Over the years, we've seen countless articles state that we're entering the fabled Year of the Linux Desktop. They cite the advantages of Linux. Other articles, still, have expressed that specific advantages don't matter – those who switch to Linux need to be motivated by a specific reason.
In any case, many of those switching will be migrating from Windows. So it's important to understand the core differences between Windows and Linux, now in 2018.
Windows vs Linux – the Linux View
When we think of Linux on the desktop, we almost always think of the top distros listed on DistroWatch.com. In reality, any perceived success with an OS is more about what it allows its users to do and less to do with what a ranking website indicates.
There is one undeniable reality with desktop Linux users - desktop Linux users fall into two separate groups. The first group are users who simply want an experience that works. They want predictable application and hardware support, and are usually individuals who are task motivated or gamers. The second group are desktop Linux users who want to control how their PCs run. They want no unneeded bloat, and only install what is needed. Distros that offer the user the ability to control what and how they run.
Traditionally the first group was thought to be new users and the second group advanced Linux users. But this isn't really accurate. I've found advanced users who fall into the first group while beginners are seeking to run more complicated distros. So my statement on the two groups stand, everything else is fluid.
Windows vs Linux – the Windows View
I have never in my entire life met anyone who uses Windows because they're passionate about the operating system. This is not a negative comment, rather, a statement of fact. People usually run an operating system to accomplish a specific task. Yes, the layout and user experience plays a part in whether or not a user prefers one OS over another. But in the end, if a user can't accomplish a task on an OS that needs to be done, the platform's appearance is of little consequence.
This is where Windows comes in. Generally speaking, love it or hate it, Windows allows its users to accomplish the tasks a user sets out to do. At least that's the general idea. When Windows 10 rolled out, the perceived promise was that Microsoft learned from the mistakes made with Windows 8 - putting a stop to the touch UI first nonsense and bringing back a more traditional feel to the desktop. Windows 10 was supposed to be a throwback to a predictable user experience.
Unfortunately, Windows 10 presented some interesting challenges. First off, allowing non-enterprise editions of an operating system to update without express permission didn't go over too well. Yes, eventually forced updates were addressed and that's great. Sadly the same cannot be said for Windows 10 compatible PCs running older versions of Windows - you're going to eventually wake up one day and find it running Windows 10. This is expressly allowed in their licensing and that's just how it is. By the way, this is a terrible approach...but it's all done in the name of increased security as to keep things patched and up to date.
Is Windows Better than Linux?
Setting all that aside, we must also acknowledge that Windows is the main OS available when you purchase a new computer. When you go to an international retailer like Amazon or a big box store locally, you're looking at Windows PCs. The only two exceptions to this are the limited selection of Chromebooks and Macs running OS X.
This issue alone has played a huge part of Windows remaining the dominant operating system in the PC space. It's pretty easy to be popular when 99% of the computers offered only come pre-installed with a single OS.
Does this mean that Windows is better than Linux? To the untrained eye, it likely appears this way. After all, it's what's available. But the truth of the matter is much more complicated than that.
Windows as an operating system has made great strides very early on to attract developers. So in addition to the fact it's popular through its monopoly of the OS market, they also have a monopoly on software compatibility. Think about it. If you want to offer software for a desktop user and want to reach the biggest market possible, you're creating software for Windows. This led Windows to become a leader with gaming, office, media production and print production work.
This software compatibility issue was so bad, that it took the smartphone market to finally make a dent in the issue. Finally, thanks to Android and iOS, we now see developers targeting the masses on something besides Windows only.
Next up, we have hardware support. Windows does indeed offer a wide range of support for motherboards, pre-built PCs, CPUs and of course, peripherals. All of that said, however, you will absolutely not find that its legacy driver support is top notch because it's simply not. Windows does well for devices that blatantly state on a label or box that the device offers support for specific Windows releases. So while any new device is going to have great support for Windows 10, you might find that Windows 7 or older doesn't work. Worse, you may find older devices simply don't have drivers available at all for Windows 10.
Taking this issues further, I've personally seen a large number of low-end Windows 7 laptops that have huge driver issues with basic stuff like touchpad, ethernet/wifi, and peripheral support for devices from the same era as the laptop. That's not my opinion, that is a demonstrable fact. So while a new laptop and a new peripheral had great support for Windows 10, older hardware was quite limited. And understand, this isn't an issue with Microsoft, this is an issue with the device manufacturer's lack of motivation to create new drivers for older hardware.
Or, Wait, Is Linux Better than Windows?
Finding a PC with Linux pre-installed is much easier than it used to be. Granted, you won't likely be doing this locally unless you live in a random area where some random guy is selling pre-installed PCs. However online there are a number of great vendors out there providing both hardware solutions in addition to supporting those great hardware options. So, while this isn't outstanding, it's a decent place to start.
Linux the kernel, bundled with other tools and software to make up one of the many distros available to us these days is built with a tremendous amount of teamwork from developers all over the world. Instead of being created by one company or one single group of individuals, it's an endeavour that takes on ideas and contributions from an incredible number of people from all over the world. Yet despite this, software (both FoSS and proprietary) pales in comparison in terms of choices for the end user.
Yet if we set aside the fact that there may not be as much software choice available to Linux users, we do have software available to us that is almost exclusively open source. This means that we will never experience vendor lock-in stating that we can't export our email client data from one application to another. It also means that many of the Linux applications we enjoy can take the user data from one OS and use that same user data on a proprietary OS like Windows running a FoSS application.
For example if I run Firefox on Windows, I can actually migrate my user data over to a Linux distro if I so choose to do so. This data mobility is one of the most valuable assets to casual Linux users. It's your data, migrate it however you like and never concern yourself with being unable to use it on another OS. If it's a FoSS application, user data will almost always be cross platform.
Another item of consideration about Linux software is that while there may not be as many titles available to us, we do have some pretty powerful applications at our disposal. Krita is an extremely powerful paint program. LibreOffice provides users all over the world with an outstanding office suite. Blender, Kdenlive and Open Broadcaster Studio bring us the ability to create amazing 3D effects that can be streamed to the world, recorded and then edited in a professional manner.
Are there some missing things that some users need? Yes, some office environments are married to MS Office workflows, require Adobe products for creative tasks and would rather use hardware streaming solutions over software alternatives. There is nothing wrong with needing to address these requirements. However stating that Linux is lacking because some users need this stuff is silly. It would be like saying that Windows isn't good because I can't use my favorite Linux software on a Windows box. It's simply a matter of personal need and preference.
Next we have Linux hardware compatibility. Linux hardware and peripheral compatibility is very different than what you might find with Windows. I'm not going to state that one OS is better than the other in this area. Linux has all relevant hardware detection rolled into the kernel. What's unique about this is that this includes hardware or peripherals that might otherwise be considered older by Windows standards. So while you may need to wait for a newer kernel for some of the absolutely latest hardware support, most hardware under Linux is detected without missing a beat.
Where most people fall down in terms of getting things working with Linux and their hardware configurations has to do with configuration, loaded modules and user error. Thankfully in 2018, most configurations, modules and so forth are handled with little to no user interaction. Obviously there are exceptions, usually with wireless devices or selecting the best video driver for your needs. But it's a non-issue most of the time.
Who Should Run Windows? Who Should Run Linux?
I'm a firm believer in finding a platform that allows the end user to accomplish their tasks with as little interference as possible. In 2018, I've found that for many people Linux on the desktop is indeed a solid option. And while some will point out that installing Linux may vex some folks, I'd counter with the fact most people don't install operating systems in the first place. Of course installing Linux would present a challenge – if it didn't come pre-installed.
Suffice it to say that the biggest challenge for most people interested in using Linux is trying to get a dual-boot setup with Windows. With UEFI being the de facto feature that comes with PCs running Windows these days, installing Linux often requires extra steps that may confuse some newcomers. Unfortunate, as this hurdle isn't even something that has anything to do with Linux in the first place.
But if you can get past those challenges, there is no question that using Linux is quite pleasant on the desktop. I ought to know, I've been doing it for well over a decade. I prefer it for my needs and have come to know the applications made available to the platform. I still support Windows users though. And despite this reality, I'll be the first to admit that the way Windows handles drivers and other elements of the desktop leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. Again, if Windows works for you, great, use what works. However if you're willing to learn something new, aren't expecting Linux to behave as Windows and understand that the experience can indeed be a positive one, I highly suggest trying out Linux using a flash drive.
Because let's face it - the one killer feature Linux has had for years is a live install that doesn't touch your hard drive. Bundle this with the fact that there are a ton of distros with different desktop experiences to try out, you might just find that Linux is the way you want to run your desktop in 2018.