One User’s Experience with Linux In Regards to Windows

The smell of newly purchased stuff… So, there I was, Hauppauge WinTV board in hand, Mandrake 10 installed and ready to rock! Little did I expect that it would come to this. But first things first.

Let’s begin with my background. I know computers, and quite frankly I know them pretty well. After 5 years at university, most of the time staring either into my 21″ Miro or into my too small chassis containing my old PIII 450MHz with various twists, and also as a network admin at my dorm with some 140 computers, I’ve come to know them pretty well. Most of the time at Uni my computer was running Windows 2000 and was happy with that, although I always loved to boot into my FreeBSD partition and feel the delight of total control as I tweaked and twisted my inits and rc:s. When I quit Uni and my trusty PIII died with a sigh I decided enough was enough. At Uni I used to reinstall Windows every 6 months or so, since I couldn’t keep from bloating it and I didn’t really feel like walking through the registers deleting old services all the time. Now I got rid of my Windows partition and installed FreeBSD to use as my only OS that, for now, ran on a borrowed PII 350 MHz. At first, I missed some of the nice things Windows had to offer, but soon enough I had forgotten all about it.

Time passed, I got myself a job, an apartment in a new town and a new P4 3GHz with 1GB speedy memory and 200GB hard drive, yummy! I didn’t think much of it, but did a fresh install of FreeBSD again. Some more time passed and although I thought FreeBSD is superb in almost every way, I’ve always been a music junkie, and some of the features ALSA could offer in the new 2.6 Linux kernel seduced me. I tried various Linux distros, including Mandrake 10, Slackware 10, Fedora Core 2, Debian Sarge and Gentoo. They were all nice and nifty, and I had just about decided to stay with Debian (since it has almost as good application base and tools with apt* as FreeBSD’s ports) when destiny took another shot at me. My job forced me to relocate to a new town, a new apartment and a new… no, wait! No Internet connection available! Not yet anyways. This, and the fact that Swedish Television announced that they are sending an entire night, twelve hours straight, devoted to rock and heavy metal this very Friday night got my wheels spinning.

Seeing an old friend
I don’t own a TV, much less a VCR. What to do? I’d really like to see this show. I went to the store and purchased a (reeaally) cheap Hauppauge WinTV board, and figured that I’d just plug it in and record the whole thing. I knew of tvtime and xawtv, and that xawtv could capture video, although I had never used it. Enter current time, and enter problems. I have no Internet connection, so I cannot download any packages to install the applications or libraries needed. Also, in my current move-chaos, I have left all my CDs and DVDs with packages and distributions in my other apartment, in another town. I found a Knoppix CD, which detected my board, and I was able to watch xawtv, but only in black and white, and it did not record. After ploughing through all my bags and boxes full of my belongings, the only thing I found that was of any help was my Windows 2000 Professional installation CD. After scratching my head to the bone I decided to give it a try. I mean, I work with Windows XP everyday at work, and I know that installation can be as simple as click-click-double-click. After all, I do have the installation CD that came with the WinTV card. Insert CD and fire up!

Now, I seem to recall Windows installations as a breeze compared to that of Linux or *BSD (yes, WinXP is more so than W2k) but I guess things change. Compared to SuSE, Fedora Core and especially Mandrake, Windows (both W2k and WinXP) is a walk on broken glass to install. I haven’t tried it, but I guess Xandros and Linspire are just as easy as the three cousins mentioned. If you take the time to read the instructions when it comes to partitioning and bootloading on a Slackware or Debian installation, then it’s not harder to install than any Windows flavor. Okay, Gentoo is a league of its own, but no one lacking severe experience in OS:es should ever try that at home.

Installation is finished, let’s reboot into our fresh system. Hey! What’s this?! I’m being greeted with a screen resolution from hell, and a 16-color display, some welcome! In Linux, I was at anytime invited into a nice 1024×768 or even a 1280×1024 display with millions of nice colors to view. Okay, let’s just change that in the nice Display Properties Settings Menu. Nope, no go! I have to install new drivers and reboot first. What drivers? The ones I can download from my none-existing Internet connection? Sure, I may have gotten a CD with all that with the display card when I bought the computer, but that is 250 kilometers from here, and no time to fetch it. Linux may not offer me accelerated hardware support with the built-in drivers (with some exceptions, I believe), but then again, Windows offers me nothing at all. Yes, again, WinXP has much better support for this, I admit, but if I recall correctly not even that was of any high quality.
Okay, I try to install the WinTV board anyway, it might give me something. Well, no, not really. The sound works fine, but there is nothing but a black square where the image should be. I guess it needs more colors to display correctly.

Score so far?
At this point, I’d say Linux and Windows are even. The exception is the unlikely winner Knoppix, who can show me b/w TV, with a 2.4.x kernel, running from CD, impressive I must add. Well, I have Windows installed and a messy apartment waiting to be cleaned up. Let’s explore my old OS and see if there is any nostalgia to be discovered. But alas, to my surprise, there is nothing to be discovered. We have… let’s see… er… Notepad and WordPad, nice for writing stuff like this, and then there is… uhm… Paint and Mediaplayer. Let’s face it, Windows comes with nothing! Not even if you consider that WinXP has a newer version of most of this, and some more tasty stuff, like Moviemaker. Sure, there is Internet Explorer and Outlook Express, so if I had an Internet connection I could browse the web and fetch some mails and viruses, since there is not even a proper firewall installed. Where’s the stuff I need to get my work done? Where is my Office suite? Where is my application for creating awesome graphics for my website? Where is my compiler? Where is my Instant Messenger? No, I don’t want that one, I want one that supports multiple IM protocols! Okay, so I don’t have a connection, but nevertheless, I’ll have one soon (I hope, I’ll be sending this from work).

If I only chose to install KDE or Gnome under Linux I was rewarded with all those apps, either by default or by installing them from the installation CD. I had, Gimp, gcc/g++, Kopete and Gaim and tons of stuff I really could use for my everyday work and entertainment. Using Windows I have to buy MS Office for almost the same price as the OS itself or download from the Internet, since it is not included on the CD. Same goes for the compiler, only the compiler from MS costs more than I make in a month, if I want all the stuff I have for free in Linux. The other programs have to be downloaded as well; the graphics suite, the IM and all the other stuff I want.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have to download anything from the Internet after having installed it. Of course I download stuff, I do it all the time. I have to download the entire Linux distribution in the first place, since I never bought one. But the bottom line is this: I CAN use my computer for my everyday work (writing documents, presentations, spreadsheets and programming) if I install a standard distribution of Linux (one CD is usually enough) on my computer. However, if I use Windows, I either need to buy the extra stuff or download it from the Internet, since none of it really comes included on the CD.
This article is not about pointing the finger, but isn’t it a little strange that Windows creates a hollow shell for your “useable” software and charge you money for it, while Linux distributions come fully packed with all sorts of candy from the very beginning, and it’s free from the start? I’ll leave it to the reader to go figure.

But how about usability then?
Isn’t Windows more usable when it’s all set? Well, I used to think so too, but after having installed Windows on my machine again, I’d have to say I doubt it. It pretty much comes down to what distro you use. I’ll go for Debian when this is over, because it offers me the best mix of control and general usability. If you try out one of the major distros, meaning SuSE, Mandrake or Fedora Core, I think you’ll find it easy enough to manage and use your computer. With tools like Yast, up2date (or yum, when someone fixes a nice GUI for it) and Drake-tools, you can browse and search large repositories for applications and updates to install. You can even update your entire world, including kernel and userland. With Windows, there is the auto update tool, which pretty much works in the same way, but it only maintains your system as far as security updates and applications included in the Windows suite (eg, Internet Explorer). To maintain your other applications is your headache, not theirs.
As for using the computer on an everyday basis, Linux (or Linux applications rather) still has some way to go. is a killer, but the kick-ass spreadsheets with the kick-ass formulas are still done in Excel. Gimp and its relatives are great, but Adobe and its competitors on the Windows market still have a tight grip here. Same goes for most large and complex applications like AutoCAD, who’s still in the lead. Most other applications, like Internet browsers, mail clients, IMs, databases, blablabla are equally strong in the Linux department.

Yes and No. Windows in itself actually supports less hardware than Linux (the kernel). But in practice, windows supports more hardware, since most hardware manufacturers include a CD with their products with drivers and installation guides for Windows. This is slowly changing, more and more manufacturers include drivers for Linux, but the progress is slow. However, as we can see, my main concern was to get my graphics card and my WinTV board working. With Linux it worked to some degree, but with Windows it didn’t work at all, it didn’t even know what kind of device it was until I installed the drivers (this is true even for WinXP).

Windows is a good product. For everyday use it’s stable (although not too secure, as we’ve seen) and easy to use. But Microsoft is a heavy colossus, and it moves too slowly to keep up with today’s development speed. Technologies like .NET will continue to shake the market to its foundations, but that is not enough to keep the actual users satisfied. I believe that lots of companies hold on to Microsoft merely because there are tons of custom-built applications out there that runs on Windows that are needed to keep the business floating. But we can see more and more users in the Linux communities, companies and governments decide to switch to Linux, despite the effort and initial costs it involves. Personally I would love to see the market switching to Linux today, but it’s a big operation, and it will take time and effort from those who decide to do so. Microsoft supporters keep giving us the “Linux is actually more expensive” argument, and I believe that this is a bunch of crap. Sure, initially there will be costs for education, time spent on installing, upgrading and maintaining a new system, but in the end there will be a positive economical effect. Why? Because logically, nothing can be cheaper than what’s free, right?
I’m not a Linux zealot, I use Microsoft products myself, but I enjoy it so much more when I get to work with Linux. I can even change the looks of my desktop as I desire, for free! =o)

About the author
Kristofer “Jalle” Jarl is nearly 26 years old, almost grown up, but far from mature. This Master of Science wishes he could spend more time on the snowboard or with a guitar on his lap than he spends on calculating signal strengths and qualities for a large telephone service provider. Someday he may even try to do something big with his own little firm, which for now lies sleeping somewhere in a box in his new apartment.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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