The change you’re looking for could be another operating system. You'd be familiar with Mac OSX, which is a good alternative, but not the only one. The Mac has a free cousin, known as Linux, which also offers a way to escape the hassles of Windows. Mac OSX and Linux are related because they’re both based on Unix, a long-established, industrial-grade system commonly used on mainframes and supercomputers (the ‘X’ in each name comes from 'Unix'). Both have inherited Unix’s inherent reliability, stability and security.
You might not have heard of Linux before, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been around. It was first released in 1991 (Mac OS X was released in 2002), but was for some years too 'geeky' for the average computer user. However, Linux has come a long way, and these days it's probably more user-friendly than Windows – it's certainly less troublesome. The writer, who is no geek, has been using Linux since mid-2006.
Linux is used for more than just PCs. For example, Android is a version of Linux, modified for use with touch screen devices. That alone makes Linux the most popular operating system in the world. The Google Chrome OS (used in Chromebooks) is a version of Linux as well. Behind the scenes, most web servers run Linux, and it is embedded in the electronics of machines everywhere, from Renaults to refrigerators and BMWs to Boeings. Wherever there’s a need for an 'invisible' operating system, you’ll likely find Linux.
And there are good reasons for this, reasons that also apply to your PC. Perhaps the most important is security, as Linux is not touched by the malware that afflicts Windows. This allows you to confidently do things that can be worrying with Windows, such as internet banking or online shopping (using Chrome or Firefox) – better than all the Windows anti-virus software in the world.
There are many other benefits too. One always has the latest version, and can freely download a program for almost any purpose. And the system is straightforward to use. You will have more control over your computer, and you’ll no longer be subjected to Windows’ quirks and annoyances.
What's the catch?
Sounds too good to be true? Well, there’s always a catch, and in this case it’s the fact that most Windows programs won’t work with Linux. In practice this is not a major problem; most users simply install Linux alongside Windows (it's an installation option) and choose one or the other when booting up. Choose Windows when you need to use your Windows programs, just as you always have. Or choose the Linux 'side' instead. The choice is yours and there is nothing to lose. This is called ‘dual booting’.
Some of the programs made for Linux will be familiar, such as Firefox and Chrome, but most Linux programs will seem like ‘generic’ equivalents of those you currently use with Windows. This doesn’t mean they’re less capable but, being different, there has to be a learning curve.
If you're too busy to learn these programs, or not very confident with computers, consider the following approach. This way you will get most of the benefit with next to no learning curve.
- Use the Linux 'side' for your browser-based applications. This includes accessing the web, online banking/purchasing, email, Google Docs and social media
- Use the Windows side for installed applications
You can see there will be less need for installed applications in future as more and more of our day-to-day computing becomes browser-based.
Choose the right version of Linux
Linux is available in different flavours, or distributions (‘distros’). This is because, strictly speaking, Linux is just the nucleus of an operating system. The nucleus, or ‘kernel’ in Linux-speak, is supported by many other pieces of software to make up a complete system. Each distro has a unique mix of supporting software with a particular type of user in mind.
There are hundreds of distros out there, but the most popular are Ubuntu, Debian, OpenSUSE and Mint. Each of these would be a safe choice, but only you can decide which is best suited to your needs. To that end you may wish to use one of several online 'distro selectors'. A little homework will save some trouble, but you can afford to experiment because most distros are available free of charge.
Most distros are free because Linux is 'Free and Open Source Software' (FOSS), which is produced and constantly updated by volunteer programmers. FOSS can be used and changed by anyone. Being open to anyone, FOSS software is constantly under close scrutiny, and this is why you can be sure there are no nasties in it. Most of the programs that work on Linux are FOSS.
Using Linux is generally a straightforward thing, but one potential source of angst is printing. This need not be an issue, as nearly any HP printer will work out of the box. However, if you have your heart set on another brand you will need to go to the 'Linux printing' website to check that it works with Linux. Alternatively, you can go to a site dedicated to selling printers (and other things) that are known to work on Linux, such as Think Penguin.
Obtaining and installing Linux
Installing Linux from a DVD or USB flash drive is a straightforward exercise within the reach of most computer users. Just insert the media, follow the prompts and decide on a few basic options along the way.
You can obtain an installation DVD or USB flash drive very cheaply from OSDisc.com, Shop Linux Online or any number of other suppliers, including many on Ebay and Amazon.
Alternatively, you can download Linux for free. However, the download (which is in .iso format) must be 'written' to a DVD or USB before it can be used. For a DVD, use the Windows Disc Image Burner (right click on the .iso file and select ‘burn disc image’). With that done you can go ahead and install your new operating system. If you don't have a disc drive, then you have no choice but install from a USB. Write the .iso to the USB (at least 2Gb) using Windows Disc Imager or RUFUS, both of which are free downloads.
Most distros offer three installation options:
- 'Dual boot’ with Windows: Select Linux or Windows each time you boot up. This is the popular choice. Your Windows programs are there and waiting for you when you need them. Use the Linux side for your web applications, web browsing and your favourite Linux programs.
- Linux on its own: Choose this option if you want to purge Windows from your life. Windows will be wiped from your system and cannot be recovered. Think twice, as most of us will need Windows at least now and then.
- ‘Live installation’: This is the ‘try before you buy’ option. Insert the disc and Linux will start and run as if it were installed on the computer, but it can't make any changes. Shut down, remove the disc and your computer remains as it was before, untouched. If you like what you've seen, go ahead and choose one of the options above.
I would suggest another option: You may have a dusty old laptop lying around the place; you know, the one that cost so much (six years ago!) you can't bear to throw it out. If this applies to you, try installing Linux on it. This could be a good 'practice run' to see what's involved before you do anything to your everyday computer. What's more, you may be pleasantly surprised with how well it runs (much better than it ever did), as Linux has much lower system requirements than Windows.