I was recently given an old laptop with 450MB of RAM – too small to operate modern versions of Microsoft Windows successfully – so I decided to give Linux a try.
Linux is a free operating system which has developed over the last 10 years or so and is now accessible to complete novices like myself. As “Open Source” software, many people have put together Linux packages that can be downloaded and installed on your system. Information and reviews on the most popular Linux distributions can be viewed at http://www.distrowatch.com/
I chose Linux Mint which is based on the best known version of Linux – Ubuntu – but with additional “ease of use” software features for non-technical novices like me.
To install any free version of Linux you can either buy a disk online (usually about £4) or you can “burn” your own installation disk onto a blank CD. That is the option I chose and if you know how to create your own music CDs you’ll find it very straightforward.
Then you pop the CD into the computer you want to use with Linux and switch it on. The disk is fairly slow to load and eventually will give you a version of the Linux screen that you can try out before deciding to install it (though it is extremely slow running off the CD).
On the old Laptop it seemed to take about 45 minutes for Linux to install, and then another hour for it to update itself to the latest version – mind you I did have wireless access problems on the laptop.
It is now working fine. The wireless is still slow but that is because of the age of the computer rather than the software.
I must say I really like Linux Mint. It is a much “plainer” operating system than Windows, but great for basic tasks. Most versions of Linux come with a whole host of software – including Mozilla Firefox and Opera, OpenOffice, Skype, Thunderbird E-mail and much more.
For the individual user I find OpenOffice just as good as Microsoft Office (and its free). Firefox, Opera and Chrome are the same as the Windows versions (though I reckon both are less prone to crash than they are in Vista). Skype also seems less prone to crashes. Thunderbird e-mail is excellent, though I tend to use webmail as Outlook is my prime e-mail file and calendar on my Windows desktop.
If you have the latest laptop with Windows 7 then there is not much point in installing Linux, but if you have an old computer that really is too slow with Windows (or won’t work at all), then you can give it a new lease of life with Linux, and have a great backup machine for web browsing and office work. I find I can work with PDF files much better than I can in Windows and Zip files are handled without problem.
So what are the pros and cons of Linux ?. The pros are that it is free and will give new life to an old machine. If all you need is internet access, Skype and OpenOffice then you can’t go wrong. Another good point is that the Linux distributors issue new versions every six months or so – a new version of Linux Mint is due in May with updated versions of Firefox and OpenOffice.
The main disadvantage of Linux is that there is much software available in Windows that is not available in Linux versions. My business accounts software is one example and iTunes is the same. There will often be alternative versions of packages you use, but this will require you to learn a new software package rather than stick with the familiar.
Another difficultly is with software that is not part of your Linux regular updates. Downloading software into Linux is nowhere near as easy as in Windows (where you basically download an installation file and double-click on it). In Linux you need to have knowledge of the command language to download software that is not part of your package. I have not taken the time to do this and it means, for example, that although there are Linux drivers available for my laser printer, I have no idea how to install them and, thus, cannot print off my old laptop. It’s not a problem for me (I can just save the files onto a USB stick and print off my Windows desktop), but it could be if you plan to connect hardware to your Linux computer or install “unusual” software.
Overall I am very pleased with Linux Mint. It has given me a new PC that was too old for Windows and which I can now use for web-browsing, webmail and basic office tasks. I am also very impressed with OpenOffice and would never pay for Microsoft Office for my own use (OpenOffice is also available free for Windows). To use Linux as your main operating system then you’d need to take the time to learn the command language, and, therefore, be a bit more technically able than me, but for a small business that effort could save you a lot of money.
If you have an old machine sitting in a cupboard somewhere then I recommend you try Linux.
UPDATE: February 2011. Nine months on I am using Linux Mint very regularly on my desktop computer. It is much quicker to boot that Windows and works well. OpenOffice is perfectly adequate for spreadsheets and documents, though it still trails Microsoft Powerpoint. I probably use Linux as much as I use Windows and I only go into Windows when I have to – there is quite a lot of business software I use that does not work in Linux (sadly). One other problem is that I still can’t print from Linux. I have totally failed to correctly setup my laser printer in Linux. This is probably due to my lack of ability with the Linux command language but illustrates that Linux requires more technical knowledge than Windows for some things. However, my printer is over 12 years old and I think I’d have less trouble with a new printer. I like Linux very much and will continue to use it as much as I can, though I do still need Windows for some software. If I could solve the printer problem I’d be very happy.