Can Linux Replace Microsoft Windows For Me?

linuxLast week, my wife and I had some time to kill before the post office opened so we decided to hang out at the nearby library for a bit. While there, I pursued the various magazine back issues and came across Linux Format, a UK-based publication devoted to Linux information and topics. After reading through two of them, it perked my interest in using Linux on my aged Dell D610 laptop (currently running Windows 7 Beta). In addition, my wife’s recent desire to switch to an Apple MacBook Pro (which is running a derivative of Unix) also got me thinking of possibly using an alternative to the Microsoft Windows OS. Could I switch off of Windows to something else? Would I have everything that I needed to continue working effectively?

Since the various available distributions of Linux are free for download, I decided to take some time and explore two of them, specifically Fedora and OpenSuse. Both of these flavors of Linux were rated highly in the Linux Format magazine, so I thought they would be a good bet as an alternative.

Luckily for both of these distributions, they have a “Live CD” version which allows you to boot up the OS from a CD (or DVD) and test out their flavor of Linux without actually installing the OS on your disk drive. I decided to go this route, since it was the most noninvasive method of checking out the Linux OS without altering my existing Windows OS installation.

Note, that Linux has different GUI environments that you can choose from, which will define the user interface (i.e., windows look-n-feel, menus, etc). I decided to test out the KDE interface for Fedora, and the GNOME interface for Fedora and OpenSuse.

So to start, I simply inserted one of the Live CDs in my CD/DVD-ROM drive and rebooted my system. It took a while for Linux to boot up (since it was reading everything from the CD-ROM drive), but after a few minutes I was up and running with Linux!

I have to say that the Linux interface reminded me of the Apple Mac OS X, and rightly so since the Mac OS is based on a derivative of Unix. It was definitely not Microsoft Windows, but it did have a very polished look and was quite responsive. An MS Windows user would certainly feel comfortable working with the windows, menus, and applications.

After trying out the two variation of Fedora (KDE and GNOME) and OpenSuse (GNOME), I decided that OpenSuse had a slightly better interface and operation. So, I decided to focus my evaluation efforts on the OpenSuse Linux version.

One thing I noticed immediately was the font rendering for displayed text. To me, the fonts seemed a bit fuzzy when compared to Microsoft Windows. I tried adjusting the subpixel rendering option for the fonts (which helped), but the text was not as crisp as with Microsoft Windows. This was the biggest reason why I rejected switching to the Mac Mini a few months ago, since the Apple Mac OS X had really fuzzy displayed text. The Linux system, however, wasn’t as bad as the Mac OS when rendering text, so it certainly would be usable for my weary eyes!

The one big issue I had with either Fedora or OpenSuse was getting the internal PCI WiFi card working under Linux. The WiFi card was based on the Broadcom chipset, and as such the firmware for this device is proprietary and cannot be distributed with any Linux system. So, I had to do some research on the Internet (using my Desktop PC) to determine how to get the WiFi card working. Since I’ve used Unix in the past for former employers, it wasn’t a big deal for me to muck around with the Xterm shells and typing in Linux commands. However, I can’t see an average user wanting to go down to the command line level to get built-in devices working on their machines.

This also brought up a good point: Linux isn’t as “automatic” when installing drivers for external and internal devices. What if I wanted to hook up my USB Scanner, or get my internal PCI TV Tuner card working under Linux? Most likely, I’d have to do a lot of Internet research and manually install the drivers (if I can find them) using shell commands. Not the most friendly method for the average PC user.

After getting OpenSuse configured to access the Internet via my home wireless router, I began investigating if I could use Linux for my daily activities? I noted which applications are a must to have, and began looking for Linux equivalents. Here’s my short list:

  • Paint.net – For manipulating graphic images (Linux counterpart: Gimp)
  • MS-Outlook – Mail, Calendar, Tasks PIM (Linux counterpart: Evolution)
  • MS-Office 2007 – Wordprocessing, Spreadsheets, Presentations (Linux counterpart: OpenOffice)
  • Zune Software – For syncing music, video, and podcasts to my Microsoft Zune (Linux counterpart: NONE)
  • Vista Media Center – For recording TV shows using my PCI TV Tuner card (Linux counterpart: MythTV)
  • Firefox – Web Browser (Linux counterpart: Firefox)
  • Windows Remote Desktop – For remote connection to various PCs in my home network (Linux counterpart: LogMeIn (web-based))
  • Quicken – Financial software (Linux counterpart: NONE for online transaction downloads)

As you can see from my list, there is no way to run the Zune software to control my Microsoft Zune media device. I also couldn’t find a Quicken-clone application that could download transactions online from my bank via the Internet. This seems to be a general trend, where there’s lots of mainstream applications for the Windows OS but not for Linux. Of course, I would probably have similar issues if I switched to the Mac OS.

Another big issue that I touched on earlier, was finding and installing the necessary drivers to run my various external perpherials (e.g., Canon Scanner, HP Laser Printer, Epson InkJet Printer, D-Link Wireless Adapter, etc). Would I need to jump through hoops and stand on my head to get them working under Linux? Probably so. Not something I really want to do (or what most people would want to do).

From all of this, I’ve concluded that using the Linux OS system would require a big adjustment in how I do things. It clearly points out how dominate Microsoft Windows is in the world of computers, however, that may change with the emergence of “Cloud Computing” (where everything is stored and run from web-based applications). Currently, I’m not entirely sold on the web-based apps provided by companies like Google, but that may change when the HTML5 standard is more prevalent and the Internet has more bandwidth.

So, my grand exploration of Linux has ended. Linux has its merits (the biggest, being that it is free), so you certainly should check it out if you’re in need of an OS and don’t want to pay for Microsoft Windows.

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