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Is Linux Really That Hard to Use?

While Linux is different, it is not more complicated compared to Windows or Mac OS X.  That doesn’t mean making the switch will be a walk in the park.

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Is-Linux-Really-That-Hard-to-Use

Let’s be honest, Linux has a reputation, and it’s not always a good one.  Despite being far more safe and secure to use and being much more cost effective, most computer users believe that it is much more difficult to use compared to Windows or Mac.  As a computer user who actually enjoys using all the different operating systems, I feel that I can weigh in on this classic argument effectively.  Hopefully, by the time you finish reading this post, you will come to appreciate Linux a little more and I hope that you won’t look at Linux with as much distrust and fear as so many users currently do.

What Is Linux

Linux is a UNIX-like computer operating system that was created by Linus Torvalds.  He designed the operating system and released it completely free.  Since that time, many enthusiasts and developers have adopted Linux and developed it into the more modern operating systems we see today.  Linux is UNIX-like, meaning it shares many characteristics of the UNIX operating system and features much of the same security and file handling capabilities that you can find in UNIX.  In many ways, UNIX is the father of the operating system as Torvalds took his inspiration from it when designing the operating system, even though both operating systems were designed for two completely unique systems at different times.

A Brief History Lesson

Before we can talk about Linux today, we need to understand its roots.  As I said, Linux was created by Linus Torvalds and released in October 1991.  Linux was originally developed as an alternative operating system for personal computers running the Intel x86 architecture.  The initial version of Linux was a command line only operating system much like UNIX and MS-DOS for personal computers.  Remember, this was released during a time before Windows 3.1 even existed.  Microsoft was currently supporting Windows 3.0 and DOS that provided consumers with a very limited and often frustrating experience.  Torvalds sought to create a viable alternative to DOS that was more stable, secure and affordable, as he released his software completely for free.

Torvalds wasn’t alone in his beliefs on software being free and open source, and soon his new operating system took on a life of its own with many developers adopting its use and modifying it to their specifications.  This gave rise to the distributions that you now see today.  There are hundreds of distributions today and Linux now runs on a wide variety of computer systems and electronic devices.  Chances are, you have used Linux without ever even knowing it, as it is often found on devices such as wireless routers and even your television sets.

Linux on Computers

However our focus today is Linux on computer laptops or desktops.  This is the operating system that you use every day when you use your computer.  Currently, Microsoft still holds a distinct market dominance with Mac and Linux following behind.  It is in this arena that Linux has earned, either justly or unjustly, its reputation for being more difficult to use.  However, in my experience, if you force yourself to use something long enough, you will learn what makes it different so you can adapt.  You see, it isn’t that Linux is harder to use, it is just different to use. On the plus side you also have the option of running Linux within another operating system using either dual booting or virtualization as covered in our previous guides to running multiple operating systems on your PC.

UNIX Versus Windows

Users who grew up using Windows or even Mac understand how these operating systems handle files, applications and much more.  While they may not be able to articulate it, it is, in the end, kind of like riding a bike.  Most people can do it, but how many can really describe it?

Modern Linux operating systems are actually simple, elegant, and, when you think about it, quite logical.  But they are different from Windows or even Mac.  For example, the graphical user interface that you MUST use when you use Windows or Mac OS X.  However, in Linux, it is completely optional, and, to make matters worse, there is more than one graphical user interface option that you can choose.  But that is what Linux is all about – options.  Linux gives you the freedom to do what you want with your laptop or desktop and won’t tie your hands if you want to try something new.  But with that freedom, does come a little more responsibility.

The Learning Curve

I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that switching to Linux will be just like changing from a 10 speed to a 12 speed bike.  There will be issues.  Linux just does things differently.  That doesn’t mean it is harder.  Just different.  Many will try to tell you that using Linux means dealing with a huge learning curve.  While there is most definitely a learning curve, I myself wouldn’t call it huge.  Yes it does things differently from Windows, but so does Mac OS X.  Many people have made the switch from PC to Mac and back again and were able to quickly pick up how to do things on the new platform.  Linux is no different.

What you will find when you use Linux is that you have a level of control and freedom that you aren’t used to.  This can be intimidating to some people who are used to the hand holding and set systems built into Windows and Mac OS X, but that doesn’t mean it is really any harder to use.

Some will tell you there are tons of complicated text commands that you must learn in order to use Linux.  Linux earned this reputation because in its beginnings it was simply a text based operating system much like classic MS-DOS.  This technology has evolved over the years but the underlying software still the same, meaning you can easily access a terminal and type all these commands to use your operating system, but you don’t have to.  In today’s modern versions of Linux you will find highly advanced graphical user interfaces that keep you from ever having to enter a single command if you don’t want to.

Modern Linux System

Ubuntu_11.04_Beta_Desktop

Modern Linux operating systems operate in much the same way that Windows and Mac OS do.  While under the hood, Linux does things a little differently, it is presented in such a way that will be familiar to you even if there are noticeable differences.  Using a modern system running the latest graphical user interfaces, you can easily create documents, listen to music, watch movies, and much more.  In reality, you can use your Linux system exactly how you use a Windows or Mac System.

Software

One of the biggest concerns many people have about making the switch is the software.  Obviously, there is no Microsoft Office or even Adobe Creative Suite for Linux.  So what do you do?  Use different applications.  Linux has open source applications that function almost exactly like their proprietary counterparts for almost every type of tool you can think of.  In many cases, the open source software actually is more powerful when you compare it to the closed sources applications often found on Windows or Mac.

It is true that you won’t be able to use some of the same software, but overall the switch is usually pretty easy, especially if your needs are basic and you only need to use word processing software, web browsing software and email.  In some cases, these open source applications are also available for Windows and Mac and there is a good chance you are using them already, which will make the switch even easier for you.

The Good and the Bad

Let’s just take a moment to look at a few of the good and bad things about Linux so you understand what you are getting into if you do decide to make the switch.

Benefits of Linux

  1. Linux is more secure – Linux is far more secure compared to Windows, and while you still should run antivirus software, protecting your system won’t be a full time job.
  2. Vast Software Libraries – You will never run out of software to try when you are using Linux. Compared to Mac and even Windows, there are far more options available to you when using Linux, even if the standard Windows software isn’t available.
  3. Cost – Most distributions of Linux and the software that runs on them are available completely free. This means you can setup Linux without having to pay the sometimes steep software costs associated with Windows and Mac.
  4. Freedom – Windows and Mac want you to use your computer the way they think you should. Linux, on the other hand, is designed in a way that gives you complete freedom over your computer so you can use your computer the way you want to.
  5. Installs on Multiple Systems – The latest versions of Windows and Mac OS X require much more powerful hardware to run compared to some distributions of Linux. This means that you can get more life out of your existing hardware so you don’t have to spend money just to use the latest software.

Drawbacks of Linux

  1. It’s different – Linux is just different compared to Windows and Mac and that makes it hard for some to make the switch.
  2. Software Unavailable – While there are definitely more options on Linux, some of the leading software applications such as Adobe Creative Suite or Microsoft Office simply aren’t available for the Linux platform. This can cause problems if you must have seamless compatibility.
  3. Learning Curve – Because Linux is different, there is a bit of a learning curve, although not as bad as some would lead you to think.
  4. Some tasks more complicated – While many users can use Linux without ever having to touch the command line interface, some more advanced commands require using it meaning you will have to sit down and learn the proper commands.
  5. Support – Windows and Mac both offer great support options to get your problems fixed quickly. Because Linux is free, troubleshooting will be left largely up to you requiring that you spend time pouring through help files and forums while you troubleshoot your problem.

The Bottom Line

While Linux is different, it is not more complicated compared to Windows or Mac OS X.  That doesn’t mean making the switch will be a walk in the park.  Change can be hard.  In fact, it’s rarely easy.  However, Linux brings with it improved security and a vast repository of software that can make your computing experience much more affordable (as in free) while at the same time bringing you features that you didn’t even know you would need.  If you have been shying away from giving Linux a shot simply because what you have heard, I would encourage you give it a try especially if you’ve just purchased one of our recommended Linux laptops.  You may find that the features provided by Linux are exactly what you are looking for, and it doesn’t hurt that when you use Linux you no longer have to worry about viruses and malware.

By Matt Garrett

Matt is an IT professional with over fifteen years experience supporting network infrastructure and computers. An avid gamer, Matt enjoys his time playing and writing about his experiences both in the IT world and in the gaming communities. You can find more of his writing on our sister ShopNinja sites where he enjoys talking about anything and everything tech.

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