Don't like Windows? Try Linux - the free, easy-to-use alternative

Tux - Linux's mascot

So what is Linux?

Most people these days are familiar with Microsoft Windows or Apple's Mac OSX. These are both operating systems (OSs) and there are many others around. Lots of us use different ones every day but aren't aware of it - in our phone, the engine management computer of our car, even the washing machine or dryer! However, there are very few other than MS & Apple that are usable for everyday desktops and servers. The most popular of these is Linux®.

Linux is more properly know as GNU Linux but it tends to be only the purists and Linux evangelists who insist on that. To the rest of us it's simply "Linux". The "Gnu" part of it comes from the fact that Linux proper is only the kernel and device drivers of the OS. The kernel is the part that provides basic control of the hardware and allocates resources such as RAM and processor time to each program. Most of the other bits of software that make it actually usable by ordinary people (applications) are usable under any of the family of OSs generally known as *nix and which are all, effectively, descendants of an OS called Unix. Most of that software is made available for use under the Gnu licence.

Linux started life as an undergraduate project. The undergrad in question was one Linus Torvalds, hence the name "Linux" - Linus's Unix. He wrote the first kernel but the idea of a *nix free of any commercial constraints quickly took hold in the Free Software community and the rest, as they say, is history.

Linux (and most *nix OSs) differ from Windows in one major design aspect: In Windows, the GUI (Graphical User Interface - the bit that takes mouse and keyboard input and controls the screen) is essentially embedded in the Kernel. In Linux, the GUI is a separate subsystem that runs pretty much like any other application. This makes Linux in general more robust. If there is a bug in the GUI which causes it to crash, then as a rule, Windows will crash completely. Linux will often carry on and it is possible to enter a command in a text-based console to simply restart the GUI.

For most of us, there are two other major differences between Windows and Linux:

  • Linux is free
  • Applications like Internet Explorer and Office are partially embedded in Windows. In Linux, they are applications like any other and have no special privileges. This makes for a much more secure and robust system.

The GNU community says that "free" in the context of Linux has two meanings:

  1. You don't pay for it - a complete system is freely downloadable from any web sites or is installable from magazine cover discs.
  2. It's freely modifiable

The second "freedom" is, for most people, a moot point but it does ensure that those enthusiasts that want and are able to can modify Linux and/or add to it as they see fit. Now that sounds like a free-for-all but in practice there are a number of "distributions " with names like Ubuntu, SuSE, Fedora, Mandriva and Knoppix which are tested and put together by professionals, in the true sense of the word.

The ability of anyone to take a piece of Linux and modify and/or extend it as they see fit leads to a kind of evolution where "survival of the fittest" is (mostly) what drives the contents of the big distributions. It also means that the "source code" of all such software is freely available. The source code is the vaguely English-looking text that gets translated into instructions your computer can understand and thereby do what you want it to.

There are people all over the world who occasionally review the source code of various parts of Linux searching for errors, in particular those which may give rise to a vulnerability - a chance for someone to be able to hack into your system, or a virus to get a toehold. This leads to a system which, generally, is more likely to be secure than one like Windows where this process does not occur. Microsoft dispute this, saying that their superior quality control process makes up for the lack of independent code reviews. However, it is a matter of record that certainly no more security holes have been uncovered in Linux than in Windows and you can count on a couple of hands how many viruses there have been on Linux to date.

What can I do with Linux?

For the most part, you can do exactly the same as you can do with a Windows or Mac computer. There Is free, high quality software available to do the following basic tasks (of course, there aer many others as well!):

  • Office tasks
    (Word processing, spreadsheet, database, presentation etc). Most people use Open Office for this.It also runs on Windows and Macs so you can try it out before even venturing near Linux. It's very similar to - but noticeably different from MS Office. Some parts are decidedly better, others worse.
  • Email
    There are several highly competent email programs available including Thunderbird, the companion to Fire fox. There is also Evolution which does a good job of replacing MSD Outlook.
  • Web browsing
    Most people use he familiar Firefox although there are several others. There are minor differences in the menu structure of the Linux version compared to the Windows version - it's more akin to the Mac version. Other than that, it's pretty much the same. The same plugins work and you can transfer a Firefox profile from Windows or a Mac to Linux and import it.
  • Image processing
    There are a number of image viewers, some of which have additional functionality (e.g. lightweight editing). The main image processing tool for Linux is The Gimp which is often described as a Photoshop clone. It's a very powerful, capable tool which produces high quality results but, as with most such programs, there is a bit of a learning curve.

    The Gimp has a plugin system for filters, much like Photoshop's, and there are many available.

    If you don't need that much power then there are much smaller, faster and simpler programs you can use - all free, of course.
  • Sound & Media
    There are several good media players for Linux - I'm not going to enumerate them here as it's a big subject in its own right. Suffice to say that you can play almost an media file you can play on Windows or OSX.

    There are sound recorders, including sophisticated multi-track systems. There are programs for composing and editing electronic music (like Sonar or Cubase).
  • Printing
    Linux supports almsot all modern - and many not-so-modern - printers. It usually gives access to a far greater range of adjustments than found elsewhere although the more advanced ones can generally be ignored unless you have very specific printing requirements.

    Linux printers can easily be shared with Windows or Macs over a network. Equally, Linux can use network printers, either standalone or attached to a Mac or PC.
  • File sharing
    Files can be shared between Linux and Macs or PCs as easily as they can Mac-to-Mac or PC-to-PC.
  • Email server
    A linux-based PC can easily provide a proper email server which can deliver your email directly to recipients' email server, bypassing your Internet Service Provider's mail system. This is faster and more secure. If you can arrange with a regular recipient to use Secure SMTP to transfer mail, it will be encrypted before leaving your home or office and cannot be read by anyone before it reaches the recipient's server.

    You can also get your own domain name (as in myname,com) and then have any email address you like of the form me@myname,com. The mail will be delivered directly to your PC and, again it's much faster and more secure than going through your ISP's system - or services such as Yahoo mail or GMail. Doing this will require some configuration to your broadband router and this is not alwys possible - some ISPs don't permit it. Also, you will need knowledgable techie help to do it - it only takes 5 minutes but you need to know exactly what you're doing!

    Disadvantage: Your PC needs to be on and online 24/7.
  • Web server
    Setting up a simple web site to be served by your PC is very simple with Linux although, obviously, you will need to design and create the pages, or have it done for you. If you expect to have a site accessed by only a few people (e.g. a private bulletin board with maybe up to 100 users) then a modern PC should be able to handle that whilst still giving you excellent response when you're sitting in front of it.

    You can set things up so that you can securely access all your files on the PC (again, expert help is usefui here so you don't accidentally give access to the whole world). All you need to access your files from any other computer is a web browser e.g. Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer.

    Finally, you can install Squirrelmail. This gives you secure web access to all your emails, just like Hotmail or GMail, from anywhere in the world.

    There are other things you can do with the web server installed but if you get that far into Linux, you'll find out for yourself...

    The same disadvantage applies here: the machine must be on 24/7. (It's possible to buy a "MicroNTX" based PC which is very small, uses very little power and has no fans so is silent. These tiny PCs don't have a monitor, keyboard etc and are perfect to run Linux on to provide email and web serving for the home or small office.)
  • Windows!
    Yes, you can run Windows programs under Linux (with some restrictions) and you can run Windows itself in a "Virtual machine".

What do I need to run Linux

A PC! Linux will run on most PCs. There are also version to run on most Apple Macs. The processing power you need depends on what you want to do with the machine. Email, simple word processing and spreadsheets will run quite happily on a 500 MHz P4 and 128 MB of RAM - a machine which would currently be about five years old!If you need to browse the web, especially on script-rich sites such as Facebook or MSN, then you will need something more powerful - say a 1.6 GHz Celeron with 512MB of RAM. In either case, a minimum of 20GB of disc storage is a good idea, depending on how much of your own data you need to store.

The latest games are not usually available on Linux but there are plenty of good ones that are (including classics such as Quake etc) so the graphics card you will need will be determined largely by whether you will use the machine for game-playing.

Most modern Linux distributions come on a DVD so you'll need a DVD reader to install it. Linux supports most CD writers and DVD writers. As of September 2009, Blu-Ray readers are supported but I'm not sure about writers.

How do I get Linux?

There are three main ways to get hold of a Linux installer:

  • Buy a Linux magazine with a cover disc
  • Get a copy of a distribution you like the look of from a friend or someone at your local computer club - it's legal to do this!
  • Download a disc image onto a computer (yes, it can be a Windows machine) and cut it to a blank DVD. To get a disc image like this see the Link to "Linux distributions, below".

Linux® is the registered trademark of Linus Torvalds in the U.S. and other countries.

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