I’ve been a computer user since around 1991, when we got our first PC, a Tandy from Radio Shack (almost $1,000), which came with Windows 3.1. Since then I’ve used each and every version of that operating system (OS), and still do. But at home and for personal use, it’s Linux for me. Why? Well that’s a question with many answers.
First of all, there’s security. Linux is basically a free clone of Unix, which is inherently far more secure for several reasons, not the least of which is that you do almost everything as a “user” rather than as an “administrator”. This means that even in the unlikely event that someone hacks into your machine, they’ll have a hard time getting into the guts of your system and rendering it unbootable or otherwise causing mayhem. A strong user password stops all but the most persistent attempts at maliciousness.
Another aspect of this is that it’s a niche OS, and therefore less likely to be a target simply due to its obscurity. I can’t recall any serious issues with viruses or the like that have targeted home Linux users, not that such a thing is impossible. But again, the security of working as a user makes even that unlikely event less harmful if it were to occur. A side benefit of this is that Linux users generally don’t need anti-virus software constantly running in the background stealing processor cycles from whatever else they are doing on their PC’s.
The second, and for me the most fun, reason is that there are literally hundreds of versions (referred to as distributions or “distros”) of Linux from which to choose. There are versions tailored to scientists, musicians, gamers, video producers, etc. There are a few core distributions on which almost all of the others are based, but the key here is that you can find one that suits your needs quite specifically. You want stability and don’t mind being slightly behind the times in software version numbers? Use Debian's stable branch (my own choice). You want cutting edge software the day it's released? Try Arch. You want ease of installation and a bit of hand-holding along the way as you make the switch from Windows? There’s Linux Mint or Ubuntu. You want to totally geek out and compile from source code almost every last bit of your OS, thereby optimizing everything for your specific hardware? There’s Gentoo. I’ve tried ‘em all, and they’re all great for what they are.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here in terms of what’s available, and haven’t even mentioned that almost all of these come in various flavors or can be tweaked according to what kind of desktop experience you prefer. You can go for a Windows-like look and feel (but MUCH more configurable) with KDE, or a more Mac-like feel with Ubuntu’s Unity interface or almost any distro’s Gnome implementation. If you want something ultra-speedy and lightweight, there’s Xfce or LXDE or several other “window managers” (WM’s) or “desktop environments” (DE’s) that are made more for older, slower PC’s. I like KDE myself, just because it’s Windows-y familiar and can be tailored to my needs with a startlingly large number of options to tweak to perfection.
Oh, and did I mention that Linux is in almost all cases completely free*? That’s the third and by far the most important reason to switch. It means much more than just not costing any money. It also means that it’s free as in freedom of information or freedom in general. The code is what’s called “open source”, which means that anyone anywhere can inspect and improve on it, which happens at a rather hectic pace. Software version numbers change faster in the Linux world than almost anywhere else, as people optimize things and add new features on a daily basis. If you use a cutting edge distro like Arch you can expect several updates each and every day, sometimes hundreds of megabytes worth. The point is that it’s constantly evolving and improving, providing a moving target to add to the frustrations of the few that would venture to inject maliciousness in the form of viruses or other attacks into the mix.
I should also mention here that the typical Linux distro, unlike Windows, comes with virtually everything the average user could want in terms of software, and if it’s not already installed it is easily installable (for free, and from one central location) after the fact. Reason number four. Need something that does most of what PhotoShop does and more? It’s there. Familiar web browsers? There. Multimedia software? There (in many cases). Office suite similar to MS Office? There. Geek tools like partition editors, scientific calculators or advanced text editors? There, there and there. Gaming isn’t a strong suit of the Linux world (yet), but even so, there are plenty (hundreds) of ‘em available, and a simple install of the KDE or Gnome games is much more varied and fun than Windows’ paltry array of Solitaire and Freecell. There’s genealogy software, software for ham radio folks, for managing ebooks, for photography, for education, for almost anything you can imagine. All free in every way, and mostly pretty great. There will always be niche software that people will need Windows or the Mac to use, but for the average Joe, almost anything is possible using Linux.
So, there are lots and lots of reasons to use and love Linux, both practical and philosophical, aesthetic and preferential. Then why don’t more people use it? Well, people mostly don’t know about it. If they do they’re probably reluctant to change what they know. It can be tricky to install, especially on more modern machines. What almost everyone that uses it does is to “dual-boot”, which means to install it on a separate part of their hard drive alongside Windows. When they boot their PC, they can choose to boot into either one. That said, it’s really easy to download and try linux without installing it. You can burn a “liveCD” or “liveUSB” and boot from that. You’ll suffer a performance penalty, but you’ll still be able to get a feel for it without making a single change to your PC unless you do choose to install the thing. You can do real work, install and uninstall stuff (not the OS itself), all while safely booted into this live session. Like test-driving a car, without the danger of smashing into a tree.
If I had to recommend a Linux to a complete novice that uses Windows, I’d go with Linux Mint, and probably the KDE version of that. It comes with all the multimedia stuff pre-installed, is generally very reliable, and adds other little things tailored to the Linux neophyte. It’s the distro that got me hooked, and they have a great forum and website for any questions that might arise. Linux takes some time to get used to. Things will feel different at first. Biggest hurdle for me was thinking of hard drives and partitions in terms different than the Windows concept of drive letters like c:. It’s more elegant and logical under Linux, but still a learning curve. Directory structures are way different too, but the average person these days rarely ventures outside their home folder anyway, so that’s less an issue.
The moral of the story is that a superior OS, in fact hundreds of them, many in several permutations, is out there just waiting for you to take the plunge. It’s up to you. On the other hand, PC technicians love Windows. Keeps ‘em employed. Just sayin’. :=}
* There are technical distinctions as to what constitutes free as in freedom here, but that’s another discussion altogether. For our purposes here, we’ll allow “completely” free to encompass all possible definitions. Follow the link or look up Richard Stallman to pursue this further.