Thursday, November 29, 2012
Most folks tend to fall into two camps when they buy a computer. They either buy a PC with Windows as the operating system or they'll buy one from Apple with OS X. (Yes, an Apple, whether an iMac, MacBook, or MacBook Pro, etc., is also a PC, i.e., personal computer.) Ironically, many users don't know that both Windows and Apple's OS X are Unix-based operating systems. OS X, for example, is based on the Mach kernel and parts of FreeBSD and NetBSD.
A small but growing number of computer users are switching to other alternative Unix-based systems, including various versions of BSD and the myriad distributions (aka distros) of the Linux kernel developed by Linus Torvalds. Unfortunately, neither BSD nor Linux were user-friendly alternatives to Windows and Apple when they first appeared. Installation required command line (cli) expertise and patience. Even when distributions such as the desktop versions of Red Hat and openSUSE began to provide a graphical user interface (GUI) to make installations easier, it wasn't easy to access the Internet or get peripherals such as printers to work.
Today,that's no longer the case. There is a good selection of distros that "work out of the box." For example, Canonical's Ubuntu, which is based on Debian (a popular older distro) and Ubuntu-based distros like Linux Mint are among those that work out of the box. Moreover, Linux offers a distro for just about every ability and taste. For example, there are longtime Linux users who dislike GUI and distros such as Ubuntu and its offshoots because they prefer to work with the command line. These users prefer distros like Arch Linux or that have been based on Arch. Many of these users also think that such distros are too bloated with unnecessary applications. But not every Linux user wants to install and tweak his or her favorite distro via cli, they just want it to work so they can work, so they opt for one that provides an easy-to-use GUI.
The best thing about Linux is the freedom of choice--not just in the wide selection of distros or flavors, but also in the desktop environments, selection of free open source software (FOSS) in the repositories, as well as in the hardware you run it on. You can even run Linux next to Windows or Mac OS X if you need to, for example if your job requires Windows or OS X, or you're a gamer. Or if you prefer trying out distros--"distro hopping"--you can dual or multiboot distros side by side or test them using a "live CD" or a free virtual machine application like Virtual Box. (There is a great deal of information and tips about dual- and multibooting online.) There are even Linux distros that are "light" and will run just fine on older PCs.
A primary factor for many users in selecting a distro is the desktop environment. Some prefer KDE, which is popular among people used to Windows. Others, perhaps more comfortable with OS X, might prefer a version of GNOME. For those who like a more minimalist and leaner desktop environment, there's Enlightenment, Open Box, LXDE, and Xfce. It's a good idea to test a few of these via a live CD or virtual machine first before you install a Linux distro on your hard drive or external hard drive.
If you're interested in learning more about Linux and many of the distros available, check out http://distrowatch.com/. Which ones do I use? On the iMac, I'm dual booting OS X and Linux Mint 13 with the Xfce desktop. My MacBook is now a LinuxBook and runs only Linux Mint 13 Xfce. When I first began to experiment with Linux, I used an old desktop PC to run Red hat and then openSUSE. A couple of years ago, I began testing distros on the laptop, dual-booting OS X and others I wanted to try out on the hard drive. These included Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Bodhi Linux, PCLinux, among others, before I chose Linux Mint as my preferred distro. I also run several others on both computers via Virtual Box: CrunchBang, Debian, and Solus. If you have difficulty with a distro using a virtual machine or live CD, you'll probably find it even more difficult to install the distro on your desktop.
Depending on which PC you use, you'll discover that some distros will boot easier and work better than others. If you need to troubleshoot a problem, there are solutions online, especially on the user forums for the distro you've selected. Sometimes, you'll discover that there is more than one way to solve a problem--another great thing about Linux.
In short, if you're looking for an alternative to Windows or OS X, try Linux.