The wife’s computer crashed last week. A big meaty crash, which is unusual for Windows XP, despite what the haters say. Apart from the execrable Windows Vista product, modern versions of the operating system have been extremely stable. Seriously.
But in this case the crash was one of those which results in an endless boot-up loop, lots of blue screen, very little computing. Windows XP wouldn’t reinstall for some reason, so now I had a choice - either plonk down some cash for Windows 7, which although a nice solid system is rather expensive, or take another look at Linux to see if that would work.
I chose the latter, even though it would mean exposing my better half to a radically new environment. I chose to install Ubuntu Linux on her computer and in the event the whole process threw up some real surprises and a few realisations.
1. I’m fed up with Windows activation. Activation sucks. It is intrusive, causes problems (e.g. you lose your licence number and default discs etc) and is generally a pain in the rear. Up till now I’ve had to put up with it, but now I don’t. Why? Because…there is no activation in Linux. Just a nice clean quick installation routine. Better yet, you can choose to do a non-destructive install to see if you like it, before committing to a full hard disk installation. Perfect.
2. Ubuntu is lovely. Yep there, I’ve said it. Linux for the desktop is now a great product. Not a perfect product yet, but great. How do I know? Well I installed Ubuntu 10.10 on the wife’s machine and it worked flawlessly out of the box. No having to configure networks, fiddle with arcane video driver settings or anything like that. It just worked. OK, there was one glitch later on, where her HP inkjet printer driver was incorrectly installed (so I had to hunt around on the forums to find the fix) but I said it wasn’t perfect. And even so it easily compares with the best that Windows has to offer in terms of ease of installation. Surprised? Yeah me too. Last time I looked Ubuntu was a pain. Now it’s not. ‘Nuff said?
3. There are now enough replacement applications to make transition easy. The really *key* thing in the transition was how easy it was for her to get going on the new system without the pain of having to learn everything over again. She instantly understood how LibreOffice works compared to MS Word, the Firefox browser was identical and I moved her over to Thunderbird from Outlook Express without a murmur, custom folders, historical content and all. There are a bunch of tools to help the move of email (in the end I used DbxConv to convert her message database from OE dbx to the T’Bird mbox format and it all imported like a breeze).
There are also a ton of great equivalent programs out there to do most common tasks on the PC, apps like Audacity are cross platform out of the box, and for those quirky little programs that need Windows there’s always the WINE emulation function (which actually works, wow!) or in extremis Sun’s VirtualBox which will let you install a full blown Windows O/S in a virtual partition. I must admit, WINE took a bit of getting used to, until I realise you just have to let the program installs do all the work, and I know VirtualBox works because I’ve used it for years to test out dodgy programs on my working machine without malware jitters. So who needs to run Windows full time?
The bottom line is she was up and running in minutes with no frantic phone calls to ask how things work, or angry exclamations as she lost files or folders. It just worked. Amazing.
4. Free is an unbeatable price. Not much to say about this really. It’s just a fact, that downloading and installing a full blown operating system with an in-built Office suite and a heap of really cool features for no money is incredibly compelling. Especially when you get such a great set of free software included in the package. It’s a serious no-brainer.
6. Linux makes older hardware sizzle. The first comment I heard after she fired Ubuntu up for the first time was ‘wow, it’s so fast’. This is such a given with Linux that we tend to forget just how much more efficient it is on older hardware. I was loading Ubuntu onto a laptop which was a couple of years old, and it made the hardware sing. Crisp menu transitions, ultra fast boot up, everything just motored along as though it was a brand new machine. And unlike Windows, this speed improvement won’t wear off with time, as the registry gets filled with junk etc. Linux really restores the lustre to old computers better than a bottle of Cleanex and a cloth.
7. The edge finally works on Linux. I alluded to this earlier, but it’s an important factor. The old Linux was tantalizingly, frustratingly, annoyingly almost awesome. You would install it and it would ‘almost’ work, but then you’d be faced with some stupid hardware function that wasn’t picked up properly, a driver that failed to initialize or something else which would drive you crazy, seconds after the install. In this case Ubuntu installed like a breeze, and it’s a tribute to the work done on peripheral and driver support that everything worked as it should have done (except that HP printer, but they’ve got a terrible reputation for driver support nowadays, so I wasn’t surprised). The mouse, plug in external drives, USB, network, WiFi, it all worked. Additional drivers and updates installed in seconds, and configuring the desktop and settings to make the machine feel like home was easier than doing it in Windows. Linux has matured beyond belief.
8. Ubuntu is totally non-geek friendly. This is a hugely important fact. Until I watched my wife using Ubuntu I didn’t really believe that Linux could ever transition from being a geek delight to something anyone could use. But now I’m convinced. My missus is computer savvy all right, but definitely not an enthusiast. She’ll use her laptop to do what she needs to do, edit photos, music, play around with video, Facebook, check emails etc. But there’s no way, like most people, that she enjoys learning new interfaces or functions. So it was pretty cool to see how quickly she settled in to the new system, without any major glitches. She’s still a bit suspicious though, which is to be expected, but I would think that will settle down in time.
9. Windows is expensive and bad value for money. What’s the alternative to free? Well how about over £200 (yes, $330!) for a full install of Windows 7 Ultimate? Considering you can pick up a laptop computer for around that price nowadays, it’s becoming more and more of a real expense and one which now requires consideration when upgrading older computers. The fact is that Windows no longer has the same value for money factor it used to have, when compared to alternatives like Ubuntu. Not enough of an uplift in functionality or features, and in fact in a lot of cases, the Linux option delivers a better experience, as with performance.
10. Security is a nice warm fluffy penguin feeling. Finally, and not to be trivialised, the fact that Linux is so much more secure than Windows is something that is definitely a huge plus. Now I know that most of the malware vulnerability nowadays comes from drive-by sites and the like via the browser, but even so, the security controls on Linux just come across as more mature, and less of a risk. Especially for less experienced users. That’s a pretty comforting feeling to have if you’re responsible for looking after someone else’s online safety.
So, it’s come to this. After sixteen long years happily using and promoting the Windows environment as the best option for general users, I find it necessary to change tack and say that unless you really need to use specialist software a lot in your day to day computing, there no longer seems to be a compelling reason to stick with the over priced Microsoft Windows product. Shocking! Are we in the process of replacing our long time dictator with one more benign? Is Free-dom round the corner for us all?
Postscript: I’m not one of those who subscribes to the idea that the PC is dead. There are too many people with too much invested in personal computing for that to happen in the near future. It’s going to be with us for a good few years yet I think, and I now think that Linux has a decent chance to make headway onto the desktop. Maybe, with a bit of luck.