Feature Article
Linux vs. Windows - For My Next Computer

August 1, 2001
By Scott Lewis

I am seriously considering Linux as the sole operating system for my next computer. A number of events have occurred to get me to think this way. Here are a few:

1. I bought a laptop. When I build my next computer my wife will have the laptop has her primary (and probably only) computer. That means we have a computer to run all the Windows based software that we need. My computer can be a guinea pig to do with whatever I want.

2. I haven't been playing much games on my computer lately. This is mainly due to a lack of time to learn new games, and the difficulty to get enough dedicated gaming time in front of my computer with two kids and a wife around. However, when I build my next computer, and put it in my new study, I should be able to get some quality gaming time in.

3. Microsoft is planning on adding an anti-piracy feature into Windows XP that will require registration. This is to prevent installing it on multiple computers, but will hinder, or stop, installing it repeatedly on the same computer.

The last reason is the strongest. Microsoft has finally pissed me off enough to consider ditching them. That's bad, because I have been a fan of Microsoft. Yes, they take at least three tries to get something write... they squash the competition... they say "innovate" when they really... copy and extent. But overall I have found that their software has been good enough... though quite bloated. I have always kept pace with hard drive size so the bloat has never concerned me.

But now Microsoft wants to prevent people at home from doing what they have been doing for years. The home edition (I assume small businesses will get stuck with this too) of Windows XP requires registration and activation. When this happens the OS takes a picture of your hardware. If you change your hardware configuration enough it will stop working thinking it is on a new computer. How much change is anyone's guess outside of Microsoft. All this prevents people from installing Windows on more than one machine. But it also hinders you from reinstalling it on the same machine. If you reformat your hard drive, or buy a new one, you will have to call Microsoft and plead your case to get a new authorization code (or whatever mechanism they finally use) to successfully use the software you bought and paid for.

I for one have reformatted my hard drive at least 4 times that I can think of... in less than three years. I actually like doing this. It helps Windowsitis (a term I invented for the performance "leak" a Windows computer gets over time from installing, removing, installing, etc. applications). But this would be a major no-no in Microsoft's eyes. Also, I plan on building a new computer but handing down my current computer to my kids. I would think nothing of buying one copy of Windows and installing on both machines. Does Microsoft really think they won't be a mega-billion dollar company if they only get $100 out of me instead of $200. Give me a break.

Now... with that Microsoft rant out of the way... as a serious computer geek I should be ready to make the plunge into a case sensitive (YUCK!) operating system. So it becomes a matter of deciding which flavor of Linux to use. I have heard of many, but know little about any. Red Hat, Mandrake, Corel, Slackware, Libranet, Progeny, Caldera, SuSE... just to name a few.

Let's start by defining my requirements in a computer and OS.

  1. It must be able to edit and share documents with Microsoft Office. Since my wife would not be using Linux I will bare the burden of making sure I can open, edit and save documents in a format for her. This means I need an office suite that will read and write Word 2000 & Excel 2000 files. Other files are less important.
  2. I need USB support. I have far too many devices to go without USB support. Along with USB support I need support for my Kodak DC280 digital camera, my Rio 600 MP3 player (or whatever MP3 player I get to replace this piece of crap), my HP P1000 Photo Printer and my Microsoft Intellieye optical mouse. I would like support for my Sony eMarker and Logitech Wingman force feedback joystick, but I will not cry if that is unavailable..
  3. I must be able to share my printer and hard drive with the other Windows based computers in my house. Sorry, but I can't abandon Microsoft entirely... yet!
  4. I will need a few basic applications to use Linux as a sole operating system. These include a good image editing program comparable to Paint Shop Pro, a good Jukebox program for ripping, playing and managing my MP3 files comparable to Music Match, and I would also like a decent GUI style development tool so I can create small applications for myself similar to the way I use Visual Basic to write my own address book. If I ever want to completely get away from Windows I will need a good personal finance application. I use Money 95. Yes, it is old, but is does just what I need and nothing more. The newer versions are way to bloated with features that make them harder to use.
  5. I need web browsing and web site development capabilities. I must maintain this site from my computer with Linux. I currently maintain this site with FrontPage, so I would prefer a GUI web design and management tool.
  6. Games. I still want to be able to play games. I expect the number of games ported to Linux to be small. But hopefully those games will be the best games. After all, a game would have to have a significant amount of success for the publishers to have the luxury of porting to an operating system with such a small percentage of the desktop environment.

Those are my basic requirements. Not that bad when you think about it. I shouldn't have too much trouble finding a version of Netscape or some other browser. I hear that FTP and E-Mail software is readily available for Linux. I understand the 2.4.x kernel of Linux supports USB, so it will only be a matter of making sure there is specific support for my devices. I fully expect to be able to share my hard drive and printer (assuming support for the printer) since Linux is a networking OS out of the box.

Sun's Star Office (I think it is now being called Open Office) suite is supposed to work with Microsoft Office files. If this works properly I won't have to worry about sharing documents with my wife. I have heard that GNUCash can be used as an alternative to Quicken or Money, and Gimp is a good Photoshop alternative.

With almost all my concerns accounted for I am only left with the lack of games and a good GUI development tool. I expect the games to come slowly, but I don't play a lot of different games. Two or three really good titles will keep me happy. That leaves a development tool. Does anyone know of a GUI development tool for Linux that comes anywhere near Visual Basic in functionality?

It would seem that almost everything I need is available in the Linux world. So which Linux distribution should I get? I don't want to plunk down money for more than one just to figure out what will work for me, so I need to know a few things about the distributions.

I know a little (very little) UNIX, but not enough to do anything with Linux just yet. What I would like is a distribution that has an easy installation that will get me to a working desktop with minimal fuss. I am a techno-geek, but I don't want to spend a lot of time up front. However, I fully plan to dig into Linux over time, so I want a distribution that will allow me a lot of control when I am ready.

Next I want a nice GUI interface. I was hoping Eazel would have come to the rescue on this, but unfortunately they have closed their doors. That is a shame. Hopefully GNOME or KDE will be good enough. Which GUI environment is better, and why? Which distributions handle the installation and setup of the GUI interface better?

The company in the best position to help the Linux world is Apple. Their new Aqua interface is a gorgeous, top on the line user interface. And since Mac OS X is based on BSD UNIX I would think it would be a reasonable port to Linux. I'll bet Apple could sell tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of copies of Aqua for Linux. Better yet, Apple should create their own Linux distribution to go with Aqua and take over the Intel desktop market. Microsoft is planning on porting Office for the Mac to OS X. It would be easy for them to port that to a Aqua interface running on Linux. Am I the only one that sees this?

O.K. I am getting carried away and off track thinking this Apple/Microsoft thing could be turned around by the Linux world. Back to reality.

Which GUI environment is best, and who has the best distribution for it? I read that Red Hat 7.1 provides GNOME 1.2 instead of 1.4. Why? Once I got into the inner workings of Linux would it be hard to upgrade to GNOME 1.4 on my own? What is the benefit to 1.4 over 1.2? And what about KDE? Why are two GUI environments provided and not just one... the best one you would assume?

I need HELP! I need a PC I can use to work on my digital photos, play with music, work on Word and Excel documents, balance my check book, play games, surf the web, read and write e-mail, and maintain this site. And I would like to tinker with developing GUI applications. Which Linux distribution is for me?