Friday, April 26, 2013

Back to Linux for Good?

I probably spend more time tinkering with the operating systems on my old computers than I spend tinkering with my typewriters (and lord forgive me but there isn't a heck of a lot of time left for actually writing anything after all this tinkering).

For the last seven or eight years I've been going back and forth between Windows and Linux. Sometimes I use dual-boot configurations. More often I just wipe one OS and switch to the other whenever I got particularly frustrated by some failing.

For a while Windows will draw me in with its officially sanctioned, up-to-date video drivers and the vast collections of software (including games) available for purchase. But then some malware or virus brings the system to a halt, or the anti-virus software starts slowing it down. One time I got an obnoxious notification across my monitors that my copy of Windows was not Genuine. Turns out this happened to millions of customers whether their copies were genuine or not.

So, with that bad taste in my mouth I'll download some recent Linux ISO and burn it to a disc. I've given all the Ubuntu flavors a spin (Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Xubuntu) plus Linux Mint, Bodhi Linux, and of course the adorable Puppy (for my ancient Sony Viao, circa 2000, maxed out with 256 MB of RAM). I'll spend a few months marvel at the array of free software available, and the ease with which I can install software and configure my system. There's a software center built right in, which is kind of like an app-store, except that everything is free. But if you know the name of the software packages you're looking for, you only have to open a terminal and type sudo apt-get install xyz... and you'll have a new office suite, photo editing program, 3D rendering package, or game in minutes.

But then a friend will want me to play some Windows only networked game with them. Or I'll miss the facility of organizing my thoughts with the Windows-only Evernote, or I'll have a day where tinkering on the command line to try to get a printer working just isn't what I'm in the mood for, and it'll be be back to Windows for six months or so.

(This is why I store all my documents and media on a separate hard drive from my operating system. It makes wiping the OS and switching the system to a new one ever so much easier. Plus, if I ever do get a new PC, I can just pop the spare drive into an empty bay, rather than copying files over a chunk at a time.)

One fun side-effect of all this switching is that it feels like I get a new computer every six months, when in truth I haven't bought one in four years (and that one was used). Anyway, every time I make the switch back to Linux, I find myself spending more time there. I opted for Linux Mint on the latest install,  because I'd used it before with good results, and because its developers don't try to re-invent the wheel by getting fancy with the desktop. While Windows 8 has gone all sketchy with their "Metro" interface, forgetting that the whole point of Windows was to have, you know, multiple windows open on your desktop, and Ubuntu has decided to confuse their desktop with some equally confusing, tablet-driven sidebar business, Mint seems content to provide your classic panel-on-the-bottom-with-a-menu-when-you-need-it which has been serving us perfectly well since 1995.

There weren't any obvious changes since the last time I'd been in Linux Mint, but as soon as I started installing and configuring stuff I was struck by how much easier this was now than in the past. Wireless networking, sound, printing, and the first monitor came right up from the get-go. There was a little hiccough getting my second monitor to work, but before I could really get frustrated about it, a notification popped up suggesting I update my proprietary video drivers. A quick reboot later and I had both screens glowing politely at me.

And the selection of applications is getting better. In the past, I'd used an interface program called WINE to run the two Windows programs I couldn't live without: Scrivener, for writing fiction, and the aforementioned Evernote. It worked, but loading up all those Windows DLLs always put a strain on the system, and for some reason Windows programs inside Linux just looked bloody awful, with jagged blocky fonts and impossible to manage text-sizes. Given that these were my two go-to programs for getting things done, it was just frustrating that I had to spend so much time working with software that just looked so terrible, because their developers couldn't be bothered to port a native Linux version of their code.

So I was thrilled to discover that Scrivener had a Linux version available now. There was a warning attached that it was in beta, but I've used it for a couple of weeks now without any trouble (while making regular backups) and it doesn't seem to be lacking any of the features that I'm used to. There really is nothing like it for organizing and planning fiction, or even longer nonfiction projects. More in praise of Scrivener in some future post, no doubt, but suffice it to say that my eyes have been rejoicing to have an integrated and well-rendered version of my favorite software to use within Linux.

Evernote still seems to be holding out on a Native Linux version, but some volunteers have provided a third party client, called Nixnote. It doesn't have the full functionality of Evernote running in Windows. Notably, the handy screen capture utility is missing. But it syncs to the same Evernote account, and it imported all of my notes without a hitch. Again, it looks smooth and elegant--no more of those jagged microscopic fonts. And the interface matches the rest of the Operating System.

WINE is a handy way of getting things done with Windows software in Linux when you have to. It's just not polite about it, and it seems better to do without it whenever possible.

Surprisingly, gaming on Linux seems to be coming along, too. I'm guilty of indulging in the occasional Minecraft marathon (it's a surprisingly social experience when you play a networked game) but performance in Linux was always abysmal compared to the same game running in Windows. Not this time. It must be the update to the video drivers that is making 3D rendering much better all of a sudden.

Pressure for this change might be coming from Valve software and their Steam content delivery platform--which recently became available on Linux for the first time. My amazement at this development was a little diminished by the limited number of titles that were available through the platform (you can buy Half Life 1 for Linux now, but not Half Life 2 or Portal), but still, it's a huge step in the right direction. It felt surreal, and strangely wonderful, to install the Steam platform with a sudo apt-get install steam command.

And better yet, my seven year old computer with its budget video card can actually play a bunch of the games.

So this time, I think I may be hanging around in Linux for good. I know I've said that before, but... Well, most of the reasons that sent me scampering back to Windows in the past just don't exist any more. And there's enough new and exciting stuff happening in Linux now to make up for the few frustrations that remain with running what used to feel like a hobbyist OS.

Now the big question is whether the next laptop I buy will be able to run Linux at all. It looks like Microsoft might be set on locking up the machines that carry their latest travesty of an OS. And I've even read a report of a Linux install bricking (ruining) new Samsung laptops. I've been saving nickels for a new laptop for about a year, but now that I'm close to a purchase it looks like I may be waiting a good deal longer--and doing a lot more research.

Because what's the point of buying a new machine if it doesn't run the software that I love?


  1. Except for being forced to use Microcrud software at work I have not use Windoze on any of my PCs since 1996 or 97.

    I have gotten a bit frustrated at the way Canonical has messed-up Ubuntu and even the problems that never before existed in Mint or Mandriva, but they work. I cannot say the same for Windoze 7 or especially 8. I waste more time at work with those 2 and incompatibility issues than I ever did with Unix or Linux. My newest PC was made in 2000 I think. Maybe it is older. I still find them as fast or faster than Micro$oft machines at work only a year old.

    I am not certain about lap top PCs, but I do know Windoze Secure Boot can be disabled on desktop mother boards. Dell was configuring certain models of their product line for Linux and pre-installing Ubuntu.

    We had a Linux network running tandemly with our Windoze NT a few years back. Power failed and both went down. Linux was up in about 20 minutes and guess which one was down 14 hours!

    1. Bill, you have me thinking I might just keep buying five year old computers the way I do with cars. (Of course with cars my lag is more like 16-20 years.) And while I was contemplating a new desktop, I have the feeling life is about to get more mobile, and less bulky stuff just seems like the way to go.