Why Linux?

I realised a couple of days ago that I’ve chirped on about Linux in the past on here, but never really explained why anyone would want to use it, or mentioning any of the common reasons people initially resist changing, so here’s my (not so) quick rundown in a stream-of-consciousness stylee. Word.

Linux is another operating system for your computer, just in the same way ‘PCs’ use Microsoft Windows, and Macs use OSX (or whatever cat they’re on at the moment.) The big difference between those and Linux though, is that you don’t have to pay for it!

But if you don’t pay, surely it’s a bit rubbish and outdated?

No, quite the opposite. Linux is available in lots of different versions, or distributions (distros) as they’re known. Because Linux is free and open, anyone can alter it how they see fit, and whole other versions are created for one reason or another. Some of the differences are operational, some political. What it means however is that there are massive communities of people actively developing and improving it as they go, so many of the features only now appearing in the major operating systems. It’s about as cutting-edge as as you can get, and if that worries you, there are plently of tried and tested solutions available that are rock solid. If you want to see how swish it can look, have a look on YouTube for Compiz showoff videos.

I’ve heard that there are no drivers for all my hardware and things won’t work.

This used to be true to an extent, some stuff in the past was a pain to set up, but the truth is if you’ve got any hardware from the last five years or so, it’s very likely to work straight away once you install Linux. I recently bought myself a cheap new laptop (Lenovo) and installed my current favourite distro – Linux Mint – and after a quick install, just about everything worked instantly. The screen resolution was set up, bluetooth worked, wifi worked, in fact the only thing I had to install was a driver for the ethernet port, which took a two-minute google and couple of commands. Let’s face it, it’s not like you never had to download drivers for something in Windows…

I’ve never used it, is it difficult to learn after using Windows or a Mac?

Not at all. The popular desktop environments/window managers like Gnome, KDE, XFCE should be immediately familiar to anyone who’s used a computer in the last fifteen years. Some even go as far as making it look as close to windows as they can, check out PCLinuxOS for example. Best of all, if you end up with one you don’t like, you can install others to try without formatting or losing anything, in fact you can even choose which to use at the point of login.

All of my software is Windows/Mac, how am I meant to do anything without it?

True, a lot of commercial software is made for Windows or Mac, but have a look at your own most-used programs a moment. How many of them are things you bought, and how many did you download for free (legally, mind!)?. The vast majority of software people use is either available for Linux, or has a very capable alternative. Firefox? Chrome? If you spend a lot of time browsing the web, both are available and identical to use. Download a lot of stuff with uTorrent? Check out Deluge and tell me if you can spot any glaring differences. Microsoft Office? Yeah, this is usually a big sticking point, but for how much the majority of people use that suite of software, LibreOffice is more than a capable, compatible replacement.

Games! I mean games! I want to play my games!!!!

I hear you, I use my PC for games too, and it’s true, Linux has always been on the fringe, but that’s changing…

Valve (developers of Steam) recently announced a couple of things that mean life as a Linux gamer looks very rosy indeed. Gabe Newell of Valve makes no secret of his loathing of Windows – especially the debacle of version 8 – and publicly announced that Valve have started developing their software for Linux! I can vouch for this, as I’ve been playing both Half-Life and Team Fortress 2 very happily. Valve also announced a Steam Box which will be coming out this year, a PC-based living room console that will run Steam and their games catalogue, and be powered by Linux.

On top of this, a lot of Indie titles are developed for Linux, so if you’ve been smart enough to pick up any of the Humble Bundles so far, playing the likes of Trine, Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, Braid etc. is very easy.

When it comes to other ‘big name’ titles though, like the current Darling of bedroom dungeoneers – Skyrim – there’s Wine or PlayOnLinux as a front-end for Wine. Wine lets you use windows software (games and other apps) under Linux. It doesn’t do it through emulation, so there’s often no performance hit. There can be a little bit of configuration needed, but that’s what PlayOnLinux does for you. Have a look at the curernt support games.

Ok, ok, so I like the idea of it, but which distribution should I try? And can I try it without losing my current Windows install?

Choices, choices. Linux distros have real trends, what’s true today certainly won’t be in a years time, but here’s my rundown of the current big names and who might use them.

Ubuntu – It’s practically impossible to look at Linux today without being bombarded by Ubuntu. They’ve made big inroads into making Linux easy, friendly and popular. It’s a great choice for beginners for those reasons, there’s also a ton of support available. However, they recently introduced their own window manager (Unity) which has a lot of people annoyed, as it’s very different and not very intuitive (IMO). You can install others, but that change combined with money-making changes like adding Amazon shopping search results into file searches on your computer was the final nail in the coffin for me.

Linux Mint – A fork/offshoot of Ubuntu (which is itself a fok of an older, well-regarded distro called Debian), it takes the excellent software and support base of Ubuntu and adds some nice changes. They also introduced two new window managers, namely Mate and Cinnamon. Mate is based on Gnome 2, a tried, tested and much loved older one, and Cinnamon is a bit more modern, taking Gnome 3 and changing the bits people tend not to like. The support, clean look and Ubuntu underpinning are what made me choose this as my current choice (with Cinnamon.)

Arch – Takes a bit of work to get it up to match something out-of-the-box like Ubuntu, but a real fan favourite at the moment it seems, backed up with *excellent* support on their website. Probably not the best choice for a first-timer.

Fedora – An off-shoot of stalwart Red Hat, they recently released a long-awaited new version, which has had mixed reviews. They famously seem to hold off of big updates until they’re sure everything is mature and stable.

Actually, I’m going to leave that list there. There’s really not much point in going on to the likes of Gentoo, OpenSUSE, Mageia and friends, as if you’re reading this with a view to trying it for the first time, I’d just go for Ubuntu or Mint. Preferably Mint. Whichever you go though, there are nice safe ways of trying before you commit to anything. Most distributions have a downloadable DVD iso which you can just burn and boot from, giving you a chance to play with it before deciding if you want to replace Windows, or go for a dual-boot solution, giving you the best of both worlds. More on that another time though.

I’d also recommend having a look at PenDriveLinux which lets you burn a DVD/CD iso to a USB stick, which is much faster to boot and work with than a DVD and will give you a better idea of how it suits you.

Any other business?

From a personal point of view, there are a few other things I really like about using Linux. It’s rock-solid for a start, I’ve not once had a crash or had to reboot my computer because it’s gotten so slow it’s unusable. I can’t say the same about Windows, even 7 which is my favourite version suffers to some extent from those. It’s also really, really quick, I don’t have to wait for anything to happen, it all just works, and quickly. It’s also very secure, viruses aren’t something you even need to think about really. The most popular Linux virus protection is there not to protect the user, but any Windows users who may access files sent which have come via a Linux box.

Because I’ve been throwing myself into programming and web development I’ve also found it really useful. Yes, I could do most of it under Windows, but things like Python and Django are really made to work in Linux, and for someone learning from tutorials and guides, they’re all written from a Linux point of view.

Last but not least, I have to mention the command line/shell/terminal. The command prompt in Windows is handy at times, but the Linux shell is something else. There’s a ridiculous amount of funtionality and shortcuts available by using it, if you can be bothered to learn. That said, you can really do 99.9% of tasks without ever opening it on a modern distro, but I’d encourage anyone giving Linux a whirl to get stuck in and not be scared :).

I can honestly say I’ve not booted my dual-boot Windows 8/Linux Mint laptop into Windows once since I installed Mint. I’ve not missed it in the slightest.


(note: all of the above is based on my own experiences, questions asked of me and my own opinion. Please don’t take any of it as gospel, I’m still learning, but hopefully this post answers some of the questions I found myself asking when I first looked at switching.)

Leave a Reply