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Technology

Adopting Ubuntu

Linux switch can be painless, free

March 23, 2007

The author is a regular reviewer of new high-tech gear and longtime computer user.

In all the "switcher" TV ads that the folks in Apple's marketing department have come up with, the choice is always the same. Go with the clunky and complicated Microsoft Windows machine, or pick up the hip and sleek designer Apple computer running the Mac OS (hip and sleek short form for "operating system"). They're good ads — heck, I've even gone to Apple's website just to watch them.

But there is another choice out there that a lot of people simply aren't aware of because there's no slick marketing campaign behind it.

For many people, e-mail, web surfing, picture editing, listening to music, making spreadsheets and basic word processing are just about all they do with their computers. Today's Macs and Windows PCs are impressive machines indeed, but their power — and price — can be overkill for the average computer user. If you're looking for a new computer and you're not sure whether to go Windows or Mac, I'd suggest also paying some attention to the "L" word.

No, not that "L" word. I'm talking about Linux.

A brief history of Linux

For those of you not familiar with the world of Linux, let me give you the Coles Notes version. Some time ago, a rather creative software engineer in Finland decided he wanted to build a new computer operating system in his spare time. In what ended up earning him a near god-like status in the "geek" hierarchy, Linus Torvalds and a growing group of volunteers eventually did the highly improbable, putting together a new kind of operating system that could go head to head with the software that companies like Microsoft and Apple have spent millions developing.

Torvalds then went and gave his software, called Linux, away to anyone who wanted to use it or tinker with it, so long as they agreed to openly share any changes or improvements they made. Since that time, dozens of flavours of the Linux operating systems have come out, and the majority of them are utterly free. They're also stable, secure, easy to use, and generally not plagued by spyware and viruses the way commercial operating systems are.

Now, back to our story.

Ubuntu

Linux, and more specifically the free "Ubuntu" version, has come a long way in the past few years and is well worth considering for basic computing.

Best of all, it won't cost you a penny to try it out.

Like many Linux distributions, the entire Ubuntu operating system is available as a free "Live CD" you can download from the internet. Just burn the file [called an "ISO"] to a CD, and that's it ... you're ready to try Ubuntu on any home or business PC. Alternatively, you can pay a small shipping fee and have an Ubuntu disc delivered to you by mail.

Either way, reboot your Windows machine with the disc in the CD drive, and rather than starting up Windows, the computer will run Ubuntu directly from the CD. This means that your entire Windows installation, including all of your personal files, are left entirely untouched — nothing is "installed" over the existing content on your machine. Once you're finished trying Ubuntu, just take the CD out, reboot and your PC will start Windows exactly as it did before.

So what is it like?

Amazingly, Ubuntu feels much like Windows. I have converted several friends to Ubuntu over the years and every one of them has had the same opinion — everything is where you think it should be if you're familiar with a Windows computer.

Software

The Linux operating system comes with great open-source software, and the icons for them are right there on your desktop where you'd expect to find them. Want to write a memo? Ubuntu comes with Open Office, a full (and free) office software suite that works with Microsoft documents, such as spreadsheets, text files and presentations. For browsing the internet, you get Firefox, the same browser I use now for both my Windows and Mac machines. Play music in the Rhythmbox Media Player or play your videos in Totem — again, both included for free.

With the exception of gaming, which is limited, almost all of the average person's basic computing needs are well looked after with this package. I've used the last three versions of Ubuntu on my main portable web-surfing computer for years just to avoid viruses and spyware (as the vast majority of these nasty programs are written for Windows), and I have yet to be disappointed.

With the exception of gaming, which is very limited, almost all of the average person's basic computing needs are well looked after with this package.

If you like it, you can load Linux permanently onto a cheap "bare bones" PC from your local computer store, saving yourself a chunk of cash that you'd otherwise have to spend on an operating system, software and high-powered hardware. The Ubuntu software is free, although there is an option where you can buy several years' worth of support and troubleshooting if you feel you'll need some extra help.

I've also "resurrected" several old machines using Ubuntu and various other versions of Linux that are far more compact and less memory intensive than Windows or the Mac OS, so they don't need as much computing power to run them. It's amazing to see how quickly you can breathe new life into an old beige-box geezer and save it from the landfill, rather than junk it because it doesn't have the power to keep up with the latest commercial operating system.

The "Damn Small Linux" version actually comes in at a paltry 50MB for the entire operating system, complete with basic software to cover most daily computing needs — it's great for getting more use out of old desktops or notebooks.

Ubuntu, however, is far slicker and more powerful than these trimmed-down versions of Linux. If you're new to the Linux world and want to compare the experience to Windows or the Mac OS, I highly recommend Ubuntu as the best place to start. It will cost you nothing to try out, and you might just be surprised at how good "free" really is.

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