Shutting Down Windows

Author: David Torre
Editing: Mathew Tschirgi, Cecil Casey, Matt Barton
Online Layout: David Torre
Screenshots: David Torre

If you've been on the web as long as I have, chances are you have heard of Linux. This operating system has been slowly gaining popularity in the last 10 years and is being developed at a rapid pace. Linux is a well-rounded operating system suited for just about any task. I could go into the specifics of setting up this OS for general use, but there are hundreds of guides (The Linux documentation Project, Gentoo Handbook) on the Internet that do that far better than I could. Rather, I'd like to focus on why you should use Linux instead of the popular Windows operating system. Linux's status as free, fast, secure, customizable and compatible makes it a worthy alternative to Windows.

Certainly Linux has many merits; however, perhaps the most significant is that it is free. In the words of the Free Software Foundation, that means “‘free’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer’”1. Under the GNU General Public License (GPL), the source code for Linux is freely available, and you are free to make modifications and share them with the community, as long as you also give others the same rights that were given to you. You might not be a programmer, but while having source code access may not be useful to you directly, you might find that it is useful indirectly – I'll explain this in detail later. Most Linux distributions can be downloaded off the Internet free of charge, and you'll find that the vast majority of software on this platform is also free or very close to it.

WinZip Registration Popup Window
Remember, if you don't register it after the evaluation period, it's illegal to have.

This inexpensiveness is one of Linux's greatest strengths. Feel free to install as many programs as you want – you'll rarely see a single pop up window nagging you to register your program for a fee. Sure, other operating systems have their share of free software (in price), but I'd argue that the quality of the free software on Linux is much higher than that of free software on Windows. For example, I have not come across a completely free graphics product on Windows that is as complete as the GIMP2. Unlike free programs like Microsoft Paint which is included with Windows, with the GIMP you can do things like make custom brushes, use filters, and convert from/to multiple image formats. I have also not seen a free Office suite on Windows that is as nearly as robust as This suite has a word processor, a design tool, a spreadsheet, and presentation software, among other applications. The word processor alone is good enough for me to type up this article and revise it with my colleagues. It seems like the best “free” software on Windows is actually shareware, which usually means limited features in hopes of getting you to pay for a full version. A good example of shareware is WinZip, which technically you can use without paying forever, but each time it opens you are asked to pay for the full version.

This brings me to another point. Because the majority of Windows software is either shareware or completely commercial, many Windows users with limited incomes (minors as well as adults) are driven to illegally copy software. If one is to be productive on their PC, and cannot afford to purchase software such as Microsoft Office($399) and Adobe Photoshop CS($649) that person is usually left with no other option than to crack or illegally download software. Software is manufactured usually in an all-or-nothing mindset, in which you either get a robust, feature-filled version for a high price or an extremely crippled and limited version for free or for a modest price. Now, consider if these users had the opportunity to use free tools that had all the functionality they really needed? I admit Nero is nice, but am I really going to use half of its features to burn CDs? K3B, a free CD burning package, has quite a robust feature set and does everything I need it to do – and I do not have to pay for it. Many Linux users can say with confidence that they do not have a single pirated application on their computer – how many Windows users can say that?

File and MP3 Renamer Registration Popup
$19.95 to register this? You must be joking.

This is not to say that Linux does not have commercial software; it's just that one does not require commercial software to be productive on Linux. I have paid for two software applications on Linux, both of them are software applications that allow me to use Windows software. I really don't mind paying for the occasional application on Linux. It's just that I dislike being constantly nagged to pay for programs – especially when those programs are so simple that I could write a shell script in 15 minutes that would accomplish the same thing.

Linux is a fast operating system. Part of what makes Linux so fast is the fast filesystems that it supports. Unlike Windows that only supports a basic filesystem, Linux allows you to choose from multiple efficient filesystems, the most popular of which are ext3, ReiserFS, JFS, and XFS. One of these filesystems, ReiserFS, squishes small files together in the same area of the disk so you may store more data on the same disk. It also is remarkably fast. Have you ever tried to copy a folder on Windows that contained many thousands of tiny files and noticed how slow it was? This does not happen with ReiserFS because of the way the data is stored. ReiserFS, like other Linux filesystems, is journaled, which means that a log is kept on each successful write. This means that you can never corrupt your files and have to run a utility like ScanDisk to recover data or space. Defragmenting a hard disk is also usually completely unnecessary because of the efficiency of the Linux filesystems.

For those that are concerned about gaming performance, you can rest assured that the latest Nvidia drivers are made available for Linux. Although ATI does provide Linux drivers, they are not kept as up-to-date as the Nvidia ones on the Linux platform. Even when you play Windows games on Linux, it is a native implementation (not an emulator). This means that you will not have to endure a significant framerate drop to play games in Linux.

Networking in Linux is also much more reliable than in Windows. Unlike Windows, Linux and other Unix systems were designed from the ground up with networking in mind. Windows, on the other hand, had networking tacked on through the still-widely-used Winsock technology. This means that Linux users enjoy stable, always working network connections. With an ssh server running on one's machine, you can truly access your machine from anywhere. I currently use the gnump3d music server to listen to my music files from work.

Linux is truly one of the most secure operating systems out there. There are virtually no viruses on Linux. This is due in a large part to the separation of user and root privileges in Linux. Just about every program on Linux runs as a unprivileged user with no write access to anywhere on the hard disk except the user's home directory. Even if a malicious program was able to be executed, it would have no write access to the program directories it needed to spread. For normal day-to-day use, a limited user account is perfectly adequate. If you need administrative privileges (for instance, to install software), you can do so by typing “su” at the shell followed by the root password. A common practice is to temporarily “su” to root to install a piece of software then typing “exit” to change back to a limited user.

You'd think that the availability and transparency of source code on Linux leads to more exploitation of security holes. Amazingly, it is quite the opposite. Source code transparency ensures security holes in software are quickly found and repaired. After all, on Linux, a user doesn't have to wait for Microsoft to fix a bug. Oftentimes experienced programmers are able to submit patches to source code trees to fix problems before they become epidemics.

The componentized design of Linux is a great asset to Linux's security. Many basic OS functions that are part of everyday use, such as cron (a program scheduler) and XFree86 (the basic GUI framework) can be interchangeably replaced with alternatives that have the same basic functionality. This is possible thanks to the openness of the source code as well as Linux's great design. One can install and use dcron or fcron instead of vixie-cron for a scheduling service, or instead of XFree86 for a GUI framework. Although one can use alternative programs on Windows to minimize the risk of viruses, it is not possible to replace Windows components such as Task Scheduler, Device Manager, and the GUI framework at the microcode level.

The customization options available in the Linux operating system make it, like so many other Unices, a true hobbyist OS. I use the word “hobbyist” in the same way that the Commodore 64 and Amiga systems were “hobbyist” computers. With Linux, computing is fun again! If you know a Linux user, chances are he or she is working on a project. Say that you want to put together the ultimate user-friendly media server. It is not uncommon for a Linux person to put together a shell script for a project like this.

Speaking of scripting and programming, Linux is truly a programmer's best friend. Advanced scripting capabilities are built directly into the shell – think of MS-DOS Batch files on steroids. Want to rename a bunch of mp3s all at once? Do it with a one line shell script. If I had a bunch of compressed files I wanted to extract at once, I'd type something like “for x in *.tar.gz; do tar xvfz $x; done”. It sounds complicated, but once you get into the shell, it becomes second nature and you'll wonder how you ever got by without one. If you have a scripting task that is more suited for a dedicated scripting language, fire up a python or perl interpreter and fire away. Of course, for those who prefer compiled code, you can code in C++ without buying expensive development tools like Visual C++.

Scalability is one of the best assets of Linux. I see many Windows power users turning off every graphical effect in Windows to speed things up. Imagine if these users had the option to replace the bulky Windows GUI with a slimmer, faster one – they'd set this up in a second, right? Well, as you may have guessed, you can do this too on Linux. If you are the type of person that would like to get every millisecond of performance out of your system, you can switch to something minimalistic like TWM or Blackbox. If you ever wondered how fast your system would run with a GUI slim enough to run on a 386, you can wonder no more. You would think that that would be enough configurability for just about everyone, but Linux allows you to go even farther. If you are nuts about pushing the most performance out of your game, you can set up X to launch your game instead of a window manager! Personally, I like GUIs that are full featured and full of graphical effects, so I have been known to be comfortable using either KDE or Enlightenment.

World of Warcraft running under Linux
Cedega allows you to play games like World of Warcraft
under Linux (click to enlarge)

Linux is extremely compatible. A Linux machine can read NTFS, FAT, Macintosh, and even Amiga partitions! Support for nearly every piece of hardware imaginable is in the Linux kernel – and you can set it up to load only what you need! Of course, most users are concerned about running Windows software and games under Linux. Windows support under Linux is done using Wine, a recursive acronym for “Wine Is Not an Emulator”. Wine is free to use, but some of the more cutting edge support is done with commercial versions of Wine. Rest assured, these will be some of the only pieces of software you'll need to buy on Linux. Crossover Office ($40) is a great general-purpose commercial version of Wine. With it, you can run much-depended-on applications like Adobe Photoshop, the Microsoft Office suite, Trillian, Internet Explorer and iTunes. There's even support for using Windows browser plugins under Linux, so you'll never need to boot Windows to enjoy the latest QuickTime movie trailer. For gaming, Linux users can use TransGaming Wine, now known as Cedega. This subscription service is only $5 a month (you can cancel your subscription if you don't need/want to keep current) and allows you to play games like Half Life 2 and World of Warcraft in Linux. Cedega subscribers get to vote on new features and new games supported, so the monthly fee is worth every penny. Cedega's programming team works hard to ensure popular games are supported within days of release.

Linux compatibility extends to emulation, as well. Most of the popular Windows emulators such as MAME, ZSNES, Daphne, Dosbox and UAE already have Linux ports. There is also a number of Linux-exclusive emulation projects. Retrogaming hardware also is widely supported – I use a USB-connected X-Arcade controller for most games, and a cheap Gamecube-to-USB adapter to use my Gamecube controller in games that require an analog joystick. Even if you need to use the elusive emulator that is only on Windows, you can usually use Cedega to run it (that's right, an “emulator” running an emulator). If that fails, you can always keep a Windows partition around for gaming. Once you become comfortable in Linux, you might find that you'll not need Windows but once in a while.

As you can see, Linux is free, fast, secure, customizable and compatible with just about anything you can throw at it. As such, it is a very robust OS and a joy to use. I hope by portraying Linux in a positive and truthful light that I've encouraged you to get your hands dirty with this innovative Operating System. If I had to pick a distribution to recommend, I'd recommend Gentoo (mostly for the package system), but there are many great distributions out there. Don't be afraid to get a spare hard drive and try out a few distributions. Your journey awaits!

2I encourage all readers to download this free graphics editor. A Windows port is available. The 2.0 release was a complete overhaul both in interface and in features. Now, more than ever, GIMP is a truly complete graphics editor, and has completely eliminated my need for Adobe Photoshop.