Why Linux?

I’ve acquired a used desktop computer with 6GB RAM, and I’ve been trying to figure out whether to put Linux or Windows 7 on it in the long term. I’d like it to be useful to the whole family.

Windows 7 is great for playing DVDs, Youtube movies, doing Netflix streaming, games, printing to our aging Kodak EasyShare 5100 printer, syncing with my iPod Touch, and it has a fantastic photo screensaver. Some of our favorite applications are available for Windows, but not Linux.

Windows has great parental control software available — via it’s built-in controls, or via third party software. We limit the amount of time our children can be on the computer each day, and we limit the kinds of websites they can visit.

Linux, on the other hand, costs less and supports the sound card and the graphics card better than Windows. And much to my surprise, Linux now supports our Kodak printer (but not its scanner).

There are several Linux distributions available, and I’ve tried Fedora 17 and Ubuntu 12.04 on this machine in their 64 bit variants. Both are well supported by a vibrant community and by commercial companies.

Fedora doesn’t play DVDs, has trouble with some Youtube videos, can’t stream Netflix, doesn’t have parental controls, doesn’t sync with my iPod Touch, and doesn’t even include a screensaver — just a screen blanker (thanks to the unfinished state of its shiny new-and-highly-immature desktop, Gnome 3). It’s possible to rectify many of these limitations, but it takes time to find and configure the software. Netflix streaming isn’t an option. Getting a photo screensaver requires the use of an alternate desktop environment, like KDE or XFCE. In short, Fedora isn’t family desktop ready.

Ubuntu has most of the same limitations as Fedora, but its desktop experience is more polished and the online help is phenomenal. The Ubuntu Software Center not only has application ratings, but can also recommend other apps. Ubuntu automatically told me there were proprietary ATI drivers available, and it was painless to switch to them, with enough improvement in accelerated performance to make it worthwhile. Ubuntu has parental controls in the form of Gnome Nanny, but it doesn’t work with 64 bit Linux, although a web browser extension is an option.

So why do I bother with Linux? It’s an exceedingly useful swiss army knife, runs blazingly fast, and doesn’t slow down over time when software is added. I’m heavily invested in it, and it gives me a technical edge in the workplace. There are thousands of interesting tools that are easy to install — Inkscape, Gimp, meld, Chromium and others. Linux has full featured, freely available development tools for C, C++ and Java — not crippled ones. And it’s multi-user enabled via ssh, remote-X, vncserver, or NX server. Mail servers, web servers and other servers work extremely well. With Linux, it’s easy to see what application or service is slowing down my computer with ‘top’ or ‘iotop’, whereas in Windows, it’s obscured because services run as threads in svchost. I love Linux Live CDs for troubleshooting computer problems, testing hardware and internet connections, and for recovering data from broken Windows installs.

So Linux is great for me as a software developer, but I’m not convinced that Ubuntu, Fedora or any other Linux distribution deserves to be a family desktop environment.