An edited version of this appeared in Computerscope some time around 1998. This is the text I submitted, and I've resisted the urge to make any changes to it.

Corel Linux 1.0

Linux is probably the biggest thing to hit the computer world in the last decade. It's making big headlines in the technology press and has recently made a lot of people a lot of money in the stock market. However, it's also got something of a reputation as being difficult to install and equally difficult to use as a desktop system.

Not any more.

Corel have collaborated with Debian and KDE to produce what may well be "Linux for the rest of us". It's easy to install, easy to manage, and is packed with such goodies as an MP3 player, a web browser (Netscape), and Corel's WordPerfect 8 for Linux. Corel also tout other attractive features such as a simple installer, file manager and software upgrade utility a la Windows Update. Being a long-time Linux user and a hardened skeptic, I set about testing it out.

My target machine was a Dell OptiPlex GX1 with Windows 95 preinstalled. This is, I'd guess, a pretty typical setup - a desktop machine with something of Microsoft's running the show. Since I didn't intended jettisoning my Windows installation, I wanted a setup that'd allow me to try out Linux, and go back to Windows if I was unhappy.

The GX1 is happy to boot from CD, so I did that; if your machine won't boot from CD, or is set up not to, there's a boot disk that'll do the trick. There's even an app on the disk that runs under Windows to create a boot disk for you. The boot screen comes up with a big Corel Linux splash, complete with spinning CD graphic. Then comes a series of dialogs: your standard license agreement ("I will not sue if your product burns my house down"), a request for a username you can use on Linux, a choice of installs (see below), a choice of install locations, and finally, the "Press here to Install" button. That certainly impressed me; I'm more used to page after page of incomprehensible questions.

Before I installed, I investigated the options a little more. Your installation choices are standard desktop, desktop plus, server, and custom. The server option further gives you a choice of setting up mail, web and/or file and print servers. desktop plus adds some developer tools to your desktop install, and custom gives you the full list of available bits and lets you choose what you want. Aha! I knew it'd be there somewhere!

The install location options weren't as comprehensive or as comprehensible as I'd hoped. The easy choices are to either take over your existing machine, and wave goodbye to Windows, or install Linux in your exisiting Windows partition where it will cohabit with Windows. Your other options are use available free space, or repartition the disks. The latter is familiar territory for those of us who've installed Linux before; the former was greyed out on my install, which I can only conclude means it couldn't find free space to its liking on my 6GB drive. I had hoped it'd locate free space on the Windows disk and make it available.

The install took about 20 minutes (Pentium III 450, 40X CDROM), after which the machine invited me to "click here to reboot". On doing so, I noted that it thoughtfully ejected the CDROM so the machine wouldn't boot off it again! When it rebooted, I was dropped back into Windows, much to my surprise. Fortunately, being an old hand at Linux, I shut the machine down to MS-DOS and ran the batch file in C:\CDL which booted Linux. I suspect this detail may be in the documentation, but we reviewers have to make do with Release Notes for that sort of thing!

On startup, the machine went through a one-off system setup, and then brought up a graphic login screen. Upon entering my username, I was presented with the Corel Desktop, and a dialog making me set my password. Good move! Unfortunately, the administrator account on the system was left unpassworded. This is a serious flaw if your machine is networked.

The initial desktop has a familar look to it: there's a trashcan, icons for netscape and word perfect, a "My Home" icon to run the file manager, and a printer icon. At the bottom of the screen there's a taskbar with a few tools on it, such as command shell, editor, help, a clock, and a button with a globe on it which is Corel Linux's "Start" button.

My first task was to hook up to the office network, so I located the Control Panel (it's on the "Start" menu), selected the network panel, fed in the same settings as I'd have given Windows, then pressed "Apply". Presto - Network connection! No reboots, no driver loads, no "please insert the Corel Linux CD". Once on the network, I brought up the Corel File Manager, and discovered I could browse all the workgroups in the office, and log in to each one individually - i.e. I could log in as an Admin to one group, as myself to another, as another user to a third, etc. Very useful for admins, that. In addition to the Windows network, I was also able to browse the NFS (Network File Sharing) network.

The next thing I tried was the "update" feature, since I'd heard there were some new packages available since the CD was released. I fired up the Update application - noting in passing that the Start Menu maintains a list of recently-run applications - and it connected to Corel's site and gave me a list of available packages. I selected a few, pressed the update button, and it installed them without complaint.

Finally, I went for the most-complained about Linux task - setting up a printer. Double-clicking on the printer icon on the desktop brought up the appropriate page of the Control Center, which I filled in with the details. Then I tried printing a page from Netscape, to no avail. A quick check of the settings revealed it required one extra parameter, after which printing worked like a dream.

Overall, I found the system occasionally sluggish to use, but I'd put this down largely to the fact that I'd chosen a Linux-over-Windows install - Linux running in its own disk partition gets much faster disk access and thus performs better. As a side note, installing over Windows added an extra 100MB to the listed disk space requirement of 500MB. However, diskspace requirements are pointed out at the start of the install process, so you'll not get halfway through and then run into trouble.

This isn't a system for underpowered machines, mind you - the choice of KDE as the desktop, while it gives a friendly user interface with the benefits of drag-and-drop, multiple desktops, and so forth, does mean that the machine will require a decent chunk of horsepower to drive the visual side of things. Additionally, Corel are intitally aiming squarely at newer desktop PCs, so if you're running a laptop or anything pre-Pentium, you may run into difficulty. Corel provide a comprehensive hardware compatibility list, and if you're the adventurous and (persistent!) sort there's every chance that you'll get Linux running on pretty much anything from a 486 up.

On the applications side, Corel WordPerfect seems happy enough to load and save an assortment of third-party document formats - Microsoft Word 97 and predecessors, StarOffice, etc. - but you'll have to wait a little longer for the rest of their office package, or download a copy of StarOffice from Sun Microsystems and use that instead. At least you'll be able to get your colleagues' documents off the network, and print them when you're done!

The verdict: It still has a few rough edges, but it looks like Corel may be well on the way to delivering a serious Windows challenger.

Linux Desktops. Mmhmm.