Linux vs. Windows: The RematchCan a frustrated Windows user dump Microsoft? Even with lots of improvements, Linux is still no cakewalk.
You might be pretty happy with Windows XP. But Windows continues to suffer from more than its share of drawbacks: From the newer operating system's incompatibility with older software to Microsoft's well-known security problems, Windows still engenders a fair amount of user aggravation. Windows XP also subjects its users to the indignity of the Microsoft Product Activation service: You might have to ask Microsoft for a new key if you upgrade more than one or two major components.
The question for PC users, of course, is what's the alternative? When we last looked at Linux, it was still rough around the edges. Two years later, we can't say that Linux is better than Windows on all these counts, but Linux has matured. To find out whether it's finally ready for the average PC user, we looked at SuSE Linux 8.0 Professional ($80 boxed, free download, www.suse.com), just one of many distributions (customized Linux versions). Popularized in Europe, SuSE has made it to retail shelves in America, with a hefty set of printed manuals and a massive amount of useful software on CD-ROM.
If you can't get Windows to work your way, or if you feel like it never will, Linux represents the pinnacle of the customizable operating system. You can change the entire desktop if you don't like the way yours works. Linux also provides superior security compared to Windows systems, and works on more hardware, from 486 processors to the latest Pentium 4s. In many ways, Linux is more a set of infinitely rearrangeable operating system building blocks than a unified OS.
But Linux still poses a number of challenges to new users. Linux drivers are hard to find for some hardware. Unfamiliar file systems, incomprehensible error messages, and the occasional need to compile applications from source code await Windows users who are considering a leap over the OS divide.
Who Needs Linux, Anyway?
Linux publishers today add many of the user-friendly features that longtime Windows users expect, such as automated installers, printed manuals, tidy graphical interfaces, and (paid) phone support.
Linux is arguably far more secure than Windows--something of concern to PC users everywhere. The Linux community regularly releases patches for security issues almost the same day that bugs are reported. Linux users also proudly claim that, to date, not a single virus outbreak has ever targeted this operating system.
Customization options in Linux can be too much of a good thing, and even experienced computer users can find them daunting. Some users may decide that the time spent installing and configuring Linux--and riding its learning curve--isn't worth its free installation.
In the end, the type of Windows user who will want to take Linux for a test drive will probably be moderately experienced, curious, and frustrated with some inflexible part of Windows. But if you're reasonably happy with Windows, and can manage to work with the applications and hardware you already own and use, it probably isn't worth the trouble to switch gears and learn a new OS from scratch.
Mixing Linux With Windows
If you're not sure Linux is for you, you can install it along with Windows. If you decide you need Windows applications for which there are no Linux substitutes, you can simply switch from Linux to Windows with a reboot.
Dual booting may not be necessary in some cases. Most distributions come with software called Wine, which claims to run nearly 1100 Windows applications (with some tweaking of configuration files) under Linux. The downside: Thousands more Windows apps are still incompatible with Wine, and getting the compatible ones running presents a challenge even to tech-savvy users.
The version of Linux I tested, SuSE Linux 8.0 Professional, includes seven CDs loaded with every app you could ever need, all free: office suites, photo editors, Web browsers, and even CD-burning utilities. The abundance of free software on disc, which saves a lot of download time, is a unique feature of SuSE's boxed set.
Getting It Installed
Overall, installing SuSE Linux isn't that different from installing Windows. The actual installation takes about 30 minutes to an hour, comparable to installing Windows from scratch. But the Linux process requires that you do a bit more manual tweaking of settings. The options might be confusing to folks with less than an intermediate level of computer skill.
Installing Linux is a lot easier if your computer is new enough to permit booting from the CD or DVD drive (most systems that are less than four or five years old do). If you can't boot from the CD, you'll need to boot from floppies. During the initial steps, Linux is very much like Windows 2000 or XP: The installation disc boots up, and the installer automatically detects much of your hardware, loads the appropriate drivers, and asks you partitioning questions.
Just before it starts copying files to the hard disk, Linux needs to set up partitions with its own file systems. As with Windows, your Linux distribution's installer may help you with this, but bear in mind that hard drive space set aside for Linux will be unusable by Windows. Depending on the distribution and the options you choose, you might need about 800MB of free hard disk space for a basic installation with a graphical user interface and an office suite--about the same size as Windows 2000 or XP, with applications.
Another key step is choosing which graphical user interface to install. Multiple GUIs compete for your attention, but the two most advanced, KDE and Gnome, both work and look a lot like Windows, with similar system menus, taskbars, and window controls. I'm not sure which I like better: SuSE's version of KDE feels cluttered, but it's jam-packed with tools. Gnome running on the same system is reminiscent of Apple's Mac OS X. If you don't like one style, you can download others, or choose your interface at log-in. And the programs that come with one GUI run just fine under the other.
Finally, you'll also need to decide which applications, utilities, and tools to install. SuSE makes the decision process fairly easy with a 'Default system' set, the equivalent of the 'typical' Windows installation. New Linux users might be overwhelmed by the preponderance of free programs. On the other hand, the Windows way of getting software--grabbing your wallet and heading to CompUSA to buy a pricey copy of Microsoft Office--isn't much better.
Of Log-Ins and Linux
Creating user accounts is another key step that may seem new to Windows users. In Windows 9 x, user accounts are a trifling afterthought. In Linux (as in Windows XP/2000/NT), the operating system requires that a specific person be accountable for every action taken on the system. You'll end up with at least two accounts: the administrator account (called "root") and another you create for day-to-day use.
Only users logged in as root can install system software or change system settings. Linux lets you temporarily log in as the administrator to run specific tasks--a very nice timesaving convenience that helps maintain relatively high security. SuSE's YaST2 configuration and setup tool, for instance, routinely asks for the root password before it makes a change.
Windows XP Home, on the other hand, makes a security blunder in the name of convenience: All users get privileges equivalent to Linux's root account. On this point, Linux is clearly superior.
Living in Linuxspace
After the final Linux installation reboot, LILO (the Linux boot loader) briefly displays a menu of bootable operating systems. If you plan to boot into Windows more often, your distribution's configuration tool can change LILO's default operating system setting.
If you're lucky, your Linux installer will create links on the desktop to your Windows drive partitions. But if your distribution isn't compatible with Windows XP's version of the NTFS file system, you may not be able to grab files from the My Documents folder or elsewhere in Windows.
Where Windows would display a relatively static splash screen to hide the boot process, SuSE Linux tells all in a rapidly scrolling, highly technical list of the files it loads and the procedures it completes.
In some cases, setting up your Internet connection in Linux can be as easy as, if not easier than, doing so in Windows. If you run Linux on a network, your connection to the local network and to the Internet likely will work immediately following installation--you'll just need to pick a host name for your computer. If your network card has Linux drivers, you should be able to get online almost immediately. But so-called Winmodems, which rely on Windows, might not work in Linux. Linmodems.org offers some help for the unfortunate owners of these modems.
One of the nice things about Windows is how it makes connecting to networked printers easy. Linux emulates this feature using software called Samba, which makes the process almost as simple. And if you run into problems, you can find answers to common questions at the Linuxprinting.org Web site.
Linux also supports many USB devices, but there are no drivers for my Canon PowerShot S200 camera and HP Scanjet 5470c scanner. If the hardware maker doesn't have the driver you need, try the Linux Driver Foundry or www.linuxhardware.org. If you need to use a product that has no Linux support, it will be a lot easier just to stick with Windows--or at the most, to run a dual-boot system--than to switch over to Linux exclusively.
Applications on Linux
The world of Linux is filled with free software--some fantastic, some forgettable. Generally speaking, Linux has a reasonably good equivalent to every major Windows package. While a Windows user might edit images in Adobe Photoshop, Linux users turn to The GIMP. Microsoft's word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation applications from the Office suite are mimicked quite closely in OpenOffice and StarOffice on the Linux side. For the most part, the office suites in Linux are clean, professional-looking programs with support for many common Windows file formats.
But Linux applications have a few downsides. They often lack some features from equivalent Windows programs. Menu organization and toolbars can vary substantially from program to program. And while some products (like StarOffice) come across as top-tier suites, others feel considerably less polished.
If you can't find an application native to Linux that suits your needs, there's always Wine, which ships with almost every version of Linux. Wine can run many common Windows apps natively in Linux (for a list, see Code Weavers Wine Application Database). Getting Wine working sometimes takes effort, so CodeWeavers ( www.codeweavers.com) sells its $55 CrossOver Office, which preconfigures Wine to run the popular Microsoft Office 97 and 2000 versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook.
When I discovered that none of the Linux Usenet news readers that came with SuSE were as powerful as Forte's Windows-based Agent, I simply opened a terminal window, changed to the directory containing Agent.exe, and entered "wine agent.exe" on the command line. Agent opened and functioned without a hitch. Wine can come in handy, but it's no panacea: Neither Wine nor CrossOver Office promises anything close to complete Windows application compatibility. The latest games require tweaking, and some programs simply refuse to run at all. Even though CrossOver Office runs some Microsoft Office applications, it turns out that it can't handle Microsoft Access at all, or any of the programs from Office XP.
Linux in Prime Time
As Linux stands today, a majority of Windows users don't have a good reason to make a switch. For folks who aren't all that technically adept, or who have hardware that isn't supported in Linux, sticking with Windows and the applications they already have just makes more sense.
As far as Linux has come, it still has far to go to achieve universal appeal. Over the past two years, the companies that sell Linux distributions have improved setup, the user interface, and technical support. But many rough edges remain. Without more fixes to smooth the operation of apps and more support from the major hardware makers (many aren't writing Linux drivers for their products), Linux's future continues to be uncertain.
But for savvy users who want to try out its myriad options, Linux can provide a stable, secure, and inexpensive computing experience. With the parts it already has and more spit-and-polish, Linux could become a top-tier operating system.
Scott Spanbauer is a contributing editor for PC World. Editor Harry McCracken and Executive Editor Ed Albro contributed to this story.
Five Things We Hate About Linux
You must be an expert: Commercial distributors and GUI makers have simplified some tasks, but many procedures still require dropping to the command line, decoding cryptic system messages, or hand-editing what can be complex configuration files. If you fail to learn at least a smattering of Linux's intricacies, chances are good that you won't get much done.
Lagging hardware support: Linux's altruistic band of designers does an admirable job of building in support for new types of hardware. Without a major push for Linux drivers from hardware manufacturers, however, your Linux distribution may never support some peripherals.
Second-tier software: You can get every conceivable utility for Linux, most at no cost, but many can't match the best Windows or Mac apps. Premier Linux apps like StarOffice, Evolution, and The GIMP still provide only a subset of the features found in Microsoft Office, Microsoft Outlook, and Adobe Photoshop. What they do offer is more than adequate--unless you need one of the missing features.
A confusion of distros: Since Linux is free, anybody can package the operating system and sell their own distribution. Once you decide to give Linux a shot, you still need to determine which distribution is a good fit: Mandrake, Red Hat, SuSE, or one of dozens of others. Hardware support can vary, and user friendliness can be nonexistent in some versions.
Support at a price: People complain about the cost of Microsoft's $35-per-incident tech support. With few exceptions, however, Linux distributors aren't any cheaper; with SuSE, the free installation support is severely limited. If you're a Linux beginner planning on calling for help, consider installing Mandrake Linux, with its $15-per-call (or less, in quantity) support policy.
Five Things We Love About Linux
It's free, free, free: Even though distributors can add value to Linux (by adding installers, providing tech support, and publishing multi-CD or multi-DVD installation sets), they also give it away. From the SuSE Web site, you can download at no charge all of the software to install the same version of SuSE we tested. Download and give away as many copies as you want. Install it on as many PCs as you want. The only things that will cost you money are printed manuals, technical support over the phone, and a nice package with discs.
Highly adaptable: Linux distributors (like SuSE) can customize their version of Linux to target a specific type of user. Programmers can modify the source code to suit their needs, and redistribute the software for free. The result is a completely customizable OS, free from the constraints of having to do things in a particular way.
Strong on security: Linux doesn't often fall victim to network security vulnerabilities. When it does, legions of Linux coders generally release patches that fix the problem within 24 hours--though users still need to download and apply these patches. Virus writers haven't made Linux a major target--yet.
Plentiful online help: Can't find an answer to a Linux question in the included documentation? You'll find hundreds of FAQs, how-tos, and message boards on the Web. Start your search at The Linux Documentation Project.
One OS fits all: Linux, in one form or another, will run on everything from a 486 doorstop with 8MB of RAM (try that with Windows XP) to clusters of high-speed servers. It won't be the same version of Linux running the same applications, but Linux is good at fitting in where Microsoft leaves machines behind with Windows' ever-increasing minimum system requirements.
Accommodating Many Users on One PC
As it migrates away from its single-user MS-DOS roots, Windows has acquired the ability to host multiple users, each with secure log-in controls and file access. With additional software, Windows can even allow multiple remote users to log on concurrently. However, Linux has always natively supported multiple users and concurrent log-ins.
A Confusing Profusion of Control Panels
Linux offers such a hodgepodge of elements that it can be hard to know where to troubleshoot or configure hardware and software. The Linux GUIs have a control panel, and distributions sometimes have their own control panel (such as SuSE's YaST, above). Of course, almost everything in Linux is configurable from the command line as well. New users could be left wondering which to use. Windows offers near one-stop shopping in its Control Panel, but poor documentation hampers its powerful command-line tools.
Linux's Customizable Graphical User Interface
Most Linux distributions let you choose between multiple GUIs, including the two most popular, KDE (left) and Gnome (not shown). These share features familiar to Windows users, such as a "Start button" in one corner where you can launch programs, and a trash can icon on the desktop where you can find deleted files. On older hardware, you can run Linux without a GUI at all, or with one of several feature-light GUIs. Windows is a one-GUI-fits-all system: No Windows applications--even the command-line tools--will run outside of Windows' bulky GUI, making XP unusable on older, slower systems.