Switching operating systems is no small matter, but I’ve had quite a few questions in the last few months about Linux as an alternative to Windows XP or even Windows 8. Linux is a free, open source way to run your computer, but although I work with it every day, I generally don’t write about it because it’s nowhere near as widely used as Windows or the Mac’s OS X. Even so, the convergence of the end of Windows XP and changes to Windows that appeared in version 8 make Linux worth a look for those with a yen to try something different.
Can the average home user deal easily with Linux? I can answer that with an anecdote: A couple of years ago, a houseguest from out of town asked whether she could get on my computer to check her driving route the next day. I realized she had never seen Linux before and I almost told her I’d help, but then I decided to see what would happen. Not only did she get the information she needed from my Linux machine, but she didn’t even realize she wasn’t in her usual Windows. So yes, basic use in most modern Linux systems is not a serious problem.
Harder to customize
There are many Linux versions, called “distributions,” and the way to proceed if you’re interested in learning more is to download and burn a DVD. In most cases, you can get a version – a “Live DVD” – that will load the operating system from the DVD itself, allowing you to see what it looks like and how it functions without actually loading it on your hard disk. This way you can try out various distributions – Fedora, Ubuntu, OpenSUSE – to see which appeals to you the most.
Linux raises fewer compatibility issues than in the not so distant past. If you’re used to Microsoft Office, for example, you’ll find that LibreOffice, which comes with many Linux distributions, not only operates in much the same way but offers the ability to save files in Microsoft formats. Because Linux is free, you have access to a vast number of programs that can be added to your system as needed, all without restrictive licensing and costly upgrades.
That said, you’ll always find one or two programs from your Mac or Windows machine that you miss. I love the free GIMP image manipulation program, but if you’re a die-hard PhotoShop user, there’s no Linux version. It will take some experimenting to discover whether Linux substitutes for a favorite program satisfy you. More problematic is the issue of hardware drivers which, depending on your machine, may or may not take manual tweaking. Customizing Linux isn’t nearly as easy as re-configuring Windows or OS X, which I also use.
If Linux tempts you anyway, be aware that it’s a highly secure operating system. Even its relatively small user base helps here, as most viruses and malware are written for software like Windows, which is in such widespread use that it allows plentiful targets. Moreover, I’ve found Linux runs well on lower powered machines, meaning that if you have an older computer, you just might be able to bring it back to full life if you experiment with a Linux distribution.
And that gets me to the answer I give most readers. If you’re looking into Linux for the first time, don’t plunge in on your primary computer. If there’s a machine that’s not getting much use in your house – maybe that older XP-laden laptop – try one or more of the Linux Live DVDs on it. Be aware that any operating system runs more slowly on a DVD, but have a look around. You can install it on your hard disk at any time, but the Live DVD option doesn’t commit you.
I use Linux along with Windows on my desktop machine. Most days I’m solely in Linux, but if I choose, I can boot into Windows as well. Linux installation routines walk you through all this, but again, try the system out on a non-essential machine and – always – keep critical data backed up in case of problems. Getting help with Linux means consulting online user communities, which can work brilliantly but be off-putting to a newcomer. My advice: Go slow and easy. And yes, if you so choose, Linux can be a fine replacement for Windows XP.
Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.