If you are not yet familiar with Linux or with the term "live CD," perhaps I should first offer some background information.
There are three popular operating systems for desktop computers: Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. Windows is by far the most popular of the three although the fans of both Macintosh and Linux operating systems often wonder why. The "ancestry" of both Linux and the current Macintosh operating system lead back to UNIX roots. The result is that both Linux and Macintosh are industrial-grade operating systems that simply work well.
Linux is an operating system that is a replacement for Windows. Many Linux implementations will run on any computer that will run Windows. If you are reading this article on a Windows computer right now, you can be assured that your system could run Linux, should you desire to try it. In addition, there are Linux versions made for Macintosh and other hardware as well.
Linux is faster, more powerful, and much more reliable than any operating system ever shipped by Microsoft. Linux systems almost never crash or lock up. I have two Linux systems in operation at home, and they have never locked up or crashed. I wish I could say the same about my Windows systems.
Linux desktop systems are almost never bothered by viruses or other "nasties." Theoretically, a virus written especially for Linux systems could appear, but that has not yet been an issue. In fact, you cannot obtain an anti-virus program for Linux simply because there aren't any available. There is no need for one, so nobody has written one.
Best of all, Linux is available free of charge, as are many of the programs written for Linux: word processors, spreadsheets, e-mail programs, web browsers, and even genealogy programs.
The downside of Linux is that it cannot run Windows programs.
NOTE: There are some exceptions where special emulators or "software adapters" are used. Some of these emulators will run some Windows programs on Linux. Even then, the programs run slower than normal or may not be able to use all features. For the remainder of this article, I will ignore those emulators.
Another historical problem with Linux is that it used to be harder to install and use than Windows. That issue has mostly gone away in the past few years as Linux user interfaces and installation routines have matured. Installation of today's leading Linux operating systems is actually simpler than doing the same thing with Windows. Day-to-day use of modern Linux versions is about as easy as Windows although not yet as user-friendly as Macintosh systems.
Still another factor is that there are multiple versions of Linux, produced by different vendors. These multiple choices result in a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that you can try different versions until you find the one you like best. You are not locked into one user interface as defined by one billion-dollar corporation's "one size fits all" ideas. However, that same variety of user interfaces results in the bad news that there are many different versions with different options. This can be very confusing to the Linux newcomer.
While powerful and free, Linux has never become terribly popular on desktop computers. Many computer hobbyists and software professionals are fans of Linux, but most other people still use Windows.
Linux systems have been ported to all sorts of hardware, including desktop PCs, Macintosh, Amiga, handheld iPAQ computers, and all sorts of industrial computers. The result is a very flexible package that is designed to be installed in many different configurations. One configuration that has become popular in the past year or so is that of "Live CD" disks.
In short, a Linux Live CD is a complete installation of Linux that fits onto and runs from one CD-ROM disk. Live CDs for desktop computers are available from perhaps 100 or so different vendors. Use of a Live CD allows you to try out Linux on your present Windows computer without any impact on your present Windows installation.
To use a Live CD, you simply insert the disk into your PC's CD-ROM drive and then reboot the system. Upon starting, your computer loads the operating system from the CD-ROM disk instead of from the hard disk as it normally does.
NOTE: Most PCs built in the past five or six years support this "boot from CD" feature. If you have a very old PC, you might not be able to use a Live CD.
You can use Linux on your present system as long as you like. The only thing you will notice is that it runs a bit slower than normal Linux installations since the Live CD operating system is running from a CD-ROM drive. All CD-ROM drives run slower than normal hard drives. Even so, this is a minor imposition.
Once you want to switch back to your earlier Windows installation, you simply boot down, remove the Linux Live CD from the CD-ROM drive, and then boot the computer again. Your computer will boot up in Windows, as usual. There will be no indication that you ever used Linux on the computer. All your data and programs will remain exactly where they have always been. A Live CD does not touch the files on your hard drive.
Linux Live CDs are useful for many purposes. Obviously, they make a great method of taking Linux for a "test drive." I have also used Linux Live CDs several times to fix computers that had corrupted files that prevented Windows from booting. When a computer will not boot Windows, I insert a Linux Live CD, boot up in Linux, copy all the precious data files to a CD or across a network to a backup drive, then boot down and re-install Windows. I have saved several Windows servers and desktop systems that way. Any PC support technician keeps a Linux Live CD in his toolbox at all times.
Most Live CDs will include free web browsers, email programs, word processors, games, and even more. Until this week, however, I had not heard of a Live CD that included a genealogy program.
Several genealogy programs have appeared for Linux, and all of them are free of charge. The most popular of the lot is called GRAMPS, an abbreviation for Genealogical Research and Analysis Management Programming System. GRAMPS is a very user-friendly genealogy program that is roughly as powerful as the free Windows genealogy programs of today. It also does a nice job of automatically generating web pages of your genealogy information. GRAMPS also can operate on Macintosh OS X since that operating system is based on UNIX.
I have written about GRAMPS before. You can read my latest review of GRAMPS at http://eogn.typepad.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2005/03/gramps_for_linu.html and then a short follow-up article at http://eogn.typepad.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2005/05/gramps_200_for_.html. You can also read more about GRAMPS at http://gramps-project.org
Other genealogy programs for Linux include GeneWeb and LifeLines.
Linux Genealogy Live CD
The GRAMPS Project development team has just released a Live CD. This free CD-ROM includes a rather complete version of Ubuntu Linux. (See my earlier review of Ubuntu Linux at http://eogn.typepad.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2005/05/ubuntu_linux_on.html.) The Linux Genealogy Live CD includes the three genealogy programs that I mentioned earlier. All three are installed and ready to use as soon as the system is booted up.
Everything in the Linux Genealogy Live CD works "out of the box" and can be run without changing the computer in any way. Simply insert the Live CD into your Windows computer's CD-ROM drive, reboot the system, and you will then be operating Linux. The Linux Genealogy Live CD includes the three genealogy programs plus web browsers, e-mail programs, the OpenOffice.org office suite with word processor, spreadsheet, a presentation program, and more.
I downloaded the Linux Genealogy Live CD using Bit Torrent (see my description of Bit Torrent elsewhere this week.) You can use a Windows, Macintosh, or Linux system to download the file and burn it to CD. The download was a 635-megabyte .ISO file. That is a large download. It won't be much of an issue with a broadband connection, but dial-up users will probably prefer to purchase a CD-ROM via mail for about $10.00 (both U.S. dollars and Australian dollars). Mail order distributors in both the U.S. and Australia are listed on the GRAMPS web site.
An .ISO file is a "disk image." Most programs that will write to CD-ROM drives will convert a single .ISO file into a bootable CD-ROM disk.
After creating the new bootable CD disk, I opened the CD-ROM drive on my Windows desktop computer, inserted the newly-created Linux Genealogy Live CD, closed the drive, and then rebooted the computer. About two minutes later my PC was up and running Ubuntu Linux.
I am an experienced Linux user, so I was able to dive in immediately and start using all the programs on this disk. A Linux newcomer will want to spend some time experimenting with the menus and reading all the help files in order to become acclimated. You will find that the included Gnome interface is loosely similar to Windows in operation. The menus look a bit different, and the programs all have different names. However, you still use the mouse to click on files and menu entries, the same as in Windows or Macintosh. Any experienced Windows or Mac user will learn to use the Linux Genealogy Live CD within a few minutes.
The desktop on the Linux Genealogy Live CD has five icons: GRAMPS Genealogy System, GeneWeb, and LifeLines (all three are genealogy programs), as well as an icon to open the CD-ROM disk and explore files and a final icon that is labeled "Start Here." That last icon opens a page of introductory information.
While the system protects the Windows hard drive, the genealogy programs can write their files to a floppy disk, to a USB "jump drive," or across the network to another computer. I experimented with the genealogy programs just enough to make sure I could open them and use each one.
In addition to the three genealogy programs, here is a partial list of other programs included with the Linux Genealogy Live CD:
- OpenOffice.org, an office suite similar to Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint)
- Evolution, an e-mail program, personal calendar, contacts list, and to-do list that is similar to Microsoft Outlook
- GIMP, an image editing program that is similar to Photoshop Elements
- Firefox web browser (almost identical to Firefox for Windows)
- GAIM and Xchat instant messaging programs that work with AOL chat, Yahoo Chat, MSN chat, IRC, and others
- More than a dozen games
- and many more programs...
I then shut down the Linux operating system, removed Linux Genealogy Live CD from the CD-ROM drive, and again booted the PC. Microsoft Windows loaded and started as usual. I was soon in the Windows environment, the same as before I experimented with the Linux CD. None of the files on the hard drive had been touched.
The Linux Genealogy Live CD is an excellent method of experimenting with Linux and with the genealogy programs available on that operating system. Everything works "out of the box" and can be run without changing the computer in any way, just like any Live CD. It can be used on your existing PC without endangering the copy of Windows that is already installed.
The Linux Genealogy Live CD is available free of charge by download or for ten dollars by mail order. Please note that the download method is only available by means of BitTorrent. For information about how to use BitTorrent to download files, see the "BitTorrent Explained" article in this week's Plus Edition newsletter.
For more information about the Linux Genealogy Live CD, go to http://gramps-project.org.