There have been a few diaries and comment threads in recent weeks with discussions of Linux, the computer operating system that offers an alternative to Windows. It seems to me that quite a few people are interested in it but don't know much about it and are a little intimidated by Linux (probably because of ancient history when Linux indeed was strictly for tech geeks).
So as a diversion from the ever entertaining rox/sux primary pie fights, let's take a light look at Linux today. This won't be a technical article or a how-to manual; it will be an overview of Linux and will demonstrate some of its features, benefits, and abilities that go way beyond Windows.
I will mostly discuss Linux Mint here, the flavor of Linux I prefer and use, but pretty much all of the concepts and functions I will talk about are found in all versions of Linux. Mint is a distribution, or “distro”, of Linux. Linux is open source, so anyone is free to take the original code, modify it as desired, and repackage it with a new name as a distribution. That is what the Mint team does. They take Ubuntu, a popular distribution which itself is based on Debian (one of the most fundamental distros of Linux), and modify it to their purposes and roll it out in the distro known as Mint.
For you, as an end user, the critical fact is that Linux programs are written for Linux, not for a particular distro. That means that you can install and run just about every Linux program with any distro; if the program requires some extra supporting files to run correctly on your particular distro, Linux will automatically handle that, downloading and installing them for you.
There are important differences, to developers, under the hood of each distro. For most users, however, it's the cosmetic stuff that stands out. For example, do windows just pop up or are they animated so they grow and zoom to full size? Is there a menu of programs or does one click on tiles like Windows' Metro style? Is the taskbar located at the top, side, or bottom of the screen? Those kinds of elements and features, which the user interacts with constantly, are called the user interface or desktop environment.
Linux is incredibly modular, letting developers (or end users) mix and match many components from many sources. So it is with desktops. Ubuntu has an unusual interface known as Unity; Mint has a desktop more like classic Windows known as Cinnamon. With Linux's amazing versatility, an Ubuntu user can replace Unity with Cinnamon and a Mint user can replace Cinnamon with Unity, if desired.
No wonder Linux is so confusing! There are unlimited options, not just a few basic user tweaks. But isn't it nice to have the freedom to choose the interface and style that appeals to you instead of being forced to work with your computer the way that a few people in Redmond decided you must?
Surprise, it looks a lot like Windows
When you install Linux Mint, via an automated graphical installer like Windows uses, you will end up with a desktop looking like this (note that the Mint menu is open and displayed on the left and a welcome window is displayed in the center).
It looks a lot like classic Windows, right? A taskbar on the bottom with some handy buttons (the Menu button which is like Start in Windows, Firefox, file manager, show desktop, etc) and displays (time and date, internet connection, etc); each open window has a rectangular panel in the taskbar. Icons are displayed on the desktop for some common functions: trash and My Computer. So, as a Windows user you immediately should feel right at home.
You will know that you can double-click an icon to activate it, for example to open the trash folder. If you click one of the taskbar buttons, something familiar will happen like opening Firefox or the file manager. Just like Windows, you can also right-click on the desktop to do a few things, such as changing the background image for your desktop. Clicking the Menu button lets you navigate the categories of installed programs, like Internet or Office or Graphics, to find and launch the program you are looking for; buttons on the left column of the main menu let you shut down or restart your PC, customize the desktop, activate the screen saver, or open the Software Manager to install some new programs.
But, let's be honest. This default desktop is kind of bland and boring. The Mint team probably didn't want to get too wild so they settled for something that wouldn't offend anyone's artistic sensibilities.
Give it your personal flair
Linux and its awesome adaptability to the rescue! We can easily do so much more than just changing the background image to a pretty picture. Take a look at my own desktop.
Let's see what I've changed. First, the background image is different. Next, I installed what is called a desklet for Cinnamon; this one displays the weather and there are dozens of other small useful and informative desklets available. They literally sit on the desktop itself instead of being in windows like normal programs.
Then I got rid of the small active window indicators on the taskbar—they're boring. Instead, I use what is called a dock, in this case Cairo Dock. It lets me put icons (called “launchers” in Linux) of my favorite or most used programs in a clever animated bar that replaces the taskbar. Clicking an icon there opens the program and I can see (or click to activate) any of the running programs because they show as similar icons at the far right end of my dock. I also set up a secondary dock, to the left of the main one, for what I call utility programs that I use a lot: file manager, trash, terminal (like the DOS command box in Windows) and more.
Finally, I have a panel of incredibly useful information, updated constantly in real time, on the right side of my desktop. Like applets, it doesn't run in a window; it actually becomes part of the desktop itself. It's called a Conky and it shows me the date, an analog clock, the temperature of my CPU, the speeds of my fans, free space on my drives and partitions, how much RAM various programs are using, upload/download speeds of my internet activity, and much more. There are hundreds of Conkys that people have designed and make available to everyone, free of charge, to display all kinds of information in all kinds of ways; or, like me, you can take someone's Conky and modify it for your own preferences (it's a very simple kind of “programming” to modify a Conky).
With Linux, your desktop can have just about any appearance or functionality that you can imagine, although you may need to learn how to add a few utility programs and work with them to achieve your goal. Windows feels like being trapped in a cramped box in comparison.
Maximize the usefulness of your desktop
Mint makes it easy to juggle your tasks as you work. Like in Windows, pressing Alt-Tab will let you switch to another active program. With Mint, you not only get a graphical horizontal list of your current programs, you get a small display of each one as you select it from the list (in the image, System Settings is shown in miniature—it is similar to Windows' Control Panel).
But, wait, buy now and there's more stuff included! Actually, Mint is free so you won't need to buy it now, you'll get the extras included anyway. Mint lets you create virtual desktops to better organize your work (or play). By default, it creates two desktops but you can easily add as many as you like.
Virtual desktops are called workspaces. You can open different programs in each workspace and switch back and forth between workspaces by mouse or hotkey.
Let's say you are doing your regular assorted work routines, like email, some word processing, updating a spreadsheet and so on. You open all of the necessary files and programs in Workspace 1 (of course, this is Linux, so you can name workspaces anything you like such as “Regular Work” and “Smith Project”). For the Smith project, you open a bunch of multimedia programs, like a video editor, music editor, graphics editor, and presentation creator in Workspace 2. Then selecting a workspace lets you deal only with the programs and activities relevant to what you are doing at the moment, without the clutter of a dozen things you don't need right now on that desktop.
Even better, you can create Workspaces 3 and 4 and load them up with games for fun and the social media programs and porn sites and such that you don't want your boss to see if he or she comes by: just click back to Workspace 1 or 2, quick! And hope that your boss doesn't know about Linux's clever little trick: “Let's take a look at your other workspaces, shall we?” Ooops!
Software yearns to be free (and open source)
So where do you get all of those programs you're going to be running in your workspaces? Installing Mint automatically installs the most popular programs for many tasks, like word processing, spreadsheets, playing videos, viewing PDF files, editing images, browsing the web and reading email, and so on.
You probably will want to do some other things as well, so you will click the button on the left column of the main Menu to open the Mint Software Manager. There are some commercial programs available for Linux but the vast majority of people just use the thousands of free, open source programs that have been created for Linux.
Wait, how can even crappy programs be made for Linux if they're not for sale and profit? First, a lot of programmers are Linux fans and enter into the Tux spirit, making great software out of passion, as a sort of hobby. Others are paid to do it, just not by the end user. For example, if a large company needed to buy 10,000 copies of Microsoft Office at $100 each, it would spend a million bucks. So it saves 90% of that and donates $100,000 to the folks who created and improve LibreOffice, a suite very similar to Microsoft's. By funding LibreOffice, the company assures that the product will continue to get better and develop new features and at the same time it saves a boatload of cash. Because software projects are open source in Linux, untold thousands of people worldwide participate, offering snippets of code to improve a program, advice and ideas about features and performance, notice of bugs they have found, and more. Finally, you're free to make a donation if you like. Many software developers have a Paypal button or something similar on their website for individuals who love their program and want to support it. It's really a prime example of the “sharing economy” in the true sense of the phrase.
When you click on the Software Manager, you will get a window with categories of available programs, like Games, Internet, Fonts, Graphics and so on. You can browse the categories or you can type a name or keyword in the searchbox to find specific programs. The Software Manager displays a list of the programs, a short description, and star ratings of popularity. Clicking on any program displays a screenshot or two, a longer description, and detailed comments and ratings by users. To download and install a program you like, you simply click Install. Linux then automatically handles it, including downloading and installing any secondary supporting files needed.
Once you try it out, you might not like it. For example, there are a lot of video editors and one person might find one too simple and basic for professional needs but another person would find another too complex and challenging for simple “home” editing of his or her cat videos. To remove a program, just go back to the Software Manager and the Install button will now say Remove. There's no messy registry cleanup or worrying that a Windows uninstaller will accidentally delete a secondary file needed by other programs. Linux just handles all of that stuff. It just works.
Gaming isn't just for Windows anymore
One area where Linux has lacked in the past has been in games. Most of the great games of the past have been created for Windows. That is rapidly changing, thanks to a company that has really committed itself to Linux: Valve. Valve has a multiple OS gaming platform called Steam that supports Windows, Linux and Apple. Not all of its games are yet available on the Linux side of its platform but Steam is adding new ones every day. Most are commercial programs so you will pay for the game but they're pretty good on pricing and often have specials.
Also, Linux has a clever program called WINE. It works as sort of a translator for Windows programs to run on Linux. For example, if the program tells Windows to paint a red circle 100 pixels wide at a certain position, WINE translates that instruction into the proper code for Linux. Not all Windows games or other programs work well with WINE but it is a useful option in many cases.
For most non-gaming activities, you will probably find a native Linux program that meets your needs. There are thousands and thousands of programs in the Software Manager so try them out.
Updating without frustrations
As we all know, programs and operating systems frequently get fixes and improvements. With Windows, that means programs constantly nagging you to update, Windows itself doing the same and then making you wait and wait and wait and finally reboot right in the middle of a busy day.
Linux takes the pain out of updates and upgrades. When there are updates available for the operating system or the programs you installed from the Software Manager, a small icon in your taskbar will indicate it. Because Linux has kept track of all the software on your PC, it manages all of the updates in one fell swoop instead of expecting you to do so for each program. You just click the icon and then click the Install Updates button. Everything is downloaded, installed, and configured, while you continue working and you don't need to close a program or reboot your computer.
One nice thing about this is security. When you hunt around the net for new programs or updates, you might get tricked by a malicious entity. Perhaps you meant to type “adobe.com” but really type “adobbe.com” and someone has set up that site just to fool people. You download a phony version of Acrobat there, to install or update, and the next thing you know the funds in your bank account are on their way to the Russian mafia.
Linux distros store secure versions of all their available programs in what they call a “repository” or they rely on the repositories of their “upstream” base (remember, Mint is based on Ubuntu which is based on Debian). Those repositories are tightly controlled, with many checks and security precautions. So by using the Software Manager to install and update programs, you cut your risk of malware by about 99.9%. Because they are open source and expected to abide by the standards of the Linux community, they do not practice the annoying habits of Windows software: no absurd end user agreement you must click to okay, no toolbars installed on your browser, no nagging to register as a user, etc. In short, the user experience with software in Linux is vastly more relaxed, secure, and pleasant.
Why are you still reading instead of trying out Linux?
When you try out Mint, be sure to check out a couple of my favorite programs.
Sweet Home 3D lets you create your dream home. Draw the walls and make floorplans, then fill them with furniture, windows, doors, appliances and more. Color the walls how you like and make the floors tile, wood, stone or other materials. You see not just the top-down floorplan but a 3D model of your home. You can even enter “virtual tour” mode and walk through it, getting a feeling like you're actually walking around inside and seeing everything.
Gourmet Recipe Manager adds the joy back into cooking. Import recipes from web pages or type them in yourself. Categorize your dishes by style (Polish, Chinese, Tex-Mex) and purpose (Dessert, Meat entree, Appetizer). Easily set the amount to make and GRM recalculates ingredients so you can make a double batch or 2.25 batch if you like. Create a shopping list to help you remember what you need at the store. Remember how your culinary creation should look by embedding a photo in every recipe page.
Well, that's it for now. I hope you enjoyed this introductory look at Linux and Linux Mint, in particular. If enough people seem interested, I might continue this with another chapter sometime this week. I will read through the comments and make a note of topics and questions to address if another installment happens.