Monday, November 22, 2010

Have you experienced Linux for the desktop?

First about how delightful it looks and feels. 
It has configurable, semi-transparent menus and panels. I can have four panels, on each border of the screen. I can configure them either as Auto-Hide or with Show/Hide Buttons. These leave only an unobtrusive patch or arrow sign which, if clicked, exposes the Panel when needed. Allows me to make best use of the 1024x600 resolution of a NetBook.

It offers multiple, exciting desktop themes, way ahead of Windows. When I drag a window, the entire window animates like I am pulling a piece of cloth or paper. More like Mac than Windows (I haven't used Mac very much but have seen that the UI is way ahead of Windows). Linux is probably somewhere in between, and catching up with Mac much faster than Windows is.

Then about how efficient it is.
I have installed Ubuntu on 4 machines - two Intel Atom-based desktop, one Intel-Atom-based netbook and one really old, Intel Celeron-based Toshiba Satellite laptop, which I had stopped using because it ran Win XP so slowly that to start up, log in and finally open a blank Excel 2003 file took not less than 20 minutes (and I am not exaggerating!).

On the first three, I installed Ubuntu, and on the last, I had a much lighter version of Linux called Fedora, because of the extremely slow chip in it. 

On the Netbook, I already had Win XP Home Edition pre-loaded. The performance was acceptable, but barely so. I needed to regularly defrag and be careful not to have too many apps in the startup because degradation in performance would then become obvious. Now, on the same machine, everything moves like greased lightning under Linux. The Netbook could well be an i3 with a fancy graphics card, looking at the speed at which applications run on it.

OpenOffice Word Processor, Spreadsheet and Presentation files open up (after the QuickStarter is loaded once)  instantly. No WorldWideWait.

Not only that, I have choices: AbiWord as a Word Processor; GNumeric as a Spreadsheet, and choices of KDE, GNOME, XSCF or other desktops  environments (ie, desktop along with theme choices are a product that one has a choice of).

Then, about the applications.
Ubuntu Software Centre has equivalents (equally sophisticated, and in some ways, better than popular Windows software). GIMP (Photoshop clone); Dia (Visio equivalent);  Scribus (PageMaker equivalent); Planner and KPlato Project Management software (MS Project clones); and several PDF Creators and viewers (OpenOffice allows export to PDF format directly from within the software itself).

All of these are FREE, stable and completely compatible with the operating system. They are almost as feature-rich than their Windows counterparts, and in many ways, are more intuitive and easier to use.

I have choices of browsers, too. I have Firefox and Chrome installed currently, but have at least 6-7 others to choose from. Similarly, there are a host of applications for sound and video applications, including VLC media player.

There are applications that have no free/ shareware equivalent except from the Open Source community itself, like Mind-mapping software (4 choices: FreeMind, Labyrinth, Semantik and VYM), Stellarium and Celestia Planetarium simulations that can interface with a range of models of USB-compliant motorized telescopes and become a personal astronomy tutor at night-time, and molecular modellers (Avogadro).

Oh, I forgot. Two things:
  • All these softwares are available for single-click download from the Ubuntu Software Centre, that simply queues all applications that you want to download, and installs them using spare bandwidth.  No fear of applications that interfere with one another.
  • Under Linux, one does not need to bother about viruses or virus guard software, because of the way Linux is constructed. A file does not execute unless the user specifically allows it to run. If all software is downloaded from Ubuntu's servers, one does not need to bother about infection. One need not, for the same reason, worry about viruses on USB drives. They simply won't replicate because Linux presumes that all files are not executable unless instructed by the user to execute them. If you are affected by a virus on a Linux machine, you have only yourself to blame. And windows viruses do not run on Linux because they cannot reach the Linux kernel at all; and there is no "registry" where the virus can ensconce itself.

Then about Compatibility with Windows
Excellent range of Export and Import filters and options in every software ensure compatibility with any Windows software. For example, OpenOffice documents can be saved as Office 2007 .docx formats, or Wind 95/XP .doc format. Any of these format files can also be perfectly converted and opened. Ditto for Excel and Calc, the OpenOffice Spreadsheet. Impress, the presentation software, is impressive, and has an impressive constantly expanding template gallery online to choose from and use free of cost. Open ClipArt installs a huge clip-art library onto your disk (nearly 200 MB download) which is completely integrated into OpenOffice. Bibliographic References can be tracked and maintained using JabRef, again free. These can insert bibliographic citations within the articles written in OpenOffice. Equivalent under MS Office is EndNote, an expensive, separately purchaseable plug-in.

OpenOffice now runs Word macros (ie, VBA) but a bit patchily. It supports macros in 4 programming languages ( BASIC, Python, Beanshell and Javascript). It has a competent Record Macro feature that allows you to hit the ground running with macros.

My employees and my daughter have changed from reluctant converts to complete evangelists in barely 3-4 weeks. They are users and creators of BASIC macros as well.

Chat clients abound in the Open Source world. As also mail handlers like Evolution (Outlook clone) and Thunderbird (which has a Windows version as well, and can import from Outlook .pst files.

Linux machines are part of the same LAN as Windows machines in my office. Linux machines can browse Windows networks easily, but Windows machines cannot browse Linux machines. Transferring files over the LAN is done easily because I need only one way network browse capability.

Databases like Post-GRE SQL and several other open connectivity database applications allow me not to lose hair (I don't have much left to lose, so peace of mid is that much more valuable) over usability of data in existing databases.

WINE (a WINdows Emulator) is an extreme form of Windows compatibility. It allows me to run Windows-based software from within a Window running on the Linux OS . For example, I can click on Excel.exe and have Excel that is "installed" for use under Wine run. I can even open *.chm (Compiled HTML Help) and *.hlp (Win32 Help files) by simply right-clicking and selecting Open With|WINE Program Loader. This is still a Work-in-Progress, and not all software, and not all features of all software, are currently supported. But they are getting there. I am not yet Microsft-free, but, like the OpenSource movement, I am getting there. The effect is that I do not any longer have to worry too much about missing drivers or what to do with files and data created under Windows OS applications.

All HP Printers are supported by printer drivers. There is a Universal Printer Driver that works with almost all printers, but it may not be able to use some of the more model-specific features like Document Autofeeders, etc.. In case there is an issue with any printer, I can always create a PDF, transfer it to a Windows machine and print it onto any printer with a Windows driver installed.

The Open Source community has left hardly any reason now for Windows afficianodos to continue to justify their use of Windows on any ground other than inertia. All-in-all, the stage has been reached where one no longer needs to hesitate to shift to Linux. It is now time to ask why Microsoft does not support Linux. Indeed, in many ways, where they cannot beat them, they are joining the. Example: The xml-based file format, which OpenOffice had adopted probably 10 years back, and made its debut in Office 2007 for the first time, is an example.

Then about the economics and ease of installation.
After making the USB drive as the bootable drive and creating the partitions carefully, the OS and several bundled application software including OpenOffice loaded in 10 minutes flat. The Internet connection configured itself, as did all peripherals.

What can be cheaper than free? All I needed was assurance of technical support. I got that in the form of Nandan Bhat, who runs a consulting and training business for corporates on Linux. He is based in Thane, which is also my base of operations. I requested him to give me either a software support AMC or an  incident-based chargeable support at a fixed charge per visit, beginning with installation and configuration. For large corporates, there are companies like RedHat who do the same.

While an Intel Atom-based desktop is available for Rs.15,000 or less, with an LCD flat screen minotor, Windows 7 Professional Edition costs nearly Rs.8,000. Add at least Rs.5,000 for MS Office and 3,000 for Adobe Acrobat, and the software cost rivals the hardware cost, if one chose Windows. Choosing Linux meant only one visit charge payable to Mr.Bhat for making 2 machines usable under Linux immediately. He finished installing Linux (including OpenOffice) on one machine before the hardware supplier had fixed the wires on the second machine, which astounded him. The hardware guy told me that Windows takes at least 45 minutes to load, and MS Office took extra time, after Windows installation was completed.

My pleasant experiences meant that I called Mr Bhat twice more, to convert two more machines to Linux. On these machines, Linux and Windows are both available under different partitions. But Windows feels like driving with the handbrake on, after having used Linux.

For those who are hesitant, I suggest: Add Linux on a partition on your home machine, experience it, and then decide.


  1. Good choice made. I started using Ubuntu 8.10 about 1 and 1/2 years ago when Ubuntu sent me a free installation CD. Earlier I used it along with Windows XP but now with after many updates upto current 10.04, I think I am addicted to it now. Just for emergency, I still have XP installed but it is secondary now.
    Who says there are not FREE lunches :)

  2. Great review. I left Windows long ago and I'm very happy Kubuntu user. I like Ubuntu too, but I prefer KDE at the moment.