Living Free with Linux: 2 Weeks Without Windows

Can a dedicated Windows user make it for two weeks using only Linux? Computerworld's Preston Gralla tried it and lived to tell this tale.

It's one of those perennial age-old battles that can never be resolved. Coke or Pepsi? Chocolate or vanilla? Linux or Windows?

I've been in the trenches of those wars for years. I've written about Windows since the days of Windows 2.0, including numerous books and hundreds or even thousands of articles, blogs and columns. Along the way, I've been called every name in the book -- and many you won't find in any books, either -- by Linux proponents, because I've extolled the benefits of Windows, while ignoring those of Linux.

So I thought it was finally time to confront the issue myself. How does Linux stack up against Windows? Which is really easier to use and less expensive? Which actually lets you be more productive? In short: Could I live without Windows at all and run my life on Linux for two weeks without spending a penny for software? Since one of Linux's great virtues is that it, and many of the applications that run under it, are open source, part of the attraction for me was to see if I could use an operating system and applications that were completely free.

To put myself to the test, I borrowed an IBM ThinkPad T41 with 1.5GB of RAM and a Pentium M 1.6-GHz processor. It already had Windows XP installed on it, but if I wanted, I could wipe the drive clean.

Choosing and installing Linux

The uninitiated (as I was) will most likely be initially overwhelmed by the number of Linux distributions available, many of which sound as if they were named by participants at a Star Trek convention after too much late-night carousing: Gentoo, Debian, Knoppix, Madriva, SUSE , Red Hat , Xandros , Ubuntu -- and that's just a very short list.

My goal was to live in Linux for free, so that ruled out commercial Linux distributions such as Xandros. I checked with a number of Linux pros and fans, and in the end, I relied on my most trusted expert, my 18-year-old son Gabe, who recommended that I go with Ubuntu , using the Wubi installer . Wubi creates a multiboot system on a Windows PC that lets you boot into either your existing version of Windows or into Ubuntu. You don't have to modify any partitions, and you don't have to use a different boot loader than the one Windows uses. As an added bonus, it can be installed and uninstalled like any other Windows application.

At first, installation seemed straightforward. I downloaded the Wubi installation file and ran it, which in turn downloaded a 694.5MB file. The installation program told me it needed to reboot. I told it to go ahead.

The Hardware Gods, though, were not pleased; perhaps I had forgotten to sacrifice a goat. My ThinkPad T41 didn't reboot, even though the installer tried. So I took matters into my own hands and chose to reboot from the Windows Start menu. (At this point, the installation program was still running in Windows.) Once again, it stood firm and refused to reboot.

As a long-suffering Windows user, I'm used to this kind of thing, so I tried the three-finger salute and pressed Ctrl-Alt-Del -- twice. Again, no go. Eventually, I had to unplug the machine's power cord, take out the battery, then put the battery and power cord back in. Then I restarted.

At first, things seemed to go according to plan. After the restart, a dual-boot screen appeared, asking whether I wanted to boot into XP or Ubuntu. I chose Ubuntu and figured I was on my way. Wrong. I booted into a screen that looked like this:

BusyBox v1.1.3 (Debian 1:1.1.3-3ubuntu3) Built-in shell (ash) Enter 'help' for a list of built in commands. (initramfs)

As a Windows user, I'm used to seeing incomprehensible screens. But this one put even Microsoft to shame. I rebooted again (this time it worked) and once again chose Ubuntu from the dual-boot screen. Once again the mysterious screen appeared. I typed "help" at the prompt to find the list of commands. The "help" was of absolutely no help. I got a listing of several dozen commands -- things like alias, break, continue, pwd, loadfont and so on -- but no information about what they did or how to use them.

I rebooted yet again. And this time, for reasons known only to the Linux Gods (perhaps they don't require goat sacrifices after all), I booted into a Ubuntu GUI that began configuring my system. Finally! Well ... not quite finally. After about 10 minutes, Ubuntu stopped functioning and the PC rebooted on its own.

After that reboot, though, all was right with the world. Ubuntu finally installed on the system as a dual-boot option and was absolutely rock-solid every time I booted into it. So solid, in fact, that it never failed to boot. So solid that I never experienced a single crash or Blue Screen of Death in all the weeks that I used it, either in the operating system itself or any of the applications I used -- something I certainly can't say about Windows XP.

Amazingly -- at least to a Linux novice like me -- Ubuntu recognized all the hardware on my T41, including the built-in wireless card, so I didn't have to fiddle around with drivers. If Microsoft had done this good a job with drivers on Vista , perhaps that operating system wouldn't be so troubled right now.

Networking nightmare

With Linux working like a charm on the T41, it was time to get the machine connected to my home network, which uses a Linksys WRT160N wireless router . Connecting to my home network itself, and then the Internet, was exceptionally easy -- there's a bar across the top of the Ubuntu desktop with a wireless icon. I clicked the icon, chose my home network and got in with ease.

That's when my troubles began. I have a half-dozen PCs on my home network, three of them running Vista, one running Windows Home Server, one running XP and one dual-boot Vista/XP machine. I've set up my Windows machines so that I can browse through each machine's hard disk, with password protection. (The exception is the Windows Home Server, which I can only access through the WHS client or via remote access, and which I primarily use for daily backups.)

Because of the vagaries of Windows Vista and Windows XP networking, I have two workgroups on my network -- WORKGROUP for Vista machines and MSHOME for XP machines. The dual-boot Vista/XP machine shows up in WORKGROUP when it boots to Vista, and MSHOME when it boots to XP. In addition, I have a Lexmark E120 network printer, which is connected directly to the network.

Networking with Ubuntu was flaky, to put it mildly. When I browsed the network, it showed only some of the PCs, and those it showed weren't accessible. Worse yet, PCs would sometimes show up and then mysteriously disappear. In addition, my Windows PCs couldn't see my Ubuntu machine, and I couldn't print from the Ubuntu machine to my Lexmark printer; the Ubuntu machine could see it, but not print to it.

For help, I turned to the pros -- Computerworld editor in chief Scot Finnie and Computerworld blogger and Linux guru Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, both of whom have successfully used Linux and Windows machines on the same networks. Their first advice: Install Samba , an open-source application designed to get Linux to work with Windows machines on a network.

Unfortunately, it only partially solved the problem. From my Linux machine, I now could clearly see the two workgroups on my network, and could see each machine within each workgroup. However, when I browsed the Windows Vista machines, I saw nothing -- directories were blank. When I browsed the XP machines, though, I could access their entire hard disks. My Vista machines could see my Ubuntu machine, but couldn't browse through it. And I still couldn't print to my Lexmark printer.

Finnie and Vaughan-Nichols both had plenty of good advice for me, which involved editing the Registry key LmCompatibilityLevel , changing authentication settings, making sure NetBIOS was turned on in the Vista machines and several other actions.

None of them, unfortunately, worked. As of this date, Ubuntu continues to work fine with my XP machines, but can't talk to the Vista ones. And I still can't print to the Lexmark printer. Does this mean that if you try networking a Ubuntu machine on your home network you'll run into the same problems? Not necessarily. Many people, including both Finnie and Vaughan-Nichols, have been able to get Linux machines to work properly with Windows machines on a network. I may well be the exception.

(And by the way, if anyone out there has advice on how to fix my Vista-Ubuntu networking problems, leave a note below, and I'll check it out.)

A first look at the interface

It was time to get to work. I first spent time getting used to the Ubuntu interface. By default, Ubuntu uses the Gnome desktop, which at first glance appears spare and bare-bones to old-time Windows users. Where, for example, are all the desktop icons? They were nowhere to be seen, although I could place icons there easily enough.

I didn't need those icons, though, because a very useful taskbar across the top of the screen offered quick access to launching programs, browsing the hard disk and network, and exploring the system and changing system preferences. The top-right part of the taskbar is much like Windows' notification area, and shows the current state of the network connection, the date and time, and has a notification area for alerts about software updates.

The Trash bin, which works like Windows' Recycle Bin, is in the lower-right-hand corner of the screen. And there's a nifty virtual desktops feature built into the interface, so I can create separate desktops -- one for work and one for home, for example -- and then switch between them by clicking the proper icon at the bottom of the screen.

There's no Control Panel, thankfully, and no need for one. The System menu item on the taskbar includes Preferences and Administration submenus, and from each of those, I was able to very quickly change any preferences, and customize and peer into the system.

All in all, I found the desktop familiar, uncluttered and easier to use than the Windows desktop. The interface doesn't feature as much eye-candy as Vista, and is somewhat klunkier-looking. But I got used to that quickly. All in all, it's a very clean, efficient interface. And remember, Ubuntu runs on much sparer hardware than Vista; there's no way Vista could have run well on the T41.

Installed applications

As any Windows user knows full well, Windows doesn't come with many built-in productivity applications. If you want a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program and so on, you'll generally have to buy Microsoft Office , for several hundred dollars or more -- although there are alternatives such as OpenOffice and Google Docs .

Ubuntu, though, already comes with a surprisingly full set of ready-to-use applications. You won't have to pay for them or even search for them -- they're there, waiting for you. They include:

Office applications: Four components of the OpenOffice suite come with Ubuntu: word processor, spreadsheet, drawing and presentation software. The OpenOffice database is not included.

Browser: The latest version of Firefox comes pre-installed.

Contact Manager: Yes, Windows users, there is a life beyond Outlook. Evolution Mail and Calendar is a solid-mail and calendaring program.

IM:Pidgin is a universal instant-messaging client that works with AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and others.

Graphics: Ubuntu comes with the Gimp Photo Editor, a Photoshop-like application with a surprisingly full set of features. For digital photo handling, there's the F-Spot Photo Manager.

Multimedia: Ubuntu comes with ripping and burning software and media playing software -- pretty much whatever you need. They include Audio CD Extractor, Brasero disc burner, Movie Player, Rhythmbox Music Player and Sound Recorder.

Accessories and games: There's plenty here, including a calculator, text editor, note-taker, screen-capture program and plenty of games, including classics such as chess, blackjack, mah-jongg and Sudoku.

Installing software

If Linux has an Achilles heel, from the point of view of a Windows user, it's installing new software. Be prepared to enter a new world in which Windows Update is a model of simplicity by comparison, and in which you may feel as if you need a Ph.D. in physics merely to install new applications or updates.

Let's take something as simple as installing the latest version of a Flash Player. I was visiting YouTube, but couldn't view any videos because Ubuntu doesn't install a Flash Player by default. Actually, neither does Windows, so it didn't bother me -- all I had to do was install the player.

I clicked on a Web link as directed, and came to a screen that asked me which version of the Flash Player for Linux I wanted to install: tar.gz for Linux, .rpm for Linux or YUM for Linux. This was, to say the least, confusing: The .rpm version sounded like a car specification, and the YUM version sounded like a bubble gum.

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