Tired of Breaking Windows? Reconsider Your OS Needs Today

Posted on Saturday 11th December 2010 at 00:00
As the end of the year approaches, it's time to reconsider your computing needs. Are you happy with Windows, or would now be a good time to set yourself up with a whole new operating system for 2011? Is there a viable alternative to Windows? How geeky do you have to be to make the switch? Most importantly, why would you want to?

Moaning about Microsoft's Windows family of operating systems seems almost as popular a pastime these days as moaning about the snow (if you have it) or lack of it (if you live in Plymouth). Indeed, to those, like myself, who were growing up during the 90s, when Windows PCs made the leap from the office to the home and became a truly household name, it seems that people have been moaning about the various bugs, compatibility issues and unexplained crashes forever.

Now, I'm not going to start making rash claims that Windows is the only system that has bugs in it. They all do, of course they do. Computers are simply too complicated to be able to test for, identify and solve every bug that there is, and that is unlikely to ever change. There are other issues though. One complaint I frequently hear from users is that their computers run very slowly when running Windows, seemly irrespective of how powerful their computer actual is. Not only do they run slowly in the end, but once you've installed the critical updates, the anti-virus software, the firewall and the anti-spyware tools, your computer has a pretty good chance of running slowly right from Day One. So why do we keep using Windows?

Well, in the past, you could have been forgiven for thinking that you didn't have a choice. An oft quoted statistic is that one version or another of Windows is installed on 90% of computers worldwide, and, with virtually all manufacturers of PCs choosing to ship their products with Windows pre-installed, most users, whether personal or business, find themselves sticking with what they have. After all, if your copy of Windows is legal (or genuine, as Microsoft so sweetly put it) you'll have paid through the nose for that software, whether you realise it or not. Things are changing though.

5 years ago, very few of us, if asked which web browser we use, would have said anything other than Internet Explorer, the default browser installed on all copies of Windows. Today though, all the versions of IE put together only account for something like 54% of the browser market. First Firefox, then Chrome came along and showed ordinary web surfers that browsing the internet didn't have to be slow and irritating. It could be fast, sleek, easy to use. And many of us, probably the majority outside of the work place, now use one or other of those two choices. It was easy to switch, and our web browsing experiences have been greatly enriched for doing so. Now is the time for us to take the same leap of faith with our operating systems.

I first began to consider using Linux in 2008 when the Netbook craze was just taking off. I was working in my university's bar at the time when an elderly customer came in to show me her netbook, which she had recently bought. To my surprise, it wasn't running Windows, but had come with Linux pre-installed instead and she was actually using it.

"How do you find using Linux on that when the uni computers run Windows?" I asked her. She replied that she found using both surprisingly easy and had no problem with learning her way around the new system at all.

A little while later I decided to give it a try myself. The most popular Linux distribution at the time was called Ubuntu, and since it was completely free to download and use, I thought I'd give it a try. To be honest, I was disappointed with the result. My first impressions were very favourable. It loaded quickly, didn't seem to have obvious bugs or compatibility issues and looked rather nice. It was when I came to try and use all my favourite software that I ran into difficulties. At first I couldn't work out how to install anything. Once I'd figured that out, I couldn't find any of the programs I wanted. It seemed that none of the software manufacturers whose products I use were creating Linux versions of their software, and so I was forced to make do with rather less good alternatives. In the end I got so annoyed that I went out and bought Windows 7 instead.

I'd assumed from that point forward that my brief fling with Ubuntu was nothing more than that, a fling. Having just paid 150 for Windows, I rather hoped I wouldn't switch to anything again. The months went on and my level of PC use waxed and waned until October this year, when I found myself starting out as a full time freelance web developer, working from home on my battered old PC. It soon became apparent that the crawling speed my operating system was going at simply wasn't viable for a working computer, and I was making this point to a friend, when he suggested I try Ubuntu.

"Been there, done that", said I, "I didn't get on with it."

"Give it another try" he replied, "it has changed a lot recently, you'll be surprised."

I didn't believe him, but a few Blue Screen of Death attacks whilst I was in the middle of working convinced me to download the latest version and give it a try. And he was right, it has changed.

One of the biggest gripes amongst people switching to Linux from Windows has always been that it was very difficult to install any software, at least compared to installing on Windows, where you simply have to click on a .exe file to run the setup. Ubuntu have solved this problem in spectacular fashion with their own equivalent of the Apple App store. It is called the Ubuntu Software Centre, and it has been designed to make searching for and installing software pretty damn easy. Not only did I find it easy to use, but I was also impressed with the range of programs available. It seems that in the two years since I tried it last, a lot of software companies have woken up to Linux in a big way. For starters, any program that uses Adobe Air will work on it, so that's your TweetDeck sorted. Microsoft Office can likewise be made to run, albeit with a little help from a Windows emulator called Wine. Skype is there, as is Chrome and Firefox (and lets be honest, how much of what we do actually requires programs that aren't inside the browser), though not Internet Explorer, again, unless you use Wine. Most pleasingly of all, Dropbox is present and correct, and as easy to use as its opposite number in Windows.

Two notable exceptions are Adobe Photoshop and Apple iTunes, neither of which have yet decided to join the party. This may be a deal breaker for many people, and indeed I thought it would be for me too. However, it seems that neither of those apps are quite so irreplaceable as you would think. It didn't take me long to discover that when I plugged in my iPod, I was presented with a native Ubuntu program called Rhythmbox. This lightweight and speedy application not only recognised my entire music collection and my iPod without any help, but was even able to sync the two, just as well as iTunes ever did. As for Photoshop, I've recently discovered that they aren't the only ones who can edit images in a sophisticated and powerful way. The picture at the top of this post was created (on my Netbook) using a Chrome app I discovered the other day call Aviary. I've not had time to explore it in depth yet, so can't really say how closely it compares to my old favourite, but so far it seems pretty well suited to my mid-range needs.

By switching to Ubuntu whilst relying on my computer for my income, I was taking quite a risk. I was extremely worried that I wouldn't get on with my new operating system and that it'd cause me lots of headaches, but this simply hasn't been the case. Not only did I find myself able to quickly adapt to a slightly different (but far easier) way of working, but I then installed the Netbook version onto my portable machine, and have virtually never needed to boot my old Windows operating system on either machine since (I set mine up as a dual boot system as a precaution).

I'm not going to pretend that switching operating system is the best option for everyone. There are still a few pieces of software that you do need Windows to use, and I doubt anyone's workplace is going to allow them to install it there any time soon. But if you are a little sick and tired of Windows, or are feeling inclined to try a new way of working in the New Year, I'd be doing you a disservice if I suggested any option other than trying Ubuntu.

And the best bit? Unlike super expensive Windows, Ubuntu, and all other Linux distributions, is completely free.

P.S. I'm aware that I've said nothing about Macs or Mac OS in this article. This is for two reasons: Firstly, I don't have any direct experience of either, and so any comparisons I make would be pure conjecture. Secondly, I understand that Linux and Mac OS have similar genetic history, and are thus far more similar to each other than either is to Windows.

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