have all matured a lot, and it's my opinion that the average 'idiot' user can install Linux more easily than they can install Windows.

However, many disagree with me. In fact, in an online forum I let a guy challenge me to test my ideas.

Very well, I accept.

First, some background. Always background, there is.

Linux Usability

As you all know (right?!), Linux is open source. The entire operating system usually referred to as Linux (properly called GNU/Linux, unless you're talking about a specific distribution) is open source. That means the source code is there for us all to see. The OS got it's start in development in 1984, when Richard Stallman started up the GNU project. In 1991, or thereabouts, Linus Torvalds started working on his terminal emulator, that ultimately magically evolved into a POSIX kernel, known as Linux. By coupling Linux with GNU, a complete operating system was achieved.

Formal development on the operating system may have began in 1984, but the movement didn't really pick up until the mid-90s. It really really picked up more recently when we started seeing a lot of corporations getting involved, such as IBM and Sun. In any case, there are about 10 solid years worth of development behind Linux as of this writing.

In the early days, it was damn near impossible to get a working Linux kernel wrapped with GNU software. At that same time, Windows 95 was coming out, which was pretty easy to install. Just click through a wizard, let it work, and you're done. Over the years, Windows has gotten both easier and harder to install than it was in the Windows 95 days, and Linux has branched a lot. There are many companies making distributions, and all of them install differently from one another.

RedHat, Mandrake, and SuSE are the three Linux distributions at the top of the heap, as far as overall usability goes. They are also at the top of the heap as far as ease of installation goes. I've installed all three, and used all three, and I prefer Mandrake to the rest. This web server is running on Mandrake 9.2, in fact (with a custom built kernel, though). Update: the website has moved since the article was originally written, and it's now hosted on a Gentoo machine.

Taking over the desktop

Linux isn't available in that many places in OEM form. Walmart.com will sell you boxes with either Lindows or Mandrake Linux on them, and that's great. Frye's will sell you Thiz Linux already installed on some Microtech boxes. I've seen some computer shops that will install RedHat for you. Other than that, Linux still has a *long* way to go before it'll come on your computer when you order the computer. So, in order for Linux as a whole to be able to achieve a significant share of the market, people have to decide to install it. When we have enough people that have decided to install it, OEMs will look more seriously at opening up production lines for Linux-based computers. In the meantime, every user that switches to Linux will have to install it themselves, or have someone install it for them.

So the whole question is, can the average 'idiot' user install Linux?

What is the average 'idiot' user?

Well, I don't like stupid names like "Joe Sixpack", "Joe Average", or whatever. The average 'idiot' user is someone who will characteristically describe themselves as an 'idiot with computers'. They don't know what a kernel is, they frequently think that 3.5" floppy disks are 'hard disks', they don't know what the 'internet' is (although they know how to check and send email), and they don't know a whole lot of things. Windows has abstracted most things so that people don't *have* to know about computers to use them. This is bad, but is a subject for another article entirely.

So, your average 'idiot' user isn't necessarily an idiot, they just don't know much about computers. They can point to a mouse, use it to point and click, and probably don't even know how to touchtype. They know that if their computer breaks, reboot it. If that doesn't fix it, call someone who knows more than they do. You might be an average 'idiot' user. You might be the person the average 'idiot' user calls to fix their computer.

My wife's not an idiot!

No, she's not. But she is an average 'idiot' user, as far as computers are concerned. She has been using Linux for two years, and it is true that I have installed it and maintained our computers. I am not your average 'idiot' user. :) So as far as whether or not regular people can use Linux if it's already installed, my wife stands as testimony that they can, because she does it every day.

The Challenge

So, now we come to the whole point of this article. The challenge was basically this: "Your wife doesn't know anything about computers, but she can use Linux. She can't install it, though." I said "Yes, she can, and I'll prove it." So here's The Challenge.

The Rules

The rules are simple. I can't help her, at all. It would be too easy for her to just ask me a question and get an answer. So no. The idea is that your average 'idiot' user can't install Linux because it's too hard. They'd run into plenty of places where they'd have to ask for help, and there's not good help available. I say that both of those statements are just plain wrong. So, if my wife runs into any problems, I can't help her. She will, however, have access to the internet via another computer in the house.

She has to accomplish the following things:

  • Install the OS from scratch on an empty hard drive
  • Connect to the internet
  • Open a web browser and visit Google to prove the internet works.
  • Configure a mail client
  • Check her mail (we assume that if she can check her mail, she can send it, and we already know she can send mail. The question is whether or not she can configure an email client on a freshly-installed system)
  • Demonstrate working sound (Both Mandrake and Windows make noise when you login, by default, so the OSs would prove this on their own)

She will do all of these things on a Windows 2000 Professional system, and she will do all of these things on a Mandrake Linux 9.2 system.

The Hardware

Actually, there were hardware problems early on in The Challenge. I wound up replacing the motherboard. So here's the hardware she used:

  • Network card (I forget the card, other than that it uses the Tulip kernel module, if that helps)
  • Onboard CMI8330 Sound
  • CD-RW drive
  • 4 GB Hard drive (slow)
  • Matsonic Motherboard with an ALi chipset (I forget which of both)
  • AMD K6-2 450mhz Processor
  • 64 MB RAM

On to The Challenge

Since the machine was ultimately going to be a Linux client on my local network, I had her do Windows 2000 first. I also suspected she'd bail early on Windows 2000 and fail to install it. Windows 2000 isn't easy to install. :) By rights, we should have done Windows XP, but I don't have Windows XP. If someone can send us a copy, I'll take it. I won't activate it, I'll just have my wife install it and I'll add to this article about her experiences. Then I'll destroy the CD, because piracy is wrong, right? ;) Now, keep in mind that we had some hardware problems, which is why I was using the Matsonic motherboard instead of the one with the SiSsy chipset.

Initial Boot

For those of you who have never installed Windows 2000 Professional, it has a bastard installer. Partitioning is handled through a text-driven UI. Then a bunch of stuff is installed and the computer reboots. Then you go through a wizard, a bunch more stuff is installed, and the computer reboots again. Next it does some configuration of its own, might ask a few more questions, and reboots one last time, into Windows 2000.

My wife didn't have any trouble on the initial boot. :)


I had already booted the computer into the Windows 2000 installer and deleted all the partitions. In order to do that, I had to actually create a partition with the installer, otherwise the installer wouldn't write the new partition table to the hard drive. So she already had it partitioned for Windows when she got it.


Formatting is a different issue entirely, although it's in the same UI as partitioning. She was asked "Which partition do you want to install Windows on?" Windows always leaves a small partition, only a few megabytes, and I had already partitioned it into one huge partition. So there was a small partition and a large partition. She chose the small one, got a message saying "That partition isn't big enough". She's crazy, so she tried the same thing expecting different results, and got the same results. Then she selected the large partition.

Then she was confronted with "What file system do you want? NTFS or FAT?" She looked askance at me, and I had to remind her that I wasn't going to help. :) She chose NTFS, more or less randomly, but it was the right choice to make. While the hard drive was formatting (a half-hour ordeal, for some crazy reason), I asked her why she chose NTFS. She said "Because it was the first option". It would have been nice if she had said "Because it's a journalled file system, and as such it is more stable than a FAT filesystem." It would have really ruled if she had said "Because it doesn't use file allocation tables, you can have an arbitrary amount of directories, depth of a directory tree, and so forth." But she didn't know any of that.

Then she complained about how long it was taking to format the hard drive, and waited.


Windows 2000 doesn't ask a lot of questions, but after the partitioning and formatting is done, the machine said it had to reboot. So she ejected the CD and let it reboot. I asked her why she did it, and she said "Isn't it done installing?" I asked her if she read a message that said it was done, and she responded with "I didn't read a message saying it wasn't done." No big deal, just interesting. :)

After it rebooted, it asked her to put the CD back in.

Then she was confronted with Company name and so forth. Also, she was asked for an administrative password. She was also asked if the computer was connected to a network. This question is particularly important, actually. You're given three choices: I'll use a dialup connection, I'm connected to a local area network, or I'm not on a network. She knew she was on a network, and she knew we didn't use dialup, so she chose the local area network option. That was the right choice. :) I can't help but wonder, though, why didn't Windows just say "You have an ethernet card, so I think you should chose (B)"?

Then it rebooted again.

Network configuration

It rebooted one more time, if I recall correctly, after finalizing settings. I could be wrong on that part, though.

In any case, the next time the machine asked for user input, it was fully booted. This time it told her to remove the installation media, which she did, before it rebooted.

She successfully put in the administrator username and password (well, the username was already filled in for her) and logged in. Then, knowing she had to configure her email and look at google, she decided to first fire up Internet Explorer and look at google. Now she's confronted with the internet connection wizard. She went through this wizard like 5 times, and never got IE to show her Google. Poor girl.

So she moved on and opened Outlook Express. She successfully configured Outlook Express, but failed to check her email. The network was unavailable, because network configuration had failed. One small note, though. I did tell her the mail servers for our ISP, and remind her what her username and password are for them. I figured that your average 'idiot' user would have a card with this information, so I provided it for her.

Wrapping up Windows

So, she successfully installed Windows 2000. When it was done, she didn't have any user accounts, except for the Administrator account. Sound didn't work, we didn't hear the stupid Windows login noise. I checked the device manager and saw quite clearly that Windows didn't recognize the sound card. She failed to connect to the internet, so we don't know if her email configuration really worked. I say it was correct, because I watched her do it. So we'll give her the point for successfully configuring her mail client.

Booting with Mandrake

Now it was time for her to boot with Mandrake. I knew, going into it, that she was going to fail a few things, because I had already installed Mandrake 9.2 on our other computer, and I knew about a certain bug that it has. (This is what English teachers call 'foreshadowing')

So, she tossed in the Mandrake CD and booted away.

Localization and Mouse

The first two questions you are asked by the Mandrake installer are "What language do you speak?" and "What kind of mouse do you have?" The Mandrake installer is 100% graphical, unlike the Windows 2000 installer. It defaults to American English, and usually successfully guesses the mouse. The only exception I've seen is a serial mouse, which I had trouble with. My wife didn't have trouble with this, except that she did pick up the mouse a few times and look at it. Then she made the correct decision, and said "It already knew what mouse I had!"

Partitioning and formatting

Mandrake only asks you one question about partitioning, with three answers. The question is "How do you want it?" and the choices are "Remove Windows, Use Free Space, Custom Partitioning". My wife chose "Remove Windows". Good girl! Then her eyes nearly popped out of her sockets when, 10 seconds later, the installer was done partitioning *and* formatting.

So I asked her what filesystem the hard drive was formatted to. She told me "Ee eks tee three" (Ext3). I asked her why she chose that one, she said "I didn't chose it. But it's stable, fast, and journalled, whatever that means." Cheers for Mandrake, she wasn't confronted with a technical decision she knew not how to make, and when it was over she actually knew something about her filesystem. Unfortunately, "whatever that means" is dead on. It is beyond the scope of an installer to explain what's better, but later on she did ask me about journalled filesystems and why they're better. And I told her. Just to be clear, she knew this stuff about Ext3 because the installer told her about it.

Software Packages

This isn't even a question in the Windows installer. She was actually asked what software she wants to install. To help her make the decision, Mandrake has organized all of the software into several categories. Now, because I intended to use her installation of Mandrake on this computer, I did tell her what choices to make--after she made them herself. Basically, I told her "Don't move on to the next screen without telling me". She made all her choices, and I noted them as 'right' or 'wrong', then told her what I wanted on it, to save me the trouble of installing stuff later lest she forget. She correctly chose "Network Client", which is all that really matters for this test.

Stupid Security Question

Some will say the next question isn't stupid, but it did trouble my wife. "The following servers will be installed. They are believe not to have any vulnerabilities, but may, would you like them to be installed?" She said "Yes" and moved on. But she was a little troubled by the question.

Also, somewhere in here (I forget where it is in the installer) she was asked what level of security she wanted. There's three choices, good, better, and best. She chose 'good', which is the correct choice for a network client.

User Configuration

At this point, Mandrake spends a lot of time installing packages. It didn't ask her to insert any other CDs, which was nice. I've never installed Mandrake without popping in at least the second disc, but I also hand-pick a lot of software when I install it. I didn't have her hand-pick software because in the end I was going to mount of /usr/bin and the other /usr's as nfs shares, so I only cared that the nfs client was installed. :) And the development tools, of course.

So after all this, the next question is "What is the root password?" No problems here. Then, "Configure a user". She configured herself as a user and moved on.

Gory Details

There's nothing noteable here. She actually enjoyed this part, where she was asked questions that she knew the answer to. She had fun with it, actually. :) She chose not to auto-login a user, when she was asked that. She wasn't asked about X at all, and it picked 1024 x 768 resolution (which is what I wanted, anyway). In the end, she had a lot of fun.

Final Configuration

At the end of the installer, she was presented a dialog showing everything that had been configured. She noted that Sound and Time hadn't been configured. So she went and configured Time, chose to sync with ntp and chose a server. She failed to configure Sound at this time, although the thing did tell her she had a CMI8330 sound system.

So, how many times has Mandrake rebooted during installation?

Answer: 0

Booting into a full system

The next thing she was told was to remove the boot media and reboot the computer. She did so. So she was next confronted with a login prompt under X. She put in her username and password (not the Administrator, it should be noted) and logged in.

Mandrake has this really nice feature called the First-time Wizard. The first time I saw it I hated it. I've hated it all this time. When I saw my wife confronted with it during this test, I loved it, and I now love the First-time Wizard.

Except that in Mandrake 9.2 it has a very serious bug. No mail client was installed, so she was a tad confused in that part of the dialog. She did just click through it, in the end, but she was a bit frustrated that she was asked to configure her email, but she couldn't actually do so. It should be noted that this is a new problem. 8.1 - 9.2 didn't suffer from this problem (I've run all of those).

When the wizard was done, she fired up Konqueror and went to Google. She didn't find a mail client.

She was also confronted with the Arts dialog that says "Sound doesn't work."

Wrapping up Mandrake Linux 9.2

So, when she was done she had successfully installed the OS. She had configured a user account and given a root password. Network was working, she googled. But she was not able to check her email because no mail client was installed.

Final Comparisons

Task Windows 2000 Mandrake Linux 9.2
Install OS Done Done
Connect to the internet Failed Done
Open a web browser and Google Failed Done
Configure a mail client Done Failed
Check her mail Failed Failed
Demonstrate working sound Failed Failed

So, in Windows that's all. However, additionally at the end of the Mandrake system she was also able to:

  • Cite several traits of the Ext3 filesystem
  • Clock was automatically set to sync with internet time servers
  • NOT run as administrator because she had setup a user account
  • Name at least one server that was installed on her computer
  • Tell me what kind of mouse she was using :)

So, in Windows she failed to do 4 things. In Mandrake Linux 9.2 she failed to do 3 things. Considering all the extra stuff she pulled away from her Mandrake installation, I'd say that Mandrake kicked the living *ass* out of Windows. And that's in spite of the fact that she didn't have working email. She *does* have a hotmail account, so technically she had working email as soon as she had a web browser, but the Challenge was to check her email with a mail client, not a web browser. (She pouted over that)

Also, for the record, if Mandrake had installed KMail like it usually does, she would have successfully configured her mail client and checked her email. So if it weren't for this one small bug, Mandrake would have really dominated this test. I am saddened by this, because this is a new bug in Mandrake 9.2, and is not a bug in the earlier versions. Hopefully they'll fix it in Mandrake 10.0. :)

It's also important to note that not only did the default installer ask more questions and deliver a more personal desktop when it was finished, it also has an expert mode. I usually use that. :) In the expert mode, you get all kinds of options you don't get in the default 'idiot' mode. You don't even get that option with Windows. So from the starting line, Mandrake Linux provides a more personal and customized desktop than Windows. Also, from the starting line, Mandrake Linux provides a more secure operating system. You only have to look at the security question asked and the fact that my wife logged in to her fresh OS installation using her own user account. In Windows, you don't get that at all, not even with XP! With XP you create a user and that user is an administrator. The pros of Mandrake's approach (which is actually the approach of the whole Linux community, except for Lindows) belong in another article, so you'll just have to take it as fact that it's not good security practice to run a normal user as an administrator. You also get to chose an overall level of security to start with. Now, you are trusting Mandrake to have setup their different levels properly. Of course, the alternative is to trust Microsoft's default security plan, which is security through obscurity, and it has a long track record of failure.

It's also interesting to note my wife's general attitude throughout the process. Throughout the Windows 2000 installation she was increasingly becoming discouraged, and generally feeling bad. She also kept getting mad at me for putting her up to this, even though I made a point of saying "Don't do it if you don't want to." She told me later that she kept feeling dumber and dumber as the Windows installation proceeded. When it was over, she didn't want to do Mandrake because she wasn't sure she could take it emotionally.

She hung in there, though. She's quite a fighter. The Mandrake installer genuinely cheered her up, and she had been in quite a funk. She was happy to be asked what language she speaks. She was happy with a lot of things. She was happy that the installer always told her what it was doing, why it was doing it, and why it was important to her. She learned new things, and that always makes her happy. By the time the Mandrake installer was done, she was damn near bouncing off the walls. She went from a total funk, thinking she shouldn't be doing this sort of complicated thing as installing an OS, to feeling like she was in complete control. She went looking for things to do, to make sure the computer was set up the way she wanted it. I was personally quite amazed at the emotional rollercoaster she went on throughout this process.

When it was all done, she started cursing Windows. After the treatment she got from Mandrake, she genuinely felt insulted at the way the Windows installer had treated her.

But in the end, I can't help but conclude that I was right, and that other guy was wrong. Mandrake 9.2 was very easy for my wife to install. Mandrake 9.2 is easy to install, in general. It was easier to install than Windows, but only slightly. She did end up with a better system, in the end. And she learned something from the Mandrake installer.

After The Challenge

After the Challenge, I tried to get sound working on the thing. Turns out that the CMI8330 sound driver in ALSA is broken. Turns out that for some reason or other I was never able to get either the Mandrake 2.4 kernel or a custom built 2.6 kernel to even see the sound card. I wound up buying a cheap soundcard and putting it in there, and the 2.4 kernel had no trouble with it. The network card has also finally given out, so I've removed it. We're not using that computer right now because it's not connected to the network, so it's completely worthless.

My wife, on the other hand, has started taking a more serious interest in our computer. Even though the one she setup is broke, now, she's more interested, in general, in the computer. She doesn't have a lot of time to pursue it as a new hobby, but now she's taking it as seriously as she takes her car. Which is the way it should be, I think. But now she's worried about maintenance, checking things out periodically to make sure the computer's still functioning properly. She's asking herself what else she can do with the computer, and she's even started taking on some more ambitious things, like surfing the K Menu looking for other software to run. I even saw her cracking open the KDE Control Panel, looking for ways to personalize her desktop.

Run The Challenge Again?

I can't do it again. I might, conceivably, be able to get my wife to try Windows XP. That's the only thing I can do. After that, well, she has experience installing Linux. I suppose she could test other operating systems, but she's now a little ahead of your average 'idiot' user, and it wouldn't be a good comparison to make again.

However, if one of you knows someone who is your 'average idiot user' who is willing to subject themselves to this test, please do it! If you take notes and send them to me, I'll be happy to work up an article about it. If you write the article--even better! I'll be happy to post it here. One time is anecdotal, but if we can get a lot of articles up here detailing more varied experiences with more varied hardware and people, that would really say something.

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