January 12, 2001

On becoming a total Linux user

Author: JT Smith

- by Robin Miller -

After reading a story about how Microsoft is now openly admitting that Linux is the number one threat to Windows, I realized that I am one of very few people whose entire home/office computer network is 100% Microsoft-free. And I manage to get along just fine, thank you.I use my computers for work all day, every day, on NewsForge and other OSDN Web sites. I am not on the geek/programmer side of the house. I am a writer. And I have all the Linux word processors and text processors and other tools I need to do my job, and then some.

For instance, I'm writing this as a break from writing a chapter for an upcoming book for which many of the illustrations are going to be screenshots of Web sites, and I am using a little utility called Ksnapshot (part of KOffice) to grab them. Almost every time I have some little computing task I need to perform, it seems I have a utility somewhere on my machine that will do it, up to and including a choice of three pieces of presentation software that will let me produce slide shows with as much obnoxious animation as the worst PowerPoint display you ever saw.

But -- and I'm sure you're glad to hear this -- I would rather work on my book right now than irritate you with bad slide shows.

I am writing the book's text in AbiWord, a fine little word processing program; early versions of it crashed often, but the latest one has been rock-solid for me so far, and AbiWord loads and runs faster than any word processor I've ever used in any operating system -- and looks kind of cute, too. I am saving my manuscript (broken down so that each chapter is a separate file, of course) in HTML, which can be read by the publisher's people no matter what word processor they use.

For my endless time online, I use Netscape Navigator 4.75, and get and send my email through Netscape Messenger. Netscape is far from perfect, but 4.75 hasn't crashed on me nearly as often as previous versions did. In fact, it crashes less for me than Microsoft Explorer has when I've used it on borrowed computers elsewhere.

I use XChat on IRC, a program that, in my opinion, is far superior to mirc (the most popular Windows IRC client) in every possible way. (I have several other chat-type utilities that will access AIM and ICQ servers, but have not used them enough to form an opinion one way or another.)

When I get bored with work, I can call up any one of over 100 games and amusements that came with Linux-Mandrake (7.2). I have not yet tried more than a few of them. Perhaps I am too work-centric and should relax more, eh? At least I have them there when I want them -- a far larger collection than comes by default with Windows.

I have CD and MP3 player programs, and a modest collection of CDs and MP3s to play through them. I am not going to say Linux audio is either better or worse than Windows audio; it seems to me that sound quality depends more on the speakers you use than anything else, and my mid-line Altec-Lansing set is adequate for my ears, no matter what operating system I use.

So far, all of this is ordinary. Millions of people around the world now run Linux and use it for all their daily computing tasks. Where I differ from most is that the three computers I own -- two desktops and a laptop -- have never had Windows on them.

The people who tell you it is impossible to buy an Intel or AMD-based computer without Windows preinstalled are wrong. It is not only easy, but can save you money.

My two desktop computers, one of which also functions as my Internet connection and print server, were both made to my specifications by a local clone builder who charged me a very reasonable price, and came with Linux preinstalled. The Windows equivalents to all the preinstalled programs that were included would have cost a minumim of $1,200 per computer! My laptop, a Sager, came with no operating system at all, and cost me $50 less than if it had been shipped with Windows; I installed my own Linux, using the same CD set used to install Linux on my desktop computers, an act that would have been illegal with Windows but is both normal and encouraged with Linux.

Sager was the only laptop manufacturer I found that was willing to ship me a unit with no operating system installed, but others sell laptops with Linux preinstalled either alongside or instead of Windows. I chose Sager because they gave me more for my money than any of their competitors, not just because of their happy Windowlessness. Sager also allowed me to buy a laptop that had no Windmodem built in, so I never had to fight that irritating little battle, and Mandrake instantly detected and automatically set up my Sager's sound and video without any fancy dancing at all. You can't get more Linux-compatible than that!

I run my cable modem with Linux. I set up the "straight" network connection myself as a static IP, using nothing but simple point-and-click graphical tools. I configured my home ethernet the same way. It was as easy as setting up a Windows network -- if not easier.

When I need to interact with people who still use Windows-based word processors or spreadsheet programs (usually market-dominating Microsoft Office), I use StarOffice. I keep a copy of StarOffice loaded most of the time -- on a separate KDE desktop dedicated purely to it, a trick you can't easily pull with Windows.

That brings me to a definite advantage Linux has over Windows, one I had forgotten about until I recently tried to use a friend's Windows computer and had it crash almost constantly: that Linux can keep a rather large number of programs and Netscape windows open at a time without even a burp. Right now, I have ... let's see ... a total of 22 different programs and windows running across two KDE desktop screens, and I could easily handle that many more again across four screens and jump instantly from one to another if my brain was geared for as much multitasking as my computer, which, sadly, it is not.

But the big deal -- and what spurred this little editorial -- is that we have crossed the line from Linux being an exotic hacker toy or geek specialty item into a situation where it is a reliable and useful operating system for everyday home and small office tasks, one that I rarely think about at all. It just sits there and works, day after day, without needing either attention paid to it or money for regular updates poured into it.

But there is one thing I seem to lack on Linux that Microsoft users seem to enjoy, and that's viruses. Right now, one called "Snow White" seems to be making the rounds. I've gotten several copies of it today from various people, but it hasn't affected me any more than I have been affected by any of the other email viruses and worms that have been so popular among Windows users these last few years.

Maybe I should install a Windows partition on one of my hard drives so I can join in their fun. (Not!)

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