In the midst of the "switch"

I hate using Windows. Sure, I’ve been using it for the last 10 years or so, but I hate it. I’ve never been happy with all of the little bugs that I have to put up with. I’ve never been happy with the very boring computer-ish look of Windows and I’ve never been happy with having to deal with all of the virus and spyware scares out there. I hate Windows, so I don’t plan on using it anymore. What will I use instead? Well, what if I told you that it’s free, that all of the software that I use on my computer is (legally) free and that it works better, looks nicer and is faster than Windows? Hopefully, if you’re a half-way intelligent person, you’d be interested in switching too.
I’ve tried switching to Linux in the past and I’ve always expected it to be a little too geeky for me. I would sit through non-graphical booting screens and try to get used to non-layman terminology sprinkled throughout the user interface and I would even put up with having to find (usually inferior) alternatives to my favorite Windows applications. So, when I started to install Mandriva Linux on my computer as a second operating system I thought I was in for the same ride again with only a slightly better user experience. I was wrong, very wrong.

Installation

Mandriva LinuxSince I wasn’t quite ready to make the full switch and completely remove Windows from my computer I needed to install Mandriva as a second OS (operating system, which is what Windows is). This added a step to the installation process, but was well accounted for in the Mandriva setup process.

Just as Windows does, Mandriva had a nice graphical setup sequence that guided me through all of the necessary options for getting things going on my computer. What I was expecting was a simple text-based interface like a previous Red Hat installation that I tried, but what I got was an interface even more slick than the Windows setup screen. Great job Mandriva! In a few minutes I had everything finished up and Mandriva Linux was running on my computer. Now it was time to look around and get used to the new environment.

Getting Settled

There were a few issues that I had with Linux in the past that kept me from switching:

  1. It was just too different. As willing as I was to get used to a new system things just weren’t easy enough to use for me to decide to adopt it. Different is good, but it was, for the most part, a totally different experience that was hard to adapt to. Menus for changing the appearance of the OS weren’t where you’d think, it was hard to find the location of software on the hard drive after installation, etc.
  2. Ambitious K menu (think Start menu). My past experience with Linux’s two flavors (Debian and Red Hat) that I tried was plagued from the start because of the completely jam-packed K menu. Every single application that was installed on the computer (hundereds) was in that menu, making it impossible to find what I was looking for. Not only that, but there would be two subsections in completely different parts of the menu that both appeared (at least to me) to contain the same types of applications.
  3. Inability to run ANY of my favorite Windows apps. Not necessarily a fault of the OS, but nonetheless a hurdle for anyone looking to switch from Windows. I wasn’t familiar with Wine at the time, which is a program that allows you to run many Windows applications from Linux. Whenever I found a similar app that was supposed to be a suitable replacement it usually wasn’t.

If I’m going to switch from Windows, all three of these items should probably be addressed with Mandriva. Did it pass the test? Let’s take a look.

How different is it than Windows?

One of the first things that I tried to do was find out how to change some of the varous aspects of the OS. In Windows I would use the Control Panel to do this, but was there an equally easy way to do this in Linux? Yes. I was able to quickly find the application that allowed me to adjust system settings as well as tweak the appearance of the interface to my liking. Then I started looking around the file system a little to see if I could get an idea of how the directory structure worked, where things were stored and find out how similar (or dissimilar) to Windows it was. One of the first things that I noticed in the file save box was that it had the notion of quick folders on the left as Windows does, making it easy to save files of certain types in logical folders. That set my mind at ease for my #1 concern.

Was the K menu easy to navigate and useful?

When I was working on the installation (last night) I had a previous engagement that I needed to leave for, so I didn’t have all of the time that I needed right then to start looking around and seeing how things worked. I spent a little time looking through the K Menu to see what applications were available. To my surprise the menu was very tidy and didn’t overwhelm me with choices. Now, with Mandriva there were only a few main menus with more options available as sub-menus, which is much easier for me to process and browse through. Looks like my #2 concern was addressed.

What about Windows apps? Did they work okay?

Once I had a feel for the system as a whole I decided to try opening an exe file and see how the system responded. I downloaded an exe file online and then double clicked on it and was presented with a dialogue box asking me what program I wanted to use to open the exe file, which is what Windows does when it isn’t sure what to do with a file. Knowing that this probably meant that I didn’t have Wine installed on my computer, I got online and downloaded it. As soon as it was installed I tried opening the exe file again, what happed then amazed me… it started installing the exe!!! I understand that there are varying levels of success with Wine when it comes to running exe files, but it’s still in active development so who knows how long it will be before you can open almost any Windows application! Either way, this was a big hurdle to overcome and Mandriva did it well enough to quiet my fears.

One major consideration I do have for making the complete switch to Linux is small number of computer games that we’ve purchased for Windows. I’ve been informed by a friend and fellow Mandriva user that there’s a whole community of developers and users working on getting many of these games working on Linux, so that’s a big relief as well.

So, with my #3 concern addressed, was I ready to make the full switch? Not quite yet.

UPDATED 10/26/2005 – I was in fact able to get Picasa working with Wine. There were a few minor hurdles, but it seems to be working just fine now. I’ll do some more testing and make sure that it is in fact working just as well as it did in Windows.

While just about every one of my favorite Windows apps either works via Wine or has a good equivelant on Linux there’s one that I haven’t been able to let go of just yet… Picasa, my photo management software (). I’ve heard online word of a version for Linux being in development, but it’s not out yet. It’s one program that I don’t think I can let go of just because of the amount of time I’ve put into applying non-destructive modifications to thousands of photos. If I were to switch to something else all of those changes would be lost.

There are some other minor considerations as well, but they aren’t really showstoppers. I’m very confident that I’ll soon be doing away with the Windows half of my dual boot system, but I want to make sure that I’ll be able to pickup and keep moving sans Windows.

So what’s my advice?

As sad as it is to say, Linux probably isn’t to the point of being user friendly enough for just anyone to use it. However, if you’re fairly computer literate and are pretty comfortable with how your Windows machine works you are a great candidate for switching to Linux. Plus, if you backup all of your important files from Windows before switching, you can always switch back if you don’t like it. What is there to lose? It’s free and all of the applications are free!

Some imagery provided by Unsplash.
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