When picking out a computer, most people see two obvious options - Windows or Mac. But it takes a real geek to know the third option. That third, mysterious option is Linux.
You see, long ago there was this system that nerds and scientists used called Unix. These were computers that favored performance over user friendliness. They were great for crunching numbers, collecting data, and looking really cool on your desk.
The problem was they were expensive, and the software that came with it was not very configurable. This all came to a head when a guy named Richard Stallman set out to write his own version of every tool unix had to offer - only his versions would be free and totally customizeable.
Stallman was able to write a liberated copy of just about every unix tool, all except for one important component - the kernel. This is the routine of a computer that is responsible for allocating resources for all the other programs. It is just as important as it sounds.
In great timing, a Finnish programmer by the name Linus Torlvalds humbly offered up his makeshift kernel sideproject. He jokingly named it Linux, a combination of “Linus” and “Unix”. And so, there was born the mysterious third option feared by Best Buy employees.
So there is my incredibly informal history of Linux. I wasn’t trying to be accurate beyond re-gleaning a few wikipedia articles. If you are into computer history, write your own summary and I promise I will post it as an addendum.
For most of you click-and-close type of computer users out there, that prequel was a gigantic turn off. Maybe I should have skipped it and just said this: there is a third option. It’s completely free, and if you don’t like anything about it, there are hundreds of other options to choose from. Sound a little more appetizing?
Linux is really the best kept secret in computers. For people who do know about it, they are usually only familiar with the really scary parts, leading them to say things like Weren’t the guys who leaked all those celbrity nudes using Linux? They probably were, but they probably also used the same butter you do on their toast that morning.
Linux gets a reputation for being built by and for the arrogant, basement-dwelling recluses. But the reality is that you, dear reader, are probably smart enough to figure it out.
I have been using Linux for about three years now. The following are the prevailing reasons why I have stuck with it.
Linux is totally free. It’s open source, which means the code is free for anyone to take and edit. Not only can you download it, but you can even fork it. This means you can create your own version.
If you wanted, you could literally publish your own version of Linux under the name “Maroon5 Sucks OS”, and I bet if you paid Google about a trillion dollars, they would base the next version of Chrome OS off of it and print “Maroon5 Sucks” right across the lid. But Google probably wouldn’t do this for anything short of a trillion dollars. As it turns out, you are not as dependable of a maintainer as the people who work on the official Linux kernel.
So why do those maintainers do it, especially when they don’t always get paid? In programming, “money’ isn’t the only form of money . There is also time.
Let’s say you have three teams of people that make competing software. The bosses pay their engineers to build applications profitable applications. The development of these applications will take time.
Let’s say that all three of these teams have to overcome a really obnoxious problem - like accounting for timezones. This is code that they will all have to write, test, and maintain. It also needs to be perfectly accurate.
So why would all three teams write their own? Why not just share one algorithm that they all test, contribute to, and maintain together? That way they save time and get to focus on the stuff that is more important to their bosses. Nobody gets paid for the code, but it makes everyone’s life a whole lot easier. They are paid in time .
This is how open source generally works. A bunch of people pitch in and write something that makes everybody’s life a lot easier. The maintainers of the official Linux kernel keep at it because they need it - and so do many other people.
This wonderful concept can trickle down to end users, even if they will never write a line of code in their life. When you use Linux, you can ride on the coat tails open source symbiosis - and the best part of it all is that these programmers are delighted to have you along for the ride. More users mean better testing. With your permission, they can collect information from your machine and work on the errors that you find. You, in exchange for free software, become an extreme test case explorer.
Have you ever downloaded an update and felt instantly depressed once you saw the new changes to your favorite app or system? The biggest example of this kind of upset that should be staring you in the face is Windows 8. For whatever reason, Microsoft looked at the world’s most popular operating system and though, “Let’s make the next version totally unrecognizeable.”
Don’t get me wrong - some people like the giant tiles and bright primary colors. That’s not the point. My point is that if you want to continue to use Windows, you have no choice but to live with Microsoft’s sometimes erratic design decisions.
In the land of Linux, the tables turn. When a distribution (i.e., a flavor of Linux) release an update, it is done with great fear and trembling. Why is that? It’s because distribution maintainers know that any poor design decisions on their part can cause an equal and opposite exodus of faithful users.
Consequently, there are thousands of versions to choose from, and fearing your dissatisfaction, most of them include plenty of ways to customize your user experience.
There are versions that look really similiar to Windows.
There are versions that look exactly like Windows.
There are versions that look like something out of the control room of Jurassic Park.
There are versions that look exactly like your mom’s Mac.
There are versions that are look like a combination of Mac and Windows.
And there are versions that look like a whole different animal all together.
The point is you never have to be a sucker for someone else’s opinion. If you believe that the last good looking computer was made in 1991, you can use that look forever. If you like to use something different every day, you can make changes on the fly. You can switch the clock to army time, change the color of the window’s shadows, and even use a little picture of your dog as the mouse cursor. The choices in Linux are unlimited.
Everyone has their own software preferences. Remind yourself of your own, then imagine yourself setting up a fresh new Windows or Mac computer.
The pattern is inevitably tedious. Even worse, the only way you are going to know these applications need to be updated is faith that they will individually nag you the next time you open them. The whole system is ecclectic at best and a mess at worst.
In Linux, a beautiful thing called package management is used. If you don’t know what it is now, it’s about to become your new favorite thing. All the software available for the system comes from one source. Therefore, if you want to install anything new, you only need to visit one place. Most versions of Linux make it look really pretty and browsable, but the reality is that installing anything takes only one command.
In Ubuntu (a popular version of Linux), performing the above steps would look like this:
sudo apt-get install firefox vlc gimp thunderbird
Abracadabra. The applications are totally removed and they are no longer rolled into your software updates.
Package management is one of those things that you can never stop using once you figure out how to use it. If you have an obsessive need to keep things clean and organized in your workspace, switching to Linux would be worth it for the package management alone. I even keep a giant list of all my favorite software on hand. That way, if I ever want to do some spring cleaning of my system and start from scratch, I just run a script - and by the time I’ve made a sandwich and come back, I have all of my favorite software installed on my machine.
This reason is much more subjective than the others. Getting to customize anything I want on my computer makes using my computer more fun. I’ll be honest, sometimes I go a little crazy and break something. I’ll install a theme or plugin that wasn’t quite ready for the general public, and now I can’t boot into my desktop. But you just have to make reasonable preparations if you are going to go off of the beaten path and do some ricing (customization). Keep backups, read things before you do them, don’t start anything big too late at night, and never drink around blank DVD’s. I’ve personally coined the term drunk partition . This is when you wake up next to a bottle of Honey Jack with a new hard drive partition that you don’t recognize and a DVD with a handwritten label that says “FREEBSD lol ;)”.
Don’t get me wrong - there are plenty of means in the Linux community to set up something simple and dependable and mind your own business. But for whatever reason, most of us take weird pleasure in breaking our machine and learning about our system by fixing it.
One of the biggest things that scared me about switching to Linux was the difference in software. To be honest, switching would not be helpful if your life depends on really expensive and/or exclusive software.
If you are a graphic designer and you pretty much spend all day in Adobe Photoshop, keep using whatever you are using. There is no easy way to use Photoshop in Linux.
However, if you just need something to resize pictures, turn a few of your camera phone shots into artsy black and white expressions, or shop a Hitler moustache onto your baby, GIMP totally gets the job done.
If you live your whole life out of iTunes and liken your Apple ID to your social security number, stay on a Mac. It wouldn’t really make sense for you to switch.
However, if you just need something to roll through your big fat folder of mp3s or play your home videos, there are tons of options for media players in Linux.
If you know the Microsoft Office suite better than you know your family and you are an absolute virtuoso in Microsoft excel, stick with Windows. However, if you just need something to crank out essays and make decent lab reports, LibreOffice is a great replacement.
There is always the Google option too. Linux run Google Chrome like a champ, so if you spend most of your time in Drive, Google Play, YouTube, Gmail, and Hangouts, you will feel right at home.
One category of people that used to fall into this section was PC gamers. But the tides are turning, reader. Last year, the popular Gaming client Steam became available for Linux, and in only one year more than 800 games have been produced for Linux. It still pales in comparison to what’s out for Windows, but Gabe Newell has clearly outlined his intention to move the future of PC gaming to Linux.
Lastly, you shouldn’t use Linux if you don’t know how to search the Internet for answers. Many Linux users would probably scream at me for saying this, but there is no official help for Linux (that is, a single Linux company you can call). Some people just need the comfort of knowing they can call Microsoft and, after an hour of sitting on hold, talk to someone who is paid by the people who make their computer.
There’s no official place to get help, but there are literally thousands of places online where people want to help you for fun.
Once of my favorite places to get help has been the Linux4Noobs subreddit, which offers their help in anything - from general questions to utter disaster recovery.
There is also the Arch Linux Wiki, which serves as a freely edited instruction manual. Though it is written for the Arch Linux distribution, many Linux users consult it when they need something technically detailed.
But above all, Google is your friend. Most errors in Linux can be resolved by just pasting the error message into Google and reading the first result. In my opinion, that beats the socks off of any official customer support help line.
Don’t worry. In this section, we’re not going to do anything serious. I’m going to tell you how to try out Linux, but also assume that you have massive issues with commitment. No one is commiting to anything here.
Before I lay out my recommended ways of trying out Linux, I’d first like to nip a particularly bad way in the butt. If you’ve looked into this before, you have probably come across dual booting .
Dual booting is when you install two operating systems on one computer. When you power of your computer, you select which system you want to start.
Dual booting is a bad idea - especially if you are a beginner. I know it seems like a reasonable transition into Linux, but you will just be making it harder to use Linux and whatever was already on your computer. I’ve tried just about everything, and have returned to tell you that dual booting is not as fun as people make it sound. Additionally, it just makes people’s first impressions of Linux worse than they could be.
Now that we have had a family chat about the dangers of dual booting , here is how you can try Linux (and keep your serious issues with commitment in tact).
Computers can “boot off of” things other than themselves. I like to think of it like putting your car up on a jack. You can temporarily have your computer live off of a CD, SD card, or USB while it sets your hard drive aside.
This is a great way to try Linux. You can create a CD, which will almost always give you the option of just trying it out before you install.
The hardest part about doing this is that you have to burn the CD yourself. Here’s how it will go:
Virtualization is a need little trick. Without ever turning off your computer, you can launch a tiny virtual computer in a window. Given, it won’t be as powerful, but it’s a great way to try something out in a truly isolated sandbox.
I like to use VirtualBox. It’s free, and pretty dependable. Download the software and the ISO mentioned above and create a new virtual machine. While setting up, you will load the ISO file into the virtual dvd drive of your virtual machine. Once you are set up, you can play and pause it like a VCR. All of the happenings of this dangerous Linux experiment will be contained to a little window on your computer. Once you are done, you can power it down and delete it.
Get an old computer. Linux can run on pretty much anything, especially a $50 craigslist laptop or your dad’s old PC.
I hope now, reader, that you can rid yourself of the notion that Linux is for super elite hackers. Truthyfully, Linux is for just about anyone that knows how to operate a computer, doesn’t mind learning something new, and likes to pick their own colors. There are literally hundreds of thousands of distros to try. If you have some freetime, pick up a pack of blank DVDs and take the first 25 that look interesting to you. Now go have an adventure.