Linux vs. Windows: by a Microsoft Windows user

I am a long time Microsoft Windows (and DOS before that) user. I have never been too interested in Linux. I decided recently to have a go with Linux. I have installed Linux MCE before (http://www.linuxmce.org/), and was very impressed with this Media Center. It was an easy installation, and worked very well, even on the old hardware I was trying it out on.

The PC (Laptop) setup I am using is as follows:

  • Compal FL92 Chassis (15″ Screen)
  • Intel Core 2 Duo T8100 2.1 GHz CPU
  • 2GB RAM
  • 160GB Hard drive
  • Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT
  • Atheros AR5007EG Wireless Network Adapter
  • Microsoft Windows Vista SP1

I wanted to dual boot my existing Vista installation with Linux (Even though I am using the GNOME interface and various distributions, I will refer to this collectively as Linux for the purposes of this article). The problem with that is my 160GB hard drive was set up as 1 large partition. So I split the drive into 3 partitions (75GB for the primary partition with Vista on it, 50GB partition for storage of media, and finally a 25GB partition for the Linux installation). This wasn’t as simple as I thought it would be, I had problems using the “Shrink” feature in Vista, which would allow only 2GB to be freed up. I resolved this problem using these steps:

  1. Download and install PerfectDisk 10. They offer a fully functional 30 day trial of the software.
  2. In PerfectDisk, run “Consolidate Free Space” (Top left of the screen, tick the relevant option then click Start).
  3. Once that completes, click on the button “System Files”, near the top middle of the screen. This will run a further defrag on reboot. Follow the instructions given.
  4. Once back in Vista, go back into “Disk Management”, right click on your drive then click “Shrink”. You should now be able to release more space (up to 50% of your drive if you have enough free space).

At first I tried Ubuntu (http://www.ubuntu.com/). Being South African, this was an obvious choice…plus, it seems to be the most popular Linux distribution. It installed flawlessly, and I was very impressed with the recognition of my hardware, and the availability of applications straight out of the box. The showstopper though was the fact I couldn’t get my Wi-Fi working. No matter what I did (and believe me I did a lot!) I couldn’t get it working. I decided instead of spending any more time fiddling with this installation, I would try a different distribution. I downloaded the Fedora distribution (http://fedoraproject.org/).

I booted this up direct from the CD I created (effectively running it from the CD), my Wi-Fi worked straight away! I was excited about this, rebooted my PC, then installed Fedora. The installation was as simple as with Ubuntu. The whole process is graphical, and easy to follow. Problems again once the system was installed. Wi-Fi wasn’t working. This is the sort of thing that will stop Linux from gaining ground. I have no problem trying to figure out how to fix this issue, but your average Windows user wants something that just works. After a few searches on the Fedora forums, I managed to get Wi-Fi working, and was on my way to discovering Linux.

Installation

msWindows installations are relatively painless. Most of the time the operating system is already installed on a new PC or Laptop, and if it isn’t, the installation leads you along by the hand. With the current versions of Windows (XP and Vista) your hardware is detected and drivers installed automatically, ready for you to use. The hardware requirements are pretty steep, especially memory (although this becomes less of an issue due to the cost of memory being so low these days).

Arguably the worst thing about Windows installation is the activation. Personally I have never had a problem with this. Once I am connected to the net, my activation occurs, and that is the last I hear of it. Even when I did pull the somewhat dodgy stunt of trying to move an OEM license over from a crappy Dell desktop to a newly built PC, I had no problem at all. I phoned up the Microsoft line, and they gave me an activation code…it took me about 5 minutes.

linuxI felt comfortable with the Linux installation, but I can see how a timid Windows user might be a bit unsure with some of the options presented to them, particularly if they are trying to set up a dual boot system. You are given a few choices regarding the partitions on the hard drive, and it is very easy to screw this step up and erase your Windows installation! The process is generally as follows: 1. Download the ISO file (CD image) for the Linux Distribution you want to install. 2. Burn ISO to a CD or DVD. 3. Reboot your PC and boot from the CD/DVD 4. Begin the installation of Linux. This isn’t too much to do, and there are easy step-by-step instructions for the ISO burning. Ubuntu gives you the option to send the CD to you free by post, so saves you having to download and burn your own ISO.

Requirements for Linux are pretty minimal. Hardware support was much better than I thought it would be. Everything (except for Wi-Fi) worked straight away for me, and was detected correctly. I had to manually install the 3D drivers for my Nvidia graphics card, but this was petty painless. Driver support is getting better all the time, and if you haven’t got a native Linux driver, it is possible to use the Windows drivers with a kind of emulator.

Interface

msI love the user interface of Vista. Aero is gorgeous. The “Start” menu is innovative. The widgets side bar is great, and not as resource hungry as Google’s version. Adding new widgets is easy, and you have plenty of options (from Microsoft and from third-party providers). It is slick and fully customizable.

Vista Interface

linux

The Linux interface is jaw-droppingly cool! You can make it look like Vista or MacOS. You can make it look pretty much how you want it to. By default, you don’t get the little extras like the widget bar, or the “docker” at the bottom, but installing them were easy enough. It is a little fiddly to get some of these working the way you would like, but it didn’t take me very long to get more comfortable with the settings and with how things worked. For instance the option to have the “widgets” side bar or the “docker” to load on system startup is not immediately obvious. Adding widgets is not as simple as it is on Vista. The docker is not perfect. But overall, I am really impressed with this interface.

Screenshot

I haven’t even mentioned the best part yet. Linux uses a really awesome multi desktop system. Think of a cube, and that each side of the cube has a complete desktop as you see in the above image. Each of the sides of the cube can be configured to have your windows displayed the way you want them. For instance, imagine you are doing some work, so you have open on your screen: Spreadsheet, Document, Calculator. Then on a separate screen you have open your Email client, Instant Messenger and browser. Now you can switch between these screens keeping your screen real-estate used as you need them. You have 4 of these screens to play with. Pressing ctrl+alt+left/right flips screens as if you have a giant cube (it is a great 3D visual). Very impressive. Down the bottom right of the above screen shot you can see four blocks, these is another place you can select which screen to view.

Unfortunately there are a few glitches here and there. For example the below screenshot shows over run of text on a button.

overrun

Menu System

ms

Vista has a really great menu system. Click on the “Start” button, or press the Windows key on your keyboard and the menu pops up. Start typing the first couple letters of the application you want to run. Press Return, and it opens. (Okay, the first time you do this for a particular app you might need to choose from the apps that get filtered). You can do the same thing with people’s names to bring up emails from/to them. At work I use Windows XP and find myself constantly cursing from not having this feature, and having to click through the stupid menu.

menu

linux

The Linux menu is not terrible, but it will take some getting used to. It is nicely organised under categories like Games, Graphics, Multimedia etc. Maybe I have just been a bit spoilt with the Vista menu. I just don’t feel it is very innovative. I am sure there must be some sort of add-on available to make it a bit more flashy, I just haven’t found it yet.

menu_1

Configuration

msThe Window control panel feels very comfortable to me, because at its heart it hasn’t really changed much over the years (and different Windows versions). There are more options these days, but I can still get around it easily. With Vista (and XP) the control panel is simplified into categories (See below screenshot). Although, I tend to have my control panel set to Classic View, which means all options are shown. This can look a little cluttered.

Vista Control Panel

Most settings are pretty straight forward, especially for the options the average user will be using. I feel that setup and configuration of most parts of the Windows OS is pretty straightforward and intuitive.

linuxConfiguration of items in Linux have been made user-friendly. Options are selectable from a menu along the top of the screen. There will be a pretty steep learning curve for your average Windows user who hasn’t done much more than using the Internet Connection Wizard. The configurations in Linux are more in depth, it seems options have been opened up quite a bit compared to Windows. (Windows layers the way options are presented. Generally you will be presented with some basic, common options. Then you can drill down to more advanced options if necessary.) It certainly is not entirely intuitive. See the screen shot below for Network Configuration. To get my Wi-Fi to work on Startup I had to edit the Wireless device, tick a box to say “activate on startup”. Why should I have to do that?! Why can’t I just do it from the icon that shows on the task bar and why isn’t on by default? (or at least it should give me an option when installing Linux to switch that on, being that I am on a laptop that is pretty important)

network_config

Performance

This was the biggest surprise I had with Linux. I was expecting lightning quick performance. I am always hearing how little resources this OS needs, and how bloated and resource hungry Windows is.

msVista boots to a usable state (Firefox open to http://digg.com) in 1 minute 45 seconds. Once Vista is open, it is quick. Memory usage is pretty high (over 1 GB in the screenshot below and it is at about 900mb at boot up), but CPU usage at idle is pretty low.

cpu_usage

Below is a screenshot of my system specification according to Windows.

pc_information

Once Vista is booted up, it is responsive and in general runs everything I use perfectly well.

linux

Linux boots to a usable state (Firefox open to http://digg.com) in 1 minute 30 seconds. Bear in mind though that the docker doesn’t start when I boot up, and neither does the widget side bar. I thought that booting would be much quicker than that.

I was also a little confused at what I was seeing when I was checking out the CPU usage of Linux. I expected there to be far more efficient use of resources with it. Memory usage was really low, just over 240mb at boot up, however the CPU usage was quite a bit over 25% on average for both CPU cores. I can’t understand why, as I wasn’t doing anything at this point except waiting for a couple minutes to get this screenshot (so that it didn’t show previous activity).

resources11

Below is a screenshot of my system specification according to Linux.

my_pc

I had a few performance issues with various applications. For instance, when using Firefox, clicking on a link using CTRL (to open in a new tab) seemed to pause for a second, then pop open the new tab. This doesn’t happen in Vista, and I have up to date Firefox 3 on both OS’s.

I won’t go on too much more about performance, because I am sure that the Linux experts could give me plenty of tips on how to get my Linux Installation running much quicker. The thing is the average user doesn’t want to spend time tweaking their Operating System to get great responsiveness. I know how to tweak Vista (and earlier Windows versions) to make it give that little extra oomph, but out of the box it ran very nimbly.

Software

Another surprise with this category. I was expecting that I would be slating Linux for it’s lack of usable software, and incompatibility with almost every piece of software on the web (free or otherwise).

msPretty much 95% of the software that is available will run on Windows. There is a huge selection of great free software available to Windows users. A quick search on Google will generally get you what you need. Of course, there is loads more commercial software out there too.

Installing software in Windows is pretty simple. Download a setup file from the web and run it, or stick the application CD/DVD into your drive and a setup screen usually pops up. Once setup begins, you follow a few prompts about where you want it installed, which profiles it will be available to etc etc. (I think the majority of people just click next…next…next…finish…. without even reading what is being asked!). Once the application is installed, it will usually now be on your Start Menu, and/or have an icon on your desktop.

Uninstalling the application usually involves clicking on “Programs and Features” or “Add/Remove Programs” in the control panel, selecting the application you want uninstalled, then clicking “uninstall”. Hopefully this won’t leave you with a bunch of entries in the registry and loads of DLL’s (although you know it will!).

Updates for native Windows applications are handled by Windows Update. This is seamless, and does it’s job. Updates for other applications depend on the application itself.

linuxI have to say that the way that Linux handles software is brilliant. This to me was one of the highlights of this experience. Linux uses indexes of software, using a built in add/remove software tool. How does this work?

Installing software in Linux involves the following: Open “Add/Remove Software”. Browse by category for the software you need, or if you know the name of it run a search for it. (In the screenshot below, I am searching for Audacious).

add_remove1

Tick the box on the left of the software you want, then click apply. The installer will search for any dependencies it might have and show you list of them to install automatically.

add_remove2

Once you click “install”, the software (including dependencies) will get downloaded and installed without further input!

add_remove3

After installing Audacious, I then run it from the main menu, under “Sound & Video”. I tried to play an MP3 file, but unfortunately it doesn’t play. Luckily I noticed there is an MP3 add-on for Audacious in the Add/Remove Applications menu, so I installed it using the above method. Once it was installed, the MP3 worked flawlessly.

audacious

As much as I know that this is a supposed feature of Linux, where you only install what you need, it is a little tedious to have to go through this last extra step. It doesn’t make the smile on my face shrink though. I love this method of software installation. All software catalogued under “Add/Remove Software”. This is genius!

The “Add/Remove Software” function relies on indexes of software. You can choose whether the indexes include non-free software too. I have mine set to only show free software. There are so many applications available to you using this method. I installed a wide variety of office applications (including OpenOffice, which is completely compatible with Microsoft Office…and is 100% free), multimedia applications (including GIMP, which is a Photoshop alternative), games (including the Quake 3 engine), developer tools (including Eclipse, which is what I use at work for all my software development needs), desktop enhancement tools and web tools (including the awesome Pidgin IM Client and FileZilla FTP Client). Some screenshots of these apps below.

pidgin_im Eclipse quake3 filezilla
Pidgin IM Eclipse Quake 3 Filezilla

To uninstall software from Linux, you follow this simple method: Go into “Add/Remove Software”, untick the software you want to uninstall, then click apply. Done.

Linux handles updates the way they should be handled. If you have installed a piece of software using “Add/Remove Software” then you will be automatically notified by the central updater anytime there is an update! This is the same updater that upgrades the kernel and the desktop interface, and any other core components for Linux. The updater works very well.

This method of software install/uninstall/updating should be the industry standard!

Security

Windows is notorious for its lack of security. I don’t believe this is the case anymore though. Vista is secure. At least it is secure if you keep it updated, use an updated Virus scanner, use anti-spyware and don’t run any dodgy software. This is common sense. Windows is vulnerable because it plays a balancing act of usability and security, leaning more towards the usability side. Linux instead opts for security, sacrificing usability.

msWindows Vista is the most secure Microsoft operating system I have used. Come to think of it, I have never actually had a problem with security. The last virus I had (that wasn’t zapped by my virus scanner) was the Stoned virus on DOS back in the early 1990’s. I spent a good few years taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of Windows on other peoples PC’s back in the day (1997-2000), and I remember the vulnerabilities being patched by Microsoft as quick as they were discovered. This is still the case today. Keep yourself protected with a virus scanner, anti-spyware and a firewall and you will be fine. Microsoft provide you with 2 out of 3 of these for free (Microsoft Defender and the built in Windows Firewall). Download the free AVG antivirus software, and you should be pretty well protected.

linux

Linux is secure. However, I don’t think that the gap between Linux and Vista (in terms of security) is that big. I actually see a lot of similarities to how the two operating systems handle their security. Microsoft probably stole some of the ideas from Linux in the first place.

When you want system level access, you have to enter your “root” password. This is basically a super user account, which allows access to the inner workings of Linux. Vista calls this UAC. I think the Linux implementation of this system is far more elegant than the way Microsoft have implemented it.

rootuser

Linux closes up all ports. You have to specify which ports you want open. This is pretty much the way Vista handles the firewall, but I think Vista has a more user-friendly experience when it comes to this. I installed an eDonkey type client on Linux (aMule). For the life of me I couldn’t figure out exactly how to open up the ports to get this working properly. And yes, I have opened up ports before on hardware routers and firewalls. The interface looked a bit jumbled to me. Granted, I didn’t spend too long with the firewall, and if I had spent more time with it I am sure with some Googling to give me a hand, I would have got it sorted out. But I don’t want to have to Google a solution every time I want to do something!

Running Linux does give you that feeling of security, the smug feeling that a hacker would have problems trying to get his way into your machine…but then that smugness goes away when you realise you can’t get out from your machine either!

Joking aside, the security is a big “selling” point (if it weren’t free!).

Conclusion

I was pleasantly surprised with Linux. The operating system has matured a lot. It is feature rich, completely customizable, innovative and robust. I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did.

When I was testing Linux out for this article, I tried not think about the fact that it is free. I felt like this would have me making allowances for it all along the way (“Look at this stupid glitch…but that isn’t so bad considering this is free”). I tried to compare it to Windows as if it were an OEM product that I had received for “free” with my laptop when I purchased it. Linux is beautiful, slick and unique. I can make it look exactly the way I want it to look. The software add/remove is a piece of genius. The updates are effortless. The interface is brilliant to use and sexy.

So which OS would I choose? It would be Vista unfortunately. I say unfortunately because I would love to use Linux as my day to day operating system.

I wouldn’t choose it because Vista makes my life easy. I don’t have to spend hours troubleshooting a new piece of software or hardware. The majority of the software and games I use work with Vista, but not with Linux. I don’t have to choose the hardware I want based on what will work on Linux according to a limited list. Above all I am lazy. I know Windows operating systems. I know how to trouble shoot any problems I might have. I know how to optimise it. I know all the shortcuts. As I get older I cherish my time more and more. I don’t want to spend the majority of my time in front of the computer trying to figure out how to get something working. I want to just use whatever software or game I want to use.

I won’t be removing Linux. I have grown rather fond of it. I will use it for any programming I do from home. I will want to also keep up to date with the changes to it. Fedora 11 is about to be released (I think it is in Beta at the moment). I am keen to see what’s new.

Bottom line is give it a try. You have nothing to lose, except maybe some preconceptions.

5 thoughts on “Linux vs. Windows: by a Microsoft Windows user”

  1. Unfortunatly you are right, Firefox in Linux have some latencies that it doesn’t have on Windows.
    The Gtk redraw is worse than Qt or Windows GUI. You can’t do much.

    if you care about speed the main Linux advantage is modularity. You can load exacly what you need. For instance, you could run your apps with a lighter Window Manager and DE like XFCE or OpenBox

  2. I can’t be sure, but I’d guess that your CPU usage on a new machine was due to indexing of files. Once that’s done, your CPU should hover around 5% on one core unless you’re doing something else.

    Linux generally isn’t “snappy” unless you’re running one of the distros designed for it. I suggest you try “Slitaz” ( http://slitaz.org ) if you want that. IT’s feature limited (26MB for the wole system), but instantly responsive.

  3. I actually have the same laptop, I use PClinuxos 2007, I also had the same issue on the wireless, but once I had installed the drivers from the repository, no issues whatsoever, as for the graphics, I used the driver supplued by nVidia. I use the KDE desktop and I must say I find it snappier than Windows, I use XP on my machine, you won’t see me touching Vista.. I like my machines fast.

    As for security, I can’t agree with you, Vista will never meet the security of Linux.

    Try a KDE distro next. PCLinux BTW is both Live and installable.

    Other than that a pretty decent review…

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