In a previous post I talked about the specter of open-source software in Microsoft’s rear-view, nearly side-view, mirror. Later in this post I’ll discuss my experiences over the past year running the Linux operating system.
But first let me make my case to those who plan to exit before the geeky stuff: If you’ve ever been pissed off at your computer and thought of switching to Linux, now is a great time to spend an hour or so taking it out for a spin.
The first section tells which types of computer users can benefit from switching to Linux. Next are discussions of why Linux is more fun to use, followed by brief instructions on how to download the file, burn it to a CD, and boot with it for a Linux test drive.
For a long time the knock on Linux was that not enough applications ran on it; later it was that the applications weren’t of sufficient quality and versatility to replace existing systems. This started as a fair, and later became a partially fair, characterization. At the margins of usage, it’s still true that there are fewer Linux applications. But the margins have moved; these days most people depend on their computers to
Linux now has excellent replacements for all these applications. Occasionally there’s a little more setup, because Linux handles far more hardware combinations than Windows or Mac software. But in my experience the quality of Linux applications normally exceeds that of the programs I used on Windows, often by quite a bit. Linux software follows the Mac philosophy of presenting only those menu choices that make sense in the current context; but Linux presents a lot more choices, and has a whole lot more configurability.
If this list covers everything you do with your computer, then you’re right down the middle of the audience for a Linux distribution like Ubuntu.
The name of the distribution comes from the African concept of ubuntu which may be rendered roughly as “humanity toward others”, “we are people because of other people”, or “I am who I am because of who we all are”, though other meanings have been suggested.
Ubuntu had a brush with fame when it was written up in non-tech columns several months back after the Dell website revealed that Michael Dell ran Ubuntu on one of his many home computers. Ubuntu uses the Gnome desktop manager, which looks a good deal like Windows on the surface, but is smoother and more coherent like a Mac in design and function. Users who want greater breadth of control might prefer my favorite distribution, Kubuntu, which replaces Gnome with the more configurable KDE desktop manager.
In any case it’s not a definitive choice. Ubuntu and Kubuntu are both official branches of the same project. Pretty much any program that runs on one will run on the other; you can even run the Gnome desktop manager on Kubuntu or the KDE desktop manager on Ubuntu if you choose. Hey, it’s your system.
Another recommendation for Linux is that installation packages have improved dramatically in recent years.
The kicker is, you can make a bootable CD, which will run Ubuntu or Kubuntu without touching your disk or affecting your system in any way. When you’ve downloaded the file and burned it to CD, you can boot with the CD, check out the new OS, then reboot without the CD and be back to your existing system. (If you’re running Windows now, you won’t be able to read or write your Windows files until you install the OS plus a package that reads and writes Windows files. Which, natch, is free.)
It’s difficult to list the reasons that Linux is better, because (1) there are so many of them, and (2) what’s most important differs from user to user. But here’s what strikes me most, in no particular order.
This is far from a comprehensive list, but it provides a flavor. Now to the instructions.
Here’s all you have to do to make a CD that will (probably) run Linux on your computer.
I say “probably” because there have been reports with each new version that some people cannot boot with the Live CD. When I first installed Ubuntu over a year ago I was one of them, though the Live CD for Kubuntu worked fine. If you can’t boot with the Live CD, bu want to try installing anyway, use the Alternate CD, which will install even on systems that won’t boot with the Live CD. (Alternate CD data is available from the same websites as the Live CD data.)
But everyone I know who’s tried Kubuntu 8.04, known as Hardy Heron, has been on the net as soon as they booted with the CD. Assuming, of course, they were on the net in their standard configuration.
It’s quite simple to make a bootable CD with Ubuntu or Kubuntu, which will run without affecting your existing system in any way. At the overview level, there are four steps.
Naturally parts of Linux will run slower when it’s loaded from a CD than if it were installed, and you won’t be able to save configuration changes — you haven’t given it any disk space where data can be saved. Otherwise, though, it will work just like a newly installed system.
If you’re a little nervous about the whole prospect, you might start with a fine guided tour of Ubuntu, with lots of screenshots and good information. Ubuntu aims at friendliness, and is in a sense Linux’s answer to the Mac.
If you’re confidantly looking at how sophisticated Linux has become, I recommend Kubuntu. It’s very powerful, yet very coherent. It’s not really the Windows to Ubuntu’s Mac because Kubuntu actually works, and it doesn’t try to fool you into thinking it can do something it can’t. Either the function is there and easy to use, or we haven’t figured that part out yet, no bones about it.
There are many others, such as Red Hat and openSUSE; but these are the two I’m familiar with. Once you’ve decided on a distro, as the Linux cognoscenti say, you’re ready to begin.
ISO files represent data in a format that a computer can boot from. This is what they call the “Live CD” data. Many non-Linux systems see it as an ugly file that should be repaired before it’s copied. Thus you need to proceed to the second step.
Because the bootable CD is not a standard file from the Windows or Mac points of view, you can’t just drag-and-drop the file onto a CD. On Windows you need a tiny special program to burn it. Macs apparently have a similar program built in; follow the link for instructions on finding it.
On Windows, right-click the file and find the program you downloaded in Step 1. On Mac, find the appropriate binary-file writer and write the ISO file to CD.
This should bring up whichever OS you downloaded. Now you can browse the web, try out office products, and so on in exactly the environment you’d see after a fresh install.