The great Windows, Mac and Ubuntu shoot-out part 3

Linux shootout

Switch to Linux?

The Open Source Linux distributions are an alternative to Windows with a lot going for them.  What’s not to like about secure, totally free, and relatively well-written software?

Well, at least better written than Vista.

Proponents have been forecasting for years that Linux is poised for exponential growth. It hasn’t happened. Nevertheless, the fight isn’t over, Linux has evolved recently into a far more user-friendly operating system than I would have thought possible just a couple of years ago.

The latest version of the Ubuntu Linux distribution—9.04, aka Jaunty Jackalope—may have a silly name, but it’s an outstanding operating system. Trialists of the upcoming version 9.10 (Karmic Koala!) are waxing even more enthusiastically than they did over 9.04.

Unfortunately, there are chinks in the Linux armory. People who absolutely must have the latest computer games, those who’re hooked on Photoshop or Dreamweaver, and users of niche software written only for Windows or the Mac, are not going to have their boats floated by Ubuntu in the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, if you don’t really need bloated and over-priced Microsoft or Adobe software, Linux, particularly Ubuntu, and the open source software community have the programs and the tools to do just about anything.

For the first half of this year I used Ubuntu as my OS almost exclusively. I was very happy with most of the free programs available. Here’s a list of the main stuff I was using:

OpenOffice.org 3 Office Suite

It’s doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as Microsoft Office, but for 95% of word processor and spreadsheet users it has everything you’ll ever need. What’s more, it’s compatible with Microsoft’s formats.

Gimp

The free equivalent of Adobe Photoshop, Gimp, is an excellent photo-editing program. If you’re a non-professional graphics user it will do everything you need. Like Photoshop, Gimp is suited for bitmap editing. It’s doesn’t have Photoshop’s power, but neither does it have Photoshop’s complexity and steep learning curve.

For vector graphics you need:

InkScape

It’s an excellent vector graphics editor, it’s free, it’s available for Windows, Mac and Linux and it’s nipping at the heels of Adobe Illustrator and Corel Draw.

Amaya, Bluefish, Kompozer, Komodo Edit and Screem

These are all excellent programs for programming, web creation and for PHP and HTML scripting. While these programs are not as slick as Adobe’s Dreamweaver or Microsoft’s Expression Web, they’re no more difficult to master, they’re not suffering from bloat, and if you’re prepared to put the effort into learning to hand script HTML, CSS and maybe some PHP, they will do the job for most amateur web designers and for many pros too.

Xsane

Free scanning software, which produces excellent results with my pre-historic Epson Perfection 2400 scanner.

Tomboy Notes

An excellent sticky notes program with wiki-like embedded hot links. Tomboy is a very good searchable repository for random text data and it’s easily synchronized between computers. It’s now available for Windows and Mac too.

VMware Workstation

This virtualization software allowed me to run Windows and other Linux versions in Virtual Machines within Linux. VMware Workstation isn’t free, but VMware Server and Sun’s VirtualBox do a fine job of virtualization and theyare free.

FileZilla

An excellent FTP program for uploading and downloading stuff to and from a website.

And

Shutter for capturing screenshots; Firefox and Opera top class web browsers; Exaile, an excellent music player; and Brassero, a great utility for CD or DVD burning.

I use Gmail online for email, but Mozilla’s Thunderbird is an excellent local email client for Linux. Thunderbird’s great for Windows and Mac too and can be used in conjunction with the excellent Sunbird Calendar.

I cheated a little. I ran Windows XP in a virtual machine inside Windows so that I could use a couple of programs during the transition. My life is stored in Evernote and an old version of Info Select, neither of which run well in Linux.

For the majority of computer users, whose main needs are surfing the web, email, word processing, spreadsheets, maybe some graphics creation and photo editing, I believe Linux is an excellent operating system and Ubuntu, by popular acclaim, is the most suitable Linux distribution for new users.

I’ve dabbled with Linux on and off for years but until the last year of two I’ve always slunk back to Windows with my tail between my legs. With all the releases I tried there were always problems which were too difficult or too time consuming for me to overcome. Wireless connection was often problematic, networking with other machines was difficult for a non-expert, and seeking advice often produced answers which were more difficult to understand than the initial problem. I need less stress in my life so I invariably fell back on the familiarity of Windows.

Ubuntu 9.04 fixed all that. Well, most of it. Although Ubuntu has an outstanding user forum, too many Linux geeks there still tend to give we newbies unedifying advice like, “All you need to do is recompile the kernel.”

I’m looking forward to trialling Ubuntu 9.10 now that it’s released in the wild.  Although I’m no longer using Ubuntu day to day, I expect to revert to Linux in the medium term. Maybe when my current versions of Photoshop and Dreamweaver reach their use by date. And when the outstanding freebie Evernote is written for Linux.

The downside of Linux?

Internecine warfare:

  • There are far, far too many different Linux distributions (distros). Ubuntu, Red Hat, Fedora, Mandriva, Debian… and dozens more. It’s confusing to new, and would-be, users and probably to experienced Penguin Freaks as well. Even within the Ubuntu distribution community there are sub-distros like Edubuntu and Kubuntu. Then there’s Mint, which is basedon Ubuntu, which is, in turn, based on Debian.In my opinion it’s a mess. It needs sorting out, but that isn’t going to happen. Unless Ubuntu becomes so popular that it becomes synonymous with Linux and the other distros wither on the vine.
  • There’s a war between supporters of the main two of several very different “Desktops” (i.e. user interfaces or GUIs) Gnome and KDE. The latest version of KDE is as buggy as Vista Mk1.
  • Many Linux old hands are resistant to efforts to make the distros user-friendly. They wear complexity and the command line as a badge of honour. “We spent years becoming expert in the arcane and so should you noobs. If you don’t like it, go back to Windows.” If they had their way we’d still be stuck with the Microsoft equivalent of MS-DOS.

Restrictions

As already mentioned.

  • If you’re joined at the hip to Microsoft Word, Excel, Access, or any other Microsoft Office Suite components you’re not able to use them natively in Linux.
  • Ditto for Adobe’s Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Acrobat and the rest of the gold-plated CS4 software.
  • Most of the popular high end games won’t be available to you.
  • The same goes for many specialized Windows and Macintosh programs.
  • If you need a random data storage and retrieval program like OneNote, Info Select or Evernote, you’re out of luck. That’s the main hurdle for me.

Many of the problems are irrelevant if you dual-boot using Windows or if you run Windows in a virtual machine within Linux, but unless that’s just a short-term transitional measure what’s the point? Either you want to ditch Windows or you don’t. Dual booting is no answer for most users, with the possible exception of gamers.

free!

The positives?

  • Did I mention that it’s free?
  • It’s very secure. Partly because the Unix operating system upon which it’s based is very solid and partly because it’s not such a big juicy target for malicious malware pushers as Windows is.
  • For 90% of home PC users, and for many business users, it will do everything you need. The vast majority of Microsoft Office users only use a tiny fraction of the power they’re paying for. The open source (free) alternatives running in Linux would suit them admirably.
  • Ubuntu comes out with a new release every six months. If the current trend in incremental improvement continues we can look forward to great things in the near term.

Ask yourself:

What software does Google use?

Linux.

What about most cell phones, smart appliances and the majority of the world’s servers?

Linux.

What do Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar use for their rendering farms.

Linux.

Why is that?

What’s the best OS?

So what’s the mistywindow verdict? The wrapup is here.