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Linux for Windows Users

Linux for Windows PC Users

Linux vs Windows - my viewpoint
guess it would help to know where I'm coming from, on this, as you can then judge the results from your point of view.

I need three things from a computer: a simple work tool that does its job fast and hassle-free; or a research and development tool that lends itself to hitherto unexplored tasks and new directions; or a playtime device that navigates my boat, downloads and runs useful stuff, and runs complex games. When working I don't need or want it to get in the way of the job at hand; after I've clocked off, there is more time to explore and trial.

As far as I'm concerned Windows is unbeatable for most tasks as it has a suberb GUI, tons of software, and an easy route to doing 99.9% of jobs. Linux is handy as a server app and for some very specific tasks, like visiting dodgy website areas as it is so secure. If I was running a big office I'd be sorely tempted to use it as the general dogsbody worktool because of the low costs, and the fact that most office tasks are covered. As soon as you step outside that area, the benefits are less concrete; its main use for us is to run a private dev LANserver, and anything more is simply out of hours 'research'.

What I certainly don't like about Windows is the way the OS is becoming more and more bloated, complex, slow and unrelated to use as a simple and fast worktool. Vista looks to me like the acme of bloatware and I don't see myself using it anytime soon. I'm hoping (just a little) that by the time Windows becomes utterly useless as a daily worktool that a Linux distro somewhere will have realised what people need and want from an OS. And that's very simply encapsulated in these points:

1. A 100% GUI-driven OS. No console, no shell rubbish - for God's sake get rid of all that. All that went out around 1994 in Windows, Linux is around 15 years out of date.

2. Drivers available, at least from an online database somewhere even if not in the OS, to run any hardware that might get connected (just like Windows has).

3. 3PD software to do any job you can do with Windows software (though that's wishful thinking I guess).

Until Linux gets rid of the console shell commands (except for running a server maybe), it will never, ever be a community-use operating system; just a geeks' development tool.

So now you know my viewpoint: I like efficient tools, and I don't have time to use a jigsaw for cutting 6mm metal plate. It might work in a pinch but you need the right tool for the job.

What's all the fuss about then?

Linux (say: 'linnuxx') is an alternative PC operating system from the open-source world; that's to say you can use it on your PC instead of Windows. It was originally a fork of Unix, and took off like a rocket after being invented by Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student and Unix coder. Both Linux and MacOS were Unix forks, and such OSs are termed *NIX operating systems.

It is more stable than Windows, with less security issues and therefore less vulnerable, but has a lot less software available. OK, there are 60,000 apps or more on one database, but compare that to a million-plus out there for Windows. It is of course an excellent server OS, and is the de facto standard since the Internet is more or less run on it. Yeah, plenty of IIS and Sun servers out there, and more alt servers like Lighty and Zeus being used every day, but LAMP Rules OK.

Linux is something like a PC version of the Mac system, in that it is safer, more secure, more reliable, but limited to about 10% or less of the software available to Windows users. You can get a bootable no-install-required Linux CD if you need it briefly: this is called a LiveCD in the Linux world, and is well worth a try. Then, you can see what's good or bad about it. Run it on a Windows PC, trial it, use it; then when you reboot it's gone.

Lots of choice

Linux distros are plentiful now, so there is a bit of a choice problem for noobs. There's Red Hat (liked by server sysadmins due to its age, dependability and support), Debian, Suse, Mandriva (ex Mandrake), the relative youngster Ubuntu (a fork of Debian and sponsored by a Southern African millionaire); and more. Again this shows that no three coders can agree on anything.

If you're new to Linux, try the Ubuntu LiveCD – it doesn't need to be installed – run it on Windoze, reboot, and it's gone. You need at least 512MB of memory to do this efficiently (and 1GB is much better). Just insert the CD and Linux runs in memory, nothing gets written to the hard disk. It's a very good system for trying it out and reassuring yourself that it isn't just DOS for the 21st Century.

For a more permanent solution I would go with Linux Mint. You need to download the CD file of around 680MB (depending on the version chosen), then burn that to a CD. Mint is a fork of Ubuntu and some of the minor glitches have been smoothed out.

Ubuntu 6.06 at around 450MB is a good bet for servers. It's smooth and polished, though if you don't like blurry PDF text onscreen you might not like Ubuntu, as if anything it's worse than PDFs on a monitor. Try another Desktop version, like one of the Mint variants for example. 'Desktop' here means a personal or business OS setup as against a server setup; it has many more apps included. This is something of a trademark with Linux installation CDs – there are dozens of additional applications included, that are installed along with the OS, which you would have to spend time obtaining and loading separately for a Windows install. Ubuntu 6.06 is specifically for installing a server, and has a one-hit LAMP server install included if that's what you want - and many do.

Debian-based versions (like Mint or Ubuntu) are preferred by many as far as installing complex software is concerned, because they use the powerful apt-get command that automates the process. The others liked that so much they tried to port it to the RPM distros, with varying degrees of success. RPM – RedHat Package Manager – defines the other type of Linux distro, which use the RedHat system.

One-shot system upgrade

With Linux you can upgrade all the software on your PC in its entirety in one hit.Yes, that's what I said – one shot whole-PC upgrades. Free, of course. You just point your browser at the central app database, click go, and Linux does it's stuff. Result: every single thing on the PC is upgraded in one hit. Better than Windows? I'll say.

Of course, you have to do it from shell, i.e. as a terminal command, so it's like DOS but maybe worse if you don't know the commands. Tip: get Sam's Linux Phrasebook, it's got everything you need to know on that score, at least for Desktop users; LAMP terminal commands are a different story, and need a specific guide.

You can get all your software free (or very cheap) by pointing your machine at a Linux online DB and searching for a term connected with your requirement. So, if you want to try a new spreadsheet, you put that in and it comes back with all the spreadsheet apps. Choose one or more and in they go; it downloads and installs them in one shot. For many purposes such as online browsing, using Firefox for instance (it's very secure and most unlikely to pick up nasties at anything like the rate Windows does); for office use (free or very cheap, and does most everything Windows and Office does in that line); and as a server OS (unbeatable in practical terms since the resources are much bigger than for say Lighty), then you can't really do better.

Linux is an excellent online OS in every department. For instance, even the desktop versions usually have instant access to a telnet terminal, where you can ping out IPs or check other route attributes.

For personal use, it's another story: because it will be strange and new, you won't like it at first, though it will probably grow on you. The real drawback is that you will most likely find your favourite apps haven't got a Linux version. For myself, I need something that will run Word, Rhino 3D CAD, Unreal Tournament, some SEO tools, and my boat navigation. That's a tall order for Linux right now.

The most important comparison to be made is Linux on a PC versus the Mac option. I'd take Linux anyday in that contest, because for a start you're working with everyday hardware, rather than an expensive and exotic alternative for the fashion-conscious, script kiddies and crackers. It's true that many Linux versions resemble MacOS in some departments, but most PC users who don't like using Macs have no problem with Linux. In many ways Linux features some of the best points of both systems.

I use a Mac occasionally and it drives me crazy how slow and clunky it is compared to my PC. I use a 5-button wheel trackball on the PC and every task on the Mac seems so slow compared with that system, having to use the old single-button mouse effort on Macs. No doubt experienced users have ways around this, but - for example - I haven't used a scroll bar in a window on a PC in six or seven years and having to use it on the Mac is a real drag. The advantage of Linux here, becuase of the hardware, is that you have all those big PC advantages - or so it seems to me.

Another option is to dual-boot with it on your PC, with Windows on another partition. This is often found to be troublesome, though, and in fact it used to be the case that people would tell you it wasn't possible. I used to do this but don't do it any more. Linux is probably best kept on a separate PC or laptop. Of course, a good solution is to put it on its own drive and boot to that instead, instead of multi-partitioning one hard disk. This is not a bad choice for those organised enough to have more than one HD bootable on their PC (and therefore expert PC users in all likelihood since booting off two disks isn't straightforward), or those with slide-out drives on their laptops (anyone with common sense).

Dual-boot with Linux

In case you want to try, here is one way to get a (mostly) trouble-free dual-boot PC with Windows and Linux on the same hard disk.

   1. Install your chosen version of Windows.
   2. Install PQ Partition Magic 7.0 and Boot Magic 7.0 – these are old versions.
   3. Partition the drive 50-50, allowing half for Linux. Don't install any other partition.
   4. Set the free partition active, then install your chosen flavour of Linux.
        (If in doubt try Ubuntu Desktop)

   5. You'll find that the PC boots up fine to Windows or Linux.

What happens is that Linux uses the PQ bootloader, which is in fact an OS/2 bootloader that works equally well with Windows or Linux, FAT32 or Ext2 and so on. The second OS install, Linux, takes it over; and you get a different view of the options at boot up. They are however the same, and you can boot to Windows or Linux. Linux is different from Windows in that it creates more than one partition when installing; it needs a separate partition for a swap file. Therefore you'll find it builds two partitions, one Ext2 (usually) and one Swap, so you end up with three partions on the disk.

No doubt there are plenty of other successful options, perhaps using the Grub or Lilo bootloaders for instance. Although this method works, as stated I now prefer to keep each OS on a different disk. It's probably time I connected my Linux LAN PC to the Net and upgraded the apps, as well. Tempus fugit.

[update] And on that note I understand you can now install some Linux distros on top of Windows; they partition the disk themselves, and then install to the clean partition without wiping the Windows install. Now that's what I call progress - especially as there is no chance whatsoever that you could perform the same operation using Windoze (ie just using the bare OS like this, with no disk manager app).

Linux: the good and the bad

The good:
  • It's cheap or free, and handles all normal office routine work.
  • If you have a lot of staff doing standard office tasks it's hard to see why you would need Windows.
  • Everything on the hard drive gets upgraded in one shot, and usually for free.
  • Upgrades (including OS upgrades) are more frequent than for the Windows OS and its office apps.
  • It's robust and problem-free most of the time, assuming you aren't doing anything mega complicated.
  • It just works.

The bad:
  • They have got to get rid of that console stuff. Linux is pretty much unusable for some tasks until they do. There is far too much reliance on shell commands that should be ditched in favour of GUI operations. Shell commands are like DOS but worse. There is absolutely no way this will be a community-use operating system until that has gone. Windows realised that 15 years ago - what's the problem?
  • Not enough drivers. Windows XP is just about unbeatable here.
  • Not enough software. This is because software authors don't bother porting their apps to Linux as they know it's a lost cause until the shell commands are ditched.
  • Your favourite apps almost certainly won't have Linux versions.
  • Blurry text onscreen: I've only tried two Desktop versions but I much prefer the Windows fonts / text screen readability. I don't like PDFs onscreen for the same reason. I suggest you try a bunch of distros and pick one with text you can read. OK, my eyes give me some trouble so it may not be a problem for others - but why can't text in Ubuntu look as sharp as Windows?

The ugly:
I never tried it on a laptop, for marine chartnav and with the GPS plugged in - but I get the feeling I'd be wasting my time. And if I can't use it on my boat, what hope is there? :-)

So: Linux – the short version – there it is. Ask another user and of course you'll get a different opinion...

[This article was written a fair time back but the info is still good - nothing much has changed, at least nothing important. The app version numbers are a little outdated now; when we update the article the app versions might get sorted.]
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