Linux: the CHOICE how-to guide.

Free, stable, fast — there's a lot to like about Linux. We take an in-depth look at this powerful, open-source operating system.
 
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02.What is Linux?

Just like Windows or Mac OS X, Linux is an operating system (OS) that manages your computer: from running applications to powering devices like digital cameras, printers, and more.

Unlike Windows, however, Linux is an open source operating system. Rather than just providing programs to run on your computer, open source software also provides you with the rights and means to modify and compile the software yourself, if you have the know-how.

In practice, this means that there’s no single company responsible for Linux. There’s no Apple or Microsoft equivalent. Instead, volunteers and organisations produce and maintain Linux, and release the results to the public.

The fact that Linux is free and open source has other benefits, aside from the advantages of the OS itself. For example, there are many Linux users at every level of expertise from beginner to expert. Support is widely available via a search in Google, or through local Linux User Groups, mailing lists and bulletin boards. And being free, you don’t have to worry about licenses — you can install Linux on as many machines as you like. Given the versatility of its applications, this means you can set up a home or office PC at no cost, save for hardware.

Windows vs Linux

Although Windows and Linux have a lot in common, there are many differences. Linux is cheaper — it can cost as little as the price of a CD, or the download fees your ISP charges. Compare this to $350-450 for Vista Home Basic and Premium respectively.

Additionally, with Windows much of the software available comes at a price too. Almost all software for Linux is open source and, in turn, free. Linux distributions come with all the essentials for a desktop system, from web browser to office suites, at no cost to you.

Under the hood Linux is very efficient and goes further with hardware than Windows does — most versions will run on a PC as low as a 300MHz processor with 128MB RAM, which means you can keep using old hardware that you might otherwise have to scrap.

In terms of ease of use, the interfaces for Windows and Linux are very similar, which makes switching over relatively easy, although there are still some key differences. For example, Linux doesn’t use drive letters — like ‘C:’ that you see under Windows. And with Linux there is more than one desktop interface (called 'desktop environment' in Linux parlance) so you actually have a choice of which one you want to use.

The two most popular desktop interfaces are Gnome and KDE — they look similar but have very different features. This may make it harder to sit down and start working at first, but it’s no more complex than moving between, say, Windows 98 and Windows Vista.

Another advantage of Linux is security. By design, it’s inherently more secure than Windows and, having a smaller market share, it’s also a smaller target for malware and viruses. As a result you don’t actually need a security suite for Linux, although you can install one if you want to.

Sound good so far? Naturally, Linux also has its downsides. Firstly it’s easy to buy a new computer with Windows installed, whereas only a few manufacturers (such as Dell and Pioneer) offer systems with Linux. As a result this means most people end up installing Linux themselves, which — while no more complex than installing Windows — can be a little daunting at first if you’ve never installed an operating system before. Which is why we’ve provided a tutorial to show you how (see How to install Ubuntu).

Using Linux isn’t always straightforward. While it has some excellent methods of obtaining new software (frequently called packages), you may occasionally have to tackle installation procedures which are designed for expert users, and the language used for documentation can be a bit jargon-heavy.

Commercial Windows or Apple software such as Quicken or iTunes won’t work in Linux. There are alternatives but you’ll need to check features carefully to ensure you get what you need. If you depend on specific Windows applications, you may find it hard to switch over. Linux has less to offer anyone who primarily uses their computer for desktop publishing, for example.

Finally, Windows generally supports more hardware than Linux. Most manufacturers produce drivers primarily for Windows, though some larger vendors produce Linux drivers. Although manufacturers — such as Nvidia — produce Linux drivers as a matter of course, the open source community tackles much of the writing of hardware drivers, which can lead to delays in support. Remember, these people are often volunteers, and aren’t paid to write drivers!

That said, Linux is more efficient in its use of hardware and will run happily on older systems where Windows is too slow or even refuses to install, and can thus be a way to put old hardware to good use.

Can Linux run Windows programs?

Programs designed to run on Windows (or a Mac) won't run on Linux, at least not without some coaxing from special software designed to do this. However, more often than not, there are Linux versions or equivalents of the same Windows applications, so you don't need to run Windows programs (or Windows itself) at all.

 

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