I have tried and enjoyed a number of great Linux distributions over the years. Some were more popular than others. But the one thing they all have in common is each provides the end user with hidden benefits and unexpected disadvantages over proprietary desktop operating systems.
In this article, I'll explore what make the Linux desktop a superb fit for some users while providing thoughts on overcoming the challenges had by others.
Desktop Linux is free
Perhaps one of the most stunning benefits of the Linux desktop is the price – zero. Modern Linux distros designed for desktop end users remain completely free of cost. This is helpful for Linux enthusiasts, as it allows them to easily try out various distributions to see which one has the benefits that best meet their individual needs.
In addition to being free of cost, a hidden advantage to Linux is also that it provides freedom. Feel free to tinker with the code, inspect it and customize it any way you see fit. The best part of the entire Linux experience is the freedom from license keys and missing media. If you need to re-install, just use a flash drive and enjoy!
Another hidden benefit most people don't stop to think about is this – your distro usually is its own rescue tool. Should something go horribly wrong, many times it's easy enough to boot from the live media and make repairs.
Some will argue that the price isn't really a secret – I'd counter that it depends on who you ask. Go on, ask the typical computer user if they believe there is a free operating system alternative to Windows that works well. Most will question you.
If you dislike using Windows or OS X due to the way things are laid out or the GUI features provided, at best, you might find a piece of software to extended some functionality. But generally speaking, you're out of luck with those operating systems.
With a Linux desktop, the benefit here is that you can choose the desktop environment that suits you. Want a highly advanced, heavily user controlled work flow? Try KDE. Need something minimalist? Then XFCE is for you.
This level of environmental control goes even further in allowing freedom to select the file manager you prefer. Options such as Nautilus, Dolphin or Thunar allow end users to decide on the best tool to manage their files that makes sense to them – not the masses.
A little secret in this space are the config files in your distro. Even if there isn't a way to make a visual change to your desktop through the GUI, often you can tackle a needed visual tweak by editing a specific text file. Being able to both change environments and then tweak them at the text level isn't something that is always readily advertised to the masses.
Amazing hardware detection
Despite there being some hardware devices such as certain wifi chipsets or some oddball USB peripheral, I've found that 99.9% of anything I plug into the Linux desktop is detected immediately. This means I am no longer stuck searching for drivers on the Web or hoping that there was a driver disc included with my peripherals.
Some of my favorite examples of USB hardware detection includes an old Wii guitar, any external hard drive, external DVD burner, flash drive, USB headsets/microphones, USB recording studio interfaces, and most portable MP3 players.
One little trick that is helpful when dealing with video cards and sound cards is to remember the following – video cards do best with proprietary drivers. Sound cards do best when used without them. Install pavucontrol instead for dynamic volume control. Given that Skype now requires PulseAudio, you're going to want to make sure pavucontrol is readily accessible.
From my perspective, part of what makes Linux hardware detection so amazing is that it happens silently, behind the scenes...unlike Windows where you're very much aware (and usually annoyed by) the alerts to new devices being attached.
Am I running as root? If so, my system is not running as securely as it should in my opinion. This has been my battle cry against Windows for years. And while Windows has "improved" its security with various technologies over the years, it's still an OS plagued with malware.
On the Linux desktop, there isn't a malware threat. This is largely due to the fact that Linux hasn't been made a target yet, but also because security is job one with the most popular Linux distributions.
Locking down a desktop Linux computer is fairly simple. The key is to utilize Linux iptables, usually setting up a simple stateful firewall or, for the novice, using the Uncomplicated Firewall instead. The latter also has a very simple-to-use GUI for Linux newcomers called the GUFW, if using the Uncomplicated Firewall from a terminal is a turn off.
Now some distributions already have iptables configured in such a way as to provide fairly strong security from intrusion. But as a general rule, the benefit of disabling unused services and ports can't be overstated.
Now that I've covered benefits of the Linux desktop often overlooked or hidden, the next section takes a slightly darker turn. Now I want to be clear – I enjoy using Linux on my computers. I have been a fulltime Linux enthusiast for many years. Still, there are some unexpected challenges that do crop up and need to be addressed.
Linux needs a public face (besides Google)
When it comes to the face looking back at the Linux community at large, Linus has been great. Most recently he's been doing videos for the Linux Foundation. I’ve enjoyed them. Unfortunately no one outside of the close-knit Linux community has any idea or interest in who Linus Torvalds is.
Despite the common misconception that Linux benefits from not being widely known or understood, I think the biggest challenge is the anonymity it presents to most people. Go ahead, ask anyone not in tech circles what Linux is and how it affects our lives. And the reaction is usually a "huh?" of a blank stare.
Now I realize it's a tall order to take time out of our day to set up shop somewhere and start introducing it to folks. But the fact is, PC repair shops and those who are often called upon to help with family tech issues should be the first line of introduction. It's these individuals we need to target, teach and empower. Thus far, we've done a great job at keeping the echo chamber full, but still have work to do attracting those individuals mentioned above.
Specialty app support remains a challenge
Clearly, these are not tools that are holding back Linux adoption by any means. I mean, how many people seriously use either in a home-based environment? No one, as these are tools for creators, not casual users. Sadly, because of this, folks are forced to buy these expensive tools for specific hardware instead of being able to use Linux.
With the advent of software options such as Open Broadcaster Software for Linux, we're getting closer to being able to manage our video recording projects on the fly. That said, it's not quite there yet for serious studios – it's just not. I would say that tools like Open Broadcaster Software are very good for those looking to make YouTube videos or to stream from their homes in a live setting, though.
At the end of the day, the biggest shortcoming is no matter how far we come in this space, specialty software for Linux always feel dated. Perhaps as Microsoft continues to fade, those not wanting to invest in Apple hardware will help to make greater Linux adoption happen. But for now, specialty tasks remain in the hands of proprietary operating systems.
The last challenge I've found with Linux on the desktop is dealing with some oddball hardware. Usually the biggest challenges here include various wireless devices or label printers and business card scanners. Unlike a typical CUPS or SANE compatible device, these specialty devices often involve proprietary software that is designed exclusively for Windows only.
This means if you're thinking about purchasing a device for tasks such as business card scanning or label printing, you'll need to do some research before heading to the local office supply store to make a purchase. The fact is, most of these devices are not compatible. The only two brands that come to mind that are genuinely embraced and compatible under the Linux desktop are InteliTech label printers (there may be others) and Brother business card scanners.
I want to point out to anyone reading this and coming to the opinion that I'm berating the Linux desktop: that simply isn't true. I live in the Linux desktop space fulltime, and I do so generally quite happily. Still, as I have expressed in my sentiments above, I believe there are still challenges that need to be looked into.
On the plus side, I'm thrilled to report that the benefits of the Linux desktop far outshine the challenges I've experienced. I remain humbled by the great experiences afforded to me through Linux and look forward to many years of future happy times with this great desktop platform.