Is Linux too good to be true?

Life without Microsoft's Windows: Michael Pollitt tests the open-source option

Typing "Linux" into Google gives about 109 million results. Surprisingly, that's five million more than searching for "Microsoft". But are potential users of the alternative operating system to Windows being enticed into making a decision they may later regret?

Typing "Linux" into Google gives about 109 million results. Surprisingly, that's five million more than searching for "Microsoft". But are potential users of the alternative operating system to Windows being enticed into making a decision they may later regret?

Some Windows users are increasingly disillusioned with their computers. The internet no longer feels safe, thanks to viruses, spyware, trojans, hackers and pop-ups targeting features (and failings) in Microsoft software. Going online these days using Internet Explorer is like walking into a minefield.

But what choice does anybody have? Microsoft's monopoly of the consumer desktop is near total. While some applications can be changed - Corel WordPerfect instead of Microsoft Word perhaps - this only tinkers with the problem. Windows has your PC in a tight grip.

The word to consider here is proprietary. Windows belongs to Microsoft, lock, stock and security vulnerability. Apple computers (just over a million Google results) are proprietary too: a great choice for Windows refugees but not a radical one. For real change, there is only one answer - Linux. It's open source, generally free to use and share and is not controlled by a single company. Its penguin mascot is cute too.

In the business world, Linux is causing a stir as firms move to a new operating system. Linux is more secure, offers greater choice and already powers web servers around the world. But can it deliver on home desktops too?

The Canadian author Marcel Gagné thinks it can. He wrote an excellent book last year, Moving to Linux, sub-titled Kiss the Blue Screen of Death Goodbye. Gagné has included a bootable Linux CD-rom to turn your PC into a trial Linux system, yet leave Windows unharmed.

Try out Linux like this and soon you'll want to go all the way. Wise newbies will install it alongside Windows, giving you the choice (and a return ticket) when switching on the PC. But when I tried Suse Linux 9.1, my personal Everest challenge of surmounting the Microsoft mountain left me struggling to get out of base camp.

Linux didn't like my new flat-panel screen and insisted on unusable low resolutions. Much wasted time and online answer seeking (back in Windows) eventually saw 1280 x 1024 pixels again.

How about connecting to the internet? Plug in and go... nowhere. My modem is an internal "softmodem", driven by Windows, and Linux wouldn't play. Much browsing later (in Windows, of course) and I had the right Conexant driver software, written by helpful Canadian company Linuxant.

As you work through this early stuff, there's a nagging problem for Windows XP-ers. While Linux can (mostly) read your files, it cannot (yet) write them back into the Windows XP partition of your hard drive (which uses Microsoft's NTFS format). Windows ignores Linux and its UFS filesystem altogether, so you cannot retrieve work from there. Lateral thinking will have you reaching for a memory stick as a go-between; there are no problems burning CDs or plugging in Zip drives.

To succeed, Linux has to do your everyday tasks well. My first target for program replacement was Microsoft's Outlook Express, infamous for vulnerabilities that allow viruses to strike from the preview pane. Suse had given me Kmail - part of the KDE desktop. But I had my eye on Mozilla as it offered email, a browser and a web page composer. I easily installed Mozilla (you can get it for Windows too) and was immediately hooked by tabbed, menace-proof browsing.

Onward and upward, and another sheer face of incompatibility. Outlook Express stores its email messages in a proprietary format. Mozilla can't import them; but KDE's Kmail can. Using Kmail, I imported the messages into the Unix "mbox" format, then copied the mbox files from Kmail into the Mozilla mail store using the superb Linux file manager-cum-browser, Konqueror.

Things are still tricky for word-processing, spreadsheets and the like. If you're a Microsoft Office user, OpenOffice provides no-frills basics. Diehard Corel WordPerfect fans will discover that OpenOffice won't read their files without a hard-to-install add-on. I tried installing Kword (part of KDE Office) to find it opened WordPerfect documents with unacceptably ragged results. This left me no choice (other than Windows), but to write this feature using OpenOffice.

I could go on. And on. There's stuff that's much better than Windows, and stuff that isn't. Linux is unfinished business without the panache of Windows XP. There are compensations; open source is an embarrassment of riches. You don't need to buy an expensive application for occasional jobs anymore.

Here's what I need to do next. Find a word processor that reads my WordPerfect files properly and offers a word count on selected text. I'd like a replacement voice-dictation program too (if one exists). Learn how to use Wine - a clever way of running Windows programs under Linux - for my accounts program. See if the scanner behaves, read the manuals (again) and try out more programs.

Will I give up Windows altogether? Probably. The more I use Linux, the better I like it despite the challenges. It hasn't crashed; it's immune to Windows viruses; it won't fall victim to spyware, worms or hackers; and it feels (and looks) refreshingly different. But best of all, Linux promises greater choice at less cost. Just give it time to climb more of the Windows mountain.

'Moving to Linux' by Marcel Gagné is published by Addison-Wesley, £26.99

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Life and Style
tech
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas