What Linux Is, And What It Isn’t

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I’m an experienced Linux user, and also an experienced Windows user. I think recently there’s been a lot a unnecessary hype about Linux.

I wrote the following article in the hopes that it would clear up some of the hype, and help some of those who are unsure of whether or not it would be good to switch to Linux from Windows.

If you believe it might be useful information for overclockers.com readers, I’d be grateful if you’d post it.

(Ed. note: Thumbs up.)


Introduction

I recently read a few articles about the usability of Linux. I got to thinking that some people have the wrong idea about Linux.

The picture you get from Linux gurus, fanatics, and enthusiasts is that Linux is some kind of super operating system. That’s simply not true.

Then again, if you were to talk to someone new to Linux, you probably wouldn’t get a very accurate impression either.

Most people just don’t know much at all about it. I think it’s time to clear up some things about Linux.

This article is for those people that primarily use Windows, and are considering installing Linux. Hopefully it will prove useful for those who are unsure of whether or not Linux is for them.

Who Should Use Linux?

Linux definitely isn’t for everyone. It has some great strengths, but for many people, it’s just best to use Windows.

This is especially true for gamers and casual computer users. Linux isn’t the best gaming platform, simply due to lack of support from most game companies. This is slowly changing, but don’t expect to see equally sized Linux and Windows shelves at your local computer store any time soon. Windows remains number one for games.

For casual computer users, Windows also has the advantage of being far simpler. Imagine trying to teach your grandmother how to use a DOS prompt. It’s the same deal with Linux. The casual computer user just doesn’t need to know how to use Linux.

Then there’s the rest. At present most people don’t have any reason to use Linux over Windows. Linux just doesn’t offer the ease of use and the plug ‘n’ play usefulness that most people expect after using Windows. Most people just don’t care that their machine might be a little more vulnerable to security threats, etc.

The people who will get the most out of Linux are developers, network techs, some power users, and anyone who wants to run a server of any kind. For those people, Linux presents clear advantages over Windows. (BSD would be better for some in those categories as well.) Those users often need the extra functionality that a Linux system can offer. (things like better networking stuff, customizability, etc.)

A special category of computer users who might find Linux useful would be overclockers. Anyone interested in overclocking may find it useful to have a minimal Linux system on a small hard drive partition.

Why? Linux is great for discovering and diagnosing hardware errors. Rather than getting an “Illegal Operation” dialog in Windows, often, Linux presents you with a useful debug message.

Still Think Linux Is For You? (A Warning Before Windows Wiping)

If you ever consider installing Linux on any one of your computers for the first time, be prepared to do some serious reading. There’s no way around it.

If you want to have a well-configured Linux machine, you’ll have to do hours, days, weeks, maybe even months worth of reading about the programs and libraries you want to use.

You can install Linux without doing any reading at all, but to get farther than that you’ll need to have access to documentation.

The Internet is always good for that. Two good places to start are http://www.linuxdoc.org and http://www.linuxnewbie.org.

I’m not saying that you have to read a lot to use Linux, but to be generally satisfied with what you get out of a Linux system, you really have to do some reasonable reading at the beginning.

Why Wouldn’t You Be Satisfied With Your Linux System?

Linux and Efficiency

Linux isn’t small, fast and efficient. At least not after being freshly installed. There are a lot of reasons for this:

1) The Linux kernel provided with most common distributions is packed full of drivers that you’ll never use. (Imagine loading and unloading many different device drivers every time you decide to boot up your computer.)

The first thing anyone should do when they install Linux on a machine is to recompile the kernel. There are significant performance benefits to recompiling the kernel.

Recompiling the kernel is by no means an easy task for a beginner, but it’s an immeasurable help in coming to understand how your Linux system works. Still, it can require some heavy reading, and some good knowledge of your hardware.

Once you’ve learned how to do it though, the procedure only take about 10 minutes on a reasonably fast computer.

2) Linux is never as optimized as it could be. Most distributions provide packages compiled for i386 systems. That’s just fine, because everything on the installation CD can run on any 386 or better.

The problem with optimizing for 386 machines is that programs don’t take advantage of the features of newer processors. Power users might want to recompile some of their more important programs and libraries to make use of newer architectures.

3) Many Linux programs are big (and some say bloated), just like Windows and many of its programs.

If you want to use Linux with KDE, you’re going to be using lots of memory, and a lot of CPU – in the same neighbourhood as Windows.

My opinion is that if you want an interface similar to Windows, why not just use Windows itself? There are quite a few options in Linux for smaller window managers, for instance, BlackBox.

What it all boils down to is this: Your Linux system isn’t going to be a super-box unless you’re willing to put some time into it.

If you’re not willing to spend some time with a Linux system, then you probably want to stick with Windows.

Benefits of Linux

I don’t want to seem like I hate Linux. I have 2 computers and 3 installed operating systems, two of which are Linux.

My first system is an Intel Pentium 233MMX @ 266 MHz. It’s my internet firewall running Debian GNU/Linux. It’s small and optimized. It takes about 15 seconds to boot up from when it starts loading the kernel to when the system is fully up and running – including SSH (OpenSSH), FTP (ProFTPD), and Samba daemons, plus a fully loaded HTTP (Apache) daemon.

Even then, it only uses about 15 MB of memory. What Windows machine can claim that?

My second system dual boots Windows 2000 and Debian. Both are fairly optimized, but the Debian system is far more responsive that Windows 2000, and can perform similar tasks far quicker. The Linux half is also great to use for development – far better than Windows.

Still, I use the Windows part of it for most daily tasks like email and web browsing, simply because Windows programs are much nicer to use, and I can finish up with the everyday stuff much quicker than in Linux.

Conclusion

If you’re happy with what you have, then by no means is it necessary to change. If you feel you’re ready for the challenge (for whatever reason) then by all means do so, just be prepared for a little extra work.

Linux can be great, but only if you want to take the time to configure it properly.

Email Jon

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