System Works

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted July 01, 2000
by Joey Latimer

Computers are tools, made up of many parts, designed to work together to help users accomplish goals. Operating systems (OSs) are the glue that holds all of a computer system's functions together and makes them easily accessible. Once an OS is installed properly, it should coordinate the actions of the system components so a simple click of the mouse on menus and buttons will initiate the tasks we wish the computer to carry out.

Operating system software can be broken down into two categories ­ workstation and server. Server OS software is designed to manage networks made up of multiple computers. Workstation OS software is designed to manage the functions of individual computers. It also shares some of the network functions of server operating system software, such as print and file sharing.

We looked at six popular workstation OSs to help you decide if the current OS your company is using is actually the best one, or whether it is time for an upgrade. These products included Apple Mac OS 9, Caldera Open Linux 2.4, Corel Linux OS Deluxe, Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional, Microsoft Windows 98 Second Edition, and Red Hat Linux 6.1. (All of the Linux packages we reviewed were also bundled with server OS products, but for the sake of comparison we stuck to a workstation installation.)

Operating systems are typically specific to "chip architectures," or the certain type of central processing unit (CPU) chip contained in a computer. Mac OS 9, for example, runs only on computers with a Power PC CPU, such as a Macintosh G4. The Microsoft Windows and Linux products we tested all work on Pentium-class machines. Thus, if you are running a Mac with OS 8.6 now, an appropriate upgrade path would be to Mac OS 9. A Pentium-class computer will facilitate any of the other OSs we tested.

THE LATEST OS SCOOP
Since our last Buyer's Guide on operating systems in the October, 1999 issue, many changes have occurred in the marketplace.

For starters, Apple has released OS 9. This update adds many new features to the Mac, including voice print passwords (where users speak their passwords instead of typing them, and the computer uses voice recognition to verify access), automatic system updates through the Internet, and better encryption.

Windows 98 Second Edition, which sounded like it would be phased out quickly, is still being sold. That is because it is a smooth, bug fixing update for computers with earlier versions of Windows 3.1, 95, and 98.

Windows 2000, now released in final form, is more likely to have trouble picking up old hardware devices and is better suited for installation on new machines, or as a replacement for Windows NT.

Linux products, Caldera and Red Hat (and now Corel), have improved their offerings by adding more bundled software and by simplifying installation procedures. In addition, they have stepped up their support to help people with the installation and/or conversion to Linux from other OSs.

The Linux OS, unlike those from Apple and Microsoft, is an "open source code" system. This means that one company doesn't own rights to the code, but instead it is maintained and upgraded by people throughout the world. Caldera Systems, Corel, and Red Hat have simply taken the OS, bundled it with software solutions, documentation, and support, thus making it easier for most of us to install and use Linux.

HOW WE TESTED
To test the Pentium-class OSs, we used two systems. Since all the ones we tested (with the exception of Windows 98 Second Edition) support dual CPUs, we first tried to install them into a Compaq Proliant ML370 with two 733MHz Pentium III CPUs, 256MB of RAM, two 9GB Ultra-wide SCSI hard drives, and an external modem.

We also installed each product into a 266MHz Pentium II Solis laptop with 64MB of RAM, a 4GB hard drive, and an internal modem. Both systems had a network card and HP laser printer attached.

We installed Mac OS 9 into both a 266MHz Mac G3 (128K of RAM and two 4GB SCSI hard drives) and a 450MHz G4 (256MB of RAM and a 13.5GB hard drive.) Each had a network connection, external modem, and Epson Stylus 740 color printer.

We followed each company's documentation as closely as possible to perform a typical workstation installation. We made notes of any hitches or glitches and then installed any bundled software and peripherals. We installed Microsoft Office in the computers using Mac OS and Windows, and we put Sun Star Office in the Linux workstations to try out the functionality of each system.

Once up and running, we attempted to get the "feel" of each OS and how easy (or hard) it was to accomplish typical tasks like connecting to the network, getting and sending e-mail, Web browsing, printing letters and spreadsheets, etc. We looked for ways to change the various OS configurations to optimize our systems. If we were performing an upgrade to a newer program version, we made note of any programs that didn't work after the upgrade.

WHAT WE THINK
Macintosh users and those interested in switching to Mac will like OS 9's features and enhancements. We noticed few problems when running it on a two-year-old G3 and a new G4 unit. The OS 9 product is an excellent upgrade for those currently using OS 8.6, but could require replacing applications if an older version of the Mac OS is in place.

If upgrading a Windows NT workstation or buying a new computer with a Windows OS, we recommend getting it with Windows 2000 Professional installed. If upgrading a computer from an earlier version of Windows, such as 3.1, 95, or 98, you might have better luck upgrading to Windows 98 Second Edition, because Windows 2000 requires new peripheral drivers.

Linux is a quickly emerging option and all three of the versions we reviewed were decent packages loaded with programs and information. In addition, Linux OSs are usually less expensive. Caldera Open Linux 2.4 was the easiest for us to install and set up. Corel Linux OS Deluxe was the only one that would install in the same partition with Windows. Red Hat Linux 6.1 gave us trouble during installation, but once we were up and running, we were pleased with it.

Apple Mac OS 9
Rating 90

When we upgraded our Mac in the lab from Mac OS 8.0 to Mac OS 8.6, we had to upgrade some of our programs and drivers to get everything working right again. So, to test Mac OS 9, we decided to install it both on a fresh, 450MHz Mac G4, and upgrade a 266MHz Mac G3 running OS 8.6.

OS 9 is an upgrade that fixes bugs and adds a pile of new features and enhancements to the Mac. The changes seem to be guided in the direction of traditional Mac users, who are publishers, educators, and home users.

or publishing, Apple has added ColorSync 3.0, which helps maintain color balance from input to output, and FontSync, for ensuring predictable font display. In addition, OS 9 offers new network administration and login panels, and the ability to share files over the Internet. Apple also added built-in voice print passwords, encryption, and the ability to automatically update software and drivers from the Web.

Installing OS 9 on the 450MHz Mac G4 took us about 20 minutes, and it took us another 30 to install Microsoft Office, and the printer and modem drivers. The process of upgrading the G3 required a little over 30 minutes. We checked all our previously installed programs on the G3 test computer and were happy that all still functioned under OS 9. The G3 had a problem printing until we reinstalled the Epson printer drivers and reselected the printer from the Chooser.

We were able to get the G4 running on our network, which has TCP/IP Internet access, in about 10 minutes. We then tried out Sherlock II, Apple's advanced search program.

e were amazed at how fast we could find almost anything we looked for by typing in a few keywords. We also set up a password protected folder on our Mac that we could access from our other Mac through the Internet. No matter which application we were using, we were pleased at the quick, elegant operation of Mac OS 9, which is arguably easier to use than either the Linux or Windows user interfaces.

If you have a Power Mac made within the past year, or two, then Mac OS 9 is a good next step. If the Mac is running OS 8.0, or older, you may also have to upgrade some of your applications. In any event, Mac OS 9 was stable and performed well for us.

Caldera Open Linux 2.4
Rating 92

Caldera Open Linux 2.4 was hands down the easiest version of Linux for us to install. Its installation program, Lizard, recognized the hardware on both computers we tested it on (with the exception of the sound card on our laptop.) On our Compaq test computer, the Open Linux 2.4 installation took about 30 minutes for everything, including testing for the correct video display settings and installing additional bundled software. Using our laptop and Caldera's Windows installation disk, we were able to install a bundled boot manager, a partitioning program, and then Open Linux 2.4 on the same hard drive as Windows 98.

According to Darrell Bingham, a Technical Support Manager with Enhanced Software Technologies, "Caldera was the first to implement a graphical Linux installer in their OS. The updated Lizard installer makes the process easy enough for novices," he says.

When the installation was complete, we were greeted by the attractive KDE ("K Desktop Environment," a free, attractive, and popular GUI used in virtually all versions of Linux) graphical user interface, which in many ways looks and works like a Windows or Mac OS. Open Linux comes "Internet-ready," with piles of useful programs, plug-ins, and players preinstalled. These include, among others, Netscape Communicator 4.72, Adobe Acrobat Reader 4.0, Macromedia Flash Player 4.0, Real Networks RealPlayer 5.0, and more. Bundled business software includes Star Office (It's similar to Microsoft Office, only it has been around much longer and runs on most Unix and Linux platforms), MoneyDance (money management software), and Compupic (photo editing software) to name a few.

"I'd recommend Caldera," says Darrell Bingham, "because they provide a complete package for business. Purchasing a Caldera OpenLinux distribution provides the peace of mind that you will be installing a tested configuration that will work together."

We couldn't agree more. For $39 you get the OS, plus a few dozen decent programs. But they aren't simply thrown together. We got the feeling at every step of the way that Open Linux 2.4 had been fine tuned to make it easy for the average Windows owner to switch to Linux and feel comfortable. Some devices, such as sound cards, can be a bit tricky to configure, but then again, Windows sometimes has trouble correctly detecting sound cards, too.

Corel Linux OS Deluxe
Rating 85

The new kid on the Linux block, Corel Linux OS Deluxe, is a sharp-looking product that includes the Linux OS, plus Corel Word Perfect 8 for Linux and a host of useful software tools. By the time you read this, according to a recent Corel announcement, the company is expecting to integrate its GraphOn Bridges program into the bundle, making Corel Linux OS the first Linux release to run Windows applications seamlessly from the Linux desktop.

We had trouble installing Corel Linux OS on our Compaq server because (as was the case with Red Hat and Windows 2000 Professional) the installation program wouldn't recognize the ultra-wide SCSI hard drives. Switching over to the Solis laptop, we were able to install Linux on a separate partition from Windows, boot to it, and bring up the attractive KDE graphical user interface within approximately 20 minutes. In addition, we were able to install a version of Linux in the same partition as Windows so that it could be run from a DOS prompt. This was the only version of Linux we tested that would let us do this. We would recommend this route if you want to try using Linux without repartitioning the hard drive on a Windows machine.

When we ran Word Perfect 8 for Linux we were impressed by the resemblance to the Windows version and after a few minutes the fact that we were on a Linux machine was transparent to us. We loaded Word Perfect 8 for Windows 98 into the same computer and noticed a clear difference in speed: The Linux version was faster. The Windows version took longer to load and accessed the hard drive more frequently.

Like Caldera Open Linux, Corel Linux OS correctly identified our video hardware, so the KDE graphical user interface looked great on the screen.

A user-friendly package, Corel Linux OS Deluxe didn't recognize all our hardware, but otherwise made for a pleasant Linux experience. Word Perfect 8 is probably the most popular program running in Linux and fits well into the package. Corel Linux OS is the only choice as of this writing that will run in DOS mode out of Windows.

Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional
Rating 84

On the front of the Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional box it says, "The Reliable Operating System for Business." We weren't so sure ­ at first. When we followed the installation instructions and tried to install it in our Compaq test computer, it wouldn't recognize our ultra-wide SCSI hard drives. After trying everything we could think of, we called Compaq, which sent us a patch disk with the device drivers Windows 2000 needed to recognize the drives.

It took us about 30 minutes to perform a fresh installation of Windows 2000 Professional and another 15 to configure our computer to work with the network, modem, and printers. We had to look around for functions that had been moved, such as the network settings, but once we found where everything was, we could see Microsoft's logic behind the restructuring. Windows 2000 Professional seemed simpler to us and less cluttered than previous versions of Windows. We got the impression that Microsoft spent some time rethinking each aspect of the system.

After using Windows 2000 Professional for a week we were awed by its stability. We never saw any "illegal operations" and didn't experience freeze ups that required "End Task." We liked the way the networking was smarter and could find other computers on the network more easily. When our network cable was unplugged, there was a break in the network cable on the screen and it simply said, "Cable is disconnected." Another feature that caught our eye was the way the various windows gently faded in and out, instead of jumping on the screen as in older versions of Windows.

Microsoft is pushing Windows 2000 for installation on new computers and for upgrading those currently running Windows NT 4.0. They recommend using Windows 98 Second Edition to upgrade older Windows machines. We think this is a good idea. When we tried to upgrade our Solis laptop from Windows 98 to Windows 2000, it took almost an hour to install, and once the install was complete we couldn't access our CD-ROM drive. Windows 98 Second Edition installed in 40 minutes and everything worked great.

Microsoft Windows 98 Second Edition
Rating 82

Like a cat with 98 lives, Windows 98 Second Edition has managed to keep humming along. Released in 1999 as an upgrade to Windows 98 that both added new features and fixed bugs, Second Edition is still popular, despite Microsoft's hope that people would quickly make the move to the new Windows 2000 Professional.

We installed Windows 98 Second Edition on our Solis test computer as an upgrade to Windows 98. The entire process took about 40 minutes and everything went smoothly. Right away we noticed that our Internet Explorer browser was updated to version 5. In addition, we noticed changes in the Internet setup [found in the Control Panels folder] that make it easier to designate how a connection is made to the Internet. Another important feature of Second Edition is its utility for converting old FAT16 file systems to the new and more efficient FAT32. By running this utility we were able to gain over 25 percent of our used hard disk space back, thus freeing 500MB without using DriveSpace or other compression utilities.

As Bill Plummer, president of Basses International, a division of Zivo Records in Palm Desert, Calif., puts it, "We've stuck with Windows 98 Second Edition for now because all our software works with it." Plummer, who uses Corel WordPerfect, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe Photo Deluxe for making media kits, CD inserts and labeling, photo retouches, and presentations, is hesitant to face all of the necessary software upgrades he will need to make if he takes the leap to a new operating system.

"We are also impressed with the smooth way that Windows 98 lets us switch from program to program on the fly ­ without crashing," says Plummer, who also says he will "wait until the bugs are out of Windows 2000" before making the change.

We found one new problem with Windows 98 Second Edition that wasn't there before. When we went to shut down Windows, it kept sticking and wouldn't shut off all the way. The only way we could turn off the power on the laptop was to remove the power supply source and pop the battery out. We were able to find an update patch to download and correct this problem on the Microsoft Web site.

If you have computers running an earlier version of Windows, then Windows 98 Second Edition might be the upgrade path for you. At least Microsoft has taken the time to work out most of the bugs, a task that will still take time with Windows 2000 Professional.

Red Hat Linux 6.1
Rating80

Like the other versions of Linux we reviewed, Red Hat Linux 6.1 was designed to be easy to install and came loaded with extra programs and goodies. Unfortunately, we ran into problems when installing it into both of our test computers. First we tried installing it in our Compaq and it wouldn't recognize the hard drives. Installing into our laptop went smoothly until we hit the video configuration. It correctly found our video card, but no matter what we did, it couldn't make out our 14-inch active matrix video display. We tried virtually every display choice possible, but we kept ending up with Red Hat's graphical user interface displaying lettering that was jagged on the edges. We also attempted to find a way to correct this using Linux. Finally, we gave up and completed our review with this annoyance.

Gary Nichols, network operations manager at NeoPlanet Inc. in Tempe, Ariz., says, "I've been using RedHat Linux for years, since their first distributions were available. My latest install was of 6.1, and it was a smooth and easy process thanks to the optimized installation program. In my personal opinion, it's a much easier install than Windows NT."

When asked why he would recommend Linux to others, Nichols responds, "Better ROI, it requires less staffing to manage, there is a longer uptime, and you have the entire Linux community as a support system."

Red Hat Linux 6.1 includes the GNOME desktop for managing the system. Windows or Mac users will feel at home quickly with this user interface, since it is based on similar point and click desktop scenarios. Bundled programs include business suite Star Office, plus a pile of demos and programs developed by small developers. We appreciated Red Hat's Help Browser, which gave us instant access to installation guides, user's guides, and documentation. Other than the problem we had with the video display, Red Hat Linux 6.1 worked well with our network, modem, and printer, plus it worked with our Sound Blaster compatible sound system.

Although the installation of Linux 6.1 was rougher for us than Caldera and Corel's offerings (this will vary from computer to computer), we liked working with the GNOME desktop and found the layout of Red Hat Linux easy to follow.

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