Switching from Windows to Linux
Windows 10 has been out for over a year now, and for the most part, it has been accepted well. Still, some people aren't happy with the privacy issues and the sheer amount of tracking, not to mention the security issues, and so may be looking for an alternative...
Why Switch to Linux?
So why would you want to use anything other that Microsoft Windows?
Linux has earned a reputation in the 80's and 90's as a platform for hobbyists and hackers, a complex system requiring vast computer knowledge in order to use. While that may have been the case 30 years ago, Linux has come along way since then, and now offers a user experience to rival the mighty Windows.
It should be noted that Apple's OSX is a derivative of Unix and shares many of the features of Linux. While OSX is not Linux, it does offer a lot of the same benefits.
Well, Linux is free for life, unlike Windows and Mac OSX. Not just a free upgrade until the next overpriced version, but free forever. With Linux, you pay for support (if you need it) and you have to pay for some commercial use. Even if you do pay for Linux, it is still cheaper than Windows.
Linux and Mac OSX are also both built for security, unlike Windows where security was added as an afterthought. In Linux and Mac, passwords are required before installing applications. Additionally in Linux, most of the software you need is installed from servers maintained, and signed by the distribution authors themselves. This way you know that every piece of software has been manually vetted to ensure that there is no malware, spyware, viruses. While you can install untrusted software, you must manually make the effort and supply passwords, so if malware gets on your system, it was installed by you.
Time and time again, Windows has proven itself to be vulnerable to security flaw after security flaw, with hundreds of thousands of viruses and malware infections each year. The latest (as of writing this) is the May 2017 #Wannacry ransomware epidemic which affected more than 200,000 victims in at least 150 countries, and crippled the NHS in England and Scotland.
Microsoft continue to patch and fix exploits as they are found, but the fact remains that there are so many exploits yet to be discovered, it's like patching a pin cushion. While Linux isn't necessarily immune to the viruses, worms, adware, spyware, and Trojan horse programs that plague Windows, it has security at its core, not a patched update.
Microsoft and Windows do not take your privacy seriously. No really, there are so many dial home, tracking, and telemetry services it's beyond belief. In the installer there are 3 pages of privacy options to turn off. Three pages! And that's just the stuff they tell you about.
Linux will run on almost any hardware, even hardware so out of date Windows doesn't even recognise it. Linux only requires minimal memory, tiny hard drives and hardly any graphics processing power. So on my 6-core 3.6Ghz water cooled SSD beast, Linux really flies! Due to it's much lower footprint, and no bloat ware associated with Windows, Linux is ideally suited for mobile and compact devices. In fact, Android is also a Linux directive, and iOS a derivative of OSX. Linux is also ideally suited to real time applications, embedded software and also the Raspberry Pi.
Linux and Mac also do not require many different online accounts to be setup. Windows 10 seems quite unhappy that I don't have any Skype, Xbox, OneDrive or Office365 accounts. While Apple requires a joint account for iCloud and Apple Store, Linux requires no accounts to be created.
Ease of Use
Linux used to exist in the realm of of Geeks and Nerds, however it's not the 90's any more. Linux has evolved into a modern, easy to use operating system which offers a rich user interface. Modern Linux distributions come out the box with a user experience to rival that of Microsoft and Apple, it has all the GUI tools and functionality that you expect for in Windows, without the tedious crashing and errors.
Microsoft wants to control your Windows 10 desktop
While Microsoft isn't quite ready to offer a true Windows-as-a-service where you’d be running your desktop Windows from the cloud, it certainly seems to be heading that way. Microsoft has been in talks to buy Citrix, the desktop virtualization giant, for several years now. When this happens we can probably expect business user to migrate away from desktop PC's in favour of cloud based OS installations. For businesses this means lower costs associated with hardware and running costs, while the virtualised environment means the same identical OS build can be rolled out to all users, even remote users much more easily. This also include updating applications, the master image is updated then that is rolled out to every user. It also means that Windows updates will be managed for users, even optional updates will become mandatory as Microsoft will roll them out for you.
While this may be good for businesses, it won't be too long after when Microsoft decides to offer Windows in the Cloud to home users - meaning that your OS and files will live on Microsofts servers and you pay them a monthly subscription to access them. I foresee a whole plethora of privacy and legal issues, not to mention the collapse of the desktop PC market. That is unless we all switch to Linux!
So, if you really, really want to control your desktop moving forward, there’s only one choice: Linux.
Which Linux Distro?
Unlike Microsoft Windows or Apple iOS/OSX, Linux comes in many different flavours, or distributions (distros for short). Each distro is aimed at a specific subset of users - from easy to use distros for those new to Linux, through to more advanced distros for experts, other distros target security advocates, low-end hardware, and customisable distros for those wanting a bespoke system.
These distributions are aimed at users like you looking to make the switch to Linux. They offer a streamlined installation and feature robust graphical interfaces using popular Gnome or KDE desktops. They offer an experience close to that of Windows so you at least have something familiar to work with.
Ubuntu is the distro I have used most of all and I have ben using it for the past 5 years. It comes in two variants, Desktop and Server. As you might expect the Desktop version is aimed at desktop computers and laptops. It comes with Ubuntu's own Unity graphical interface which seems to be more tailored to tablets than desktops but it works quite well. The server variant by default does not include a graphical interface and is cut down for servers and NAS storage.
Regardless of which version you install, you can install missing packages in either variant. This means that you can install a graphical user interface to Ubuntu Server, or server software in Ubuntu Desktop.
The Ubuntu installer is a little primitive, being text only, but it is functional. When installing Ubuntu Desktop I did find that the installer was a bit buggy. The downloaded ISO image was very particular about what was used to burn the image and the type of device used. I tried various CD and DVD burners at different write speeds but all seemed to fail with errors reading the optical disk. When using a USB thumb drive, I could not get any drive above 4GB to boot and the smaller drive had to be formatted to FAT32 and the ISO burned using Rufus software. UNetbootin would NOT work for me on Ubuntu installs.
Once the installation medium was sorted the rest of the installation is pretty standard, setting up initial users and root passwords, package selection, network configuration and partitioning.
Day to day use is pretty standard, but I did encounter a number of random application crashes from time to time, CUPS printing was buggy as was the Samba client, often requiring a the remote server services to be restarted. Other than that it's pretty good.
SuSE was the first distribution I had exposure to, way back in 1999. Back then it had a very good terminal interface, but the KDE 1.0 desktop environments sucked compared to Windows. Nowadays, things have moved on a lot and the graphical interfaces are much more refined and polished. KDE and Gnome are both on offer, as well as several smaller lightweight versions for laptops and older hardware.
openSUSE has a much more user friendly interface, with mouse interaction and everything. You actually boot into a LiveCD version of SUSE so you can play around with it before installing if you like. The installer is again very standard and for me worked first time on the first USB thumb drive I had to hand.
Unfortunately I did not get on very well with openSUSE. Once installed I had problems with buggy package installer, network connections dropping, graphics driver glitches then an update broke the system boot process resulting in a non-booting system.
Linux Mint was the last distribution I tried out, and I must say I'm impressed. It looks very nice, and works well out the box. It has some nice visual themes and beautiful wallpapers. But nice pretty things don't make a Linux distribution do they?
Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu, which is in turn based on Debian. Ubuntu and Mint mainly differ in the user interface - Ubuntu uses the Unity desktop, while Mint uses Cinnamon. Both systems are free, but while Mint is a community project, Ubuntu is a commercial package and support does cost.
Performance wise, Mint seems a little faster than Ubuntu, but that just be me, I don't have any empirical proof. I do prefer Cinnamon over Unity. For me it just seems to work better.
As said before, Mint and Ubuntu are so very similar, it's really just down to personal preference.
Making the Switch
I have recently made the total shift from Windows 10 to Mint Cinnamon as my primary OS. Here I present here my recommendations and advice if you are considering the same.
First, spend a few weeks noting down all the software you use on Windows and research the open source options available in Linux. There are quite often several options available so try them all.
Install VirtualBox and run various Linux distros in a virtual machine. This way you can experiment by installing various software, play around with it and if you break something simply go back to a snapshot. This way, when you make the switch you know what you are doing and will be less likely to break your system build. This is especially important if you have not used Linux before.
Really check out what software you will need to be running, not just that you can get X to replace Y. I use Photoshop and Lightroom all the time and seeing that there are many good alternatives, they just don't compare to the real thing when it actually comes to using them.
Games. There really isn't any on Linux and that is the downfall of Linux. There aren't any games on Linux because there is no demand, and there isn't the demand because hardly anyone uses Linux (because there are no games). Catch 22.
Even on Steam there is a low quantity of games - my Steam account has 121 games, only 32 of which run on the Mac, and only 12 on Linux. If you are a gamer you are going to have to get techy and either dual boot into Windows to play games, or get dirty and install WinE to run Windows games in Linux, which can be buggy at best.
Firstly, make the switch it is definitely worth doing, even if it's just piece of mind that your system is more secure, less likely to be hacked or infected with viruses, malware and spyware. Linux runs faster, quieter and uses less electricity. I measured my computer drawing 320W, with Linux it was only drawing 290W on average.
I've been using Linux on and off for the past 15 years or so, so I'm pretty familiar with the operating system. Having said that though I did find that there was a lot less refinement in the Linux installer than you would typically find in Microsoft of Apple installers. The Ubuntu installer was buggy at times, it took several attempts at making a bootable CD, and quite how the average use is supposed to know about LVM and partitioning is a bit beyond me. But that could just be the Ubuntu distro, I've not used the others.
I have setup a dual boot system so I boot into Windows to play games and use Linux for everything else. Those Windows programs which I cannot find suitable alternatives for I use a VirtualBox virtual machine to run a copy of Windows 7 inside my Linux desktop.
It's a real shame there aren't more games written to support Linux, if they did then I'm sure there would be a lot more people switching over. Valve have made some effort to support Linux through the Half-Life series, but that's it really. There are no other Steam games on Linux. Hopefully things will change with SteamBox being launched soon, but seeing as how the Steam client doesn't even work properly under Linux I'm not all that hopeful. The best we can hope for is getting Wine to work, or dual booting.
I shall continue updating this blog with additional tips for switching to Linux, including getting many games and applications to run under Linux. Stay tuned for updates!
Last updated: 2017-07-31