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Linux: A Practical Windows Alternative?

Friday 24th June 2005

For many years now, Windows has been the dominant player in operating systems, and probably will be for some time to come. This doesn't mean that there are other alternatives, many of them free, and I'll be looking at one of those alternatives in this article.

There are many areas where there are free alternatives, and in one of those areas, we can already see Microsoft's dominance slowly ebbing away in another area - specifically, internet browsers. Internet Explorer is still used by the vast majority of web users, but free alternatives, particularly Mozilla Firefox, are gradually becoming more and more popular. Internet Explorer's usage has fallen to below 90%, and possibly even further. On some sites, Internet Explorer's usage has dropped to 65% with Firefox taking some 25%. While this is far from the fall of Windows, it shows that Microsoft do have some very real competition.

The competition to Windows, or at least part of it, comes from Linux. There are various different types of Linux, each behaving differently, called distributions, or distros for short. In this article, I will be looking at Debian and seeing if it is a viable alternative to Windows. The current version, 3.1 or Sarge, has just been released, although I have been running the testing version for quite some time. While this may not be the most practical choice for those that just want a simple Windows alternative, it is the distribution I have used frequently and so can actually write about. Much of what I talk about, especially after the installation, can be applied to almost any distribution - the programs mentioned should be available on all major distributions. As such, although this may not be the most 'newbie-friendly' distribution, many of the points are still valid for those distributions. Once the system is set up, it should be easy for anybody to use it in everyday life.


First thing's first - installation. Installing Debian is relatively easy - throughout every stage, there is an explanation, which certainly helps you throughout. Where you are uncertain, the default values tend to be fine. I won't go through the entire installation since most of it is intuitive, and is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, anybody who knows how to install Windows and a little about computers should be able to manage it without any problems, especially with a guide. It installed, and used my various hardware such as network cards, without a problem on both my computers - one an older 1.2ghz Athlon, the other an nForce2 based machine.

So, what's the first major difference between Windows and Debian? First of all, Debian has a huge range of programs, called packages. From depositories on the internet, with some packages included on the CD, you can download everything from an office suite to an instant messenger (more on those later). Naturally, it's all free. Installation is simple - just bring up a command console, log in as root (explained in a moment) and type 'apt-get install' and then whichever program you want. You can easily search the package depository using the command 'apt-cache search' and then whatever you're looking for, or by going online and searching the Debian website itself for packages. You don't need to worry about dependencies - apt-get will work out all the other programs it needs to make the one you selected run automatically.

The next new idea you may come across is the user 'root'. Most people that use a Windows NT derivative as their personal computer just spend all of their time as Administrator, which is what root effectively is. However, Debian strongly advises you to stay as an ordinary user, which is sound advice - the only time you're likely to need to be root is to install programs.

So, to summarise so far, we can say that Debian is relatively easy to install to the level of a working operating system with minimal knowledge, with plenty of free programs that are easily obtained. From here on, almost all of what is said can be applied to most other major distributions.

Programs and Setup

What's next? That would be the individual programs. First and foremost are the window managers. These are akin to Explorer in Windows, in that they are what you'll be spending most (if not all) of your time in Debian using. The main two are Gnome and KDE, although there are numerous others you can use. I'll be using Gnome for this article, although KDE works in a similar fashion. Like Windows, there is a taskbar at the bottom, but there's a second bar at the top. This includes the Gnome version of the Start menu, the date/time, and small program icons. If you're concerned about making it look nice, there are plenty of themes you can fetch from the internet. If you want, you could make the corners of the windows rounded with a bright colour theme, or give it a metallic look - the choice is yours.

Networking is simple - internet worked on my network straight away, with access to Windows machines a simple samba installation away, no setup options required. In Gnome's file browser, Nautilus, you can access other computers on the network in a Network Neighbourhood fashion, making browsing between computers easy. However, there are some problems once you try to access Windows machines. Nautilus doesn't seem to like providing a username and password, so just tells you you don't have permission to access any machine with Windows on, rather than prompting you for a username and password. A program called LinNeighbourhood allows easy mounting of network shares, but Nautilus should really provide this anyway.

One of the most used set of programs on a computer is an Office suite., which can also be installed on Windows, and Gnome Office are more than up to the task, and it is all intuitive if you have ever used Microsoft Office before. My personal preference is Gnome Office, but both are good enough to be used in place of Office. They can both access and save in Microsoft Office formats, keeping compatibility between the two Operating Systems.

Internet browsers? Well, we've already mentioned those - Mozilla Firefox is available, and is better than Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Firefox is stable, follows standards, and has tabbed browsing. Another feature is extensions - these allow you to add to the program, such as getting weather updates.

Instant messaging? Instead of MSN Messenger, I use Gaim. Not only does this connect with no fuss to MSN, it also deals with various other networks, such as IRC and AIM.

Image editing? The GIMP is substantially better than Paint, with tools such as transparency and layers. It may not be the equal of its expensive counterparts, such as Paint Shop Pro, but it is more than adequate for the average user, and lets you save a tidy sum.

CD burning? K3b is simple to use - even if you had never used any CD writing software before, you could work out what to do in a couple of minutes. Having used Nero before, I think it is fair to say that they are about roughly equal - I don't see how CD writing software could really be improved.

Even the text editor is better than Notepad - it has tabbed browsing, and does syntax highlighting.

For my Canon BJC-210, I found drivers quickly using gimp-print and CUPS. However, I still cannot find fully working drivers for another Canon printer on the network, the MPC190, one of the few problems I've had.

Graphics drivers can be 'fun' to install. For nVidia, although the drivers are decent, the installation process is slightly more complicated than those on Windows may be used to, although anybody than can install Debian in the first place should be able to install the nVidia drivers. ATi drivers are almost not worth bothering with - the performance of ATi cards is severely stunted once you start using Linux. I am also aware of some other hardware problems, although most major brands should be supported.


So, can Debian replace Windows and its suite of applications? Put simply, sort of. Instead of spending money on Windows, an office suite and image editing programs, you can download equivalents all for free. While they may not be exactly the same, they can usually equal their more expensive counterparts for the average user. Installation is simple, and Debian has never once crashed for me. However, not all hardware works perfectly, most notably printers. Despite this, your main hardware (motherboard, sound, etc.) should work fine.

You may have noticed I haven't mentioned games. In my view, if you want to play games, don't use Linux. Although games can work on Linux, for the average user it is probably too much hassle.

If you want a system as simple as Windows, you may not want to use Debian - the installation and maintanence, while not particularly hard, are more complicated than Windows. However, if you don't mind fiddling around a little, there should be no problems. If somebody else can take care of installation and maintenance for you, then Debian is just as easy to use as Windows, with a different set of applications.

If you want to try Linux, the best thing to do is install it alongside Windows, so that you don't lose your Windows installation. If you don't mind a little extra complexity over Windows, Debian and its simply huge range of packages is up to the challenge, at least for standard tasks (excluding games). Just check your printer first.

Useful Links

Useful Packages

The packages I use are in bold.