These days, anyone who believes that they need a command line to work in GNU/Linux is in for a surprise. Not that the BASH shell isn’t a powerful and surprisingly easy to use command line, but, after years of playing catch-up, GNU/Linux is now a match for the latest version of Windows on the desktop.
In fact, in many ways, GNU/Linux is more than a match for Windows Vista. In some cases, Vista can equal GNU/Linux if you are willing to delve deeply into the registry or install additional software, but here are seven ways that GNU/Linux outperforms Vista on first boot.
1) Choose a Desktop
Vista has one desktop. This fact is so ingrained in Windows users that the very concept of an alternative desktop is often hard for them to imagine. Yet GNU/Linux offers at least a dozen. Besides the popular GNOME, KDE, and Xfce desktops available in most distributions, you can also install ones like LXDE, ROX, or keyboard driven ones like dwm or ratpoison.
With many desktops, you also have several dozen choices for the window manager — the application that controls the appearance and position on the desktop. With each window manager, you get a different look, feel, and performance, and you can use many, such as IceWM or FluxBox, as stripped down graphical environments.
Not every window manager is compatible with every desktop, but, if you mix and match them, the number of possible choices must be well over a hundred. The result is a desktop for every conceivable taste, even before you start to customize.
2) Customize your desktop to the last detail
A typical GNU/Linux distribution not only installs with a dozen themes compared to Vista’s default two, but allows customizations that Vista lacks completely. For example, unlike Vista’s taskbar, the panel on most GNU/Linux desktop can be resized vertically or horizontally, or given a background image. In addition, you can position elements on the panel in any order that you like, or add additional panels if you choose. Going further afield, in both GNOME and KDE, you can download install replacement panels.
Similarly, in GNU/Linux, you can usually customize the whole main menu, not just part of it, as in Vista. Although you can find one or two features in Vista that are harder to do in GNU/Linux, such as changing mouse cursors, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the GNU/Linux desktop has more customizations than Vista’s.
Mostly, too, the customizations are easier to make. For instance, instead of going through a combo box and changing the font for every aspect of the desktop, the way you must in Vista, the major GNU/Linux desktops contain a single dialog for setting fonts. GNU/Linux are strong believers in working their own way, and the options available and their ease of use reflect that belief.
3) Use a full suite of default utilities and software
When you use Vista, you get an operating system and a few utilities like a defragger and a backup tool, and audio-visual players, and a time-limited version of MS Office. Your computer manufacturer may add several other utilities, usually games or setup and configuration tools. To add more would look like Microsoft was competing with business partners, which is why it backed off adding to Vista as simple a tool as a PDF writer.
When you use GNU/Linux, the operating system is only a small part of what you install — perhaps a third or a quarter of the space that the installation takes on your hard drive. The rest of the space is taken up by other software — although not defraggers or anti-virus software because, generally speaking, GNU/Linux has no need for them. This software includes programs like OpenOffice.org, the free alternative to MS Office, the desktop publisher Scribus, and the graphic editor The GIMP, all of which are included at no extra cost and can mostly hold their own against equivalent proprietary programs.
As a bonus, GNU/Linux installs all these things in less than half the space needed for Vista: a Vista install of over 20 gigabytes is common, while a 10 gigabyte GNU/Linux install includes every imaginable category of software, and often several programs for the same function.
4) Download and test software
Microsoft is experimenting with the Windows Marketplace, which allows you to pay for software and download it. Other proprietary software vendors are offering similar services. However, for most Windows users, software is still something they buy in the store, and opportunities to try before buying are limited.
Actual no-cost software is even more limited, unless you are welling to scour pages of shareware applications on other web sites. By contrast, GNU/Linux installations are linked to repositories that contain hundreds or thousands of free programs, all of which you can try before settling down to use.
The convenience of the GNU/Linux repositories is impossible to over-estimate. If you suddenly need a particular type of tool, you can download several in a matter of minutes, find one that suits your purpose, and continue your work. Compare that to online shopping and giving credit information – let alone interrupting your work to go to the nearest computer store – and the advantage is obvious.
5) Control popup messages and updates
Both Vista and major GNU/Linux desktops — especially GNOME — make increasing use of popup status messages. So far, in GNU/Linux, they are usually restricted to concrete information, such as the fact that a flash drive is writing to disk, and you should wait to remove it. The updater is more intrusive, but you can turn it permanently off if you choose.
But, in Vista, your work is constantly interrupted with messages about possible security problems, available updates, and other system messages. I know of one case in which at least three separate updaters are running — one for Windows, one for Java, and another for the computer manufacturer’s software. At times, updates may occur without your consent, even when you have dug deep enough to supposedly turn them off.
The Vista messages and updates are not only intrusive, but make responsible security impossible. If you cannot control what is added to your system, you have no way of determining if your system is secure. It’s as simple — and annoying — as that.
6) Use multiple workspaces
One of the most popular features on any GNU/Linux desktop are virtual workspaces — separate desktops that are only a mouse click or a brief scrolling away. Workspaces can eat up memory, but they are ideal for avoiding a clutter of windows on your desktop. You can, for instance, place your web browser at full-size on one, while you work on another, or set a program to compile on one while you use OpenOffice.org on the other.
Windows doesn’t have them.
7) Have control of your computer
If you read the Windows end-user license agreement, instead of clicking without reading, the way that most people do, you will know that you do not own your copy of Vista; you are simply licensed to use it. To continue to use it, you must activate it, and how you use it is severely limited.
You cannot, for example, install it on another computer. Nor do you have any control over any so-called digital rights management (DRM) techniques that might be installed on your computer to do such things as to police the legality of your music downloads. If Microsoft determines that your copy of Vista is not valid, it can disable the copy — and mistakes have been made about validity.
On a GNU/Linux desktop, none of these problems arise. The free and open source licenses used by the software allow you to use the software on as many computers as you like, without any need to register, validate, or activate it. Because the source code is available to everyone, you can be reasonably sure that no DRM is installed on your computer, even if you are not capable of investigating the situation yourself. At the most, a few programs will ask you to register voluntarily so that those who write them can have some idea of the number of users.
In other words, on Windows, you have no rights in what you purchase, and no control over how you use it. But on GNU/Linux, you have much the same control over how you use the software as you do over a piece of furniture or clothing that you buy.
Make a clear choice
Here and there, Vista has features that GNU/Linux does not. It is still easier to set up dual monitors in Vista than in GNU/Linux, although that will change in the next releases of the major GNU/Linux desktops. Vista also comes with some basic speech recognition, and has a few controls that GNU/Linux lacks, such as a dialog for changing mouse cursors. While you can have these functions in GNU/Linux, as I write they are not available out of the box.
However, the opposite is also true in GNU/Linux. The ability to roll up a window so that only the title bar remains is a feature that I would miss if I ever needed to use Vista regularly. Much could be said, too, of the fact that GNU/Linux is designed as a secure, multi-user system, and that, while Windows now has features like password protected user-accounts and permissions, they are voluntary and tend to be neglected.
At any rate, these additional details do not change the general picture. Overall, GNU/Linux offers more choice, customization, convenience, control, and consumer protection than Vista does. These days, GNU/Linux not only matches Windows on the desktop, but frequently exceeds it. Moreover, as KDE 4 shows, GNU/Linux developers are starting to innovate on the desktop rather than scrambling to catch up.
These are the reasons why, when people ask whether GNU/Linux will ever be ready for the desktop, I wonder out loud why anyone would ever use Vista or any other version of Windows. No matter what perspective you take, GNU/Linux is simply a more appealing environment in which to do my daily work.