Switching from Windows to Linux

For many people the environment on their computer is very personal. They’ve become used to each and every quirk and oddity, but more importantly the layout and colors are what helps them feel comfortable and remember where things are. I know from experience that people get a bit anxious when they move from one operating system to another or even one version of an operating system to a newer release.

In Windows more than with other operating systems recently, new versions have been increasingly foreign. New color schemes and layouts for the menu, new approaches to dealing with the user interface of programs have been one of many things that can confuse and disorient users that have spent several years with a system.

These are just a few of the reasons that people consider migrating to other operating systems. The main motivations though are more complex. Licensing headaches, the need to type in registration keys and if it’s not accepted your only recourse is to go buy another license key are a large part of the equation. The idea that change is for the sake of change rather than improvement along with the seeming fragility of Windows are other reasons that many have tired of Windows and want something different.

For so many people they are only aware of one “other” operating system. That is the Mac. Apple has capitalized well on the dissatisfaction with the Windows platform and has made some big inroads in not just market share, but mind share. Linux is also a viable alternative though that many people are not aware of. I have used Linux on the desktop for around 6 years now and it has progressed by leaps and bounds within that time. I haven’t seen change simply for the sake of change, but I’ve seen improvement in usability, improvement in user friendliness, improvement in compatibility with Windows based applications.

Currently I use Ubuntu Linux and think that is probably the best distribution of Linux for a new user to Linux as their desktop operating system. Many people will be surprised to find that their current computer that is perhaps too old to handle Windows Vista can probably comfortably run the latest version of Ubuntu Linux. This doesn’t mean that Linux isn’t as good as Vista, this means that Vista was built to require more recent hardware. Yes, Microsoft builds each release against some of the most recent hardware out and essentially writes off perfectly good hardware as being “too old”.

I have the latest release of Ubuntu running on an old 700Mhz Pentium III. Admittedly it’s not blazing fast and lacks some of the bells and whistles that the 64-bit desktop processors install of Ubuntu has, but it’s still usable. I can still use email and word processing, spreadsheets and a web browser. That covers probably 95% or more of my day to day activities. Why should you have to go out and buy a brand new laptop just to do word processing? You shouldn’t. But, for some that have the misfortune of getting a virus infection or spyware that renders their Windows XP install useless, AND don’t have a reinstall CD as has become common…. this is essentially the “windows solution”. You can’t run Vista on THAT, so you need a new laptop. Well, for the time spent installing you can have Ubuntu Linux installed on that laptop and give it new life. It’s free to download and install on as many machines as you have or want.

Licensing is one of those things that initially pushed me towards linux. I have around 4-8 working computers and do not want to have to buy a Windows license for each and every one. Nor do I care to manage and keep track of licenses to know which is which. I just want to make them useful. Linux gives me that with no licensing headaches. If a hard drive fails and I have to reinstall from scratch I don’t have to scratch through and find my license keys, I just find the latest CD of Ubuntu linux and install.

The really nice thing is that the base install of the operating system brings desktop application software like Openoffice with it. Yes, just install the operating system and all your drivers and most of your application software is THERE. No searching through stacks of old CDs looking for this or that driver and this or that program. You install and you have your drivers, web browser, mail application, office suite, image tools, audio players, etc. etc. I’ve found the system build time to be MUCH quicker with a linux install than Windows.

So, what about applications?

Some applications you find in Linux are going to be familiar as they’re available for Windows as well. The main centerpieces though are Firefox and OpenOffice. Firefox as a web browser has been my favorite for some time. It’s quicker than Internet Explorer in my experience and renders pages closer to the way they were intended by web page designers. It’s also extensible through plugins that let you do a variety of things like having news scrolling in the status bar at the bottom of the browser window, or updating the weather forecast, or checking to see if you have email messages or calendar events and posting notices in the status bar…. OpenOffice.org is a powerful office suite that is compatible with Microsoft Office file formats. It includes a Word processor, Spreadsheet, presentation program and an equation editor. I’ve used OpenOffice now for several years and have yet to need a feature that it doesn’t have.

For mail I use a program called Evolution which resembles Outlook in that it handles mail, calendar items, contacts and tasks. It seems lighter in use of system resources than Outlook and supports many popular protocols to connect to various types of mailservers or calendar servers.

Many Windows applications can be run within a Linux operating system. There are two main ways to do this. The first way to run Windows applications in Linux is through virtualization where you run a Windows “virtual machine” within your Linux operating system. This requires a Windows license key, but can give almost all the benefits of a true Windows environment. There is also a compatibility layer for Windows applications called Wine which is capable of running many Windows applications seamlessly under Linux. With Wine, some programs work better than others. There is a supported version of Wine from Codeweavers, where they list which versions of Windows applications they support running under linux and can assist in getting things working. Their version of Wine is priced reasonably and well worth it if you want a nice user friendly experience in getting your Windows application running on Linux.

There are dozens of hundreds of other applications in the Linux world. In Ubuntu Linux installing them is as simple as opening up the package manager and searching for the type of program that you need and then you select and install it. All without having to browse the internet hunting for a download, without downloading and doubleclicking the executable file to run it and step through an install wizard. Uninstalling software is just as easy, revisit the software manager and select a piece of software to remove and then the software will be uninstalled.

Here are some things you can mark off your to-do list after you’ve moved to linux from windows:

update lot’s of applications individually (most linux distributions have unified “package managers” to update all the system software at once.

find windows product key (I have never seen a linux that required a product key and appreciate not having to squint at and interpret a 25 character (or longer) product key to install or reinstall something that I paid (lots of) good money for anyway.

reinstall to fix problems – I can’t recall a single linux install that things got to a point where I decided “I guess it’s time to reinstall it to fix it.” I can’t remember HOW MANY times I’ve had to do that with windows installations.

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