Thursday, 26 September 2013

Off the corporate grid part 1: Cheerio Windows

I wrote a post a while ago about how I planned to try a little geek project of dropping myself off the corporate web. No more free GMail, other Google tools, or Microsoft Windows... and see how much I miss them. Is 'free' worth the price?

This post is part one - dumping Windows for Linux on an old laptop.

Tech skills needed:  4/10
Worth the effort:  8/10
Value for money: 10/10

I'm very much writing here from the point of view of somebody who'd like to give Linux a try, but ease of use is a major priority. I know that for many people, Linux is a rewarding investment of their time and some enjoy battling to make a piece of software work properly. Screw that. Day to day, using a computer should be easy. I've probably got some terminology wrong below and been floundering around with issues that an expert wouldn't even have noticed, but that's part of the point - can an average user get by without Windows?

Before starting this little exercise, I knew what Linux was - an Open Source (free) alternative to Windows - but I'd never used it, beyond a quick hack to get some files off a dead PC (of which more later). Of the few people I'd talked to about Linux, a couple are serious tech experts who are definitely up for some hardcore IT fettling, and one was annoyed that he'd bought a netbook with Linux on it, rather than Windows, and it wouldn't talk to a few of his other gadgets.

I suspect that along with a lot of other people, I had a vague feeling using Linux would involve battling with screens like this:

But don't worry, it doesn't.

As a new user, the biggest problem you face after deciding to maybe give it a go, is in working out what to install.

Google "install Linux" and the top link is to "Red hat enterprise Linux". This looks complicated. It's not what you want.

Then after a bit more reading, you find out Linux comes in distributions and that there are quite a few. Distributions are like different skins; they all use the Linux kernel as the central architecture that makes them work, but they behave in different ways, with alternative looks. You need to choose which distribution to install and now you find yourself on a website like this.

Oh, for Pete's sake.

I strongly suspect at this stage a lot of people say, "oh, sod it, I can't be bothered" and go back to Windows. I've certainly done that once before. This time I'd made a promise on my blog though, so pick a card... any card...

Linux Mint is top of the popularity list. Let's install that.

Wikipedia says Linux Mint

"is a Linux distribution for desktop computers, based on Ubuntu or Debian."

and that Ubuntu

"is an operating system based on the Linux kernel and the Linux distribution Debian, with Unity as its default desktop environment."

And I say if Linux wants more mainstream adoption (which I assume it does) then it needs to stop making things so bloody difficult.

Mint is easy to install and easy to use. You don't need to know what Debian or Unity are. I've only got a vague idea what they are. I might find out at some point but you really don't need to.

Mint has a nice clean homepage, with a prominent download button.

Unfortunately, when you click through to the downloads page, there are too many options for an IT novice. You thought you'd solved the problem of which distribution you want? Well Mint comes in several different flavours too. Somebody's doing this on purpose.

This page badly needs a big, fat, "Don't know what to install? You want this!" button. At least the one you want is at the top of the list: Linux Mint Cinnamon.

You've just done the hardest bit. I'm not kidding, the hardest bit of using Linux is working out what on earth to install in the first place.

Download Cinnamon (32 bit or 64 bit depending on your PC) and then you'll need to make a disk to install it with. It comes as an ISO file, which is the contents of a DVD, ripped onto a file. If you don't already know how to turn that into a DVD, then a quick Google will turn up lots of software, or you can follow this easy guide.

Congratulations, you've got an installation disk! That was definitely harder than buying a Windows installation disk, but it was quite a bit cheaper too.

You can actually use your disk straight away by putting it in the drive and then rebooting your PC. It should boot straight to the Mint desktop, which is bloody handy if your copy of Windows ever takes a dive and you need to get all of your files back. I've rescued videos and music from a laptop like this in the past, when Windows flatly refused to either boot, or reinstall.

You won't want to run Mint from CD all the time though, because it's slow and doesn't remember anything when you turn off your computer,

To install properly, you click on the desktop icon and it's easy from there, but you have a choice to make. Do you want to clear Windows off your laptop completely (copy your files somewhere first!), or do you want to 'dual boot' so that you'll be asked whether to start Windows or Mint when you turn on the PC?

We're just experimenting here and clearing Windows altogether feels a bit rash, so dual boot is probably best.

You'll need somewhere to put Mint, so you have to create a partition on your hard drive, using Windows. This guide explains how.

And now you can install it from the DVD you made.

And we're done. So what's it like?

Well it's like Windows. It looks like Windows and it acts pretty much like Windows too. It's even got a Start menu that pops up when you press the Start button. I'd be willing to bet that if I put it on my grandmother's laptop, she'd barely notice.

(don't worry, you can change the background image, just like Windows)

On an old laptop, you'll find it starts up faster and it doesn't do the special Windows boot thing of looking like it's ready, but keeping you waiting for another five minutes before you can actually open a program.

The web browser runs faster and doesn't hang all the time. (I know you can put Firefox on Windows too but it's an old laptop and it never really ran Windows Vista properly.)

I swear the laptop battery lasts longer.

These are all big ticks. Linux is a much lighter load on the PC, so if you've got a laptop that's getting on a bit and that is only really used for web browsing, you'll find it's a much faster, slicker experience.

Mint comes with Libre Office, which is a more than passable alternative to Microsoft Office and can still open all of your .doc and .xls files. If you don't need VBA macros and heavyweight Excel workbooks, it's great.

The best recommendation I can make for Mint is that since making our old laptop dual boot about a month ago, I've only touched Windows once, because I needed it to talk to a GPS and it has the drivers built in. My wife hasn't used Windows at all. Why would you? For simple tasks, Linux just works better. It's only more obscure gadgets that are an issue too - plugging in a digital camera or a USB thumb drive is fine.

I have found myself on a few forums, learning some more complicated bits and pieces when I wanted to push beyond simple web browsing and admittedly I wasn't able to make Google Picasa work properly, even though it's supposed to. All in all though, if you want basic features, Linux is brilliant. If you want more than basic features you can certainly have them, but you'll need to get your hands dirty.

The only real difficulty I found for Mint was that when it first started up, everything worked perfectly except wifi. This is because the wifi card needs a proprietary driver, which Mint had found, but didn't activate automatically. Easily fixed through a simple menu, but I'd have liked a pop up on the first boot, prompting me that Mint already knew how to make the card work and asking if I wanted it switched on. As it is, it's possible a less curious user would have just assumed Mint didn't work with their laptop.

In terms of dumping the corporate web, this one's a 'not quite', but well worth doing all the same. There's no way I could survive without Windows at work (no Excel, Tableau, SQL Server...? Not going to happen) and at home it would probably wind me up about once a month that something Windows is able to do, was difficult or impossible with Linux.

You can have the best of both worlds though. A slick, fast experience that's not beholden to Microsoft for 90% of the time and a quick boot into Windows when you have to. I'm impressed. This has been a really worthwhile little experiment and I'd thoroughly recommend it.


Shiney said...


From a long time Linux user - welcome!

You'll love the fact you have effectively got a server 'under the hood' - you can run servers (apache), databases (mysql, postgresql) and, best of all, R/Shiny all on your old laptop.

I do all my web development on a 2009 vintage Toshiba Satellite pro and its great.

Any stuff you need help with contact me through @uzerp on twitter.

Richard Fergie said...

I've been using Linux on my personal computers for about 5 years now - I think it's great.

But recently, as I've moved to freelancing my personal laptop has become my work laptop and this has lead to several difficulties that I did not anticipate:

1. You can access windows shared folders from Linux but this is not as easy as it might appear at first glance.
2. Similar for connecting to Exchange servers for email. Davmail is a godsend for this, but it took me a while to find it.
3. I still haven't figured out Exchange calendar sharing

Branden said...

It's been a few years since I've used Linux, my work computer had Ubuntu installed while I was a graduate student. It took a lot of fiddling around to make things worked, but eventually I liked most of it better than Windows.

Open Office spread sheet program was awful though. Don't even get me started on making graphs.