Make It Your New Years’ Resolution to Try Linux

Lee Hachadoorian on Dec 30th 2010

About 2½ years ago I made the switch to Linux. I figured getting a new home computer was as good a time as any. While I was already going off the beaten path with Linux, I decided to not go too far off by choosing Ubuntu, a popular Linux distribution. I kept Windows Vista (pre-installed) on its own partition, just in case I changed my mind.

While I was able (and more than willing) to tinker in order to get things to do what I wanted, my wife, who like me would be using the computer for both personal and professional purposes, needed things to “just work”. Any technical problems she had were going to get kicked to me. I asked her to give it a couple of weeks, but her verdict after one day was “This isn’t any different from Windows.”

I think most end-users would, like my wife, find no real difference for email, web browsing, word processing, and spreadsheets. The switch is no harder than what many people are going through now as they learn to use smartphones, iPads, smart TVs, etc. But as the sysadmin in the household, I definitely had to spend some time figuring stuff out, first with Ubuntu 7.10, then 8.04 LTS (Long-Term Service, a more stable version that is released every two years), and I was hesitant to recommend that anyone without a technical background adopt Linux for their home computer or personal laptop.

Until now. With 10.04, another Long-Term Service release, my hesitation is gone. A couple of key problems seem to have been cleared up. One is that Adobe has released a solid 64-bit Flash player. So many websites are driven by Flash, that not having a working Flash player was nearly as bad as not having a web browser. But a couple of Flash-heavy websites like and TurboTax, which I had problems with a couple of years ago, now work flawlessly on the Adobe 64-bit Linux Flash player. Hardware drivers also seem to be easier to find and more reliable. A couple of years ago I had to hunt for the driver for a Creative Labs webcam, but when I installed 10.04 (a clean install, not an upgrade), the webcam worked immediately. An HP Photosmart printer/scanner/copier installed itself in literally the time it took for me to plug in the USB cable, position the printer where I wanted it on my desk, and tap the keyboard to wake up the monitor. And one popular application, Skype, which just would not work for video calls on 8.04, now works fine (either due to the new Ubuntu version or a new Skype client, I’m not sure which).

OK, so I now don’t have any reason to not recommend Linux. But what are the positives that would encourage someone to switch? While everyone has their own reasons, here are the ones that appeal to me:

  1. Security: In 2½ years, I have never had to deal with viruses, spyware, or drive-by downloads, and that’s without running any antivirus or internet security software. During that time I have had to help family members deal with a couple viruses on their Windows computers, and just this last week while visiting with my in-laws I had to fight off a particularly aggressive drive-by download on their home computer (one of those fake security programs that pops up a message that looks like a legitimate Windows message).
  2. Price: OK, most people get a new operating system when they get a new computer, so it seems free, and this was not my main reason for choosing open source in the first place. But it becomes significant when you think about upgrades. My computer came with Windows Vista 2½ years ago. Why the hell would I want to spend $100+ to upgrade to Windows 7 when I would only spend $500 – $800 on a whole new computer? This is why people limp along on old versions of Windows until it’s time for a whole new computer. But with Linux, you can upgrade the OS any time you want, as I did when the new Long-Term Service release of Ubuntu came out earlier this year.
  3. A Wealth of Free Software: What are you interested in? Amateur astronomy? Genealogy? Desktop publishing? Music? (I’m not even going to attempt to mention the number of music players or audio file editors there are, though I will mention that there are several programs available that can directly access your iPod.) Of course, many open source projects are cross-platform, meaning they would be available for Windows or Mac as well, so you if you’re a little unsure about trying an entirely new operating system, you might start out by trying out some open source software.
  4. Installing Software: One of my favorite things about Ubuntu (and other Debian-based Linux distributions) is the way it handles installing software: you search an online repository (a collection of software available for installation on your operating system), click Install (or check a box), and you’re done. I have previously had a hard time trying to explain to Windows users what I like about this. After all, the typical download-an-installer–run-the-installer–click-OK-a-bunch-of-times process doesn’t seem that complicated. But now that smartphones are so widespread, maybe this will make the point. Which is easier, installing an application on Windows, or on your iPhone/Android/other smartphone? Some distributions, like Linux Mint, even have user ratings and reviews built into the Software Manager.
  5. Ease of Accessing Special Characters: For sticklers who would rather use an em dash (—) than two hyphens, or  would like to distinguish an employment history (résumé) from getting back to the show (resume), and for anyone working in languages which require accents or other diacritical marks, this is a real boon. The Linux keyboard uses a key (called the Compose key) designated to indicate that a keyboard combination will follow (I repurposed the Menu key, which normally triggers a popup menu as if you had right-clicked with the mouse, to be the Compose key instead). Special characters are accessed via intuitive key combinations which you can pretty much make up based on what you think they should be and you will probably be right. For example, the ½ that I keep throwing around when I say that I switched to Linux 2½ years ago is Compose + 1 + 2. Compose + , + c = ç (useful if you would rather write façade than facade). Compose + ‘ + a = á, while Compose + ` + a = à. (I suppose there must be ways easy ways to do this on Windows, but I found myself memorizing numeric character codes for the special characters that I used particularly often, like the ellipsis (Alt + Num 0133) and the em-dash (Alt + Num 0151).)

Assuming I’ve convinced you that you should try Linux, how do you get started? First, pick a distribution. I’ve had good experience with Ubuntu, but the aforementioned Linux Mint is an increasingly popular distribution that targets nontechnical users and home computers. Then, unless you really know what you’re doing, I would recommend keeping your Windows installation so you can try before you buy (for free). Although you have several options for how to go about it, there are two that are easily done and easily reversible. Essentially, they are both versions of installing inside Windows.

  1. If you insert the installation CD into a Windows machine while Windows is running, both Ubuntu and Linux Mint give you the option to Install inside Windows. (I think Linux Mint calls this Mint4Win, and the dialogue box will look different.) This is essentially an easy way to set up a dual boot machine. When you restart the computer, you will be able to choose between Ubuntu and Windows (or between Linux Mint and Windows), but without having to deal with partitioning your drive for two operating systems. Although the documentation warns that disk access may be slower than a real (i.e., partitioned) dual boot, in practice the difference is not noticeable (to me). Best part is if you change your mind you can uninstall within Windows using the Programs and Features control panel (or Add / Remove Programs pre-Vista).
  2. You can also install the operating system inside a virtual machine. In this case, while Windows is running, Linux would be running in a separate window as if it were just another Windows application. I would recommend VirtualBox as your virtualization software. The basic procedure is to install VirtualBox, then install Ubuntu (or Linux Mint) as a virtual machine in VirtualBox. This is only slightly more complicated than option 1, and a major advantage over dual boot is that you can use the applications you are comfortable with in Windows while trying out new stuff in Linux at the same time (or even comparing the same, cross-platform application side-by-side in Windows and Linux). If you have to reboot to switch OSes, you will inevitably either migrate a lot faster or (probably more likely) just stick with the old OS. Note that VirtualBox works just as well to run Windows inside of Linux, for access to Windows-only applications that you just can’t do without (which for me means ArcGIS). One alleged negative to this method (shared RAM), is really no longer an issue as so many new computers come with 2+ GB of memory.

There are other options, but if you’re new to Linux, you should probably stick with one of these two. Many forums and message boards mention that you can boot Ubuntu or Linux Mint from the installation CD, but I have tried it and it is horrifically slow. Partitioning your hard drive to set up a real dual boot machine is a better option, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are technically savvy and don’t mind investing some time (which makes this a better option if you are pretty sure you want to make switch to Linux after your testing period).

Beyond this, excellent Ubuntu resources include:

But above all, try it! You have nothing to lose but your panes.

Filed in Computing,General | 4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Make It Your New Years’ Resolution to Try Linux”

  1. Alon 31 Dec 2010 at 5:35 pm

    Relating to your second point, “OK, most people get a new operating system when they get a new computer, so it seems free…”, one thing that would help the adoption of of alternative OS’s is if more people were aware that a lot of OEM’s will sell computers with Ubuntu (or other distro’s) if you just know to ask for them.

    Last I checked, the MS tax on a Dell Vostro was about $185.

  2. Lee Hachadoorianon 31 Dec 2010 at 8:02 pm

    I’ve seen accounts of the so-called Apple Tax that indicate that there is a lot of variability across models, and I think the same thing applies to MS Windows. When I purchased my new computer, Dell was also selling models with Ubuntu pre-installed, and after comparing I found no price difference between that and the equivalent model with Vista.
    Of course, MS must be making money somehow, but how much and whether the consumer is paying or the manufacturer is paying for the pre-installed OS probably depends on the particular model, market share of the manufacturer, and other variables. The OS could even be a loss leader for other MS products.

  3. Peter Fraseon 04 Jan 2011 at 9:33 pm

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve been using Linux regularly for almost as long as you and I didn’t know about the compose key! A very useful thing to know about, so thanks for that.

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