Linux Migration for the Home PC User, Part 1

By Ed Hurst | Posted at 5:33 AM

You use PCs, but don't particularly love them. They are just a basic convenience, on a par with telephones, washer and dryer, refrigerator, etc. You are easily the majority of Americans who own a PC, and perhaps a big part of the rest of the world. Or perhaps you are a small business owner who has workstations for pretty much the same reasons — an asset which improves the profit margin, may even be critical to operations, but is not the primary nature of the business. Could Linux on the desktop be right for you?

A major element in understanding these users is realizing, while they aren't cheapskates, they hope to minimize the investment of time and resources into their PCs. If it consumes too much, it's more trouble than it's worth. There are trade offs involved, but the most important thing to understand is the computer is just a tool, not the central function, not even a hobby. This is no place for purists and zealots. Nor will this series be of much use to those who must run specialized applications on those computers. The primary use pattern is common documents, standard communications and research, with a minor concern for mere entertainment.

Why would you consider migrating from Windows to Linux? In my work as a volunteer computer service technician, the one thing which finds traction is the impending death of XP. That Vista is significantly different without necessarily being better, and requires hardware they can't afford, while their current machine is still in good shape, and perhaps the fear (justified or not) which results from all the sales pitches they can't avoid designed to prod them into buying the next new security package, are all contributing factors. But they don't want a new hobby; they just want their computer to work with less hassle.

I tell these people there is no magic pill. Switching is a way of shifting the cost profile, which includes time and money. When you start having more time than money, Linux starts to look a lot better. If you aren't willing to invest that time up front, you can't get past the hump of migration. If you can put some effort into it, you can afford to relax a lot more on the other side. Naturally this calls for a Linux which doesn't require constant attention, and there's precious few projects which consider this at all important, as noted in the past. There are two paths I recommend to folks considering migration: Ubuntu and CentOS.

Try Ubuntu first. There are multiple versions offered at any one time, but for those seeking stability, look for the “LTS” label. Never allow yourself to be tricked into using the most current just because it's the latest and greatest. Six months from now you'll have to update, and it will surely break things. If you don't consider your computer a hobby, stick with the LTS releases, because they are good for a couple of years. Next, join the Ubuntu forums; it's the best and cheapest support system you'll ever find for installation and initial setup. Be prepared to explain every time you aren't a hobbyist and LTS is essential to your purpose. Don't be drawn into discussions which revolve around why “you just gotta run the latest”. Those who actually can help you the most will understand.

It's possible you won't be happy with Ubuntu. The biggest issue is hardware setup, followed closely by the particular system of The Ubuntu Way of doing things. It's not for everyone. Also, please note as your LTS version ages, somewhere short of two years from the release date, the volunteer support degrades rapidly. The term “support” is a bit ambiguous here. The company which produces Ubuntu offers support in the sense you can expect them to keep providing updates and fixes for the operating system and some of the packages which run on top of that system. They also sell the other kind of support, where you can contact someone who will help you with specific issues. The forums are a way of avoiding the costs of that second kind of support. But the free forum support is provided mostly by Linux enthusiasts and serious hobby users, and they tend to lose interest when you don't keep up with them. Otherwise, they are some really nice people, and this is about as good as it gets.

If the problem is your hardware is just not powerful enough to run Ubuntu, but is in pretty good shape still, you will need to accept the necessity of spending a lot more time making this work. You can try Puppy Linux. The folks on the forums are just as nice, just as helpful, but the project is much smaller. Also, it simply won't work on some older laptops, for example. Still, for older machines, it's one of the best options.

If your PC is less than six years old, and you are more independent, capable of chasing solutions scattered randomly across the web using search engines, or finding and reading somewhat more technical documentation which comes with the system, then I recommend CentOS. This is a project based on the commercial grade Red Hat Enterprise Linux. You can pay for a Red Hat license and get their business grade support (help), or you can use CentOS for free, and still benefit from their system support (updates and fixes). Know up front, this is a more no-nonsense approach to things, but with that comes stability. You install once, and keep it working just fine for a long time — at least five years.

Let's be frank here: The folks who offer CentOS aren't all that helpful if you aren't running a server. That's the focus of their work, and most of them simply don't have the mindset for typical consumer computer habits. You can join the forum, but you may be disappointed. However, the product is versatile enough to be used on a home PC with some modicum of effort. As the information for this tends to be scattered and scant in some areas, the rest of this series will be dedicated to describing how most common home PC users can tame CentOS. Most of this is explained elsewhere, but the writing tends to assume a level of expertise most home users don't have and don't want to cultivate. You don't really need to, at least not right away.

Re: Linux Migration for the Home PC User, Part 1
<> Sir: Never overstate your case. Microsoft Windows XP will continued to be supported by Microsoft with security updates until April, 2014. There is no impending death of Windows XP. I recently bought another Windows XP license. It will be good until April, 2014 - and if that past is any guide, that date will probably be extended by as much as two years. Keeping a Windows box secure is very, very simple - a child can do it. Simply do not run as Administrator, utilize good random alpha-numeric-symbol-partially capitalized passwords of 8 or more characters, turn off file-sharing and printer-sharing, use a hardware router "firewall" plus a free Windows software firewall (Comodo software firewall - incoming and outgoing trained carefully at the "Custom" setting), anti-virus software (Avira) and multiple anti-spyware applications (SuperAntiSpyware plus Malwarebytes). Updating to IE8 and locking down IE8 as completely as possible for its only needed use: Windows Update. Otherwise Replacing IE8 with Firefox. Completely avoiding Outlook and/or Outlook Express. Setting up email as text-only. Situational awareness. Of course the above does necessitate a dual processor configuration - one processor for getting things done and one processor for anti-malware applications. Plus keeping the above all up-to-date. Simple, really. Why waste time learning something new? Then again - maybe - just maybe - running Ubuntu really isn't that hard to do, after all . . . ;-) Tip o' the hat - Epaminondas
Posted by Epaminondas - Apr 22, 2009 | 11:00 PM

Re: Linux Migration for the Home PC User, Part 1
Like it or not XP is Dead! Dude you can keep wasting your money buying an old OS like XP when 7 is jus aroun tha corna. Ubuntu is way ahead of Xp, Vista or even 7 for all i care.
Posted by ubu-fan - Apr 23, 2009 | 12:52 AM

Re: Linux Migration for the Home PC User, Part 1
Feel free to keep running XP, Epaminondas. Most of my clients will, too. Suggesting XP's death is impending is, indeed, a bit hyperbolic. However, you had fun showing subtly why so many call it dead. Your understatement versus my overstatement. Unfortunately, the fans will probably miss the humor there.
Posted by Ed Hurst - Apr 27, 2009 | 12:22 AM

Re: Linux Migration for the Home PC User, Part 1
I've been using CentOS on my desktop and laptop for over a year now -- and Linux exclusively for almost two years. It does take a little getting used to, but once you do put in the time to understand how Linux works, it's so much easier. I've had to rebuild two XP machines and one Vista machine in the last couple weeks (for friends and family, I don't do it for a living). You forget how much time is involved in downloading drivers, anti-malware/virus software, installing all the stuff that doesn't come with the system and rebooting and rebooting and rebooting. The two XP machines needed drivers for the motherboard and, since the network port is *on* the motherboard, there's no way to directly download these drivers. You could do this all before hand -- but I just boot Puppy Linux and download the drivers I need to the Windows partition (since Puppy Linux *can* see the motherboard and network port). Puppy Linux takes about 40 seconds to "install" and another 20 seconds to set up the Network port and get on the Internet. Nothing like it in the Windows world. At any rate, a good series, just a couple comments. I think you need to make sure people understand that, with CentOS, the free space on the hard drive needs to be set up before the CentOS installation in dual-boot situations. Unlike Ubuntu, there is no easy partitioning tool to do this "on the fly." So there is the danger of losing your Windows partition if your not careful -- more so than with Ubuntu, anyhow. CentOS (like Red Hat) is really designed to be installed on its own, so there's not a lot of "hand-holding" in dual-boot situations. It also should be mentioned that CentOS does not automatically recognize an NTFS partition if you do dual-boot with XP -- most Linux distributions do this automatically. It's not that hard to set up, but it's something that will need to be added to the "to do" list if your setting up a dual-boot machine. My laptop dual-boots (it only has 512 Meg and I need some Windows programs for work). My desktop machine has 1 Gig of memory, so I use VirtualBox and run Win2K there when I need to two Windows programs that I occasionally use. I've gotten good performance with Windows 2000 on machines with 768 Meg of memory and 1.5 Ghz Pentium 4 CPUs. So, by today's standards, VirtualBox is really not that demanding. (Sorry to ramble.) I'm glad you mentioned RPMForge. Without it, or at least a couple other repositories much like it, CentOS wouldn't be much of a Desktop Linux. I just think of CentOS as being "Microsoft" (in the sense that it's where you get the basic OS) and RPMForge as being the complete source for all drivers, codecs, multimedia players, specialized applications and everything that transforms a business class workstation into a home Desktop computer. The two are almost inseparable for the home CentOS Linux user. And, another great source of help -- actually better than the CentOS forums -- is the CentOS and RPMForge mail lists. You *will* find quite a bit of support for Desktop features on the lists. At any rate, thanks for the series of articles.
Posted by RonB - Sep 17, 2009 | 11:51 PM