Building a Linux System Even Your Grandmother Could Use
was recently handed the task (thanks, mom) of replacing my
grandmother's ancient Macintosh with something she could use to connect
to the Internet just to send email. Some
background: My grandma Helen is 89 years
old, is always smiling, has a touch of Alzheimer's, and for the last
decade or so, she has been running Macintosh System 7.5 on an old LC II. To my knowledge, she had only ever used it to
type and print some letters using Claris Works. She
has never sent an email, she has never typed an instant message, she
has never even been online in her entire life.
So I had a pretty big task ahead of me. I
had to set my grandmother up with something that was low cost (mom said
to keep it under $700), had all the features Grandma needed, and most
importantly, was easier for her to use than Macintosh System 7.5.
the hardware, the rig I set up was a dual Athlon XP 1800+ with three 40
gig 7200RPM hard drives, 1 gig of RAM, and for video I gave her a
dual-head ATI Radeon 8500 with 128MB. That
ought to give her enough speed to last a couple years at least. I also popped in an old DVD ROM drive I wasn't
using, and a CD-RW drive that I snarfed out of an old rig at work that
they were throwing away. I got her a set
of nice Boston speakers and a 21-inch CRT monitor off e-Bay. Total cost of hardware, $698.34.
it came to choosing an OS, I was conflicted. On
the one hand, I really like Mandrake's simplicity and great desktop
multimedia system right out of the box. But
I also really like the speed of Gentoo and the dependability of its
Portage package management system. I do
feel that Mandrake Linux 9.2 is the best, most complete and stable
Linux desktop distro available this week, but a new user is likely to
learn more about the underpinnings of Linux by using Gentoo. Since I couldn't decide which she would like
better, I gave her both--I had a ton of hard disk space to work with
two distros means choosing a good boot loader. Which
would my grandmother like better, Lilo or Grub? Personally
I think Lilo is more straight-forward, but Grub is easier to configure. Since I wasn't sure if grandma Helen planned
on getting under the hood of the boot process at all, I decided to
install a boot switcher so she could choose between Lilo or Grub each
installed Gentoo first. I set her up with
three user partitions across each of the three disks, one using
ReiserFS, one with the venerable Ext3, and one with SGI XFS in case she
gets into downloading movies and large warez.
it came time to choose a window manager. It's
easy to narrow the field of dozens down to just three - KDE, Gnome and
XFce. But choosing a favorite between them
is difficult. KDE is infinitely
configurable, looks great and has a ton of neat features, but it's also
kind of bloated. Gnome is lighter, faster,
and has fewer configuration options to deal with so new users like it,
but it starts to feel somewhat restrictive after awhile.
XFce is the fastest and lightest of the three, but it's
not quite as mature yet as Gnome and KDE. I
still wanted to give it a nod, though, since it's headed in the right
installed all three so that Grandma could decide when she logs on which
desktop environment she wants to use during her session.
Sometimes she might want more speed than eye candy, but
sometimes she might want to do something in style even if it eats up
extra clock cycles.
email, I set up her up with Evolution and Kmail, because Evolution has
a nice look and feel (similar to Outlook), but Kmail is faster and
better integrated with the KDE environment. I also set up Mozilla Mail
because I'm a big fan of the Mozilla suite of internet applications. For instant messaging I set up Gaim and
Kopete, and for web browsing she has a choice of regular Mozilla,
Mozilla Firebird, Konqueror, Nautilus, or Galeon.
She likes to type letters on her computer, so for word
processing I gave her OpenOffice, KOffice, AbiWord, Emacs and Vi to
put Java and Limewire on it so she can start building a music library,
and I installed CrossOver so she can run WinMX and Kazaa if she
wants to leech some DivX rips. I set up
X-Chat to connect her to my favorite IRC network for warez, and as a
courtesy I installed WineX so she can run Windows games if she wants.
also got MS Office running under CrossOver. The
thought of my grandmother running MS sickens me, because I love my
grandma, but my mom said to make her system as easy and compatible as
possible. As much as I hate to admit it,
MS Office is the most widely used and one of the easiest office suites
available. I feel that giving her a choice
between MS Office and four or five other office suites native to Linux
was a good compromise between my political principles and her needs as
an end user. I'll put all the options on
the table and "let the market decide".
multimedia, she should be set. She can
play the ogg and mp3 files she downloads either with XMMS, Noatun,
Mplayer, Kaboodle, or Xine. They've all
got their strengths and weaknesses. She
can use the two drives I put in her system to rip, burn and copy CDs
with K3b or Gnome Toaster. She can watch
DVDs with Mplayer as long as she remembers to use the ++dvd flag when
she compiles it. And for image editing,
does anything beat The Gimp?
that she doesn't get bored with the look of the system, I set up cron
jobs that change the desktop theme and widget set for her every day.
lives in a small condominium by herself, so I don't know if she's
planning on running a network or not. I
installed Samba and the DHCP server just in case so she'd be good to go
if she wanted to hook up a few more boxes or even get her own intranet
going. I'm not sure if System 7.5 can talk
to Samba very well, but if she wants to patch the old Macintosh LC into
her LAN she can probably h4xx0r something together in the smb.conf file.
Mandrake after Gentoo was smooth. I set it
up mostly the same as I had with Gentoo except I chose different themes
for all the desktops and moved things around to give each one its own
style and feel. I also and added a few
more games in Mandrake, and I set up Bochs in case she wants to run a
Windows 98 session in a window on one of her virtual desktops.
shipped the finished system (which I christened "The Beast") off to my
grandma via UPS ground last week. I know
she has received it, but I haven't had a chance to talk to her yet to
see how she and The Beast are getting along. My
mom called and told me Grandma hadn't made it past the boot switcher
yet, so when I get some free time I'll have to give her a call and tell
her what's what. My mom also said that
Grandma signed up for Internet access with her cable company already,
which is great because that means I can get her subscribed to a Usenet
LUG where she can post her questions and file bug reports if she
this weekend I'm going to see if I can SSH into her system and set up
some shell scripts she can run. That will
probably make things a little easier for her as well. I'm sure she'll
learn to love The Beast.
I'll keep y'all posted on how it progresses.
Out for now peeps,
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