Cool and flexible: The Linux alternative

Last Updated : 13 April 2014, 15:45 IST
Last Updated : 13 April 2014, 15:45 IST

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Have you ever wondered what happened to Linux? Linux is the free software created through the open source development process that many technology enthusiasts had predicted would revolutionise the world of computing.

It may not be widely known, but Linux did revolutionise computing. If you own an Android phone or a Kindle e-reader, you are a Linux user. Linux is at the core of those popular devices and is found in a variety of other places, from the world’s most powerful supercomputers down to the tiny Raspberry Pi device that is a favourite among electronics hobbyists.

But Linux has had less success in personal computers. Fewer than 2 percent of desktop or laptop computers run it, according to a survey by Net Applications. That could be because for the bulk of Windows and Mac users, switching entirely to Linux probably does not make sense. But exploring Linux could still be worth the time for those looking for a proven, low-cost alternative to the two mainstream operating systems.

Installing Linux as the main operating system on a spare computer is one way to explore it. Some versions can also run live on a CD or DVD, but a more flexible choice may be to run it “virtually.” That way, it can run within Windows or Mac OS X and a variety of Linux versions can be installed. Programs like VirtualBox or VMware Fusion make this possible.

To do this, you will need to figure out a few things. Does your computer have a 32-bit or 64-bit processor? (Most newer ones are 64-bit, but Linux is available for either.) And you may need to enable your processor’s virtualisation capabilities. If you become stuck, plenty of online tutorials are available to help.

There are many types of Linux. At their core, many are the same. But their interfaces and applications may differ, as well as the level of support from the open-source community.
Bodhi Linux is all about minimalism and performance. This makes it an option for older or “low-end” systems. The desktop setup, called Enlightenment, is frugal with resources while offering an eye-catching and straightforward experience.

The desktop is free of clutter, the task bar is well-organised, and menus are easy to navigate. The other stated ideal of Bodhi is choice. While only basic applications are installed by default, users can download more from an AppCenter with free software organised in categories like office, education and multimedia.

Linux Mint offers a choice of desktop environments, including one called Cinnamon. A Mac or Windows user may find Cinnamon intuitive to navigate. There is a task bar along the bottom, with a menu button on the left that provides access to applications, system settings and folders. A number of useful programs can be installed by default, like LibreOffice, an Office-like software set; the Firefox browser; Adobe Flash for media like YouTube videos; Thunderbird for mail; Pidgin for instant messaging; and GIMP for image editing. A built-in software manager provides a way to download and install many more applications.

Ubuntu is one of the more widely known versions of Linux and also one of the simplest to install. An installation program can replace an existing system or, in some cases, set Ubuntu to be an option when a computer starts up. The desktop environment, called Unity, has a tablet-like look.

Ubuntu comes with a collection of installed applications like Firefox and LibreOffice. It also has an online storage feature called Ubuntu One, with 5 gigabytes of free storage for photos, music and other files; access to these can be made from within Ubuntu or across devices like phones, Macs and PCs.

Fedora was started in 2003 as an offshoot of Red Hat Linux. Still sponsored by Red Hat Inc., Fedora has gained a reputation as a testing ground for features that may end up in Red Hat Enterprise Linux. New editions are released frequently, and the current version, Fedora 20, is available with a choice of desktop environments.

The Gnome 3 environment, the default, departs from tradition: The user is presented with an empty desktop area and no task bar, dock or “Start” button. Clicking the Activities item in the top left corner will reveal applications and other options, including a search box for finding documents, contacts and other items.

Of course numerous other types of Linux are available. For more technical versions, consider options like Slackware and Arch. Or, if you prefer baby steps, take a look at Zorin, which emulates aspects of Windows.

Linux is not for everyone. But if you feel constrained by Windows or Mac OS X, it can offer a way out. And if you enjoy choice and flexibility, you just may become hooked.

Published 13 April 2014, 15:45 IST

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