SAN MATEO (01/31/2000) - Unix aficionados have for years chronicled vendors' attempts to push Unix onto the desktop. We've watched all such attempts end in abject failure and total market rejection, mostly because Unix vendors were clueless to the needs of desktop users -- until now.
Corel Corp. channeled its considerable application expertise into a Linux release that marks a turning point for the OS industry. Corel Linux OS Deluxe is the first Linux -- in fact, the first Unix of any kind -- that can realistically take the place of a Windows or Macintosh desktop. It has a few warts, but Corel's Linux debut is a stunner.
For employees who do most of their work in office-productivity applications and on the Web, Corel Linux is an excellent platform to deploy. The support costs for the Corel Linux OS promise to be lower than for Windows, with an automated system-update utility and an interface that makes the transition from Windows or the MacOS painless.
Also, Corel Linux OS is significantly more affordable than a copy of Windows 2000 Professional upgrade ($219), plus Office 2000 Professional upgrade ($349).
You'll pay $568 for that combo, compared to $89.95 for Corel Linux OS Deluxe.
With its Windows ease of use and Linux power, Corel Linux OS Deluxe makes sense both technically and financially.
A snappy installation
I tested the Deluxe edition of Corel Linux OS using a pair of machines: a 500-MHz Pentium III desktop and a PC server with dual 400-MHz Pentium II CPUs.
The Deluxe moniker identifies Corel's top-end bundle. This adds to Corel's standard desktop Linux (available for free from www.corel.com or in a $59.95 retail package) a full copy of WordPerfect 8 with a printed manual, a collection of 200 fonts, the BRU tape backup manager, and a 3.5-inch tall plastic penguin. The penguin bears a sticker reading "not a toy," but mine has yet to reveal its practical use.
This Linux desktop OS boots from its CD or floppy straight into a graphical installer. It detected and configured both test systems' hardware without a single on-screen remark. If your company LAN uses DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol), Corel Linux configures the system's network parameters automatically. You can alter default network settings and other parameters after the installation is complete.
Corel's default installation is an entirely hands-off affair. You're asked if it's okay to wipe out the hard drive, and the installer takes it from there.
The next time you see a prompt, you'll be logging in.
I did a custom installation and found it similar to every other Linux release, with a good selection of packages and a comfortable disk-partitioning interface. However, I strongly prefer using the "take over the whole disk," fully-automated installation. It is truly effortless, and I encountered no problems during my several test installations.
A familiar-looking interface
After installation, Corel Linux OS boots to a menu that offers a graphical, basic VGA, console, or "expert" start-up. This is reminiscent of the Windows boot menu, and it is hardly the only Windows feature Corel appropriates for its Linux.
Corel's spin on the popular KDE (K Desktop Environment) presents a clean and functional desktop interface. Mac users will have no trouble, and Windows users will find many things exactly where they expect them. How do you change your display resolution or refresh rate? Right-click on the desktop and select Properties. Do you need to alter other system parameters? Open the Control Center, a configuration interface that outclasses Windows' Control Panel. Any confident PC user will adapt to Corel Linux OS with ease.
The most important quality Corel brings to its Linux is consistency. Instead of weaving together a patchwork of open-source graphical utilities, each with its own quirky UI behavior, Corel gives its users a smaller set of tools that share a consistent look and feel.
The assortment of programs attached to the KDE's cascading "application starter" menu is tiny compared to Red Hat Linux, Caldera OpenLinux, SuSE Linux, and most other distributions. Yet everything a desktop user needs is there, and the supplied utilities share a familiar, consistent, professional interface style.
The Corel File Manager illustrates Corel's polished approach perfectly. The File Manager resembles Windows' dual-pane Explorer layout, yet it is uniquely and unmistakably Linux. It supports drag-and-drop, and it associates file types with applications -- double-click on a graphics file, and GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) pops up to display it. If you insert a CD-ROM, you can bring its contents up in File Manager without dashing to a console window to mount it first. You may browse remote NFS (Network File System) and Windows shared files, or make one of your system's folders available to Windows users on your LAN without entering a single command.
Corel works similarly masterful turns throughout its Linux. For instance, the Corel Update utility scans Corel's FTP site for patches and new software. You can choose what you like or have it bring down everything new, which greatly reduces desktop support costs.
Also, server applications are not installed by default. Superb online documentation (delivered in an interface patterned after Microsoft's HTML Help) guides you through the configuration of included Web and FTP servers. Separate Corel wizard interfaces set up Samba Windows-compatible file sharing and the qmail e-mail server.
One obvious flaw
The very capable WordPerfect 8 adds considerable value to this bundle, but it also shines a bright light on Corel Linux OS's most noticeable flaw. The WordPerfect font menu shows a handy pop-up preview of any font you choose.
Corel includes some gorgeous fonts in Adobe Type 1 format, and although they print perfectly, every last font looks horrible on the display.
Corel did not attempt to match Windows' font-smoothing facility, so large fonts are displayed with jagged edges and small fonts are very hard on the eyes. I count myself among the PC users who grew attached to anti-aliased text after it came to the desktop with Windows 95's Plus pack. It's hard to go back to the "jaggies."
I give Corel a pass on font smoothing because this release is, in all other regards, a brilliant marriage of the raw power of Linux with the polished, professional feel of a commercial application. If you run a heterogeneous shop, one of Corel's Linux OS editions could replace Windows as your de facto desktop operating system.
Tom Yager (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a frequent InfoWorld contributor and runs a private testing lab in northern Texas.
THE BOTTOM LINE: EXCELLENT
Corel Linux OS Deluxe
Summary: By combining the Debian Linux distribution, Corel-developed graphical utilities, and an automatic install, Corel has discovered the formula for desktop Linux.
Business Case: Corel Linux OS Deluxe transforms any PC into the ideal desktop client for heterogeneous environments. Connections to Windows and Unix servers are strong, and the automatic installation makes it a safe bet even for IT staff new to Linux. WordPerfect rounds out this powerful, cost-effective alternative to Windows.
+ Automatic, foolproof installation
+ Excellent graphical utilities
+ Automated system updates
+ Full copy of WordPerfect 8 with manual includedCons:
- No font smoothing
Platform(s): IBM-compatible PCs
Corel Corp., Ottawa; (800) 772-6735; www.corel.com.