9 Reasons to Switch from Windows to Linux, Revisited

(Note: the original article I was responding to disappeared from the Internet sometime between 2009 and today.  I’ve updated the link to reference a cached version on archive.org, but there’s no guarantee that will remain active forever.)

After stumbling upon this article listing 9 Reasons to Switch from Windows to Linux, I felt more than a little compelled to respond critically to some of its claims.  That response became a bit long-winded to post as a comment, and so I decided to post a full rebuttal here on my blog.

Comparing Modern Linux to Old Windows

Although I agree with some of the claims in the original article, it seems as though it was written from the perspective of someone who switched to Linux in 1998 and never looked back.

The article was comparing fresh apples to rotten oranges. If one’s goal is to compare Windows and Linux and list the ways in which one outperforms the other, it’s only fair that we compare the versions with the closest release dates.  In other words, it’s unfair to compare the feature set of Windows 98 (released in June of 1998) to that of Ubuntu 9.04, code named Jaunty Jackalope (released in April of 2009).

1. Your Computer is Getting Slower!

First off: my computer isn’t getting slower.  I’ve run Windows XP on dozens of systems for years without a reinstall or even a reboot for months at a time, and unless I installed new software the performance never really changed.

I’ve worked on the sort of computer the author is referring to (I affectionately call them “thrashers“), and it seem to me that the tendancy for a computer to get slower over time has more to do with junk hardware and irresponsible usage patterns than about the operating system.

Think about this logically for just a second: people who use Linux tend to be highly technical individuals who might understand that there could be repercussions to downloading dozens of pieces of software from unknown sources on the Internet. If they use their heads, the sort of behavior that leads to a slow PC never happens.  In addition Linux comes with a large collection of programs and utilities which negates some of that need to constantly download and install programs from the Internet.  Why not list that as one of your reasons to switch?

Admittedly file system fragmentation  is still a problem on Windows that can degrade your performance over time, regardless of how responsibly you use your computer. You should defregment on Windows occassionally to keep things zippy, but Linux’s Ext2, Ext3, and all-new Ext4 filesystems aren’t completely immune to fragmentation, and fragmentation on a modern Windows system using NTFS  isn’t the crippling disease it was on FAT and FAT32-based Windows 98 systems, either.

2. You are fed up with viruses and spyware and you heard Linux does not have any!

Windows is a victim of it’s own popularity. If you were a hacker looking to cause damage to the greatest number of computers or a spyware developer looking to profit off the largest number of possible infections, would you target Windows or Linux? After taking into account the fact that Windows has an 87.9% share of the desktop operating system market, versus a 1.02% share for Linux. It’s a fact that there are fewer viruses written for Linux than Windows, but to say there are no Linux viruses is a fallacy.

This begs the questions: is Linux more secure than Windows? Or is the disparity between the amount of malware on Windows versus Linux simply a function of security through obscurity? This debate has raged for years and lack the energy to rehash it, so read this comprehensive discussion on Windows and Linux Securiyty at The Register instead (spoiler: Windows loses).

In Microsoft’s defense, some of the most sever virus outbreaks have been 100% preventable. The Conficker virus spread through unpatched systems (computers that aren’t installing their OS updates).  Microsoft released a patch to the bad code months before a virus was found lose in the wild that exploited it. In my opinion this is even more anecdotal evidence of the disparity in usage patterns between Windows users versus Linux users. Would users automatically become more responsible and install patches if they switched to Linux? Probably not.

3. Your old printer or scanner don’t work with the latest version of Windows!

A few weeks ago I attended a CPLUG  meeting where for the first time I was able to participate in face-to-face discussions with real Linux power users.  In one of my conversations, I told a CPLUG member that I simply didn’t have much use for Linux because I can do everything I need to do very effectively in Windows. His response that was that I could install Linux on an old 486 and turn it into a router and firewall for my home network. My response was that that would be a waste of my time, since I can already by a powerful home router for $50.00 that consume a heck of a lot less electricity than a full desktop system.

Linux has fantastic support for old hardware, and if supporting your printer from the 1980’s is a priority but supporting your modern Windows software is not, then by all means, look up your device on the official Linux Hardware Compatibility site and go to town, my friend.

In my experience the Linux community has been so focused on support of legacy device compatibility that they neglect the fact that some of the most common off-the-shelf components don’t function on Linux out of the box.

Be warned: when your hardware doesn’t work out of the box with Linux, making the “tweaks” neccessary to get it fixed aren’t as trivial as they often are on Windows. Malfunctioning video drivers sometimes require you to drop to the shell and manually edit configuration files like x11.conf, whereas in Windows you could use Safe Mode to install the right driver or change your display settings in a low resolution mode which should work on any video hardware. Oh, and take a look at the steps neccessary to make one of the popular WPC54G wireless adapters work on Ubuntu Linux.  Real user friendly, huh?

It’s true that Windows Vista doesn’t have very good legacy hardware support, but it’s out-of-box support for modern hardware is impeccable.  There are two simple solutions to the legacy hardware dillema. The first is to upgrade to modern hardware, and at the cost of most home printing and scanning (and other) devices you’d be doing yourself a disservice to disregard this as an option. The second option is to simply skip Vista. Unless you have a specific reason to upgrade from Windows XP, don’t. Microsoft has pledge support for Windows XP through April of 2014. No one is forcing your hand to switch operating systems any time soon, despite what the original article might lead you to believe.

If you do decide to upgrade to Vista (or Windows 7 for that matter), download Microsoft’s Vista Upgrade Advisor. This free utility will check your system, analyze your hardware and software, and tell you what needs upgraded before your computer can run Windows Vista.

4. You have a computer without Windows and don’t want to buy Windows

Despite the annoying grammar and the fact that the author actually had the audacity to link the words “buy Windows” to an Amazon Affiliate link, this is a good point.  If you built a computer yourself or inherited a computer and not an operating system, you may find yourself in this position.  I can’t argue against Linux as a valid option in this scenario.  However if you are buying a new PC and are considering buying it without Windows in order to save money, think twice. Many manufacturers won’t sell you a computer without Windows, or at the very least won’t sell it to you any cheaper.

5. You want to run a Linux application

As the author mentioned himself, some of the best software available on Linux is already available for Windows, so switching operating systems probably isn’t neccesary.  Much of the software I use on a daily basis is open source, and a lot of it was originally built for Linux.  Some examples are PHP, Apache, NetBeans IDE, MySQL, Firefox, Gimp, FileZillaSubversion, and VirtualBox.

Speaking of VirtualBox, even if a Linux application you want to use doesn’t have a Windows-compatible version, you don’t have to give up Windows in order to install Linux and run your program.  Provided your computer has the neccessary power, you can install Linux in a virtual environment and run your program from there.

6. You want to (re)use an old computer.

In my opinion this is where Linux truly shines.  You can install a bare-bones Linux distribution like Damn Small Linux or powerful but non-graphical distribution such as Ubuntu Server on old hardware and use it for a variety of purposes.  I have personally used an old Pentium 3 workstation to host Counter-Strike: Source network game server, and used similar hardware equipped with the SAMBA package to emulate a Microsoft Active Directory domain. Other ideas are lightweight print servers, files servers, and LAMP-based web servers.

7. You had problems with Windows activation.

Admittedly Windows Genuine Advantage got off to a bad start, and like most copy protection schemes, only affected the people who legitimately paid for their software.  However we’re now three years out from WGA’s release, and most of the compatibility issues and reports of “false positives” of pirated software have been resolved. Unless you are philosophically opposed to paying for software, Windows Genuine Advantage doesn’t seem like a logical reason to completely switch your operating system.

8. You do not like the new Vista interface of Windows.

Once again, no one is forcing anyone to switch right now. Unless you buy a new computer preloaded with Windows Vista this isn’t even an issue.  What I’ve found after switching many users from Windows XP to Vista is that users convert over kicking and screaming, but within a few weeks come to appreciate many of the interface changes in Vista.

If fear of change is the issue with switching to Windows Vista, how is switching to a completely different operating system going to help anyone? Most of my customers would freak if they didn’t see the “Blue E” on their desktops that has become synonymous with the Internet.

9. You are curious about Linux.

Once again, there is no reason for a full conversion from Windows to Linux.  Thanks to virtualization technology, operating systems can coexist on the same system. By installing and exploring Linux within a virtual environment, you can decide for yourself wether or not it is worth a permanant switch without making any life or work-altering decisions on your physical system.

It should be noted that I’m no Linux expert, but I do have years of experience with Linux as both a casual user and as an LAMP-platform web developer.  I’ve been using Microsoft Windows since Windows for Workgroups, I co-administer a 350-workstation Windows network,  and I am a Microsoft Certified Windows Vista Technology Specialist (I’m not quite finished with the full MCITP curriculum).

8 replies
  1. Erlik says:

    As the author of the original article I would like to respond to this one.

    One of the points that was missed by a lot of people is that this article was targeted at users that do not only have little or no knowledge of Linux but also not a lot of technical knowledge in general, so I purposefully made a LOT of simplifications.

    The people I wanted to reach trough the article were the one that have a Windows PC with a problem and would like to install Linux alongside Windows in the hope of solving that problem. As I explained in the introduction of the post some of these reasons are not actually good reasons to move to Linux.

    For the slowdowns for example, I explain that reinstalling Windows afresh can also solve the problem, so that Linux is certainly not the only solution. For the hardware I do warn the user that they will first need to check if their hardware is compatible and that if not Linux is again not a good solution.

    Yes, in some cases staying on Windows is the better choice (something I also explain in the blog introduction). It is not the objective of the blog to be too much pro-Linux, but to help people find the best solution for them. As explained in the conclusion of the article I will also post next week an article on the disadvantages of Linux that raises some goods points against Linux.

    In the case of point 2 (less viruses) it is true that there are some Linux viruses and that one of the reasons that there are less viruses is because Linux has a smaller market share, but that was not the point. The real question was: As a non technical user I have a Windows computer that gets constantly infected, would it be less infected if I ran Linux? The answer is yes. This is not a judgment of the operating system value, just the statement that installing Linux can be a solution to this problem.

    On the whole I think that the problem with the article is that a lot of people have taken it outside of the context of the blog, which was to try to explain Linux in a very non technical way. In many cases I agree with your points, only I can’t explain the difference in disk fragmentations between NTFS and ext3 to a target audience that do not know (and probably do not want to know) what a filesystem is.

  2. Brian Reich says:

    Hello,

    If I sounded too critical of your article I really didn’t mean to be. Actually I take that back: I started writing my response half annoyed by the amount of Windows bashing that seemed to be taking place, but as I cooled down I couldn’t help but admit to myself (and to you and anyone reading) that Linux does have it’s strengths. As I wrote my response I was critical, but I did try to be fair. Linux has a lot of good things going for it, I just don’t think that being “an operating system for nontechnical people” is necessarily one of them. There is a lot of false information and half-truths that get thrown around from both the Microsoft and Linux camps, and I think its a good thing to get a critical dialog like this one going between them. I think it benefits everyone if we simply lay out the facts, weight real strengths and real weaknesses of each OS, and go from there. Arguing from the heart for either side won’t get us anywhere.

    You’re right, I did go above the heads of the target audience for your article. I got way too technical, but sometimes you just can’t cut through the misinformation that’s out there without getting your hands a little dirty. And I think that’s the biggest problem with Windows: it’s target audience often doesn’t want to learn, and doesn’t want to get their hands dirty. And that’s how viruses spread :)

    Thanks again for the response, and for the link to my blog. I’m glad to see both our posts resulting in a positive dialog.

    Brian

  3. syfran says:

    Good article, but there were a couple things that bugged me.

    1. It was mentioned in the above comment, the original post is aimed at nontechnical people who will download a lot of software off of random sites. Many Linux distributions have a central package management system that makes it easy to find free trusted programs and a lot harder to mess up your system with.

    On number 2. As far as desktops go Linux has a very small market share, but it has a large portion of servers. I also do not believe we can make assumptions about what would happen if Linux had a larger user base, due to its open source nature. For patching package management once again makes it trivial for the average user to update their system to the latest and greatest and close security holes quickly.

    This applies to many of the points. As Linux is more commonly used on servers it has less need to support shiny new web cams or the latest technology. If more people used Linux more hardware would be supported either by the users or the manufacturers themselves.

    In truth, there are many users who should remain on Windows. Most of the time Windows will ‘just work’.

    On the other hand it is simply amazing what has been done with Linux. Just the fact that we are comparing it to an operating system that is backed with billions of dollars is huge. The contributors deserve a lot of credit.

  4. Bhaskar says:

    As someone who has used Linux amongst other OSes, every single day for the last 10 years, I whole heartedly agree with all your points.
    There are several reasons to choose Linux over windows, but the ones, the original article suggests are very dubious indeed.
    Well done on a very unbiased and factually correct article.

  5. MSFT_GlenF says:

    You should check out the Windows 7 forum, at microsoft.com/springboard. It provides support, “how to” video guides and several other tips and tricks to make your Windows 7 experience awesome.

    Thanks

    Glen

    v-glferg@microsoft.com

Comments are closed.