Throwing Windows Out The Window

by BeePee

Hello friends,

When I introduced myself to this forum here, I stated that I was throwing windows out of the window. CO suggested to write about this experience thus, here we go... So please keep in mind that I'm a computer power user, but I am also a fast learning Linux newbie. Let's hope this write up can help Linux newcomers. All geeks please forgive me if I won't be always 100% technically or terminologically correct.

Part one: A choice to make.

In my organization I'm the principal, but also the most knowledgeable about IT. Since we are too small to have our own IT department, I have taken on this task. So last spring I had a look at the cost to upgrade our IT. I calculated the cost of a possible upgrade to Vista, plus Office 2007, plus all the rest which would demand a hardware upgrade for most our machines even though they were relatively new machines. Spending tens of thousands of Euros didn't appeal to us at all for obvious reasons, but a further look at Vista and Office 2007 gave us a clear urge to stay away from those "great" products.

Not knowing much at all about Linux aside from a few occasional glances, I proposed to move to Linux. Not only is there a lot of free software out there, but it could give new life to our aging boxes. Little did I know back then what I was getting myself into. Well, we decided to spend some of the money we would have used on IT upgrades to hire a specialist to assist us on this transition. The guy we got to do the job was a bad choice, but that's another story, and we're now talking to another company to assist me with the server, and groupware, and so on, which is a little too complex for a newbie like me.

The good part about that bad choice of consultant was that I spent a lot more time than initially anticipated on learning about Linux and I still do every day. If you intend to change an existing system to another set-up it always involves some initial, intensive labor. This is no different when switching to Linux, thus, one needs to take the time and get well informed about what to get into. Some people might prefer to purchase some books and start reading, for me, "Google is my friend", and so I read from the net.

When you come from the world of Windows or Macintosh you arrive from a place of little choice, thus, you are unused to, and sometimes unaware of, the large choice of software performing essentially the same task. In Linux this starts with the OS. The first thing I discovered was that there is no such thing as "a Linux", but an abundant number of variants. When I stumbled across I learned that there are hundreds of distros (distributions of Linux) of which some are closely related, but others are very different. To make matters even more confusing to the newbie there are numerous desktop environments with Gnome and KDE being the most used.

The forums are full of posts from confused newbie Windows converts asking which distro will be the best choice and the standard answer is to take the one that suits you best. While this is actually the real answer to the question in this world of freedom of choice, it is rather useless to the newbie. [If one asks how far it is to XYZ and the answer is "til the end of the road", then it is only a useful answer if one knows the length of the road.] The resulting action will be that either the newbie returns frustrated to Windows or he/she starts distro hopping (changing from one distribution to another at a frequent rate). What I have learned so far from the various forums is that distro hopping seems to be fashionable amongst the geeks. Neither is a solution for someone who wants a good, stable, and secure computer to do productive work on.

Thus, I went out distro shopping which involves a lot of distro hopping. I think I looked at most of the top 20 distros at Distrowatch and came very quickly to the conclusion that the Gnome desktop and I were not made for each other, thus, I concluded for myself and recommend to windows converts to use KDE as their desktop environment, even though Gnome is more widespread in the Linux world. However, I can't be that wrong in my conclusion since Linus Torvalds, the initial author of the Linux kernel, prefers KDE over Gnome as well.

The next conclusion was to concentrate my research on distros which come with KDE by default - remember, I'm a newbie not yet ready to experiment. I had the luxury of an old spare computer, but would recommend to concentrate on distros which provide so called "Live CDs" for testing. Another important aspect of distro hopping/shopping is to "ignore" the desktop looks and feel. What I mean by that is that desktop colours, background pictures, start menus/panels can be customized and you are likely going to do so anyhow. Thus, it is much more important to see what is under the hood of your distro.

As a newbie you want a distro that installs easily, is as plug and play as possible, best supports your hardware, provides GUI (graphical user Interface) tools to set-up things, etc. While there are many wonderful distributions out there, some with flashing new functionality, there is only one that I would recommend to Window convertees and newbies: PCLinuxOS (dot com). Yes, you're reading right. I recommend PCLinuxOS as the distro of choice that best suits a Windows convert. PCLinuxOS made me stop dead in my distro shopping process. I did try it out on various desktop and laptop computers, just dropped the live CD in and booted up. Even though the live CD is by now somewhat outdated, it played well with ALL those machines and recognizing more hardware out of the box than any other distro I tried.

With all the available upgrades installed it contains in a perfectly stable environment, all the bells and whistles available in Linux. Try PCLinuxOS and once you become familiar with Linux, if you not 100% satisfied, then you can still start distro hopping.

Still not convinced about Linux? You might want to have a read here: It is a little outdated by now but still some good reading.

Part 2: What about my programs?

To the software you'll need to fulfill the required tasks with your computer running; from now on a Linux OS is yet another choice to make. Have a look here: It is a list of equivalent software between windows and Linux. It gives you a good indication of what the programs familiar to you will be called under Linux.

Please note that, unlike Windows, good distros come with most of the common programs preinstalled; PCLinuxOS certainly is one of those. Additionally, most distros come with a packaging system that makes installing software fast and easy. Over are the days where you had to search the net for an application (or purchase one) and run a separate installer for each piece of software.

PCLinuxOS has a powerful GUI packaging system, Synaptic, which contains over 7,000 packages, thus, there are plenty of programs to choose from. Plus this process is ever so simple: Open Synaptic and look through the list of available software, double-click those packages you wish to install, and when you are finished making choices, click apply - that's all. Synaptic automatically downloads and installs your software.

Synaptic can do a lot more. With Synaptic you can download and install all of your system upgrades - one process to update your entire system, not just your OS, like Windows. Synaptic has a powerful filtering and search capability to find the packages to install plus a listing by category (sections) so you can browse through to get inspired by which software could suit you. Synaptic also resolves dependencies, it automatically installs other packages which are required to make the packages you selected run. Contrary to Windows, with Synaptic you can uninstall packages equally as easily; just choose the package you no longer need and Synaptic properly uninstalls the package and it's dependencies.

Another goody within Synaptic is the way to save the list of your installed packages [File menu > Save Markings As... > type in a name > tick "Save full state, not only changes > hit Save]. The resulting text file can be backed up for the time of a re-install and/or taken to another computer. Then you just go File menu > Read Markings... > browse to and select the file > hit Open, and all of your preferred set-up can be reestablished by just hitting apply. Installing on multiple computers made easy! [Ok, the geek would rather remaster and install from the remaster CD/DVD, but let's learn to walk before we start the running, shall we?]

First you need to install the OS which is very easy. Boot from the live CD, login as root, hit the Install icon on your desktop and follow the instructions. You can also set-up a dual boot system which will allow you to either boot into Windows or Linux, just as you like. The howtos for this are well explained on your distros home page (Wiki and/or forum). Next, fire up Synaptic and click "Reload", then "Mark All Upgrades" and then "Apply" and let the system update itself.

Drivers: PCLinuxOS will, for most hardware combinations, recognize and install drivers for most/all of your components, thus, most users won't have to bother about drivers. If something doesn't work right, your first stop will be Synaptic. Make a search for the name of your component and there is a good chance to find the right driver. If this still doesn't help, have a look in the forum, there will most likely be an explanation of what to do, otherwise, don't hesitate to ask.

Now that the base system works, let's look at the applications:

  • Since you are most likely used to Word, Excel and Powerpoint, you'll find that Openoffice (Writer, Calc, Impress and Draw) will suit your needs well. It even opens and saves in MS-Office formats, thus, you can share your work with Windows people.
  • Gimp is like Photoshop but I didn't have time yet work much with it.
  • Kontact is a kind of an "Outlook" replacement but you can also use Thunderbird as a powerful email program.
  • Konqueror is not only your file browser, but also a web browser. However, you're likely to prefer Firefox for the web. A good hint here: Konqueror can directly import IE bookmarks [Bookmarks menu > Edit Bookmarks > In the new window > File menu > Import > Import IE Bookmarks > browse to your Windows Favorites folder > click OK] and then export them again [Export to Mozilla] to import those into Firefox [in Firefox it's Bookmarks menu > Organize Bookmarks > In the new window > File menu > Import > follow instructions].
  • Kopete is just great, it runs all your messengers in one single program!
  • Amarok plays your music, mp3 and the lot. I have essentially all day long played my favorite web radio. There are many more players around, but you'll most likely use Kaffeine for your DVDs and the MPlayer plug-in for on-line video.
  • You can install Skype and Google Earth with Synaptic and you'll find what you've been used to.
  • There are many CD/DVD ripping and burning applications around but far and away the best way to go is to use K3b with its easy-to-use, intuitive user interface.
  • You won't see many tools to secure and/or tweak your system, simply because it is either built in or simply not required. But back to that in another part.
  • Virtualbox: You'll definitely need this great software: with Virtualbox you can emulate entire computers: you can create one virtual machine that runs Windows so you can run under Linux the few Windows applications you might be missing. On top of that, you can create a virtual Linux machine in case you want to test another distro or you can mirror your set-up and use this to test and play with things without the danger of messing up your computer.

As you can see from these few examples there is ample software under Linux to cater to the average users needs. I found that many more things are actually plug-and-play with PCLinuxOS than with Windows.

Part 3: But under Windows...

One thing to learn quickly here is not to compare processes with Windows, "but under Windows..." doesn't count here. When you change from one system to another you will have to make the effort of relearning many processes that you have been used to under your previous set-up. This is no different when migrating from Windows to Macintosh, or even from Windows XP to Vista. Actually, you might find it easier in the end to migrate from XP to PCLinuxOS, than to Vista.

Don't complicate your life by trying to look back at where you came from, rather, learn and absorb the new way things are done with this new OS and you'll quickly learn that the new ways of doing things can bring you new features you never even dreamed about before. While playing around with the tweaks I actually found out intuitively new ways that I then easily implemented in Windows; for example, a Quicklaunch menu with sub-menus. It's trivial to do under Linux and Windows but it never occurred to me as to how handy this can be until I played around with "Edit Menu". More about this in another part.

The big differences between Linux and Windows are actually not very visible to the newbie. No details here since there are many write-ups all over the net. Important to know is that Linux has many security philosophies built in, one of which is a true multi-user environment. This means if it is not for you, it is really not for you; access to files and application is strictly regulated and controlled for each user of a system.

The master user in Linux is called "root". Root is the only user that has global access to everything and you won't need to login as root during normal work. In fact, for your daily work you'll login under your own user name and you can do all the tasks like working with your favorite application, print documents, connect to the web, etc. However, as soon as you need to change something important in your system settings, such as installing new software, you'll need the power of root. Thus, viruses and other malware have a real hard time attacking a Linux system. Whilst this is not totally impossible, it is so unlikely that you won't have to worry about installing additional protective software on top of what has been built in.

So this "root" thing sounds complicated? Well, don't worry about it too much. Just always login with your normal user account. Whenever you call up an application that alters something important it will pop up a little window where you just have to enter your root password. This gives full access control to that one application so you can alter what you need to do. For example, install a piece of software with Synaptic and you close that application once the job is done. This way your overall security is well maintained.

So it is very annoying having to type this root password all the time? Well, think about it this way: how annoying is it to have a bazillion of anti-everything software taking 80% of your computing power away from you without really guaranteeing security? Besides, typing the root password becomes second nature after a few weeks, plus once your system is well up and running there won't be much need to alter anything any more.

Under Windows you are used to having to run a shear, endless number of tweaks and repair utilities to defragment your hard drives, to repair your system registry, to backup the registry, to compact this, to optimize this, etc. Guess what: under Linux you'll need NONE of this. You read this right! None, nada, not even a hard disk defragmenter!

to be continued...