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Community Newsletter: Q&A forum: 2/9/07 Is the Linux operating system for me?

by: Lee Koo (ADMIN) February 8, 2007 11:14 AM PST

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2/9/07 Is the Linux operating system for me?

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) ModeratorCNET staff - 2/8/07 11:14 AM


Question for the community: Given the mixed reviews for the new Windows Vista and the increasing popularity of open-source software, I started wondering about free operating systems. How realistic is it for the average Windows user to install and use a Linux-based OS such as Ubuntu? I bought a Toshiba Satellite laptop last fall, and I'm wondering if it's possible to use Ubuntu on that machine instead of Windows XP. If it is a good OS for those of us with no Linux experience, what are the pros and cons of such a system? And can I totally get rid of Windows XP? Thanks!

Submitted by: Patti H.



The first question to ask before getting new hardware or software is always "what are your needs?" Then what are your resources, and finally, what is available?

Most home users surf the Web, do e-mail, take and share digital pictures (well, you will), and trade and print documents with your friends. An open-source operating system does those things. It's safer on the Internet, because it doesn't get viruses.

There's one place open-source falls down, and that's running the very *cheapest* modems, printers, and cameras. If you've still got that ink-jet printer or all-in-one that came "free" with your mail-order Dell, chances are you'd have to replace it with a better model that has Linux device drivers. The same goes for most "software" modems, and Web cams. The good news is your Linux system will come with drivers for the mainstream and high-end devices. You should check one of the Linux compatibility sites or at least ask in a Linux forum before buying hardware that you expect to use with Linux. (,, and click on "800 cameras.") If that kind of thing is a show-stopper for you, you're stuck with Windows or Macintosh.

If you're not sure, buy a mail-order Knoppix "live Linux" CD and just try it. The going rate is about $5 with shipping on Ebay, or you can order from one of the vendors listed at
If Knoppix can't figure out and work your hardware automatically, you're going to have trouble using it with any Linux distribution.
(It may not be *impossible*, but trouble.)

Do you take work home? (I guess not, or you would have had to ditch Windows-98 by now.) Do you run specialized software for stock trading or architectural design? Chances are it only runs on Windows. Do you have a favorite video game? You probably need Windows to launch it.

What are your resources? Can you afford to put more memory in your PC? Replace your printer? Replace a worn out or too-slow CD drive? Can you take a year to make this transition or do you need to make a fully functional office workstation in the next half hour? If you've got a few months, follow my migration path, below. If I only had half an hour, I'd install Knoppix.

My advice is always "don't *switch* to Linux, *migrate* there."

Keep your Windows setup for whatever you need it for, and use the new Linux setup for only the things you've learned to do with it. That way there's no awful period when you're stuck with nothing until you figure out the new stuff. You'll do more and more with Linux and less and less with Windows, until you only boot Windows once a year to run Turbo Tax. And you'll have fun all along the way instead of being a nervous wreck because your computer isn't working yet.

And the most painless way to do that is with the aforementioned Knoppix CD and a USB flash drive. *Leave your old Windows system installation alone!* Run Knoppix off the CD, at first. Don't install it until you're good'n'ready. Knoppix will let you create a place it calls a "persistent home directory": a desktop and personal file system *on the USB drive*.

Use *that* for a while. Take your time. Relax. If you get a big USB drive (2 GB or more) you can copy the Knoppix CD to it, and run your system off that instead of the CD. It frees up the CD drive and keeps it from wearing out, and it runs faster. For some reason the site calls this option the "poor man's install." Copy of the CD plus personal desktop on your keyring, runs on just about anybody's PC, not just yours. So you can use *your* desktop at your friend's house, without her Windows system ever knowing you were there.
You could use Linux for years and never get around to *installing* it at all.

I would not advise a friend to go with Ubuntu right now. Ubuntu's underlying technology is the "unstable" branch of Debian GNU/Linux. "Unstable" changes all the time. There are lots of updates every night. Go there if you want to be one of the Debian or Ubuntu developers.

*After* you've used the live CD for a while and decide you like it, you might want to install on your hard drive a user-friendly distribution based on the "stable" branch of Debian. It's designed to be maintainable and upgradeable and trouble-free forever. The tradeoff is it takes longer to get that way. Your system will always be a year or two behind the "bleeding edge." I don't know about you, but that's the deal for me! I've got better things to do than cut myself on the "edge."

(Note. "Unstable" and "Stable" refer to how often the updates come out and features change, not how well they run. Even an "unstable" Debian system doesn't crash or get viruses.)

At, I found sixty-six operating system distributions based on Debian. Knoppix and Ubuntu are only the most famous two.
You might want to consider Linspire, Damn Small Linux, or Xandros.
They're actively developed and have a big enough user base that you won't be alone. Now this may be flame bait, but I would stick with the Debian based distributions. Read the Debian Social Contract. Companies like Red Hat and Novell may come and go (or get bought out), but Debian will always be here for you. And the maintenance is easier. People tend to switch from the Red Hat based distributions to Debian, fewer switch the other way.

Best of luck and don't forget to write.

Submitted by: Cameron S. of San Jose, California

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