What do you think if I convert to Linux, or am I wasting my time? What applications and utilities are compatible, i.e. browsers, anti spyware, virus protection etc. How would you go about setting the computer up. I have moderate experience, utilizing forums and sites like yours when encountering major problems.
Linux is a great way to extend the life of older computers, simply because the resource requirements of many Linux distributions are so much less than those of Windows.
And, of late, I’m hearing from people who, like you, are frustrated with Microsoft and Windows and are hoping for alternatives.
Linux isn’t for everyone, but it can be a solid alternative.
However, we need to set some expectations, and of course there are also a few “gotcha’s” along the way.
One of the first concepts to understand about Linux is that it’s not just one operating system – it’s many. In fact, the number of different Linux versions probably numbers in the hundreds.
These different versions are referred to as “distributions”, or “distros”. Each is based on a core version of the Linux “guts”, referred to as a “kernel”, but each differs in various ways and for different reasons. Some are targeted at low-end machines, others at being really good web servers, and others at desktop usage.
It’s the latter I’ll focus on here, and I’ll do that simply by recommending two distributions. These are the most common distributions of Linux for general purpose use.
Both of these builds allow you to choose between different user interfaces. Windows comes with whatever start menu and desktop look it comes with, but with these distributions of Linux, you get to choose among several options.
As we’ll see shortly, you can experiment to see which you like best. For now, I’ll simply recommend the Linux I use on a desktop machine here at home.
- Linux Mint – “Cinnamon” Edition
Mint Cinnamon will probably be the most comfortable for those resisting the kinds of user interface changes that appeared in Windows 8 and 10.1
Once we’ve selected a distribution, there are a couple of important expectations I want to set. Windows users often complain about how often updates happen, and how long their current version of Windows is supported.
Both will vary with the distribution you’re running.
Linux update frequency
Different distros update at different rates. In fact, those rates can cascade in a fairly complex chain of events. Both Ubuntu and Mint, for example, are based on the Debian distribution of Linux. That means updates can be initiated from no fewer than three places: the Linux kernel, the Debian distribution, and the specific downstream distribution that you’re running.
Unlike Microsoft, most distributions don’t batch their updates into a once-a-month cycle, but make them available as they’re ready. My experience with Linux Mint is that updates appear frequently, as in perhaps multiple times per week. The good news is that there’s usually no harm in waiting for a while, and should there actually be a critical update, it’s made available as quickly as possible.
I’ll be blunt: if you’re complaining about Windows’ 10-year lifecycle, you just don’t know how good you have it. I know of no other popular operating system that is supported for that length of time.
Most Linux distributions fall into two classifications of release:
- “Normal” releases, typically supported for two years.
- “LTS” releases, standing for Long Term Support. LTS releases are typically supported for five years.
In addition, while frequent releases are typically in-place upgrades, more major releases often don’t have that as an option – you must reinstall the OS from scratch in order to upgrade.2
The good news, however, is that unlike Windows, it’s typically not nearly as risky to keep using an unsupported version for long past the end of its life.
Linux: the same, only different
Most major concepts are common across Linux, Windows, and MacOS. Files are files, folders are folders; they all have a clipboard, and they all run mostly similar applications.
The devil, as they say, is in the details. Keystrokes may be different (CTRL+Q to exit a program, for example, or CTRL+Insert to copy to clipboard, rather than CTRL+C), menu options may be different, and occasionally, similar programs may behave differently, perhaps making assumptions in one operating system that the other asks about instead.
There are simply too many small differences at this detailed level to cover exhaustively. The good news here is that, as I said, the concepts are typically the same, and the differences often fall into the category of “similar” rather than radical.3
The first place folks often run into trouble with Linux is applications support.
Windows applications will not run on Linux. You’ll need to find Linux versions of the applications you care about in order to run them on Linux. These fall into three broad categories:
- Applications that are, in fact, the same. Many applications you may already be familiar with actually have Linux versions. Examples include the FireFox web browser and the Thunderbird email client.
- Alternative applications. In many cases, there are alternatives to the applications you’re familiar with. For example, the Open Office suite is available for Linux. While it’s the same as the Open Office suite on Windows, it’s only an alternative to the more common Microsoft Office on Windows. As an alternative, it’s compatible – to a point. Many, though not all, of the same features and functionality exist, though often in different ways. Even though they’re “compatible”, documents may look different when exchanged between Microsoft Office and Open Office applications. This is a common experience across many of the alternative applications available for Linux. Once again, they’re the same, only different.
- Missing applications. There is no Quicken or QuickBooks for Linux. You can’t play World of Warcraft on Linux. Some applications simply have no direct alternative available. Your only hope then might be to choose a different approach to the problem (for example, QuickBooks has an online offering if you’re comfortable with that), or running Windows on another machine specifically, so you can continue to use the Windows program(s) you need.
When it comes to applications support, it really boils down to what you need and how you use your computer. The great news here is that there are thousands and thousands of applications available, mostly for free.
While there are anti-malware tools for Linux, they’re typically not as extensive, and … to be honest … not as necessary as they are on Windows. Linux on the desktop simply isn’t the target for malware that Windows is.4
Linux hardware support
The second place folks run into problems with Linux is hardware support, more specifically, either advanced support or support for newer (or esoteric) hardware.
One problem with hardware support is rooted in device drivers and the terms of the Linux open-source license. Technically, all software distributed with Linux is supposed to be open-source – meaning anyone can view, and in some cases even modify, the software, within certain limits. Hardware manufacturers resist this, as it can expose proprietary features relating to their hardware. On top of that, hardware manufacturers don’t often take the time to even write device drivers for Linux, as it’s such a small part of their overall market.
The result is that many drivers are basic, generic, or fail to take advantage of a device’s full range of abilities.
And sometimes there’s no driver at all, so a particular piece of hardware simply doesn’t work on Linux machines.
The good news is that the vast majority of hardware is either fully supported – or supported well enough to make most people happy.
Linux user support
The final place folks run into trouble is when they … well, when they run into trouble.
Getting help for Linux issues is more difficult than for either Windows and Mac. There are two basic stumbling blocks:
- There are few equivalents to an “Ask Leo!” for Linux. I don’t address it often since most of the people coming here are Windows users with Windows issues, so I’m able to help the greatest number of people by answering those types of questions. The result is that Linux isn’t big on my radar.
- The forums and venues that do exist for Linux support have a reputation for being intimidating, geeky, and unfriendly to beginners. That’s unfortunate, but I have to say as I’ve read through various places for solutions to my own Linux problems, I’ve seen it often enough to note it here.
The best advice I can offer is to be extremely clear in any questions you post, and to read carefully and respond to any and all responses you get. More often than not, the most frustration is generated when questions are vague and incomplete, and answers provided are apparently not even read.
Giving Linux a try
It turns out it’s really easy to give Linux a try, and if you’re considering Linux, I’d encourage you to do so.
Most distributions are delivered in the form of a “Live” CD or DVD (or, I assume, bootable USB image) which you can download from the web site of the specific distribution you’re interested in. Download and burn these to a disc, and then boot from that disk5. Rather than running a setup program, a live CD will actually boot into a running, usable copy of Linux, without modifying your hard drive or Windows.
In fact, you can often use these live discs to recover files from your hard disk using Linux-based tools.
Play with Linux. Experiment a little. See what programs you like or don’t like. See how it is different and whether or not you really care about those differences.
Two important things to note about running a live CD:
- Nothing will be saved, unless you happen to use and save to an online service. (For example, reading your email on Outlook.com should work – and last – just fine.)
- It’ll probably be slower than if it actually installed on your system. Don’t read too much into the performance you experience with a live CD.
Convert to Linux
First: create a complete image backup of your existing Windows machine.
I cannot stress that point enough: back up your machine completely before you install Linux.
The issue here is that switching from Windows to Linux is as big a change as upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 10. There’s a lot to learn, and a lot to get used to. After using it for a while, you may very well decide that it doesn’t meet your needs, or it’s just not your cup of tea.
Maybe Windows wasn’t so bad after all.
Having that complete image backup of your machine means that reverting to what you had will not only be possible, but relatively easy.
The bottom line is, depending on your needs, and if you’re willing to take a little time to learn a few different ways of doing things, Linux can be a very viable alternative to Windows, and a cost effective way to extend the life of an older PC.