Switching to Linux

by Ran Prieur

version 2.2, 12 May 2008


Bill Gates made his money with the brilliant and evil idea of applying monopoly capitalism to computer software. In the early days of computers, only the hardware cost money and the software was freely shared. Indeed, for all of human history except the industrial age, the idea of intellectual property would have been considered insane if anyone had thought of it at all. The reason is simple: If I give you a physical item, then I no longer have it, so it's fair for you to give me something in return; if I give you an idea, I haven't lost anything -- there's even a good chance that we've both gained. Also, if ideas are shared by all, then everyone has the freedom and the incentive to improve them. If they are owned, only the owner has the freedom to improve them -- but the owner's incentive is to improve only one aspect of ideas: their usefulness in generating "profit," or control measured in money.

I liked Windows 98. It was easy to use, reasonably transparent, and it could run all the PC games from the mid-90's golden age. The programs that came with it were crap (except Wordpad and Minesweeper), but plenty of great free software worked on it, like Firefox and PhotoFiltre and Audacity. Also, I could use 98lite to make it much faster and sleeker. But then Windows started to go bad -- or more precisely, the universal corporate personality forced Microsoft's programmers to define "better" in terms of profitability, increasing control, and bloat.

If you've ever been selfish, it's easy to understand why a corporation (a legal entity designed to maximize profit without compassion) would want to control your computer and make money off you. Bloat is harder to explain, but it has something to do with our pyramid scheme economy, and also with intellectual property. If ideas are owned, the owner has to pay people to maintain and improve them. Then those people have a motive that often goes against the interests of both their employer and the public: they want to keep their jobs, so they will make the body of ideas they work on constantly bigger and more complicated.

Windows 2000 and ME were bigger than 98 without being more useful. Then, probably because of some rogue programmers at Microsoft, Windows XP was actually better in many ways -- good hardware and software support, relatively easy to use, and stable. But with updates you can't refuse, inner workings you can't change, and a "validation" system that effectively prevents an XP system from being sold or given away, it constantly reminds you that Microsoft owns your computer.

Vista is the G.W. Bush of operating systems -- it misses no opportunity to be a highly visible failure, and thereby enlightens and alienates the faithful. It's unbelievably slow, full of frustrating and pointless changes, incompatible with a surprising range of hardware and software, and it's not a bit more useful. Vista is a huge gift from Microsoft to Mac and Linux.

I don't use Mac because the hardware is very expensive and I'm on a tight budget. But I kept getting breakdowns in my old hardware designed for Windows 98, and I was ready for a laptop. So, in November of 2006, I spent a week making low bids on eBay on Dell Latitude C-series laptops with no operating system, and finally snagged a very nice C610 for $205 after shipping. Then I had to decide what exactly to put on it.

Learning Linux

The word "Linux" is derived from Unix, an open source operating system that predates Microsoft, and Linus Torvalds, who in 1991 released some kind of Unix/GNU doodad that is hard to explain technically but that evolved into the sophisticated Linux operating systems we have today. There has been much debate about how to say "Linux," but an "incorrect" pronunciation has now become nearly universal in the English speaking world, which is to say it like it rhymes with "clinics."

Under the sufrace of Linux operating systems is the command line, which is very much like the old Microsoft DOS prompt -- you type in text commands to tell the computer what to do. Just a few years ago, no one could use Linux without having to frequently go to the command line, which was a big turn-off for the majority of home users. But while Windows has been declining, Linux has been improving, and fast! In the slickest distros, having to use the command line is now less common, and easier, than having to reinstall Windows when it gets too corrupted.

"Distro" is short for "distribution," which means a version or flavor of Linux. Because the Linux code is not owned, anyone can make anything out of it, and they do. There are now hundreds of Linux operating systems for different needs and preferences of users, which gives us something Microsoft denies us: the burden and responsibility of having a choice. And it's not just a Coke vs Pepsi choice -- the differences are important.

My first thought was to just go with Ubuntu. It's very popular, well-funded, and carefully designed to be easy for beginners. Like most of the big distros, it comes in the form of a downloadable live installer CD: You just find a computer with a fast connection and a CD burner, download a big file, burn it to a disk, pop it in your computer, restart, and it will boot up and lead you through the installation.

I got Ubuntu 6.10, and immediately made a common beginner error. A downloaded CD almost always comes in the form of an ISO file, basically a way of representing a bunch of stuff in CD language. But there are two ways to burn one. If you do it the wrong way, then when you open the CD, you'll just see a single big ISO file. If you do it the right way, you'll see a bunch of files and folders -- the content of the ISO file. What you need is a program with a "write ISO to CD" feature, which (not surprisingly) Windows doesn't have. But you can download a free one, like CDBurnerXP.

So I got the CD image right, installed Ubuntu in a fraction of the time XP takes, and tried to dial the internet. Oops! Ubuntu 6.10 does not include an internet dial-up utility, or a way to install one without already being online. Something new users should know about Linux is that it's made by and for people who have a live ethernet cable to plug into the computer. Pretty much any Linux system will easily do ethernet. You might have to find something that says "network" or "networking" and poke around until you find the right box to click. Wireless is a little harder. You might have to go online and download a driver, in which case you'll need a second computer with a working connection and a way to transfer files.

If you want to do dial-up, not only do you need a connection utility (which almost every distro has), you will probably also need a special modem, because most of the modems that come built into newer computers, including mine, are built with half the hardware missing, and the other half emulated by Windows. This reflects a deeper problem: Linux will not replace Windows among ordinary users until a major computer manufacturer gets out of bed with Microsoft. In late 2007, Asus began leading that movement with the Eee PC.

Anyway, I found out that what you need is an external serial modem -- one that plugs into that rectangular port on the back of your computer with nine little spikes. A USB modem is likely to work, but serial is a sure thing, so I found a used 56K V90 for $20. But by the time I'd done all the research to figure this stuff out, I had become aware of the vast variety within Linux, and I wanted to try something else.


Distrowatch has good summaries of all but the most obscure distros, and I also found a great utility to compare distros side-by-side. There are other sites that give you a little quiz to help you choose, but I think they're asking the wrong questions, stuff like "how fast is your computer?" and "how much Linux do you know?" It's not so much a technical issue as a matter of personality, like choosing a car -- in a technical sense, nobody needs an SUV or a motorcycle, but many people choose them. The nice thing is, if you have access to a computer with fast internet and a CD burner, you can try one distro after another for no more than the cost of a few blank CD's. Most major distros come as a live CD, which means you can run the system from the CD or from RAM, and try it out before you install it to the hard drive. Once you install any operating system to the hard drive, you have to reformat it before you can install another system.

In my research, I discovered that a dial-up utility is included in Kubuntu, which is a version of Ubuntu with a different desktop, KDE instead of Gnome. Then I did more research and found out that if you want a user-friendly KDE system, Mepis is probably better than Kubuntu, and it definitely has better support for hardware, which is a big problem new users run into with Linux.

So I tried Mepis... If you want a full-featured desktop, you should definitely try both KDE and Gnome. Here's a good KDE/Gnome comparison. Personally, I didn't like KDE. When I'm online, I like to have four or five windows open at once, each with several tabs, and the KDE toolbar doesn't leave enough room in the middle for that many windows. Also, KDE has it's own special Kult of applications that all start with K, like "Konqueror" instead of the more familiar web browsers.

Even more important, one thing I demand is the ability to use my own machine without ever having to type in a password. I was able to tweak Ubuntu to do that, but Mepis seems to not even include that option. It even required me to guess a password (the root password is root) to use the install CD! Linux insiders will jump to the defense of passwords and root users, but I think it's a holdover from the 1970's when many users shared one computer. Now that we have personal computers, Microsoft was correct to put you straight in the driver's seat (which, of course, didn't last long).

I mentioned the distro search on my blog, and readers recommended Slackware and Gentoo. Slackware is powerful and extremely stable, ideal if you're doing advanced techie stuff. Gentoo lets you (or makes you) build your own system from the ground up, so you end up learning all about Linux and getting just exactly what you want. I'd rather get something reasonably close to what I want and not have to do as much work. Some Linux snobs think that Linux should be hard, but I think that's silly, and it alienates the majority of users who very reasonably want easy-to-use computers without having to submit to Microsoft.

Another reader mentioned Xubuntu, a version of Ubuntu that uses the slimmer, faster Xfce desktop. That was the doorway I was looking for! My motivation for switching to Linux is that I've always wished they would make computers faster while keeping software the same size and complexity, so I can experience more speed, instead of losing it all in eye candy and features I'm not going to use.

I had assumed that other people were switching to Linux for the same reason, but it turns out that the full-sized Linux distros aren't any leaner or faster than Windows XP (or at least it's close enough to argue about), and the Xfce desktop is only the first step down. The next step down is Blackbox/Fluxbox, and then IceWM, and then...


Technically, Puppy Linux doesn't even have a desktop environment but a window manager, JWM, which takes up less than 200 kilobytes. I discovered Puppy on a forum post about hardware compatibility, and wondered how such a tiny distro managed to work on a wider range of hardware than most big ones. The answer to that question is the same as the answer to this one: with a 1GHz microprocessor and 512MB RAM, why do I need something as small as Puppy?

The answer is, 70MB is not a small operating system -- it's a reasonably sized operating system. It's plenty big enough to work with most hardware and to have graphic user interfaces for all the stuff that most users will be doing. Puppy has stuff that Windows doesn't have, like a DVD ripper, an ISO editor, and a convert-to-PDF utility. It even has stuff I don't need, like a spreadsheet utility and a code editor. When I click on a PDF link in Windows, the dreaded Adobe freezes the system for half a minute while it loads, and often crashes it. (You can get around this with Foxit.) In Puppy, PDF's come up in two seconds on a basic viewer. After adding Firefox (Puppy comes with a smaller browser called Seamonkey) and Gimp (a powerful image editor), I'm still under 100MB.

The real question is, if you can do everything you need with a 100MB operating system, and if that system runs smoothly on old hardware, why do we need personal computers to keep getting more powerful? Well, because computer manufacturers want to keep making money -- or more precisely, because they have to keep up with a general pattern of runaway linear increase plunging toward catastrophe, what we innocently call "growth."

But after the economy of increase runs out of room to increase, we will still be doing what humans do best: adapting. And if we still have electricity and fiber optic lines, we can run quite a good internet with software that works on both old and new computers, which is Puppy's specialty. Its creator, Barry Kauler, travels around staying with different people (just like I do), so he designed Puppy to run on almost any PC without leaving a footprint. The coolest thing about Puppy is that it doesn't even need a hard drive -- it boots off a CD and runs completely in RAM. Any changes and downloads are saved in a file that can go on a hard drive, a flash drive, or back to the CD. So you can carry around a virtual "computer" on a 25 cent disk that can run in any CD-bootable machine with at least 256MB RAM.

You can install Puppy to the hard drive if you want to, but it runs much faster off the CD because everything happens in RAM with no moving parts. Another thing I like is that I never have to enter a password. Puppy is inherently highly secure because every boot is like a fresh install. The only thing that ever gets saved is one big file in a special format. For Puppy to get a virus, it wouldn't be enough for someone to design a Linux virus -- someone would have to design a Puppy virus. I can go to the most dangerous places on the internet and get no adware, no spyware, nothing.

It's still a young distro and it's not perfect. The game selection is terrible. The windows don't have pretty rounded edges or cool shadow effects. Sometimes it crashes. The BitTorrent downloader is primitive. It has not achieved the Holy Grail of perfect bit-for-bit CD cloning. But it continues getting better without getting bigger. The latest version has a HotPup utility that makes it easy to work with the hard drive.

Recently Puppy development was stalled while Barry Kauler spent seven months on a major upgrade from version 3.01 to version 4.00 (Dingo). It's now finished and I'm getting used to it, but in the meantime some users fattened and improved Puppy 3.01 under the name Muppy, and other users improved version 2.14, the last one to work on some old machines, and called it 2.14R. For the latest news, check the Puppy developer blog.

More Links

Linux/Windows comparison
Linux guide for Windows users
Vista vs Ubuntu
Puppy community web page
Puppy developer web page