Make Your Computer Easier, Faster and Smarter, for Free
Linux isn't scary any more.
by Gregory Allan
This might seem like a strange topic for The Lawful Path, but hopefully it won't seem so strange once you get into it a bit.
My computers are mostly PCs; the kind which usually run Microsoft Windows. Except I don't run Windows at all. For fourteen years now, I have used an operating system called Linux.
If you've never heard of Linux, it's time you did-- you're about to learn something very important. If you've heard of Linux and thought about trying it, but have been hesitant for whatever reason, this article may whet your appetite.
You're reading this because you use a computer. Everyone uses them these days. Most people don't care about the technical stuff, they just want them to work, and be easy to use. If you're the kind of person who doesn't understand all the jargon, then please keep reading. This article is jargon free-- layman's terms only, unless I explain the term.
You may think me a nerd for saying this, but I am really excited about Linux. That's why I'm writing this for you, because I believe if you know the things I know about Linux, then you will be excited about it too. I know if you use it, your life will be easier, you'll save lots of money, and you'll be happier in general.
When I started writing this article, I scrapped what I'd written several times. It was too much like other articles I'd read. I settled on what you see here, which is more or less a discussion of the things about Linux which I'm really happy about. I've added just a little history, for clarity.
What is Linux?
Linux is an operating system (commonly abbreviated "OS"). Microsoft's Windows, Apple's OS X, and Linux are examples of OSs. The OS tells the computer how to find and use the screen, keyboard, mouse, memory, anything else connected to it. The OS provides the framework for the computer to communicate with you, the user. It also runs all the other software you install on your computer. Without an OS, computers are just doorstops.
Throughout this article I will make comparative references to Windows and OS X, which are registered trademarks, and the proprietary property of their respective owners.
Computers that were a whole lot less powerful than yours, used to take up all the space in large, air-conditioned buildings. Those extremely expensive computers were called mainframes. In 1969, an OS was created called Unix, to run on mainframes.
Personal computers (PC) became available to the public in 1981, and used an OS called MSDOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System). MSDOS was also hard to use, and it wasn't nearly as powerful as Unix, but then neither were the PCs it ran on. The graphical point-and-click interface was introduced to the general public by Apple in 1984, with it's first Macintosh, which aimed to make computers easier to use. Later, in 1985, Microsoft came out with its first version of Windows.
Next to Unix, the Macintosh and Windows systems were toys. However, Unix was expensive, and the computers it ran on were out of reach for the common man.
In 1983, a man named Richard Stallman started the GNU Project, which was intended to be a set of Unix-like tools which could be run on PC-type computers. The problem was, GNU didn't have a kernel, which is the brain of the OS.
In 1991, a man from Finland named Linus Torvalds created a Unix-like kernel which would run on PCs, and he gave it to the world so people could use it for free. It became known as Linux, and became a full-fledged OS when it was coupled with the GNU Project. Many people refer to Linux as GNU/Linux, but we'll stick with Linux here out of simplicity.
In the beginning Linux, like Unix, was hard to use. That has changed in a big way, especially in just the past few years. Now, Linux is not only faster, more secure, and much more powerful than Windows, it has become easier to use. It's also completely free.
Is Linux Easy to Get?
Most PCs come with Windows already installed. You switch on the computer and Windows comes up, asks you a few questions, and puts you in a graphical desktop which has become pretty familiar looking to millions of people.
The thought of installing a different OS on your computer, if you have ever thought of it at all, might well make you break out in a cold sweat. I'll go into more detail about installation later, but for now I'm asking you to trust me-- this is no longer something to worry about. Installing Linux is easy.
In contrast, installing Windows is hard. If Windows didn't already come pre-installed, no would would use it. They couldn't, because most people could never get it running. Finding all the drivers for the various devices in your computer can take days. Linux finds, installs, and configures your drivers automatically, in just a few minutes.
I know you have Internet, or you wouldn't be reading this right now. If you have broadband, you can download Linux for free. If you're still on dialup, I suggest you buy a DVD disk from someone who will mail it to you for around five bucks. More info on that later.
You can install Linux on your PC in less than one-hour. It's as easy as popping in a DVD, turning it on, and answering four or five simple questions. Linux will install itself; you can go grab a beverage. In 95% of all cases, Linux will automatically find and install the correct drivers for all your hardware. Linux can find all your pictures and other data (it's a lot smarter than Windows). It will offer to copy them over to the Linux side for you. It's a no-brainer.
Once you've installed Linux, you will still be able to run Windows, if and when you want. Turn on the PC, and a menu will come up, giving you the choice to run either Linux or Windows. Windows will run as before, except you may notice your hard drive is smaller. Linux sets aside a part of your hard drive for its use, which is unavailable to Windows-- nothing to worry about.
Is Linux Easy to Use?
Linux has a reputation for being powerful, but hard to use. Not any more. Linux is as powerful as ever, but in many ways has now become easier to use than Windows.
If you can use Windows 7, or XP, then you will feel instantly at home with Linux. If you're used to the old XP desktop, and are now struggling with Windows 8, you'll actually feel more at home with Linux than Windows.
A graphical screen, a mouse pointer, and a panel at the bottom with a menu in the bottom-left corner. Just like what you're already using. Customization is straightforward, and everything is geared toward helping you get your work done.
You get a lot more choice with Linux than Windows or Mac. Rather than being stuck with whatever desktop they want you to have, with Linux you have a choice of dozens of different desktop environments. Some of them look much like Windows. Some look like the Mac. A few look like something you've only seen on science fiction movies. Start with something familiar. Later, if you want, you can experiment.
Years ago, my mom bought a computer. Of course it came with Windows pre-installed. She'd turn it on, and use it for a day or two, and it would get a virus or otherwise stop working. She'd call me, and since I often work on the road, far from home, it might be weeks or months before I could fix it for her. It got to the point where she was afraid to use it at all. I installed Linux on it, and told her she could use it now, and there was nothing she could do to break it. She was skeptical, but willing to try. Mom found Linux every bit as easy to use as Windows, and my admin work was instantly reduced to zero.
I've had similar experiences with dozens of people over the years. Repair shops and technicians who fix computers know this. They recommend their customers use Windows, because fixing Windows' problems is what keeps them in business. On their own computers, they use Linux.
Can Linux Get the Job Done?
Once a year or so, I like to go into a large office supply store, and browse their wall of software. The one I'm thinking of has a display at least twenty feet long. They have Windows for sale, of course, and all the other software runs on Windows. Office suites, anti-virus programs, paint, desktop publishing; the list goes on and on. Titles ranging in price from $10 to $300. I'll bet there's $10,000 worth of software on that shelf. I like to look, but I never need to buy. Over fourteen years, I've spent less than $200 on software.
Have you ever been working on a project, and realize you need software you don't have? Do you put your project on hold, and drive to the store? Do you shop online, and wait a day or two for delivery? Maybe it's something you can download right away, after giving them your credit card number?
Nearly all Linux software is free-- actually, lawfully free, for the instant download. Programs are kept in an online repository, where they are easy to find and install with a single click. Now when I need a program I don't have, I browse the repository and find what I need. Usually in less than five minutes the new program is installed, and I'm back to my project. And it cost me nothing!
The programs won't have the same names as the ones which run in Windows. It may take a little getting used to, remembering to run LibreOffice instead of Microsoft Office, or Gimp instead of Photoshop. For the most part, the programs will work in a familiar way. You'll find all the functionality is there-- and then some.
LibreOffice, for instance, is a full office suite. It reads and writes Microsoft Office files, so you can use it for school or office and interchange files with your collegues. In most cases they will never know the difference. I find LibreOffice much more intuitive and easy to use.
Is Linux Fast?
For nearly every application, Linux scores consistently faster than Windows. Linux is the top choice for anyone who needs both speed and power.
In 2012, in a survey of the world's 500 fastest computers, 469 of them (94%) ran Linux. Only three ran Windows (ranked 132, 165, and 183).
Linux runs on more than just the newest, fastest hardware. It's also well known for breathing new life into older, otherwise obsolete machines. Is your computer running slow? Install Linux on it, and you may think you have a brand new machine.
What About Security?
Linux is famous for being resistant to viruses. Many Windows users have repeated this old line to me, "Hackers don't write viruses for Linux because hardly anyone uses it. If more people ever use Linux, there'll be lots of viruses for it too." I know they're Windows users without them telling me so, because their claim tells me they don't understand.
Hackers don't write viruses for Linux because Linux viruses normally can't be made to do very much harm. There's an old joke amongst Linux users about the most widespread Linux virus. It's an email, that reads like this:
Linux Virus: This is the Linux Virus. Please voluntarily delete all your files now. That is all. Thank you.
The funniest thing about this joke is that even if the recipient followed the ridiculous directions, he could only delete his own files. He could not delete the files of any other user on the system, or do anything to destabilize the computer, even if he tried.
The reason for this is simple, and you'd think Microsoft would have figured it out by now, but they haven't. Unix systems, Linux included, assign a user account to everyone who uses the system. This is not at all like the users you set up on a Windows system. In Windows, an account only configures your desktop preferences, but you can still view and edit the files of other users.
Linux has individual logins for each user, too. Like Windows, each user can choose his own wallpaper, and personalize his own space. This is where Windows stops, but Linux is just getting started.
In Linux (Unix), every single file, and every single running program is owned by a user of the system. Every user has a home folder which he alone owns. A user can create new files in his own folder, and he owns those files. He can read and edit his own files, but he can't read or edit the files of other users. A user can't edit any system files, so he can't destabilize the system. `
Any program a user runs, whether on purpose, by accident, or by way of a virus, has only as much authority as that user has himself. So a virus is limited to the same amount of damage any user could do intentionally. This means that any user who accidentally contracts a virus, can only put his own files at risk. He can't hurt other users' files, or in any way damage the system. As long as he regularly backs up his files, a Linux user has very little worry for viruses.
As you might imagine, this kind of takes all the fun away from the people who write viruses. In fourteen years of using Linux, I've never had a virus, and I don't run any anti-virus software.
Another worry is people hacking in through the Internet. Anyone who hacks into a Linux system has to break into a user account by, for instance, guessing a password. Once in, the scope of damage he can do is limited to the amount of damage that particular user could have done voluntarily. Since the user can only edit his own files, and has no power over the rest of the system, the hacker gets a limited payoff for his trouble.
Occasionally, as with any system, a hacker might find a bug (known as an exploit) that allows him unauthorized access into a computer. This danger exists with any computer connected to a network, regardless of what OS it is running. In general, Linux is far less vulnerable than Windows, but nothing is 100%. When an exploit is discovered for Windows, it often takes months before Microsoft fixes the problem. All the while, every Windows user is vulnerable. Exploits for Linux are rarely found, but when one is discovered it is usually fixed within days, or even hours.
Are you extra security conscious? Have you ever wished all your personal files could be encrypted? This is as easy as clicking on a single checkbox during installation. Now every users files are encrypted. The user doesn't even notice, as all encryption/decryption is handled in the background. This is especially handy with laptops, which can be easily stolen. The thief may steal the equipment, but he can never get your data. Without your password, all personal data on your system will look like gibberish.
How Much Does Linux Cost?
I've already answered this, but it bears repeating: Linux is free. Yes, truly free.
Linux, and most of the software that runs with it, are licensed under rules that mandate it be given away freely. People, and corporations, can modify the code, but in most cases they must share their changes.
We've been raised to believe maxims such as "You get what you pay for." If something is free, we generally believe it must not be very good. Surely, something you paid $300 for, must be better than something similar you got free? It may be true with most things, but Linux is an exception. This may be the hardest part of convincing people of the value of Linux. Free, does not in this case mean cheap. The Linux Foundation published a whitepaper in 2008, which estimated that the average cost of reproducing a Linux distribution from scratch would be about $10.8 billion.
Nearly all the Internet runs on Linux. Many large corporations, and governments use it, as do about 4% of all PC users. In my experience, most people who are around Linux enough to see its benefits, switch and never look back.
Most companies that switch to Linux do a cost analysis first, to determine cost in terms of training, and lost productivity while their employees learn the new system. In recent years these costs have been drastically reduced, as Linux has become easier to use. Technical support can be purchased, just as with Windows. But free support is plentiful, especially when it comes to online forums. It is typically much easier and faster to find the answer to a Linux question online, than for Windows.
One of the stepping stones many companies use, is to initially keep using Windows, but switch employees from Microsoft Office to LibreOffice, which is free, and also available for Windows. There's a small learning curve while people get used to the new office suite. Then, one day, they come into the office and find everything has been changed to Linux. But when they click on the Office button their worries go away, as the program looks just like what they were already using. Once again, a no-brainer.
Are There Any Hidden Costs?
No. Not with Linux. But I can think of plenty of hidden costs with Windows.
Constant pop-ups, trying to get you to buy something, are an irritation and a drain on productivity. Advertisements showing up in every conceivable spot. Programs which you thought were packaged with your computer, but turn out to be crippled somehow, unless and until you buy the full version.
I regularly have a crew of up to two-dozen private contractors working for me. A significant part of their work involves using a computer, and they are required to each have his own. I don't care what OS anyone uses, as long as he can get the job done.
A few months ago one of these guys, we'll call him Bob, asks me if I'll have a look at his new computer. He's running Microsoft Excel on Windows. His problem is he can't get the spreadsheet wide enough on the screen, because there's a vertical bar taking up about a fifth of his screen, displaying advertising. I tried for over a half-hour to get rid of it, and failed.
So I gave him the link to download LibreOffice and suggested he use that instead. He doesn't know it yet, but he'll soon be using Linux. I have to say I had a big laugh over the Excel ad-bar. But I can't understand why people are willing to put up with such abuse-- yes, abuse, when they have such an awesome alternative.
If the costs were as simple as this, it would be bad enough. But overall, it's really much worse.
Based on his actions, and on things I've heard him say in interviews, I believe Bill Gates (CEO of Microsoft) is a eugenicist. A eugenicist is someone who deals with the so-called improvement of the human race, through controlled mating, gene manipulation, or culling. Culling is a fancy way of saying "I'd like to kill off millions of people I deem to be inferior," and this seems to be the primary focus of most modern eugenicists.
Gates' father headed Planned Parenthood, which is primarily in the abortion business. So when I read of Bill's apparent practice of shipping vaccines to Africa which kill, paralize, and permanently maim tens of thousands of innocent people, I was not surprised. Don't take my word for this. Please do your own research, and then think about whether you want to contribute money to the causes this man advocates.
While you're at it, look up Georgia Guidestones, and read the first statement carved into the stones. I have no evidence Gates had anything to do with the Guidestones, but they were obviously put in place by a eugenicist.
Apple isn't much better, in my opinion. Have you seen the photos of the factories in China where Apple products are made? The factories are like towns, with manufacturing in the center, completely surrounded by the apartments where the workers live. All around the apartments, just above ground-level, are large nets constructed to safely catch workers who try to kill themselves by jumping from their apartment windows (search: suicide nets foxconn). I've seen estimates which showed that the incomes of these workers could be more than doubled, by adding no more than two-dollars to the price of each iPhone. It seems Apple prefers things the way they are.
While we're on the subject of Apple, I'd like to point out that while Apple likes to give the impression their OS X operating system is a unique and special thing which they created, it is actually based on BSD Unix, which is another form of free Unix much like Linux. In fact, Apple goes to the trouble of getting each new version of their OS certified with the BSD foundation as being fully Unix compatible.
Apple's fancy graphical system is really X11, running on top of OpenGL, which is the exact same graphical system used by Linux, and available to Apple, and everyone else, for free. Apple slaps on their proprietary menu system (in much the same way I told you above that you've got dozens of choices in Linux), locks the system down so that users are extremely limited as to what they can do with their own systems, and calls it OS X. Personally, I call it OS FRAUD.
Linux is free to use, and constructed in a way which allows you to use your computer the way you want. It doesn't limit your choices. The people who contribute to programming for Linux do so voluntarily, or work for companies which voluntarily pay to make Linux better, because it's in their own best interest. Linux embodies the essense of the free market.
The Bottom Line
Having read my comments, you will rightly conclude I am very much biased toward Linux over other operating systems. Computers are tools; a means to an end. The same with any OS. Setting aside any political implications, whatever tool is best for the job is the one you should use. I believe for most people, in nearly all cases, Linux is a better tool.
There are exceptions. I have a friend who is a machinist. He has a large fabrication machine which automatically shapes blocks of metal to create tools and other metal items. His machine uses computer-generated shape files, which he draws himself. This is a specialized niche for which not much software has been written, except for Windows. He depends on this software for his livelihood, and obviously for him Linux is not an option.
This is not to say that everyone who has a favorite Windows program need be so limited. A Linux program called VirtualBox can run a full version of Windows inside a virtual window on your Linux desktop. There is also a Linux program called Wine, which can run a lot of Windows software. In many instances, your Windows software will actually run faster under emulation in Windows than it did on an actual Windows machine.
My friend hasn't tried emulating his software in Linux. I'd be interested to see what kind of performance he would get.
In Closing, I can tell you this:
When I sit down in front of a computer running Windows, I immediately become uncomfortable. I am irritated by all the popups. It seems I have to go through twice as many menus to get what I need, and I'm always afraid I'll break something. I actively dislike Windows.
In contrast, when I sit in front of a Linux machine I feel relaxed and comfortable. I'm happy with Linux.
Have I convinced you, or at least made you curious? Want to see Linux for yourself? Here are a few quick facts to help you out.
Since Linux is free, there are lots of different people and groups who distribute their own version. These different versions are called distributions. There are lots of distributions. The ten most popular, according to the site Distrowatch.com, (at the time of this writing) are:
I use Mint KDE (as opposed to Mint Mate, or Mint Cinnamon), and I recommend it for new users as well as the more experienced. Installation is a snap, it uses the Ubuntu repository (the largest of any distribution = more programs), and it's easy to use.
Most modern Linux distributions are packaged in a file with an .ISO extension. This means it is an image, ready to be copied to a DVD, or in the case of something smaller, like Puppy, a CD. The easiest way to get Linux is to visit one of the sites above, download the .ISO, and burn it to a DVD. I just searched the Net for a free Windows program that can burn ISO images to DVD, and came up with freeisoburner.com. I've never used it, but it sounds like something that would work.
If you don't have broadband, there are plenty of people/groups who will send you a disk, for a small fee. Again, a quick search brought up OSDisc.com, which sells DVDs with your choice of Linux OS, for $5.95. I haven't used them, so this is not an endorsement.
Once on the DVD, you put it in your computer's DVD tray, and reboot. Make sure the BIOS is set to boot from DVD first (usually you press either F2 or Delete at the first boot screen). If you're installing Linux on a computer with Windows 8 on it, you'll have to go into the BIOS and turn OFF Secure Boot. Don't worry about this. Linux is secure enough already, moreso than Windows even with Secure Boot turned on.
Your computer should boot up a live version of the Linux distribution. It will be running from the DVD, so it will be slow. Feel free to click the buttons, and take it for a test drive. The only thing you can easily do which will change anything on your computer is if you click the Install button on the desktop. That will do just what it says, and install Linux on your computer.
Be sure to back up your files first! It's extremely rare to lose files in an install. Out of hundreds of installs I've done, it's only happened to me twice. Both times I didn't backup my files first. I won't make that mistake again.
That should get you started. Plenty of help is available online. Good luck, and have fun.
(Isaiah 33:22) For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us.
Copyright 1996, 2014, by Gregory Allan; All rights reserved.