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It's easy to forget how intimidating it can be when trying something completely new for the first time. This is especially true when a power-user comfortable with Windows tries Linux. Since I'm a power user of various Linux distros, Windows and OS X, I have some insights that I think people looking to migrate to Linux need to read. Let's get started, shall we?
Linux is not Windows
The first thing that people who migrate from Windows need to understand is that Linux is not Windows. People seem to forget this fact when they experience something completely foreign while using Linux. Like when the audio doesn't appear to work despite the volume slider being adjusted or the default video driver doesn't offer expected gaming performance, among other areas of confusion.
Linux newcomers must realize: this is Linux, and 99% of the time there is a reason or a fix that addresses an unexpected issue.
For example: If you're not hearing audio when the volume is turned all the way up, this is probably because PulseAudio has the app's volume turned down. Main output settings can be overridden by app specific settings within the volume controls. Same applies for microphone inputs vs app specific settings.
Then there is the issue with the gaming performance. On Windows, you're using video drivers that provide good performance out of the box (usually). Under Linux, you're usually using Open Source video drivers. Depending on your distro, there is usually a tool provided to allow you to install the proprietary video drivers very easily. But newcomers rarely know this without either reading it someplace or being told ahead of time.
Getting Linux newcomers to rationalize these differences is difficult. Let's face it, human nature is adaptive...but not without kicking and screaming the entire way.
One of the simplest and wisest things a user can do before jumping over to Linux is to setup a flash drive with persistent storage incorporated into it. This flash drive would be loaded with their preferred Linux distro and then the person should learn to "live in it" for a period of time.
Taking this approach does the following:
- It forces the new user to learn to live within something new and unusual.
- Should it turn out that the user is unwilling or unable to fit this experience into their lives, they're able to easily go back to Windows.
- The user will experience any potential hardware incompatibilities immediately, before a hard drive install. Personally, I've experienced a whopping two PC component incompatibilities - ever. The only issue I can see anyone facing in 2015 is the occasional issue with those dastardly Broadcom wifi chipsets. They can in some instances prove to be problematic. Outside of that, it's usually smooth sailing.
By taking this approach, anyone looking to try out Linux with any level of seriousness is able to have a full desktop experience limited only by the size of their USB flash drive storage space. It's simple and based on my own trials with folks, it helps the end user to determine if Linux is a good fit.
Preparing for the switch
Surprisingly, I've found it's easier than it used to be for home users to make the switch. Because they rarely have a preference on which office suite they're using and most of them are using Web based email. This helps users overcome half the battle of switching right out of the gate. And if they also took my advice on using a flash drive with persistent storage, they know if Linux is going to work for them long term or not.
Backing up pictures, videos and documents is pretty obvious. And with modern browsers like Firefox and Chrome providing built-in synchronization tools, all one needs to do is login to their browser to extract all of their user data with the utmost ease. It's critical, however, that the synced data be tested on a secondary machine before wiping the Windows installation. This ensures nothing is lost during the migration.
Important: Make a list of the software you use on Windows, then visit "AlternativeTo" in order to match it up with an open source replacement. I'd suggest installing the found applications onto the persistent USB flash drive install for testing. This step alone will save the newcomer a lot of frustration.
Making the switch
Once the newcomer has established that Linux on their desktop is hardware compatible with their PC, have found applications they like and haven't hit legacy software roadblocks that would pull them back to Windows, it's time! Let's throw the switch!
First, backup all of your data before doing anything permanent! Next, triple check that you have your product key(s) and related "media" for all of your Microsoft and Adobe products. Lose these keys and reverting back to Windows will be a lot more unpleasant. Plus, you might wish to run them on another PC someday in the future.
With a bootable flash drive or DVD of their preferred distribution, begin the installation. Once the installation is complete, run your distribution's updates. If the user relied on a persistent flash drive install for any length of time, they're aware that the next step is to install any missing proprietary media codecs.
Next, using the software list gained from AlternativeTo, install the related software. Ubuntu based distros will allow the user to do this via the Software Center or Synaptic. Other distributions may have other package managers for making this happen.
Working with your new installation
Assuming the installation went well, the newcomer is ready to begin customizing the desktop! After all, that's half the fun of using Linux!
The methods used to customize your desktop will largely depend on the desktop environment that has been selected. Here are some of the major desktop environments and how to customize them: GNOME, KDE, MATE, Cinnamon, LXDE, XFCE.
Now that the installation is fully customized to meet the user's needs, they're ready to use it in much the same way as they did with Windows. The key differences are as follows:
- If the user needs to reinstall, they'll never be nagged for a product key. This applies to the distro and to installed software.
- They're free to backup the user data and try new distributions and desktop environments.
- New releases of a selected distro won't mean buying new peripherals. Anyone claiming Windows matches the sheer back-catalog of peripheral support offered by Linux is badly misinformed. Windows depends on the peripheral vendor to provide the drivers, usually installed from local media or via Windows Updates. With Linux it either works or it doesn't. Usually 99% of the time, peripherals just work out of the box. The exception to this rule are with brand new (less than a year old) peripherals that are waiting for the latest Linux kernel.
Personally, I have never, ever run into an issue where my peripherals were unsupported out of the box. Those who run into issues are usually dealing with printers from one of the following vendors: Lexmark and Canon. I've found Epson and HP to be very well supported. I'd say overall HP wins for the best support as it provides the hplip tool that supports functions like wifi printing. When purchasing a new peripheral such as a printer, I recommend checking the OpenPrinting website first. There are printers out there that are simply not compatible. Thankfully, the list of supported far outweigh those unsupported.
Important: As a general rule, any of the peripherals found in the top results by brand on sites like Amazon are supported. For example: query Lexmark, results are MS312dn, CS310n (laser printers) and S305, 1512, and X5650 (inkjet). In the case of Lexmark, all the laser printers work, as does the S305 inkjet. The 1512 is unknown and the X5650 is known not to work.
If you're buying an inkjet all-in-one, make it one of the HP models. I own a HP Officejet Pro 8600 and it has flawless support both locally connected via USB or connected over my LAN by wifi. I simply installed hplip and set it up using this approach. One could take the easier approach and just install it using the built-in desktop environment's printer dialog via USB, but using hplip also provides wireless scanning capability using Simple Scan. So the aforementioned approach is preferred.
Linux isn't hard, it's just different
I realize that some folks reading this will immediately latch onto the following as "proof" that using Linux on the desktop is more difficult. I would argue it depends on ones perspective.
- Besides geeks and techs, no one installs operating systems. And learning to setup and configure settings in any operating system takes time to learn. Last time I checked, casual users sought help from a tech or a geek when something goes wrong with Windows. - In terms of sheer numbers, Linux has greater peripheral support. This isn't a debate, it's a fact (circa 2008). Realize that most of the support is brand centric. NVIDIA, Intel, HP, Logitech among others are brands that are friendly to Linux. They also have a back-catalog of driver support dating back pre-USB. Windows does not offer this as Windows doesn't maintain older drivers for new Windows releases – vendors may or may not. Even lesser friendly to Linux peripherals have device models that work, though it's just not as extensive.
- Customizing and setting up a Linux box is simply a matter of repetition. Most of the "complicated" steps people see for stuff like setting up wifi printing with a supported HP all-in-one printer, is simply typing a word or a phrase. A script then does the work for the user.
Ease of use and compatibility are funny things. I own a netbook built for Windows 7 Starter Edition, I installed Windows 10 on it and critical features won't work. All of the hardware is detected, however the function keys needed for basic operation are no longer compatible. I've researched and verified that ASUS has no intention of doing anything about it.
This means that I cannot use wireless (it's disabled despite being detected) and I cannot adjust the back-lighting. I researched this issue extensively – it's planned obsolescence at its finest. By happenstance, I also own a second netbook of the same model. I have Ubuntu MATE installed and with a simple phrase added to the grub menu (used for booting), it has working function keys and fully functional Intel 802.11n wireless.
By using Linux, I'm free from the planned obsolescence found with proprietary operating systems. Linux answers to one master – its user. Does this mean Linux is harder? I think that's a matter of personal perspective. Oh, before it comes up – I don't compile software. There is no need to, so anyone making this claim that it's still a "must" is telling you stories.
With a community of folks willing to help you, I've found there is very little Linux on the desktop can't do. I hope newcomers looking to migrate are able to join me in this experience.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.