Take it for a test drive

When it comes to buying cars, I hate test drives. Maybe I've encountered just one too many used-car salesmen with bad hair and a disingenuous smile who would gladly sell his grandmother to make a buck. The specter of a high-pressure pitchman leering over my shoulder makes me uncomfortable.

But not all test drives have to be that way. One of the joys of working with open source is that there is so much software out there just waiting to be test driven -- with nary a used car salesman in sight.

Indeed, people wanting to assess the usefulness of Linux can test drive the entire OS if they want to. And thanks to the inventive nature of the open-source community, you don't even need to go through a software install if you would prefer not to bother.

There are a number of distributions that provide painless exposure to Linux, but two stand out in my mind. Lesser known distribution Phat Linux has made a name for itself by easily installing into a folder on your Windows hard drive. You are then just a click away from exploring a desktop Linux featuring Ximian Inc.'s GNOME. It's even more impressive when you realize that this three-year-old distribution was conceived by a young man who will finally be a freshman in college this fall (go Cameron!).

But my personal favorite is DemoLinux. Just pop a DemoLinux CD into your drive and boot up. There's no installation whatsoever. By default, it does absolutely nothing to your hard drive. It just asks you a couple of nontechnical questions such as what language you speak (it has versions in English, Spanish, and French). It automatically configures the hardware it detects and presents you with a working Linux system.

If you think about it, that's a pretty mammoth accomplishment. Given the huge diversity of PCs that appeared in the past decade, the fact that any modern OS could adapt itself to a random PC without any user interaction is impressive. Occasionally, a sound card or modem does not get initialized correctly, but for the person wanting to explore Linux painlessly, it's hard to beat.

Response time is a bit sluggish (you're running from a slowpoke CD, after all) and the system runs best with ample memory. But that's a small trade-off for someone who wants a no-commitment test drive.

When you log in, you find a functional, Debian-based desktop Linux that includes KDE, GNOME, and a version of Sun Microsystems Inc. StarOffice 5.2, the last version to be released without cost. It has Internet capability too, including Netscape, an instant messaging client, and a dial-up utility. And, should you begin to do work worth saving, you can elect to "anchor" DemoLinux to your PC. This painless process creates just two files on your Windows drive and stores any work you do in there.

All in all, DemoLinux is a sweet test drive. Give it a whirl for yourself at http://demolinux.org.

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