Are you ready to take the plunge? It can be hard to decide, particularly if you’re a longtime Windows user. The Windows camp makes the idea seem absurd, and the Ubuntu camp is full of people talking about things you’ve never heard of. Each one thinks they’ve got the answer to all of your problems. Here’s a truthful look of ArsGeek staff at some of the issues you will be faced with if you decide to switch. I’ll also discuss some of the great points of switching as well.
(note: This topic has generated lots of discussion on Digg as to the positives and negatives of modern operating systems. We’ve launched a new board in our forums, OS Wars to discuss just this topic. Please join us there!)
First, a brief history. Just a little over a year and half past, I made the switch from Microsoft XP to Ubuntu Linux. I’d dabbled in Linux before in a few of the various incarnations out there such as Mandrake and RedHat. This however was the first time I’d put it on my primary computer, to be used as my primary operating system.
- You will miss some aspects of Windows. In my case, the thing I missed most was gaming. There are some wonderful games available for Ubuntu and other Linux distros. There are also services like Cedega which allow you to play some games on Linux. Nothing however really compares to playing these games in their native environment, without having to twiddle a service, muck about with Wine or find some kind of comparative product. This is why I chose (and still choose) to dual boot my laptop. I can still play my favorite games under Windows.
- You’ll find that lots of people are willing to help you, simply because you’re using Ubuntu. It’s almost like joining a club that has an exclusive membership feeling but allows anyone in. Over the past year and a half I’ve been helped by lots and lots of people with more knowledge and experience than I have. In turn, I feel happy to do the same for others following in my footsteps. It’s nice to belong and other Ubuntu users make it easy. It’s also nice to get quick answers to problems you may be having simply by posting to a forum, or asking on a blog.
- Sometimes, you’ll really miss using Windows. I’ve been using windows since 3.11. It was entrenched in my nervous system. If I wanted to get somewhere, I simply went to Start and did it. Change my desktop? Easy. Check the Event Log? No problem. Learning to do all of this in Linux takes time. There will be times when you spend an hour troubleshooting what would be a simple problem if you just knew what you were doing. Fortunately there is a community willing to help you and share your frustrations. There’s also that learning curve I just mentioned. Once you crest it, it’s like you suddenly have some serious control over your PC. You can start getting it to do things that make others go”Wow!” even though you’re not having a Vista moment.
- You’ll find yourself spending a lot less money. Really, there’s no reason to go out and buy lots of additional software for your computer when you can get the same functionality with free software. The list of programs available is huge! Are all of them as fully featured as their Windows counterpart. Nope. Some of them don’t even come close. Keep in mind however that I’ve yet to find a feature missing from Open Office that I used in MS Office. A lot of the features included in pay-for software the average person never uses. If you’re an expert graphic designer, then you’ll probably not want to move from Photoshop to Gimp. If you just like to muck about and make neat stuff, then Gimp works fine.
- When you don’t have to buy the software, the temptation to pirate software is removed. Really, it’s that simple. I know of lots of people with pirated versions of Photoshop who would be just as well served by Gimp (to return to that example). Office? Same thing. The truth of the matter is, if you’re a professional who needs office or Photoshop, you’re going to go out and buy it. If you want MS Office just to use excel a few times and write the great American novel, you’ll be just as well served by OpenOffice.
- You’re not going to have to worry much about viruses, worms, trojans and spyware. It’s a simple fact. I open emails with impunity, even if they come from my office mate and are entitled “Britney Spears Naked”. Why? That exe file tagged to the end of six thousand spaces isn’t going to effect me. Bonzi Buddy for Linux? Nope. I don’t think it will be this way forever as more and more folks adopt operating systems like Linux and OSX but for now, I enjoy myself without dealing with malware, pop ups, and viruses.
- *** (See edits at end of point 7)You are going to be more vulnerable to hackers. If you don’t consider a malware infestation as being hacked, then Linux/Unix is probably the most hacked OS. Sure there are far less instances of hacking than of malware and virus outbreaks but you’ll want to be aware of this. If you have a system with a dedicated IP that’s on all the time, you could be a target for hacking. Read up on your linux security. A good firewall is a good idea. Edit – I’d like to update this a bit. I’m no longer sure point 7 is true – certainly you could be the object of intrusions or scans to attempt an intrusion. At this time however Ubuntu is just as hardened if not more so than other operating systems. So could you be hacked? Yes. Will you? Your probability isn’t any higher than any other OS. However if you modify the base system and open your system to vulnerabilities you may open yourself up to greater risk.
- There are times you’ll be sorely tempted to just go back to Windows. With me, I’ve found that a dual boot system alleviates that a bit. If I just can’t get it done in Linux (and since I like to hack about my system if I’ve caused my own problem and I need to work) I can simply boot into Windows and do it. This will taper off with time though. The only reason I boot into Windows now is to assist someone with a Windows problem their having or to play a game.
- You’ll need to learn at least a little about the command line. Like it or not, Linux has a CLI and there will be times you’ll want to use it. Having said that though, you can do a lot now via a Graphical User Interface. Why would you want to use the CLI then? Your GUI is like flying over your computer at 5,000 feet. You’ve got a broad view of what’s going on but it’s hard to make out the little details. Your CLI is like walking across your OS. You can stop, take a hard look around and tweak the littlest thing.
- Surfing the web, checking email and instant messaging stay pretty much the same. If you already use open source products like Firefox, Thunderbird and Gaim this is even more true. If not, you’ll have a brief period of adjustment and then you’ll be surfing, emailing and chatting like you always have.
- Playing DVDs, Music and Movies on your Ubuntu box takes two extra steps. Above and beyond installing Ubuntu, you’ll have to do two more things to be able to listen to most types of music and play most types of video files and movies. What are those two things? Installing Automatix2 and then running it.
- If you have a family member or friend who acts as your tech support and they know Linux, they will thank you profusely. Because your Ubuntu experience will be free of viruses, malware and pop-up hell, this means that their support roles have suddenly diminished. If you do have a problem, it’s easy for them to pop right onto your computer from just about anywhere and take a look at it. Unless of course, your problem is getting online. I’ve switched a couple of friends over to Ubuntu and it’s a joy. When they do have a problem I SSH in and fix it.
- You’ll find that you don’t have to reboot. Really! Unless you’ve come across a very severe bug, or have done something to your computer yourself, you won’t have to reboot even when you update Ubuntu! The only time updates generally require a reboot are when a new Kernel comes out and is distributed to Ubuntu users. You’ll also find that, updates aside, Ubuntu is a rock solid stable system. I’ve got Ubuntu machines that have seen heavy and steady use which have been up for 200+ days.
If you’ve been hearing a lot about Ubuntu (or other Linux distributions) and you’re deciding whether to make the switch or not, I hope I’ve been some help. It’s always good to go into a decision like this with information. If you’ve recently made the switch, I’d love to hear from you. Let me know the good and the bad. Ubuntu isn’t perfect. There isn’t a perfect OS out there, but it does offer a range of usability from simple point and click to ultimate customization.
Edit: Here are a few ways you can give Ubuntu a try.
1. You can download the ISO from Ubuntu.com, burn it on to a disk, and boot into it. This won’t touch your hard drive or your Windows install and it will let you see what Ubuntu is all about and if your hardware works well with it.
2. You can visit Ubuntu’s ShipIt store and request that CDs be sent right to your door. This takes about a month and is completely free. Ubuntu has made 6.06, their long term stable release available for shipping.
3. You can try Install.exe. This will install an instance of Ubuntu on your windows machine. Read more about it here but know that it’s currently a prototype.