What am I missing?
August 27, 2006 12:02 PM   Subscribe

What am I missing by not using linux?

I'm a Windows user, and because I play a lot of games that are not available in other OSes (e.g. World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, etc), I'm not going to completely switch.

Now that Microsoft is giving away Virtual PC, I could easily tinker with Linux without even having to screw around with dual-boot. However, other than the "gee whiz" factor, I'm having a hard time coming up with reasons to actually do it.

Are there any "killer apps" that are only available to Linux users? Games? What's out there that's only available to devotees of the Penguin?
posted by DWRoelands to Computers & Internet (55 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Terrible fonts? A feeling of smug superiority?

In all honestly, very little. What you get more than anything is freedom from having to rely on Windows and a freedom to tinker with your OS. Most of the actual apps are just (poor) clones of their Win/Mac equivalents.
posted by reklaw at 12:06 PM on August 27, 2006

Frustration upon frustration, in my experience.
posted by DoctorFedora at 12:19 PM on August 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Unless you are planning on adminstering some server software or doing some coding, you're not going to gain much. You may get a deeper understanding of how a computer works. I would amend reklaw's comment to say that most of the non-programming-related desktop apps are poor clones of their Win/Mac equivalents.
posted by mzurer at 12:20 PM on August 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Having a real unix shell is nice, makes you recognize how horribly crippled and illadvised cmd.exe is in win2k-XP Pro.

There's really not a whole lot, outside of the linux kernel itself, that is "linux only" per se. Some neat filesystems, I guess.

Most anything that will run on linux will run on a BSD also, and an increasing number of applications from both will run on OSX (essentially a BSD).

I'd say try a unix at least once, but beyond that, unless you're running a server or something the only reason to use unix is personal preference or a desire to stick it to the man. Setting up your own windowmanager (visual presentation/UI) is kinda neat.

Personally, I would be a full time FreeBSD user... if I could run Photoshop and Illustrator on it. Just because I like freebsd and know it better than any other OS. Instead I just volunteer to maintain a Freebsd server (over SSH), which gives me my fix of familiarity.

I'd switch to OSX to get a real shell and unix userland, and still be able to use my adobe apps, but lack the money to invest in an apple system.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 12:26 PM on August 27, 2006

i agree with all the people abov. the poor font system REALLY frustrated me.

i made the switch to OS X. if you want to try something new get a mac?
posted by moochoo at 12:26 PM on August 27, 2006

Actually, you could play around with it even easier just by burning an ubuntu disk and booting from it. But I have to say that mzurer's evaluation is basically right (I switched to os x after years of using linux, which has basically all the good things of linux without the frustration). One more thing that linux has over windows (at least, without a lot of effort) is the command line -- but this has a learning curve. I still do most of my file manipulation on the command line only.
posted by advil at 12:28 PM on August 27, 2006

A whole lot of grief, and the ability to crow about software licencing issues. I can't think of any linux software that doesn't work on pretty much everything else, and work better to boot.
posted by bonaldi at 12:29 PM on August 27, 2006

Why not see for yourself?

Get the latest version of Ubuntu and burn it onto CD. Stick it in your computer and restart. The Live CD will boot up, and you can take Linux for a spin without altering your hard drive. Doing so will give you access to most of the features of linux, without altering your hard drive. Then if you like it, you can always install it.

The main advantage is free software, available at the click of your mouse, that will do pretty much anything you want. Modern linux distros like Ubuntu aren't any harder to learn than Windows. It's just that everyone has windows experience and is stuck in that paradigm.
posted by chrisamiller at 12:31 PM on August 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

It's free, it's worth a couple of evenings of screwing around with it a bit to get a feel for what Gnome and KDE are like so that you'll have some idea about it in the event that you need to use a Linux machine in a hurry sometime. Generally speaking I agree with most people above that it tends to be frustrating, it's easy to spend a whole day getting something to work that would have been completely automatic under Windows.

I have a vague feeling that some pieces of free software work better under Linux (GIMP maybe?), and there is the odd case where a commercial license agreement permits certain uses on Linux that are not allowed on Windows.
posted by teleskiving at 12:32 PM on August 27, 2006

I can't think of any linux software that doesn't work on pretty much everything else

Yeah, that's the thing. Linux software works very easily on OS X, and most of it gets ported to Windows if it's even remotely worthwhile. The open source nature of Linux (perhaps somewhat ironically) prevents it from having any exclusive killer apps.
posted by reklaw at 12:34 PM on August 27, 2006

At day's end for most typical consumer users it's a matter of comfort; if you're not programming or server-maintaining and don't have a soft spot for things like Emacs (the battleship of text editors) or shell scripts (by which system tasks can be automated in neat and powerful ways) or extending your applications, you'll gain nothing and lose much by moving to Linux. When I was a young CS major I liked the close-to-the-ground feeling of UNIX; now I use a Mac and get the same feeling, but with an aesthetically pleasing GUI that behaves in long-familiar ways.

i.e. Ditto everybody else, plus Mac-user snark. :)

Today's PC's are essentially entertainment media boxes, right? And Linux is a terrible, terrible vector for the average human being to get entertainment media. Whereas I can't imagine operating a website, say, without some kind of UNIX recourse.

[scripture]What you're missing by not using a Mac is perhaps more meaningful given your interests; most of the non-game shit you do on a Windows box you can do more elegantly and powerfully on a Mac, with finer-grained control but a lot more attention paid to the user experience. Really the best of all worlds for a certain midlevel computer user.[/scripture]
posted by waxbanks at 12:36 PM on August 27, 2006

Matt, both Photoshop & Illustrator will run under Wine/Crossover Office. Its not the prettiest, but it works.

UNIX is great when you finally learn it. There is next to ZERO reason to switch a desktop over if you're not planning on learning the UNIX way of doing things. Otherwise, you'll just be frustrated.

You won't find games that run only on Linux that are any good to play. Unless you're into high-end content creation in specific fields, you won't find applications that run on linux that don't run on Windows (I think here of Shake, which is now owned by Apple, had the Windows version cut, but is still supported on Linux).

The real reason to use UNIX is because of the power you get when you know the commands. Its much easier to get what you want in a few short steps with UNIX, if you know it. You can script literally almost anything, there are amazing toolchains for text processing, you can modify every little bit of the startup procedure, you can link together multiple programs very easily (I think here of something like vim - if you want functionality that isn't built in, you can execute an external program on the current buffer insanely easily). Plus, you have much better integration with the majority of servers out there. Instead of having to hunt through menus, find ssh, etc, you just say ssh -lmyname remotehost, and it'll all work.

Window managers are also fun to play around with, but honestly, if you like the Explorer shell, you'll probably be frustrated with those as well. I've taken a liking to Ion3, which is completely mouseless, & does away with overlapping windows. Its ideal for a bunch of console windows. On Windows it would drive me batshit.
posted by devilsbrigade at 12:38 PM on August 27, 2006

Note despite all this, I still run Windows on my desktop (although I do run FreeBSD on my laptop). I want something that works without me tinkering with it, that I can play games on, use all the applications I'm used to using without a hassle. An external box running a *nix is generally enough for me (I'm getting into it on my laptop, though).
posted by devilsbrigade at 12:46 PM on August 27, 2006

Modern linux distros like Ubuntu aren't any harder to learn than Windows. It's just that everyone has windows experience and is stuck in that paradigm.
For the record, this just isn't true. The learning curves are quite different near the origin but become similar further out and largely identical at some point: your first day in Windows is actually pretty enjoyable, since it's mainly point/click/Internet/porn/wow! Your first day in Linux is going to be quite different, because the point at which something doesn't work or isn't complete or is utterly mystifying will come, and that moment is handled more gently by Windows/Mac OS's.

Put another way: someone who isn't already comfortable with computers, with the notion of a filesystem for instance, can't use Linux for more than a couple of trivial tasks. This isn't true of Windows, its flaws aside - it's built for fools. Click the picture of the computer. Click the picture of the hard drive (labeled 'My hard drive'). Click the folder marked 'Programs.' And you just found the programs. Try explaining to someone who just learned how to click a mouse what /usr/bin/foobar means and why he should ever have to type it.

Organizationally, presentationally, Linux remains more complicated than Windows, more likely to break in mystifying ways. Linux advocates tend to say otherwise, but to be blunt, they have no idea what they're talking about. Modern Linux users are self-selected and incline to like the Linux methods of organization and activation and so forth. The systematicity and power appeal to them. If they don't appeal to you, feel no guilt about walking fast in the other direction.
posted by waxbanks at 12:52 PM on August 27, 2006

Well aware devilsbrigade, but hardly the most recent versions and hardly with the stability I need. Maybe they will work how I need someday, but not today.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 12:54 PM on August 27, 2006

Best answer: Basically, what you're missing is Unix. As others are telling you, from the point of view of most people, this is just fine.

Unix is cryptic and difficult, and takes years to learn really well. When you learn one Unix program, you have learned... one Unix program. The skills from one mostly don't translate to others, where with Windows and OSX, you learn quite a bit about running Excel from learning to use Word.

Now, to be fair, Linux desktop programs are coming along nicely, thanks to KDE and GNOME, and you finally get some of the same cross-learning across apps now. And they're really pretty good at this point; if you had no money and needed an operating system, really, they'd be very acceptable. But they're almost always inferior to their commercial counterparts, largely because they don't have a cast of thousands working on them.

The real strength of Linux and Unix is at the command line. If you are willing to invest the time, you can literally control ANYTHING about your computer. NOTHING is out of your grasp, if you're really interested and motivated. There's no artificial barrier past which you're not allowed to go, like with Apple and Microsoft. And you can't ever be locked out of your system, or forced to upgrade if you don't want to. (although security risks may force you to do so before you're ready, unfortunately.)

Basically, if the computer is just an ancillary tool to whatever else you're doing, you may or may not get much out of Linux. Where it really starts to shine is when the computer becomes very integral to your life, particularly if you are a programmer. If you can program, Unix is a force multiplier on your productivity; you can nearly bring about world peace from the command line. But if it's just a means to an end, like a toaster or an automobile, then it won't be so good for you.

I think I'd draw the car analogy a little differently than the person above. If operating systems were cars, Microsoft would be Ford, OSX would be Toyota (with a much lower quality delta), and the various flavors of Linux would be the strange custom-built stuff your cousin Joe knows about.

Linux is best for the weird cases, when you need to drive very very fast, haul huge loads, go offroad, or climb vertical cliff faces and then glide to the final destination. That's not the kind of thing your normal driver would want to do, and the extra maintenance and care involved would be entirely past his/her abilities.

Linux, basically, is for professional computer people, where Windows and OSX are better for the amateurs.
posted by Malor at 1:11 PM on August 27, 2006

I should add: Linux can still be fun to screw around with. And it's free. Might as well take a look, it's not like you're out any money. Ubuntu is a great starting point.

Just realize that the system is under CONSTANT development, so if you don't like it this year, come back and look next year. It's moving very quickly. Don't finalize any judgements based on what you see today.
posted by Malor at 1:13 PM on August 27, 2006

If you like to play around with networks and programming, you're missing a lot of fun stuff. There is some assembly required still -- usually, by design -- but you're missing out on the experience of owning an operating system and galaxy of assorted programs that you can pull apart and tinker with.
posted by ph00dz at 1:15 PM on August 27, 2006

The real strength of Linux and Unix is at the command line. If you are willing to invest the time, you can literally control ANYTHING about your computer. NOTHING is out of your grasp, if you're really interested and motivated. There's no artificial barrier past which you're not allowed to go, like with Apple and Microsoft.

Since OS X has a unix command-line, this isn't nearly true. And for the GUI world, Automater/AppleScript are far better at dipping into GUI apps. You can't run a sh script on InDesign.

Don't finalize any judgements based on what you see today.
A lot of the problems with linux pointed out here are inherent. The type of designers that love typography and user interfaces aren't the type that are drawn to help improve linux. And like reklaw says, open source is anathema to exclusive killer apps.
posted by bonaldi at 1:24 PM on August 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

There is so much FUD in the answers here, from people who ran Linux once a few years ago and now qualify themselves as experts.

Fonts? Works find, clear, and clean on my Ubuntu desktop.
Office software? Try out OpenOffice for Windows and see if you can do what you need to do.
Gaming? Yep, you're not going to be able to run Age of Mythology (made by Microsoft) and most of the newest, flashiest, awesome first person shooters. If you don't play those it doesn't matter, and if you'r fine with lesser games just sign up with Cedega/Transgaming for one month ($5) to download the software (which doesn't expire) to run a wealth of games.
Interface? It's much more configurable than Windows, but even at the just-installed level, you aren't going to find anything in a current desktop distro that would turn you off. A lot of work has gone into a very good base interface.

"What do you want to do?" is the question that needs answering. It's very likely that an average (and even above-average) Windows user can't accomplish the same things with Linux that they want to do otherwise. Yes, it's not Windows and therefore will require you to learn some stuff. But it's unlikely you need to learn anything too difficult if you don't have a desire to do so.
posted by Kickstart70 at 1:39 PM on August 27, 2006

Kickstart70, "what am I missing out on" is the question that needs answering, and nothing you've said is something exclusive to linux.
posted by bonaldi at 1:44 PM on August 27, 2006


I think Malor's rant was about the degree of customization - e.g. you can't just replace the Finder wholesale with PathFinder (without cutting corners and sacrificing the integrity of your machine). Which is fair, but a bit like complaining that when it rains it rains water instead of wine. You're right about the in-built weaknesses of the open-source OS community however.

DWRoelands, the main thing you're missing by not using Linux, now that I think of it, is the company of people who make analogies like 'OSX is like Toyota...' and complain without irony about the lack of a 'cast of thousands' to work on Linux software.

i.e. You're missing next to nothing.
posted by waxbanks at 1:46 PM on August 27, 2006

Download Cygwin. The UNIX command line/tools that Cygwin gives you in Windows are the one thing you'd really be missing out on with just Windows.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 1:55 PM on August 27, 2006

While I do second the notion that Linux is harder to learn/setup than, say OSX or Windows, it does have its killer apps. Amarok for example, the KDE music player, beats all of the ones available for Mac or Windows.

And as an example of simplicity, KTorrent, the KDE torrent downloader, is by far the best I've ever used.
posted by richardh at 1:56 PM on August 27, 2006

If you want to dabble, forget Virtual PC and go for VMWare Player or VMWare Server (both free) and load it up with a prebuilt image.
posted by Pryde at 2:07 PM on August 27, 2006

waxbanks said: Click the folder marked 'Programs.' And you just found the programs. Try explaining to someone who just learned how to click a mouse what /usr/bin/foobar means and why he should ever have to type it.

And try explaining to a windows user what the registry is. For the majority of apps, you just click on the icon from the menu and off you go. No hacking required.

Where does windows save your stuff? "C:\Documents and Settings\Yourname\My Documents"

Where does linux save your stuff? "/home"

Which is easier to explain? You can argue that windows comes with a desktop shortcut to My Documents, but most linux distros ship with a shortcut to home. What's the difference?
posted by chrisamiller at 2:15 PM on August 27, 2006

I didn't think I was particularly ranting. What I was trying to point out is that you don't have the source code to the Finder or to the kernel, and Apple can potentially use those as weapons against you, as Microsoft already does. Apple does this in a limited way now, by trying to lock their kernel to run only on Apple-branded hardware. This is perfectly understandable, but I happen to think if you want to pony up the $139 for a copy of OSX, you should be able to run it on a damn toaster if you want. Apple doesn't agree, and uses their closed source as a weapon to make you do what they want.

The fact that Linux is open means that you can't be held hostage. If you run Windows, and you don't like WGA, well tough luck, they installed it on your system as a Critical Update. That can't happen in a freeware OS; if anyone tried that, they'd be out of business almost overnight.

Now yes, OSX DOES have BSD underneath. (and keep in mind, I'm typing this on a Mac Pro RUNNING OSX, so I'm not ignorant here.) But there is still a bright line you're not allowed to (easily) cross. You don't have source to any of the apps they provide, or the windowing system. You have most of the power of commercial Unices, as they mostly don't come with source code either, but you don't have the utterly absolute control you can choose to exercise with a fully open system.

You may never choose to, and in fact you won't, with 99% of the system... but for the 1% that DOES interest you, there are no artificial barriers stopping you from doing what you want. And you can't ever be held hostage by corporate interests.

For some folks, that's worth trading away some convenience. For others, it isn't. There's more than one operating system in the world because there's more than one way to think about the problem. If freedom really matters to you, it's available... at the cost of convenience. If convenience/polish is more important, it's available, at the cost of freedom.

Me, I just run everything. Solves the problem nicely. :)
posted by Malor at 2:16 PM on August 27, 2006

By the way, I haven't seen perhaps the most compelling reason to use a Linux desktop:

It's free

The OS is free, and the vast, vast majority of programs that you need are also free.

Even pre-installed Windows is adding 50 bucks to the price of your Dell PC. MS Office? There goes another $150 or so. And so on.
posted by chrisamiller at 2:22 PM on August 27, 2006

Oh, come on. It's not just about the frustration of day-to-day usage. By not using Linux, you're also missing out on the angry condescension you could experience in "help" channels and on "help" mailing lists. Nothing like a few questions "answered" there to change your mind about what sort of people are really powering this movement of free software and goodwill. Your reticence to pore over a turgid thirty-screen "man page" in search of the command you want will be seen as laziness, your statement that you have finally done this and still don't have the answer will be seen as a lie, the eventual revelation that you aren't lying will be seen a sign of your stupidity. And these ideas are not expressed indirectly, you will be directly called lazy, dishonest, and stupid. You will be enouraged --nay, commanded-- to go back to Windows.

And may the deity of your choice forbid that you should actually ask a conceptual question such as what a stream is. You will be barraged with 'What specific problem are you trying to solve?' If, like me, you are just asking because you saw the term used in a doc and are curious, you will be understood to be batshit insane as well as lazy and stupid. If you are asking because you're doing your best to solve a problem on your own using the docs, and this is the one piece of the puzzle that you're just not clear on, then prepare for another round of abuse in any case.

Highly recommended reading: In The Beginning Was The Command Line by Neal Stephenson (free online).
posted by bingo at 2:40 PM on August 27, 2006

I think this thread is a bit unnecessarily harsh towards Linux, though. The best analogy I can think of is that using Linux is like being a vegetarian -- it's a matter of ideology more than anything, a 'sacrifice' that costs you convenience but lets you feel like you're doing something good for the world, and that some people come to swear by on its own merits. I'm sure there are other similar movements, but I can't think of any offhand.

Basically, it's not about apps or features. Few people cook with tofu because they think tofu tastes so damn good. It's a substitute for those who don't want to go near the mainstream alternative that they see as unethical. But, of course, you'll always find a few people who'll tell you that they absolutely love tofu.

Disclaimer: I am a vegetarian, but I'm not crazy enough to go to the trouble of using Linux -- mainly because I disagree with the GPL on an ideological level, admittedly, preferring BSD licensing or public domain.
posted by reklaw at 2:53 PM on August 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

For your average home user: not much. I will say that Ubuntu is the best out of the box Linux experience I've EVER had. It works a treat on my Dell laptop.

As a programmer: better system stability, a much better virtual memory manager, a better scheduler, and a leaner OS.

The biggest strength of Linux is that it can scale from the tiniest system-on-a-chip to huge multiprocessor supercomputers. Linux has been a boon to the embedded device market. Saving the cost of buying an OS for one desktop pales in comparison to saving licensing fees on millions of units shipped.

That cheap Linksys router you bought would cost a bit more if it had vxWorks on it instead of Linux. That's probably the most immediate benefit to the home user there is.
posted by kableh at 2:55 PM on August 27, 2006

Strangely, I do use Linux for everything I do on my main work machine. I get pretty frustrated when using Windows for work (I don't mind it too much for games though having to restart between Sims and Orion for some bizarre reason is annoying). I couldn't pin it down to any one thing, but here's a few:

* Easy installs / updates of a huge amount of software (from the Ubuntu repositories) that is tested to work well together (if I need a program for statistical analysis, it's a few clicks away)
* Software maintained in a sensible menu (under windows, I quickly seem to end up with a whole screenful of applications with no sensible order to them)
* Lyx and Latex (Neither seem to be easy to get to work under Windows)
* Using the same environment on the servers I maintain / use as on my desktop
* Accessing any of the machines I use at the university from any other machine / from home / running a program I wrote on my desktop machine on a cluster of machines
* No worries (worth mentioning) about viruses, trojans, adware
* A feeling of solidity, I don't expect things to go wrong for reasons I don't understand
* Don't get annoying popup bubbles from the start bar (those drive me insane... "No Antivirus!" "Your desktop icons could be reorganised!")
* Control over everything, in ways I understand (could be booting into a different desktop environment, changing the kernel, what services get loaded at boot...)
* A sensible OS underneath everything (real symbolic links, no drive letters, separation between kernel/GUI layers etc.)
* xine for watching video/DVDs etc (I use VLC under windows but don't like it as much)
* much, much easier OS install (I get very frustrated with the 10-odd times I have to restart Windows during installation... Windows seems to take half a day compared to about an hour for Ubuntu, including installing extra codecs, Java etc., and by the end of that I have every application I use regulary installed as well)
* being able to stay as a regular user (as opposed to super user/admin) for regular work, with all the associated benefits

There's without doubt a lot more I can't think of right now, to do with the kernel, desktop environment and hundreds of applications I use on a regular basis and would have to spend a lot of time trying to get to work under windows / spend a huge amount of money trying to buy equivalents for.
A lot of what I've mentioned would apply to OS X as well, of course, and I suspect I could be quite happy there too though from what I've seen on the few occasions I've tried it it felt a little overly simplified for my tastes. Not too keen on the dock either, though maybe it just takes some getting used to.

Of course I don't know if it's for you... The satisfied Windows user is probably one of the toughest "customers" for Linux as you're happy with how things are under Windows, you know what to expect, you have all the software you like using installed, you have a routine for dealing with viruses etc.

As for trying, I don't personally think a virtual machine or CD boot will give you the right "feel"... the first because it doesn't have access to the real hardware so you won't be able to play a DVD, graphics will be slow, etc. and the latter because booting off and starting application from CD is awfully slow.
posted by Morbuto at 3:05 PM on August 27, 2006

bingo: yeah, there's a lot of that. It's particularly bad in the Debian 'community'. I've rarely (never?) run into such a crowd of antisocial assholes. The fact that you don't know something means that they are better than you are. and they will endlessly rub your face in that belief. They can't be insiders unless there are outsiders, and their rudeness is how they keep people out.

But not all the communities are like that. Ubuntu has some very nice people volunteering on their forums. I haven't spent much time there, but I've seen some exceptionally friendly and helpful people when I've been linked there from google searches.

By the way, I think a stream is a bit of a blurry concept, applicable in several contexts, which might also be why they were asking further. Fundamentally, a stream is a sequence of bytes emitted by one program and then used in some way by others. The most common type of stream is a 'pipe', like "ls | more", which streams the output of ls into the input of more. But there are other types as well, many of which I probably haven't even heard of. It's such a useful basic idea that it pops up all over the place.
posted by Malor at 3:15 PM on August 27, 2006

Morbuto makes a good point about virtual machines and live CD's not being quite the same. That said, dual boot can be a pain too when you're first starting out (not to mention slightly risky--there's never a more important time to make sure you have current backups of everything important than before you go down that path).

Probably the most practical way to learn is to use an old (but not too old) spare computer, possibly with a cheap KVM switch to share the monitor and peripherals.
posted by Pryde at 3:34 PM on August 27, 2006

If you use a Mac, there is nothing for you in Linux. Except the pain of broken modules night after night after night.

So, if you like to h4x Linux is good for you, because its so easy to break. Then you an fix it, compile the wrong kernel, go wild. Its fun, but its a hobby horse, not a carriage.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 3:58 PM on August 27, 2006

unless you're serious about getting a good education in computers and how they work ... or running something online where security is a serious issue ... you're not missing anything ... the things that would make linux essential, such as openoffice, firefox and vim, have all been ported to windows

there was a time when i ran linux more than i ran win 98, because win 98 was a buggy piece of crap ... that changed with win xp

well, ok, i do miss the multiple desktops ... and those programs that provide them in windows can be buggy ... and although i didn't learn the command shell all that well, it's far superior to anything microsoft has ever come up with ... and as a counter to those who think that configuring linux is difficult, there's things on windows that can be difficult to impossible to do ... and if account control and file permissions are important to you, win xp's are a joke

but those are concerns for hard core computer nerds and unless you are one or want to be one, i don't know why you'd bother ... last winter, i installed fedora core on my system just to see how things stood in the linux world ... it was good, but i didn't have a compelling reason to run it, so off it went after a few weeks

get a live cd of linux if you want to fool around with it ... dynebolic's good, because you can install it onto your hard drive without messing up the windows file system ... just don't expect a big sign in the heavens reading "with this os, thou shalt conquer" to flash above you
posted by pyramid termite at 4:34 PM on August 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think the thing that will be most impressive to a new Linux user is the amount of software that can be installed and managed by the distribution.

For example, if you're running Debian or Ubuntu, you'd use apt-get to install openoffice:
apt-get install openoffice.org

To upgrade all the software on your system to the latest versions:
apt-get upgrade

It's a huge difference from windows where you're lucky to even have new versions of software. About 10 minutes after booting into a new Ubuntu installation, I've got it running all the lastest versions of software I regularly use.

waxbanks: Organizationally, presentationally, Linux remains more complicated than Windows, more likely to break in mystifying ways.

My experience is just the opposite. Under Linux, just like under Windows, sometimes you'll get an application that doesn't work as expected. But I never have the mysterious "Why can't I connect to the internet today? I could yesterday." sort of problems I have with Windows. Generally speaking, you can track down the causes of problems without too much fuss because there are logs and error messages for everything. You don't get hit with completely mysterious problems with no information to work with.

Playing with a live cd is a great idea.
posted by joegester at 4:37 PM on August 27, 2006

1. a shell
2. a number of utilities (from md5sum to gcc)
3. faster compiles*

1 and 2 you can get with cygwin. *I only went to linux when my Rockbox compiles took too damned long under cygwin.

And I only went so far: I run linux in a VM, and cygwin under windows, so I have the best of both words. It's no longer an either-or, you can conveniently and cheaply have both linux and MS-Windows.
posted by orthogonality at 5:10 PM on August 27, 2006

From what I see, cygwin is _not_ like running linux and is not going to make someone like the original poster happy: From cygwin.com:
  • Cygwin is not a way to run native linux apps on Windows. You have to rebuild your application from source if you want it to run on Windows.
  • Cygwin is not a way to magically make native Windows apps aware of UNIX ® functionality, like signals, ptys, etc. Again, you need to build your apps from source if you want to take advantage of Cygwin functionality.
So you are left with the the power of a real shell, but that only makes sense if you talking about a user who _already_ realizes that power and knows how to harness it Someone who just wants to try out linux won't have any idea why the command line is so powerful.

So please, cygwin is not for the OP. Ubuntu live cd? Definitely. Not cygwin.
posted by rsanheim at 6:26 PM on August 27, 2006

I should've added to the previous - having access to all the gnu tools will be just as mystifying as the CLI w/ cygwin.
posted by rsanheim at 6:27 PM on August 27, 2006

a shell, sensible scripting, and nifty little things like wget, cron, at, and so on.
posted by pompomtom at 6:27 PM on August 27, 2006

This is a very context sensitive question. But, I figure I use linux most often at home, so it must have something that Windows doesn't, and I've tried to distil down what those reasons might be for me.

(a) I run a fairly low-end laptop. Windows XP is sluggish as hell on it, to the point of frustration (especially if it's been running for a couple of days). I find, in contrast, Ubuntu is quick and snappy in the ordinary, everyday tasks I do, like opening a browser window, or opening my home directory. And I can slim it down even more if I want, by selecting a slimmer window manager. This is, of course, unimportant if you've got a nice, high-end PC.
(b) Scripting and command line tools. I'm not a "programmer", but I find that it's very handy having stuff like Python, mplayer, lame, Unix tools all just installed and instantly accessible, to be very useful. In the last few days, I hacked together a little script to automatically record RealAudio streams from an online radio station in the wee-small hours of the morning, and transcode them to MP3s in hour-long chunks for my listening pleasure. And the tools and interface to do this was easier, for me, than it was when I tried to do the same thing in Windows. This is, of course, unimportant if you have no interest in writing your own little utilities and scripts.
(c) It's free. I can install whatever distribution I want, wherever I want, whenever I want.

There are, of course, equally many reasons why Linux is worse than Windows. For me, these include a lack of mature music software, video editing software (oh for an application that I can just drag and drop video clips into to create a VCD of the baby for grandma), and a lack of mature instant messaging software - Yahoo, Google Talk etc. There's no standard way to use the voice / video features of IM in Linux.
posted by Jimbob at 7:13 PM on August 27, 2006

What am I missing by not using linux?

Not having to worry one bit about all the internet viruses that everyone else seems to be constantly yammering about.

Once you get everything working (no small feat, I'll admit), it stays working.

* There are tired arguments against both of the above. After 20 years in computing, I don't believe them. Linux is safer and more reliable than Windows, period.
posted by intermod at 7:40 PM on August 27, 2006

I only use linux. Here's why:

* Music - JACK applications let me do things that no other proprietary music creation systems do.
* Security - All the obvious reasons (a real firewall, encypted partitions, no fear that there are backdoors in my OS).
* AmaroK - The best MP3 player software ever. Seriously.
* Networking versatility. Doing complicated tunneling operations is a pain in the ass under windows.
* UNIXiness - Nothing else I've found gives me the kind of elegant control over things I want. I love my command line.
* Appearance - Windows is ugly, OSX is flashy and less usuable. Gnome is sparse and has a very pleasing minimalist aesthetic. KDE isn't bad either.

I switched to linux becuase all the cool new things people come up with come to linux first. It's the hacker's operating system, and when I want to do some hacking and do something new, linux is the best environment for it.
posted by phrontist at 10:29 PM on August 27, 2006

Oh, and the latest versions of SuSE (10.1) and Ubuntu are amazingly easy to install and get working. I have hardware graphics accelleration sound and special laptop features (power management and such) in a few hours.

And it's all free.
posted by phrontist at 10:31 PM on August 27, 2006

If you want to do new things with a computer, instead of using it as an appliance, Linux is your operating system. OSX isn't bad either, but it's expensive, and forces a (in my opinion, annoying) window manager on you.
posted by phrontist at 10:34 PM on August 27, 2006

I use Linux on my 6 year old PC because it simply runs faster than the Windows 2000 it came with. It's also interesting to muck about with and find out new things, but I stick with Win XP on my main PC for ease of use, and gaming. However pretty much all of the software I use are open source ports from Linux.
posted by Orange Goblin at 6:02 AM on August 28, 2006

Response by poster: Wow, this is an avalanche of useul and insightful opinions. Thank you all for taking the time to comment so thoughtfully.

I do feel somewhat reaffirmed in my notion that there isn't a whole lot of reason - for me - to explore another OS. Windows is meeting all of my needs well. No crashing, no issues with malware (I use Firefox and I'm fanatical about virus updates and spyware scans), and I can use Open Office for word processing.

So, again, thank you Mefi!
posted by DWRoelands at 6:51 AM on August 28, 2006

Music - JACK applications let me do things that no other proprietary music creation systems do.

I have to say that I disagree entirely -- I have recently spent a lot of time playing with open source audio apps and JACK itself is about the best of the bunch (by the way, it's available for OS X and a windows port is apparently underway). Commercial audio applications are _far_ more powerful in almost every respect than any open source audio app I have seen. Try the demo of e.g. ableton live and you will never want to touch audacity again (and they don't even really have the same goals!) They are not cheap, though.
posted by advil at 2:10 PM on August 28, 2006

You are missing lots of freely available software of varying quality. Also, you're missing the opportunity to make that software better, or to totally make something new that has the potential for wide acceptance and use.
posted by dammitjim at 3:05 PM on August 28, 2006

"Not having to worry one bit about all the internet viruses that everyone else seems to be constantly yammering about."

True, but if you don't keep your Linux box up to date, you can very quickly find that it's been rooted and is happily blatting out spam from your IP. Linux isn't a magic bullet - it also has to be kept up to date and properly secured, just like a Windows box.

OP: as a desktop OS, now that OS X has matured quite a bit, I don't think that you're really missing out on a whole lot. Most of the Linux diehards (which I was at one point) don't do a whole lot with their machines except watch pirated movies, play pirated mp3s, dink around with GIMP (while saying how much better than Photoshop it is) and having system stats scrolling on their pretty Windowmaker desktops.

dammitjim is right - but if you're not a developer, making the software better probably doesn't apply to you. And there's always the "too many cooks in the soup" bit too.

Don't get me wrong, I still love Linux. I'm a current RHCT and I run a web hosting business based solely on Gentoo Linux...and I've run a Gentoo Linux desktop box that I built up from a Stage 1 install. But I don't think it's the bee's knees as a Desktop OS at all. OS X slaps it around the block.
posted by drstein at 3:38 PM on August 28, 2006

joegester: I may not have a "Why can't I connect today?" but xserver-xorg-core version 1.10.3 broke my little system and I could not even log in.

I have a backup box and a laptop with Kubuntu on it and love them, but there are VERY aggravating issues with setting them up if you don't want to dig into how to set certain items up. I did want to learn how and use it as my "sandbox" to play in.

For example, I would KILL for an application to set up a mouse with more than a scroll wheel and a left and right click. I have to edit a file every time I install a new set up.

But I also love finding new software. Tellico is one of the best items I have found, a collection manager. Even though it is free software, I donated to the guy that created it because I appreciate his time and effort.

Regardless of your verdict on trying it or not, I do recomend running off a live CD and booting it up just to take it for a spin.
posted by slavlin at 4:28 PM on August 28, 2006

I don't understand all of the negative views... It seems quite a few people have had bad run-ins with Linux Evangalists.

Anyways, to be honest, you aren't "missing" anything. The three major OS's out there all have the same abilities (and each have their own focus).

When you expose people to the best that Windows/OSX/Linux has to offer, (rather than the worst... blue screens, high cost, library dependancies), this is how it'd go:

  • Windows seems to be the choice of people who don't care how things work, they just want to do what they do. The computer can tell you when you need to clean your desktop, defrag your drive, etc... These people seem to be task oriented. They have the same attitude about their computer as most people have about their car, take it in to a shop to get the oil changed or if anything is clunking around. (I do that with my car, but not with my computer.)

  • OS X seems to be the choice of people who don't want to think about how to do something. Utter beginners often get lumped into this category, but so do people who like to do what they do on computers, i.e. writers and artists. OSX costs more if you keep it up-to-date compared to windows, and Apple doesn't offer bargain-basement deals (it's about the same bang-per-buck, but Apple has a set structure for hardware, they don't sell $200 computers at Walmart). In the car world, these are the Luxury Car drivers... They'll pay the price needed in order to really enjoy the driving. (or they'd rather buy a 5 year old luxury car than a brand new Low-End car.)

  • Linux is the choice of people who enjoy figuring out how their computer works. Same driving factors as the guys who rip apart their cars and endlessly tweak their engine. These people do it so that they have an intuitive understanding of their vehicle/Operating System. When you go driving with someone who's hand-tuned (or in these days, custom-chipped) their entire engine, they can tell you exactly what has gone wrong before most people can notice that something is wrong. They know the system so well that they feel secure that if anything does happen, they'll know before it's catastrophic, and they'll be able to fix it before it's even cooled down.

    Each Operating System has it's place and it's focus... You don't miss anything by moving to any operating system. I play CounterStrike:Source and Guild Wars on Ubuntu, edit company word docs in Open Office, keep track of my finances in gnuCash, play music with amaroK (ok, I really have to say this, amaroK really is by far the best thing to happen to music since Winamp.), Watch my archive of TV Shows with VLC (I got used to the interface, plus it plays nicely with XGL/Compiz). It's taken me about 3 weeks of fiddling about an hour or two every day, but my system runs like a dream, looks WAY better than OSX or Vista, and runs everything I want. Is it for the average Joe, no... But it no longer takes a computer H4X0rz to get it running like this. All of the things I've done have been found via google or ubuntuforums.com.

    (and before anyone wants to take a shot at the classic "Linux looks like crap and has nasty fonts", which used to be true, I'll admit, take a look at the "better" link. It took me 1 hour to get that setup, and most of that was downloading)

  • posted by hatsix at 4:22 PM on August 29, 2006

    "Linux is the choice of people who enjoy figuring out how their computer works"

    I remember back when the cocky bastards were running Windows NT. Before Linux really came around, if you wanted to act like you were a "super power user" then you installed Windows NT. I've noticed that a lot of the holier-than-thou attitudes carried over into the Linux camp.
    posted by drstein at 6:51 PM on September 1, 2006

    Very belated, but....

    drstein: the people I know that ran NT did so because it was far more robust than 95/98. We didn't run it to be cocky, we ran it because you could trust it.

    Linux was stable but primitive, and OS9 was overpriced and lousy...worse than Win98. Basically, NT was the only option if you wanted to be SURE you'd get shit done. Linux still kicked the shit out of it reliability-wise, but the apps were incredibly cryptic and user-hostile. With Windows 2000, Microsoft mostly fixed their reliability issues, to the point of being better than Linux a great deal of the time. These days, Windows is _extremely_ robust. But it's easy to forget that it wasn't always that way.

    If you refused to use NT, and thought that guys using it were just posers... well, the posing part could certainly be true, but in your disdain, you missed out on a genuinely superior product. At the time, NT was the only trustworthy mainstream OS.
    posted by Malor at 1:03 AM on September 6, 2006

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