Times have changed and with increased processing power, the modern off the shelf computer is preloaded with so much crap and trial ware that the task of using a computer to simply get the job done is becoming a chore. I have recently purchased a computer for my daughter to use next year at high school. I feel I have made an informed choice and have bought well. It is a slim compact and fast Samsung notebook with 4Gb RAM , Windows 8 and a solid-state hard drive, promising long use between charges (she won't be allowed to charge it at school).
My inner Geek has been unable to resist temptation with this sleek new machine and prior to slipping it under the Christmas tree, I had to have a good play with it. The first thing I wanted to check out was how much of the hard drive was taken up already by the operating system in its virgin state. What a surprise! Already over 60Gb and we haven't even loaded any basic requirements like Microsoft Office or the mp3's and the Youtube videos it is likeley to get clogged with. Exploring the tiles of the opening screen was another trying experience. Going straight in to Internet Explorer from this tiled start page takes you in to a full screen mode which is not intuitive to escape from if you wish to efficiently open other applications and switch easily between them as one is used to from previous versions of Windows. No doubt that Windows-8 will appeal to some as many laptops now have a touch screen as well as the traditional tactile keyboard but I can't help feeling that this latest operaing system from Microsoft is only transitional.
I've become disillusioned with Microsoft based computers over the past few years. I think before I buy any more new computer hardware I'll at least wait until the next generation Microsoft product comes along. Windows 8 to me seems like another Windows Vista – the fizzer before something (hopefully) better comes along. One "new" thing that Microsoft are trying to do is have an App store type software system like Apple or Linux based systems but it still falls short. It is just an added step or bit of complexity designed to keep the system cleaner of malware – too little too late. Shame they load it up with heaps of crapware instead that will never be used and some that my not be easily or safely uninstalled without stuffing something else up.
Windows has been bug ridden for years. I'm tired of firing up one of our Windows computers at home to do something simple like print an invoice to find popups telling me my drivers are now outdated and my scanner won't scan or itunes crashes because of a recent automatic update. Boot up time is slow because the antivirus software will impede it and several other startup programs are whirring away in the background maxing out the RAM and CPU while the machine gets its act together. It's akin to a drag-car smoking up the tyres before it eventually gets traction and takes off down the straight. Barely a week seems to go by when our main Windows computer suffers a glitch of some sort or the kids have innocently installed a trojan and I have to reset, reconfigure or reinstall something. A complete fresh reinstall of Windows and the computer still falters. What to do? Ditch Windows-7 as the main operating system for good! It's a sensible option, especially if you are running an older computer with XP as this about to cease support from Microsoft and will become less secure in the future.
I found Linux to be the answer – in particular Linux Mint. Why? It is the most user friendly alternative to Windows and acomplishes most of my everyday tasks with a minimum of fuss and with reliability, stability and speed that I have not found with any Windows machine. Sure there is a learning curve to work through but Linux Mint is the most “Windows like” of any of the vast array of Linux operating systems available. The major difference is the software – the bulk of it found in “repositories”, a similar system to Apple operating systems and certainly no harder to master than Apple if you are making the transition from Windows. You probably already know a number of people that have moved from Windows to Apple and have never looked back. I have done the same but with Linux Mint and with a minimum of cost and using machines that were destined for scrap. In fact it has become an interesting sideline to the hobby of amateur radio and has made my radio shack a much more interesting place to tinker and play.
The Mint software repositories are full of software of interest to the radio amateur along with other programs that will forfill most requirements. This includes satelite tracking software, radio programming and control software, logging, antenna design, digital mode decoding and encoding and more. For the past three years I have been playing with Mint and many other Linux distros and have come to appreciate the reliability and ease of use for most of my daily computing tasks. I am even able to run a few Windows based programs quite well on a Windows emulator program known as Wine. Does Wine run all Windows software? No but what isn't available isn't missed when there is a good choice of alternative software available. One of my favorite Windows based pieces of Ham software, Radio Mobile runs perfectly on Wine.
Some of the best known open source software on Linux such as Firefox, Thunderbird, VLC, Libre Office and Audacity are widely used and available under Windows so getting familiar with the core programs of Linux shouldn't be to difficult for most to master.
Two Windows based programs that I regularly use, Ham Radio Deluxe and Magellan Vantage Point don't run under Wine but I have an alternative. I have set up the main shack computer to dual boot Windows-7 and Mint so I have the best of both worlds. Another alternative to this is to run a copy of Windows within Linux as a virtual machine but it will run noticably slower due to the virtual machines additional load on RAM. You may wish to consider using a virtual machine if you have a decent 64 bit quad core processor and 8gb or more of RAM and this will allow you to then switch between both operating systems instantly without rebooting.
I have also revived an Acer Netbook that was hopelessly crippled from new with Windows Starter and 1Gb RAM. What a pathetic mismatch of machine and software. Keeping Windows Starter and dual booting this machine showed a drastic increase in performance operating under Linux. Spending $14.00 on a 2Gb stick of RAM and installing it myself made this sub $200 machine fly.
I find Mint a pleasure to use and have no problems accomplishing most tasks reliably with minimal fuss. The desktop can be customised extensively and all common audio and video codecs are loaded, I can find and download software in an instant and use it immediately without rebooting, resolving software conflicts, hunting for additional drivers, etc. I'm not bombarded with browser pop-ups and notifications for system reboots and updates and I have much better control over the software I actually install on the machine and when I want to install or update. No more unwanted browser toolbars and other bloatware. I have an easier time using Libre Office instead of Microsoft office and can convert file types and import and export to other programs or other machines where the files can be opened or worked on regardless of the operating system or software at the other end.
As soon as the operating system is installed things are ready to go. Wireless cards, video cards, soundcards and bluetooth are all recognised and only need a minor tweak or password to work straight away. All my peripherals, a Brother laser printer, Epson all-in-one printer/scanner/fax, Samsung Galaxy smartphone, Apple Ipod, Kobo Ereader, multimedia keyboard and every USB device I have are all recognised and work out of the box. This is what a computer should be - a machine that allows you to get the job done with a high level of security and a minimum of stuffing about. The other thing that makes Linux attractive is the price – free.
So give it a go. If you have an old computer gathering dust, have a play, satisfy your inner Geek and breathe new life into it before you put it out for the next council junk collection. You might be surprised at what you end up with. A great shack machine, business computer, a machine that you want the kids to break and learn on, a household network server or a stand alone multimedia centre that can record HD video and audio and stream it wirelessly around your home.
And yes this blog entry written and posted from my favorite and most reliable “kerbside special” to date with the best donor parts from at least 5 different computers that would make Dr Frankenstein proud. Total cost $NIL. The performance and general reliability if this machine puts our potentially more powerful $1600.00, 2 year old, quad-core Windows-7 machine with 8Gb RAM to shame. I know what will be happening to this baby when my wife eventually lets me interfere with it.