Stan Perkins

Crockford Files: Put a Fresh Face on Your PC or Laptop with Linux

By Stan Perkins

Microsoft is discontinuing support for Windows XP effective mid-April 2014.

This announcement caused many in the business world great alarm. Corporate users have grown dependent on Microsoft updates to fix various software bugs and issues that arise over time. Those who delayed updating their workstations from Windows XP to Windows 7 last year have found themselves faced with upgrading to the confusing and unfamiliar Windows 8, which works best on touch-screen devices.

It has not been pretty for many large organizations that procrastinated. Similarly, home users who have an older PC or laptop may (or may not) have heard about this hoopla but either find Windows 8 intimidating or lack the desire (or resources) to buy a new touch-screen PC or laptop.

For many people who are doing Internet surfing, trading e-mails, writing an occasional letter or creating a basic spreadsheet and touching up photos from their digital cameras, an upgrade to Windows 8 does not seem any more desirable than staying on the venerable Windows XP. Many of these same people have experienced problems with viruses infecting their computers or a gradual slowing of their Windows XP operating system as more and more updates are applied. I was one of those people.

A few years ago, I discovered Linux. I started using it at home on my PC and later on my laptops. A few years ago, Linux seemed a bit primitive compared to Windows XP. It was difficult to install and required a lot of tweaking to make it work right.

Sometimes, I would have to open a “terminal window” and enter magical commands to make things work. But the software was free and it appealed to my geeky side. I am happy to report that those days are over.

Modern Linux distributions can be run from “live CDs” so you can try them out before installing them. If you don’t like what you see, toss the CD out, read the reviews on other Linux distributions (www.distrowatch.org) and try another one.

If you like what you see, a slick installer walks you through the installation process with a “dual boot” option that allows you to keep your old Windows system and install your new Linux system. When you turn the computer on, you choose which one you want to use. I still “dual boot” though it is rare that I use Windows anymore.

Virtually all Linux distributions are free “open source” software supported by communities of enthusiasts who will answer your questions on their “wikis.” Often, your question has already been asked and it is just a matter of searching their wiki postings for the answer.

Most distributions will come with an Internet browser, typically Firefox, and some basic applications installed. Once installed, a world of open source and free software is available and “package managers” make downloading them and installing them just a matter of point and click.

Read the reviews on the software that interests you (JFGI) and try them out. There are proven office suites such as LibreOffice and OpenOffice, photo and image editors, games, e-mail and instant messaging clients—seemingly ad-infinitum. Applying Linux updates and uninstalling unwanted software is generally handled by the package manager as well.

There are several things about Linux (besides being free) that make it highly desirable for a home user. I have never had a virus on any of my Linux systems—ever. Many Linux distributions do a much better job of working with the hardware and devices found on older PCs and laptops than do Windows 7 and 8. Many Linux distributions offer you a choice of “desktops” (Unity, Gnome, XFCE, LXDE) so that you can choose the one that works best for you and that works best with your computer.

Many Linux distributions (like Ubuntu and Linux Mint) offer “LTS” (long-term support) versions that are supported (i.e., updates available to fix software bugs and issues that arise over time) for as long as five years before you need to think about upgrading again. Other “rolling” Linux distributions (like PCLinuxOS) never need to be upgraded as long as you keep up with updates.

So, as you can see, you get a lot of choices. Linux rewards those who read—read the reviews, read the “how to” postings and read up on local Linux or open source user groups.

Often, these user groups have regularly scheduled meetings that you can attend to get your questions answered firsthand and learn about new developments in the world of open source software. Maybe you have a Linux “live CD” you like but you feel uncertain about installing it on your PC or laptop. Sometimes these groups, such as the Fresno Open Source Users Group (www.fosug.org), have “installathons” where you can bring your PC or laptop (along with your favorite Linux “live CD” or “install CD”), and they will help you get Linux installed.

So, if you are one of those people, like me, who find Windows 8 intimidating or lack the desire (or resources) to buy a new touch-screen PC or laptop, put a fresh face on your PC or laptop with Linux.

*****

Stan Perkins has been working in the IT industry for three decades and has a broad background in applications software programming and systems support. He is an ardent fan of free and open source software especially Linux.

  • Mike Rhodes is the executive director of theCommunity Alliance newspaper and author of the book Dispatches from the War Zone, about homelessness in Fresno. www.mikerhodes.us is his website. Contact him at mikerhodes@comcast.net.

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