The most popular Operating System on home PC computers today is still Microsoft Windows as it has been for the last couple of decades. However, for the last few years there have been many alternatives which are just as easy to use and even better, they are free! Linux is collective name given to a group of operating systems (The Linux bit is the core bit) most of which are free and Open Source. (Open source software is developed by groups of developers from all over the world and you are able to actually see the source code that makes the software. This is great for sorting out problems collaboratively but also means that no-one is able to put any nasty bits that might harm your computer or steal your data as everyone else can see the code that they have contributed). There are dozens of Linux based distributions (‘distros’) to choose from. I will focus on the one I am most familiar with (Ubuntu) but there are many others to choose from, including Mint, Mageia, Mandriva, Fedora, Redhat, Debian etc.
*Ubuntu is an easy to install Linux distro which can be tried from a CD or USB memory stick without affecting your current operating system. It can also usually be installed alongside another operating system, so you could choose between Linux or Windows when the computer first starts up. It includes loads of essential software by default including an Office Package (see below) so you can start using it really quickly. (www.ubuntu.com) (Alternatively see Computing Tips 2 – Virtual Machines)
One advantage of Linux based OS is that it does not suffer from viruses and other such malware like Windows does. Another advantage is that it runs adequately on older machines whereas the latest versions of Windows require the latest computers to run them! This is by design, it is in the interest of both the computer manufacturers and Microsoft to keep selling their new products!
* UPDATE 2013 – I recently had to upgrade my verison of Ubuntu and the new user interface is not friendly as the old one. The Mint Linux interface is still very similar to Windows and so I would now recommend that over Ubuntu if you want my advice on deciding on a Linux installation..
Wordprocessors, spreadsheets and perhaps graphics and presentation software is collectively referred to as an Office Package (aka Office Suite, Office Software). Microsoft for a long time had the most popular Office package but in recent years there have been some free alternatives which have all the functionality that Microsoft Office has that you are ever likely to use. They can also read and write the same type of files so you should be able to access old documents if they are in Microsoft Office format. In fact, they often have additional features that are not in the basic Microsoft packages (last time I looked) such as PDF export! The office package I am most familiar with and would therefore recommend is LibreOffice (which is also Open Source). But alternatives include OpenOffice, OxygenOffice, ThinkFree and Zoho Office, some of these are just variations of the same core package. If you are sticking with Windows then Libre Office and some of the others are also available for Windows! (www.libreoffice.org) They mostly do everything a home user would require from office software. (If you choose if the Linux distros mentioned earlier, you will no doubt have one of these already installed by default!)
Other ‘application’ software
Graphics packages, video editing, sound editing, CD burning etc. With most of the Linux distros mentioned above, there are a selection of these applications already installed with more freely available with just a few clicks of the mouse. On Ubuntu for example, you just enter the Software Centre and you can select the type of software you require from a list. There are even user reviews of for you to compare. Whilst there are free versions of many applications also available for Microsoft Windows, unless you are sure that the software is from a reliable source, you may run the risk of infecting your computer with malware.
Antivirus / Malware
As already mentioned, Linux distros do not suffer from the same problems as Microsoft Windows. If you think about it, the whole Windows Antivirus scenario is a big scam. It is in the interest of the antivirus software manufacturers to make sure that the threat of viruses remains or they would stop selling their software!
Video downloading software can be really handy if you want to be able to watch a video offline later (without disruptions due to slow internet connection). For Windows, I used to use YouTube downloader and also another called Orbit Downloader, but I cannot recommend these for sure, you would need to satisfy yourself that they do not contain any sort of malware and only download from the official site. For Linux based systems, I have used gPodder successfully but I am sure others are available. (gPodder is tailored towards Podcasts but works okay with YouTube downloads etc.aswell. with a little patience)
Ekiga is a free (and Open Source) alternative to Skype (Skype is now owned by Microsoft). They allows voice calls, sending files, chat messaging aswell as video conferencing if you have a webcam. This is free to anyone else with Ekiga software on their computer, but you can also create an account and purchase credit to make outgoing calls at competitive rates and even have a landline number assigned so you can accept incoming calls. (www.ekiga.net)
So many people still use Internet Explorer simply because it was the browser that was already installed on their Mircosoft Windows computer. What a shame! There are many great alternatives which are faster and more reliable and are usually the first to add innovative new features. These include Firefox (Open Source), Opera and Google Chrome (Chromium is the Open Source version on Linux only). Google Chrome has fast become a favourite browser by many, simply because it was written from scratch and is very fast. Firefox has great features and is very well supported with regular updates, but it has had a few problems along the way which has turned some users away to try other browsers. I recommend having more than one browser installed, firstly if you have problems in one browser, you may find that another browser works better for that particular website or feature you are accessing but there are other reasons too (See Computing Tips 2 – Multiple Web Browsers).
Web Browser Recommended Addon
One particular favourite of mine is the Print Page to PDF addon for Firefox. This allows you save a copy of an entire web page into a single PDF document. This is great as you can keep copies of pages with important information in case that site goes down or the information changes. One good example would be to take a copy of a page with terms and conditions if you may have problems with a website (just in case they change it later). Also it is easier to copy or send a single file like this be email and you can also view this offline (when you haven’t got access to the internet). All you require is Adobe Reader which usually installed by default on most systems.
You may notice a bit of a theme here. Why pay for software than you can get equivalent or better software for free! Gone are the days where proprietary systems stifled competition and innovation. Now all you need is a basic computer and a Linux distro! Even better, almost everything you might need is available as Open Source! It really is a liberating experience having a computer without any proprietary software on it! And I get less crashes, better performance and certainly no viruses on my Linux system.
Now heres the confession bit. We still have some Windows machines 🙁 But only because we have a couple of specfic software packages that only run on Windows and because they are not popular applications, unfortunately there is no Linux equivalent. (We have so many files in this proprietary format it would cost too much for us to recreate these in a Linux equivalent package). However we only use the OpenOffice and LibreOffice Office software on the Windows machines (in fact none of them have ever even had Microsoft Office installed)! There was once a problem with us getting some printers to work in Linux aswell but these days pretty much everything is Linux compatible,
That said, for my main day-to-day computing (internet, email, spreadsheets, wordprocessing, multimedia etc.) Ubuntu performs better than Windows ever did and I will never look back.
(Next: Computing Tips 2 – Security and Privacy)