Friday, December 27, 2013

Replace Windows, Not Your Computer

Microsoft is going to drop support for Windows XP in April 2014. That's about four months out. An upgrade to Windows 7 will probably cost you at least $120US, and could easily require a hardware upgrade. But there are alternatives to upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7.

I like to recommend that people try a Linux distribution (or distro) before buying a new computer to upgrade from Windows XP. There are a lot of benefits.
  • Better security than WinXP: A lot of popular software won't run in WinXP unless you violate some really basic security principles; few Linux distros encourage that kind of behavior
  • You have more control over your computer: The more modern your version of Windows, the more control is put in the hands of the MPAA, RIAA, and similar groups; Linux is licensed in a way to ensure your computer is under your control alone
  • You help the environment: your computer, which includes a lot of toxic chemicals, can work for you for many more years under Linux than Windows, and so stay out of landfills for many more years
  • You save money: you spend less for hardware and usually nothing for software.
Trying Linux is pretty easy with a live system. This is a version of Linux designed to run from a CD-ROM, DVD, or USB drive without affecting your computer. Because it's on removable media, it's going to load programs much more slowly than it would if you installed it, but once loaded, the programs should run pretty quickly. You can try the programs that are included by default, and you can use the package manager to see what you could download for free if you installed.

By the way, if you don't know which distro to choose, I would suggest Linux Mint 13 if your computer predates 2012, Lubuntu if your computer is really limited (say, 512 MB of RAM or less), or the most current Linux Mint if your computer is less than two years old and version 13 doesn't work with it. They are all pretty easy to install, act lot like Windows on the surface, and have friendly communities and forums where you can get help. Some distros, such as Zorin OS, are designed specifically to make the transition from Windows easier. Other popular desktop distros suitable for beginners include Fedora, Ubuntu, Xubuntu, openSUSE, Kubuntu, NetRunner, PCLinuxOS, Point Linux, Mageia, Pear Linux, KWheezy, Pinguy OS, SolydXK, and Korora.

There are basically three ways to get a live system. You can borrow one, buy one, or download one. Borrowing involves finding a local Linux Users Group (or LUG), which will probably be full of enthusiasts happy to help you get going with their favorite Linux distributions. (They may not share my preference for Linux Mint. Try their suggestions anyway.) There is probably one in your area, and many colleges and universities have them. Search Google for "Linux Users Group" (in quotes) with where you live, and see what comes up. A LUG is especially helpful no matter how good you are with computers. In fact, switching over to Linux is probably easier for somebody who is not very knowedgeable about Windows than it is for a Windows expert.

The best way to buy is from; they sell most of the big desktop, server, and rescue distros on CD or USB key. This may be a better option than downloading, especially if you have limited bandwidth and/or limited faith in your ability to create live media.

Downloading is easy, especially if you have plenty of bandwidth. If you do, and your computer will boot from a USB drive, and you have one that holds 1GB or more, you can go to Pendrive Linux, which has a nifty tool to load any of scores of Linux distros onto a thumb drive. Or, if you can only boot from CDs or DVDs, download burning software like CDBurnerXP, and then download a live ISO (like Lubuntu which fits on a single CD-R), use the burner to put Lubuntu onto a CD, use it to boot your computer, and try that.

Now, there are reasons for not even giving Linux a try. In no particular order:

You already have Windows Vista or Seven

Windows Seven will have mainstream support until January 2015, and extended security support until January 2020. Windows Vista will have extended security support until April 2017. You're not up against the clock, like an XP user is.

You would rather spend the money for the upgrade

You think it will be easiest to buy a new computer to try a very different Windows system (that is, Windows 8 or 8.1) instead of not spending money on a new computer, and trying a Linux system that acts more like XP in the day-to-day, if much less like XP when it comes to adding, removing, and updating software.

Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt

I've heard people say that if you are going to try Linux, you can expect to have to compile your video drivers from source. I've used several desktop Linux distros for about six years, and I have never compiled anything from source. (Edit: Unless using Slackbuilds counts, which I tend to doubt; they are thoroughly documented scripts that download, configure, and compile the source tarball for you.)

I've heard that you will only be able to use vastly inferior software. If you absolutely cannot stand to be without the very latest and greatest in Outlook, Adobe Photoshop CS, or Microsoft Office, that could very well be true. If you use Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer, Thunderbird instead of Outlook, VLC instead of Media Player, and LibreOffice instead of Microsoft Office, then you are already using default Linux software for those tasks. But search the Wine HQ Application Database before deciding that Linux will prevent you from using your pet application. If it's running Platinum, chances are that the WINE software will let you can use it without any issue at all.

I've heard that it's impossible to get help. If you're using XP, the sort of support you get for Linux is the sort you're getting for Windows XP: searching the web. There are communities full of elitists who will treat you badly if you don't meet their expectations. But there are also communities full of helpful friendly people who are very happy you're trying Linux and want you to do well with it, and the Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and CrunchBang communities are definitely among them. In any case, reading documentation (which is easily searched if you include the distro name) before starting is always a good idea.

I've heard that you will have to master the command line. This depends a little on which distro. I know that at least Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, Mageia, and PCLinuxOS all have a lot of graphical, point-and-click tools for the vast majority of system administration tasks. Barring some bizarre video issue or the like, you probably would never need the command line for any of those distros.

But a lot of help will recommend using command-line tools, because the graphical tools can depend on your desktop environment, while command line tools do not. And they will work even if the entire graphical environment dies. The command line is your emergency fallback toolkit. It is very powerful and can do serious damage if used carelessly. But it can also save your bacon if everything goes wrong. Don't be afraid. It's like driving a Ferrari Testarossa or Lancia Stratos: you can do it if you're careful and don't try to push it to its limits. If you google the entire command in quotes before you use it, that gives you a basic simple sanity check.

Before Starting

If you decide to install Linux and you want to keep Windows XP, there are some things you absolutely should do first, no matter what distro you elect to use.
  1. Defrag your hard disk. Auslogics Disk Defrag Free is an excellent freeware program.
  2. Back up your data. Include any software installation files you have downloaded. There are a lot of ways to do this; find the one that works for you.
  3. Ensure that you can restore from backup. There are many IT professionals who are very sorry they did not do this.
  4. Read documentation. Learn about disk partitioning and partitioning schemes. This can help you prepare for future upgrades.

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