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Essential Linux
Heath S., Digital Press, Newton, MA, 1997. Type: Book (9781555581770)
Date Reviewed: Feb 1 1998
Comparative Review

Each of these books is intended to guide its readers through the installation of Linux on their PCs, using a CD-ROM that comes with it. Each also contains chapters on the history of Linux, installation procedures, boot procedures, system administration, and the use of X Windows. So how do you decide which is likely to best meet your needs?

To answer this question, I attempted installations in accordance with the instructions in each book. The machine I used was a Pentium 120 with 24Mb of RAM, a 1Gb IDE disk, and an SMC Ultra network card. This machine is used for Windows 95 applications in an office environment, so it was essential that Linux be installed without compromising any Windows 95 functionality.

While Linux can be installed directly onto a DOS directory on such a machine, it will perform better if it is installed on a partition of its own, with an optional further partition for swap space. Additional partitions can be created by splitting an existing DOS partition using the FIPS utility found on most Linux distribution media.

Since a machine of this type has no CD drive, installation must be done via an initial boot from diskette, with a subsequent NFS mount of a CD-ROM on a remote machine. This is a tough test for the procedures suggested in each book.


Heath has written a number of books about various operating systems (including MS-DOS, Apple, and Unix). This book comes with a single CD-ROM that contains a 2.0.0 Linux kernel based on the Slackware 3.1.0 release. There are no screen photographs in the book, but each process and command discussed is accompanied by listings (in a distinctive font) illustrating what a user can expect to see.

The author discusses the use of FIPS and notes that NFS installation is possible, but suggests that acquiring a CD-ROM drive may be a more attractive proposition.

My NFS installation proceeded without too much trauma; it was necessary only to make an appropriate (network/IDE) boot diskette and a root diskette, then proceed through the outline installation process as shown in the book. I did have to manually format a previously used Linux partition and perform a manual configuration of XFree86.

The later chapters cover Linux commands, shell scripts (for both bash and tcsh), and editors (ed/ex and vi) in some detail. There are short chapters on system administration, network configuration, and XFree86. Chapters on Internet utilities are conspicuous by their absence.

The final chapter, “If It Doesn’t Work…,” contains suggestions for dealing with common problems. It is followed by an appendix, which summarizes the contents of the CD-ROM, and an index.

Probst and Flaxa

The authors are the founders of the Linux Support Team (LST) and are well known for their work in Linux development. This book comes with a CD-ROM whose LST 2.2 release is derived from the LST distribution, developed in Germany. This release is said to be compatible with the Caldera and Red Hat distributions. It includes the 2.0.0 kernel, together with LISA, an installation utility.

There are screen snapshots, listings, and diagrams throughout the book, and I found all of them useful in gaining an understanding of the installation process. Margin subheadings make it easier to find information in the text.

The authors make no mention of FIPS, but that utility does appear on the CD-ROM. They observe that NFS installation is possible, but warn that it requires some experience with networks. The installation process uses a single install.img diskette. A modules.img diskette may also be required for some types of hardware. In my case, only the first diskette was required, but it failed to autodetect my network card. Once I entered the details, installation proceeded as indicated in the book, until I tried to configure XFree86. That exercise is now in my “try again later” basket.

Later chapters provide brief details of X-based publishing, Internet, and other tools. There are also some chapters on systems administration and network configuration. While these are necessarily concise, their content is well chosen, and the level of coverage is sufficient to enable a newcomer to undertake the tasks presented without too much difficulty.

The book ends with a short chapter on further documentation (both online and printed), an appendix that lists the packages included on the installation CD-ROM, and an index. A second CD-ROM that comes with the book contains a variety of kernel patches (up to 2.1.0) and application updates.


Rankin’s book comes with a single CD-ROM containing Linux Pro 4.1a (with a dated 1.2.13 kernel) from Workgroup Solutions. Linux Pro 4.1a is described as “an enhanced version of Red Hat Linux.” The CD also contains a 1.3.57 kernel, which is also somewhat dated; my brief check (in December 1997) showed that 2.1.68 is now available.

Rankin mentions FIPS, but does not recommend its use. He does not mention NFS. Fortunately, there are a number of boot images on the CD-ROM, and it was necessary only to copy an appropriate one (SMC) to diskettes, and to copy two “ramdisk” images to other diskettes, then start the installation process. All of the components of my system were successfully detected, and installation proceeded in accordance with the brief screen listings in the book.

Table 1: Coverage of Topics
HeathProbst and FlaxaRankinStrobel, Maurer, and Middendorf
Introduction to Linux/UnixGoodGoodPoorGood
Hardware requirementsAcceptablePoorPoorGood
Installation instructionsAcceptableGoodAcceptableGood
X Windows configurationAcceptablePoorPoorGood
Basic command usageGoodPoorAcceptableAcceptable
Editors and related topicsGoodPoorAcceptablePoor
Shell programmingGoodPoorAcceptablePoor
X Windows usagePoorGoodAcceptableGood
System administrationGoodGoodPoorGood
Network configurationGoodGoodAcceptableAcceptable
Internet utilitiesPoorAcceptableAcceptablePoor
Illustrations and listingsAcceptableGoodAcceptableGood
Kernel version provided2.
Installation on test systemGoodAcceptableGoodPoor

Rankin is the “Dr. Bob” known to many for his Internet articles. The headings he uses in this book (for example, “If you need help, ask the ‘man’”) can be annoying, but the content is sound. The later chapters include brief introductions to shell programming and utility usage (for example, he includes a page and a half on awk). There are also short sections on Internet connections, mail usage, and similar topics.

The final chapter contains some lists of Linux FTP and Web sites, newsgroups, and so on. Appendices summarize the contents of the CD-ROM and provide some coverage of hardware compatibility issues. The book ends with a short glossary and an index.

Strobel, Maurer, and Middendorf

Both an installation CD-ROM (with a 2.0.25 kernel) and a source/demonstration CD-ROM from Unifix are included in this book. The installation may be done in such a fashion that, if a user requests a file not currently resident on disk, it is read from the CD-ROM. A further option allows files read in this manner to be cached on disk, thereby speeding up subsequent access.

The authors include instructions for splitting an existing DOS partition, and for installation from the CD-ROM or an NFS server. There are many useful screen pictures and listings throughout the book, illustrating each process and command as it is described. Margin subheadings (as with Probst and Flaxa) are also included.

Unfortunately, my attempts at NFS installation using a single boot diskette failed. No matter what boot-time options I specified, the installation process insisted that I had a WD network card, and that it was using IRQ 11 (instead of IRQ 10). My requests for assistance in this regard (to Linux newsgroups, Unifix, and the authors) elicited no responses.

After the chapters that detail the initial installation and configuration procedures, there is an entire chapter on the Linux boot system. The use of boot options to load various device drivers is described. Among the device drivers considered is a PC speaker driver. While the use of this driver requires recompiling the kernel, the code is provided on the CD-ROM, and recompilation instructions are included in the book.

The later chapters describe a number of graphical user interface (GUI) administration and configuration tools. X11 and fvwm configuration files are covered in some detail. There is also a “Reference” chapter that provides brief usage examples for a number of common commands.


Each of the books is well written, easy to understand, and sufficiently illustrated. I was unable to find any significant errors. All of them are well bound and reasonably priced. A common shortcoming is an insufficient number of references. Key differences are summarized in the table.

The decision is yours. Based on my experience, Rankin’s book will provide an almost painless installation. Heath’s book will give you a more current kernel, but may require a little work to manually format a Linux partition and configure XFree86.

If you want more chapters on GUI and Internet tools, you could use Probst and Flaxa, but achieving a satisfactory configuration of XFree86 may try your patience. If the CD-ROM and caching arrangement in Strobel, Maurer, and Middendorf really appeal to you, or you want a more current pre-built kernel, take a look at it--but do not expect too much in the way of support.

None of these books will make you an instant Unix/Linux guru, although Heath’s book will set you on your way. When you are done with installation, you may need something like Sobell [1] to enable you to best exploit the capabilities of your system.

Reviewer:  G. K. Jenkins Review #: CR121436 (9802-0038)
1) Sobell, M. A practical guide to Linux. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1997.
Comparative Review
This review compares the following items:
  • Essential Linux:
  • Linux universe (3rd ed.):
  • The no B.S. guide to Linux:
  • Power Linux (Int’l. ed.):
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