Linux is probably the best computer operating system you never heard of – but you do use it.
Linux is an alternative O/S to Windows for PC based desktops, laptops and servers. It rules the Internet – this website runs on Linux.
Linux is the basis for the technology of giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon. Half the Internet servers run on Linux and a derivative called Android runs on millions of smartphones worldwide.
However, as a desktop operating system Linux has been a relative failure. Only a tiny minority of PC users actually have Linux installed on their system. It’s a pity really – since Linux is safe, relatively secure, runs fast, can restore old computers to usefulness, can do just about everything Windows does, gives you tons of free software and above all is totally free to download and use.
We have to face the facts:
- You have to be somewhat of a geek to install and maintain Linux. Windows isn’t geek free either but at least you can buy a computer with Windows 10 installed and working.
- The naive Windows user doesn’t know anything but Windows and Linux will have a learning curve – steep or slight depending on how it is set up.
But how geeky do you have to be to be a Linux advocate and user? It depends. Let’s take a look.
Unlike the monolithic Windows, Linux comes in a variety of flavors, called distros. Each one may have a different look, feel, desktop appearance and degree of difficulty. I’ll outline a few from the point of view of the geek who would install it and the naive user who might like to surf the Web or write a memo with it.
Uber Geek Distros
Examples: Linux from Scratch, Gentoo
These provide a significant technical and maintenance challenge since you literally build every functioning part of the system from source code. You would have to be very experienced and knowledgeable about the design and function of Linux to get these systems working properly. I have not attempted to do this in close to 10 years of experimentation. I don’t know how a naive user would cope with (say) Gentoo but I don’t think the experience would be pretty.
Heavy Geek Distros
Examples: Arch Linux, Slackware
These provide the element of simplicity in design but not in use. To install (say) Arch you begin with a very simple system and add in what you think is necessary for your own purposes. It’s elegant and fun for a geek to do this. You need to have experience with the available tools in Linux plus know the Command Line (sort of the old DOS prompt way of doing things.) Slackware is a bit more complete in its makeup, but it isn’t easy to install and maintain. I’ve played around with both of them and enjoyed them, although if something breaks I’m often at a loss about how to fix it. The documentation is great for both of these distros so Googling or using their Wiki helps a lot. A naive Windows user would probably hate the lack of graphical tools and the instability if they tried anything new.
Moderate Geek Distros
Examples: Debian, Fedora, Open SUSE
These are the parent distros for some of the more user friendly consumer based ones out there. They do have a variety of graphics based tools and friendly software managers, but often they don’t contain so called “non-free” software needed for such Windows based activities as playing MP3s or Flash videos. You often find that certain wifi adapters don’t work out of the box with these distros and it can be a pain to install them as a result. Once installed they are pretty solid. A naive Windows user would probably be OK with these systems as long as a geek wasn’t too far away. Personally I like Debian as it can be installed easily over the Internet (with a wired connection if needed.)
Mini Geek Distros
Examples: Ubuntu, Linux Mint, PCLinux OS, Mepis
These are the ones you find at the top of the list to install and use as a new Linux geek. They have very user friendly installers, lots of graphical tools to add new software or drivers and generally they’ll do what you want out of the box. Even experienced users like these distros, because they just work and you can get on with things like the Internet or office applications.
These are best for naive Windows users as well. There is always a bit of a learning curve but a new user can figure it out pretty fast. Certain distros like Linux Mint aren’t that far from Windows in initial look and feel. If you use Firefox or Google Chrome on Windows, you’ll feel right at home browsing the Web with Linux Mint or Ubuntu.
So what’s a geek to do? Although I have had a lot of fun with Arch Linux and I love it, I have Linux Mint on all my machines right now. It’s a lot easier for family members who tend to be Windows users most of the time. Being a geek only takes you so far.