Photographer Scott Rowed has penned an excellent essay on his experience making the switch to Linux, and he’s agreed to place it here as a guest post. Please read it and pass it on to people, school districts, small island nations, and others who may benefit:
Switching to Linux
by Scott Rowed
Changing operating systems is not a task to be taken lightly. I generally follow the philosophy “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” A year ago, however, the family notebook was broken, hopelessly crippled by a nasty virus or worm. I’d been regularly updating the virus software and running complete checks, but some users were less careful than others.
I spent several hours trying to fix the problem, but in the end was forced to format the hard drive and start over. Worse yet, that was the second time in four months. By the time I saved my data, formatted the drive, reinstalled Windows XP Pro, removed the junkware and installed my programs, I’d wasted more than two days.
This time I decided to dual-boot, running Linux Ubuntu as well as XP. Everyone had the Ubuntu password, but I kept the XP password to myself. There was perhaps a tinge of revenge in my strategy – if the others couldn’t use the computer responsibly they would be forced to endure what I thought would be a less friendly operating system.
I knew Linux offers robust security with very low risk of viruses. It’s also powerful and scalable, widely used in science and web servers. Google’s massive servers, for instance, run on a custom version of Linux. But what about for the average desktop user? Is it too “geeky”? Are there problems finding and installing drivers? These were my expectations.
Yes, there were complaints. “It looks different.” “My teacher can’t open the report I wrote in Open Office”. But after a couple of weeks the issues faded when everybody got used to the different style and realized that you could “save as” to Microsoft Word format.
I anticipated problems connecting other hardware, so it was a pleasant surprise when our printers, scanners, MP3 players and digital cameras (from the kids’ Coolpixes to my pro Nikon D3) were recognized and functioned normally.
Then I was asked to present a slide show with a rented projector. I booted into Windows XP and connected the projector. Nothing. For over two frustrating hours I tried everything I could think of to make XP talk to the projector. The rental shop was closed so there was no tech support. Desperate, I booted into Ubuntu and to my shock the image instantly projected onto the screen. No keys to push, no drivers to install – it just worked.
What about Facebook, Youtube, Skype, Google chat and other programs without which teenagers would complain of child abuse? Facebook is just accessed through any browser (Firefox is the default in Ubuntu) and Skype works just as well in Linux as Windows. Youtube requires Flash, a free download from Adobe. To watch different movie formats I installed a couple of codec libraries and the excellent VLC player, but this was easy to do from within Ubuntu.
Certainly there is a learning curve to Ubuntu, as there is with any operating system. I found the transition from XP to Ubuntu required about the same effort as switching from XP to Vista. Fortunately Ubuntu has excellent tutorials and is supported by a community of experienced users who patiently help newbies. The forums are a big improvement on the usual tech support where relatively inexperienced staff just read off cue cards.
It took some adjustment getting used to Linux’s frequent demands for my system password. Unlike Windows, which grants the user administrative privileges by default, Linux requires your password for “root” (roughly the same as administrative) privileges, such as installing software or “mounting” (reading) other drives on your computer.
This is a minor inconvenience, especially considering the extra security it affords. A nasty virus or worm is unlikely to damage your system unless you enter your password and give it permission. With Windows systems, your computer can pick up viruses automatically and send them to the next victim. A potential Linux virus would have much less chance of spreading.
While no system should be considered bulletproof when it comes to security, the average Linux user who uses common sense is able to enjoy his computer experience with much less risk. Just as importantly he can save many hours scanning and attempting – often in vain – to rid his system of malicious software. Macs, of course, also have good resistance to malware.
There is a chance, however, of a Linux machine acting as a carrier, which can pass on a virus to a Windows computer without becoming infected itself, so still be careful about forwarding emails with attachments or links to questionable sites. If your Linux box shares a network with Windows computers you should definitely run anti-virus software such as Avira AntiVir. Ironically, sometimes the best way to purge a Windows system of persistent viruses is to scan the Windows partitions while running Linux.
A great feature of Linux is that of multiple workspaces, which both Linux and Mac users have enjoyed for years. Each family member can have his own workspace, while leaving the other desktop layouts undisturbed. Or you can set up multiple purposes for a single user computer – say one workspace for internet browsing, another for image editing and another for games.
Microsoft Office? No big surprise – Microsoft doesn’t produce a Linux version, but Open Office, an open-source suite maintained by Sun Microsystems, is a capable alternative. When you install Ubuntu you automatically install three Open Office programs – Writer, a word processor compatible with Word, Calc, a spreadsheet compatible with Excel, and Impress, presentation software compatible with PowerPoint. PDF-writing support is built in. Open Office also makes drawing and database programs you can download. And yes, they are free, as is all open-source software. http://www.openoffice.org/
While there are good open-source alternatives to Microsoft Outlook in Linux – Mozilla Thunderbird and Evolution in particular – importing my Outlook contacts and emails into Linux was the most complicated part of switching to Linux. I chose Thunderbird because it’s cross platform. The procedure involved running both Outlook and Thunderbird on a Windows computer and importing the emails and contacts into Thunderbird. From there I booted into Linux, copied the folder containing the data files over from the Windows drive and made some minor changes to the Thunderbird .ini file. I got the procedure from this source: http://tinyurl.com/ydhvnbc After minor fiddling I was able to open Thunderbird with my data intact.
To install Ubuntu you download a 700 mb ISO image file and burn it to a CD. The current version is 9.10, the number representing the release date of Oct. 2009. As Ubuntu is on a six-month release schedule, the next version will be 10.04 in Apr. 2010. A “live CD” option allows you to run Ubuntu from the CD without making any changes to your system. This is slow, but a good way to test it with your computer. If you like it, you have a choice to dual boot, install to a separate hard drive or even to a USB flash drive.
My most recent install of Ubuntu 9.10 took 25 minutes, which included installing Open Office and a variety of other open-source software. In another 30 minutes I’d downloaded the latest patches, added more software and configured the system to my preferences. Much faster (at least for me) than installing Windows.
I’m paranoid about wiping out important data, so whenever I install an operating system I disconnect all hard drives except the one to which I’m installing.
Even if you decide not to install Linux it pays to keep the CD. If your computer dies, you can boot up with the Linux Live CD to access your data files. This has already saved me from potential disaster after a hardware failure.
Linux boots up faster than Windows and has a snappy feel. With Ubuntu on my notebook, for instance, double clicking a 1 mb Word document takes 15 seconds to start Open Office and open the document. Using Microsoft Word in Vista takes 50 seconds. In both systems the task is much faster when run a second time, possibly due to caching – two seconds for Linux and six for Vista.
No OS is perfect, but I’ve found Linux to be fast, stable, and secure. While I still use Windows for a few specific programs, Linux offers greater peace of mind in everyday use – especially when online.