An operating system is a computer controlling mechanism that manages the hardware and software interaction for a user. It allows a person to interact with a computer, whether it be a PC or washing machine, to obtain a desired result. Now I’m not very good with computers so I ask for you to excuse anything in this article that a more technical person could overcome. In fact, I probably represent the “average” computer user which in turn lends more weight to my opinions than if I were otherwise more competent. This article is a product of my introduction to Linux.
I became interested in Linux because I thought it was a method to control my privacy and security, and use a product that advocated such desires in conjunction with cutting-edge technology.
There are many types of operating systems and for the purpose of this article I’m focused on systems that are geared towards personal computer interactions, which include standalone desktop systems, net and notebooks, and similar hardware. Such hardware generally comprises a computer box or organisation containing components including memory, hard disks and/or SSD’s, video graphic processing units, central processing units, power boxes, USB and peripherals including keyboards, mice, screens, speakers, and so on. I trust I’ve provided sufficient information to avoid confusion. From hereonin, such devices collectively will be referred to as a PC.
Most PC’s I’ve been involved with have a version of Microsoft Windows pre-installed. All but one PC I’ve ever worked on for friends, family and associates, contain Microsoft Windows. I’ve never been provided a Mac and only once provided a Linux system (Acer Aspire One) with Linux (Linpus). So what’s Linux? I’ve fixed hundreds of Windows computers to learn how to do it and to help people are afraid to do it themselves, mostly middle aged to retirees. I’ve saved people a lot of money. I’m no expert and merely being charitable. Only one PC had Linux, and the system worked – I never found an error and provided it back to the owner who was happy with my work even though I did nothing. I later found out he gave it away because he couldn’t use Linux, in fact, upon questioning, never tried.
Simply put, Linux is an operating system that purportedly provides the same application as Microsoft Windows. It is an interface between person and machine in order to use the computer and its programs to an extent required to achieve a desired result. It’s mostly thought as either a geek magnet or a server manager, but this is not so. I don’t advocate Linux and I’ve found there are substantial issues with it for me, but nothing is perfect including Microsoft Windows. Every new skill requires time, a learning curve, and commitment. Including using Windows for the first time. This article is subjective because it solely contains my experience of this open source operating system.
What is open source, and what does it mean?
Open source champions collaborative participation and community development, generally geared towards creating a free product that’s shared with a like-minded community; a community that requires no membership other than the sharing of the philosophy. This includes community development, free use, free to share, modify, distribute, and improve through the acquisition and manipulation of source code. It’s true to the philosophy of internet creation to advocate a truly open repository of information sharing through an open network of collaboration and neutrality. Such a product includes Linux distributions as an installable download, most of which are made easy to test by a layperson on a USB stick, CD, DVD, or virtual machine. Many or most distributions have links to donate. Some distributions require a mandatory form of payment, but not many.
Despite my Linux reservations, I’m attracted to it because of the philosophy and not the product. Its open source nature has significant appeal opposed to the closed source (proprietary) nature of a Mac and Microsoft Windows. Some will consider this a significant advantage; others won’t understand it and may argue they don’t want Linux because their computer came preinstalled with Windows, and Windows works for them. Who can blame them.
I’ve tried dozens of Linux distributions (listed later). At first, this was complicated. I had no idea why there were so many different Linux operating systems using different foundations (eg, KDE, Gnome, Xfce) and it was absolutely daunting at first. Despite this overwhelming choice, I found at the end of my adventure they were very much the same: a conclusion I could never advocate at the start.
Despite the many hundreds of different Linux distributions, the underlying technology is similar (and for many it’s the same and dressed in different clothes), and it doesn’t work well with me. I love the philosophy behind it and if the software matched it I’d immediately replace Windows, but it doesn’t. With every version I invested myself into, I found problems, and these issues weren’t only technical.
One of my laptops is at the pricier end and can run any system with no problem at all. It has an Intel video and a NVidia video, and Windows controls both; I can switch between them. The battery lasts 3 hours with reasonable use, and I have a fair degree of control over power management. I can immediately find programs I want, install them, and have no issue using them.
Installing and using Linux
The first system I installed was the popular Linux distribution Ubuntu. I don’t recommend it for a first-time user despite contrary opinions on numerous internet sites (I started with Ubuntu due to these opinions). Ubuntu uses a product called Unity which is a method of displaying the desktop and it’s simply awful. For many, the transition from Windows to Ubuntu will be too much.
I found that upon installation, I couldn’t switch between the lower powered Intel graphics processor and the Nvidia graphic. All Linux distributions I used defaulted to NVidia, my power-hungry graphics adapter that immediately reduced my battery to about half. Linux even informed me my battery was damaged. Not sure about that. It’s been very consistent until I installed Linux.
The collective Anonymous taught me to use an internet browser called Tor that assists me in anonymizing my internet browsing experience. I’ve used it extensively on Windows and as such, as soon as I installed Linux and moved on from the Intel-NVidia issue, I naturally wanted to install Tor and enjoy the same privileges. Linux champions itself as having a software repository that’s easy to install but it isn’t the case.
After installing Ubuntu and playing around with it, I used the Ubuntu Software Centre and searched for Tor. It didn’t exist. My first experience therefore was to use an apparently esoteric or geeky command line terminal and learn the basics of root (sudo) to install Tor through typographic and not graphical information and interaction. After a number of command line experiences, I eventually installed Tor, and wasn’t very impressed with the experience. I discussed this method of installation with friends and colleagues – all of whom were of the view that it was an antique method of general computing.
I use a VPN through OpenVPN which is widely known software to assist in the anonymization of one’s identity to champion privacy through the use of an internet address that ‘pretends’ to be me. I pay to use a service to anonymize my activity and aid in hiding my personal identification in the name of privacy. Many governments and corporations appear hell bent on reducing privacy and security. I’m hell bent on keeping it.
The installation of OpenVPN with my (and apparently other) VPN services using OpenVPN was nothing short of horrendous. Whereas Windows is a simple download of a program and the VPN .openvpn file in conjunction with the username and password, Linux frustrated me with numerous web searches, mistakes, command line instructions, and I had no idea whether it was planting malware in my system.
Through the command line (called a terminal), I eventually got the VPN working, and found it didn’t always anonymise me in the same way it did under Windows. I also experienced the following issues – some causing significant time to look into, and others mere annoyances. This list is not exhaustive:
- I found on my netbook (Acer Aspire One) that certain mp4 videos in
Windows work, but are very slow to play in Linux to the point that the
video itself was unwatchable;
Sometimes, when I turn wifi off in Linux and later turn it on, it fails to connect and there are more terminal lines to execute each time. Alternatively, I have to reboot or have wifi on all the time which is yet another battery draining service I didn’t need.
Some Linux desktops didn’t display properly and I couldn’t find the equivalent of the Start (menu) button;
I couldn’t install some distributions including the second distribution I tried called Archlinux;
In Linux, suspension (eg, closing the laptop’s lid) either doesn’t work well or renders the screen blank and the computer persists on being alive;
I frequently can’t awake Linux after a suspended session when it does work;
My audio doesn’t work after a suspended session. I have to reboot. What’s the point;
I’ve found my laptop is dead despite suspension and rendered it useless, whereas under Windows, it has true suspension and I’ve enjoyed a continued computing experience;
Linux doesn’t recognise my printer and I couldn’t scan. I had to use Windows;
My laptop and old netbook runs hotter under Linux – I can literally feel it and hear the fan whirring to try keep the hardware cool;
The fan on my desktop computer runs faster;
At times I get “blimps” on the screen when scrolling; residual visual effects that ought not to be there;
I experience erratic mouse movement on the trackpad. Sometimes upon reboot, the Linux system doesn’t recognise an external mouse if I left it plugged in from the last session. The resolution was to unplugging it and replugging it back in;
Skype collaborations were not as smooth as they were in Windows; the picture was jerky and the sound not as clear;
Fonts look patchy at times;
Linux has occasionally crashed when removing USB sticks;
Something called GRUB completely messed up my desktop dual boot system resulting in a complete reinstallation because I couldn’t find a method to fix it. The process took approximately two days. I couldn’t recover a Windows backup because GRUB was still looking for something that apparently didn’t exist. Consequently, I couldn’t boot to the hard drive recovery. The laptop shipped without a recovery DVD. Frustrated, I had to do something I’ve never done before, and had to break the law. I download a pirate Windows .iso file from a Torrent site and installed it. I then installed my backup software which enabled me to recover my last image. Note that this overwrote the pirate Windows I installed which was solely and exclusively to retrieved my paid version and restore the applications I use, including other paid applications. I wasn’t a pirate until I started using Linux. How ironic!
Linux and Wine (a Windows emulator) doesn’t run the programs I need. Wine seems to drain my battery faster. The two hour battery I enjoyed under Windows lasted less than 40 minutes when using Micosoft Word under Wine for reasonable use, using Nvidia, with wifi on, both of which I didn’t need;
- The software posed by Linux as equal or better than Windows is false.
For example, LibreOffice is not Microsoft Office. It is not 100%
compatible despite their claims, and it left one of my more substantial
documents in an absolute mess. Again, backups saved me;
Some Linux advocates it’s more secure than Windows and there’s no viruses. I find no convincing evidence that these statements are true.
These issues are only what I recollect through a very limited experience. I’m unsure what would be the product of my use of Linux permanently.
Linux advocates that its systems are great for old computers. In my experience, many Linux distributions after installation use more RAM than Windows. Some Linux distributions use in excess of 1GB of RAM whereas my computer shows Windows 7 and Windows 10 uses about 0.5 GB of RAM after booting up, with all the applications, including firewall and antivirus, installed.
I’ve used a lot of distributions and my favourites are Makulu, Debian, Netrunner, and Fedora. Some of them use different command line executions which made my learning curve ever steeper and confusing. I also liked PC-BSD which is a Unix desktop experience but it consumed too many resources and was generally clunky, so I ditched it.
I’ll probably try these distributions again at some point and try learn more about the systems. Again, I like the philosophy but not necessarily the technology (yet).
During my Linux experience, I found that the exciting things I learned at the start became a chore after a number of distributions. I got tired of adding repositories, installing and updating from the command line, determining how to increase battery life and resolve issues that occurred along the way: some of which were a learning curve and others not.
I want Linux to be better. The philosophy and neutrality is there and is highly appealing. I like having all software and system updates in one place. Some Linux distributions look basic and flat and may be too different for a new Windows user, yet others look great and easy to see how a Windows user could adopt particular Linux distributions (ChaletOS, Makulu Aero, Netrunner and perhaps Kubuntu, ZorinOS).
I advocate the use of an “amnesiac” system called Linux Tails which allows a user to boot Linux from a USB and reap the benefits of anonymity. I tried it yesterday with a blog post. I installed Tails on my USB and created a .doc document on the USB drive which I wrote on my main computer. After writing the article I booted into Tails to post it. Very exciting.
I checked my IP was different to the computer I was using and the system appeared to work. I opened LibreOffice and wanted to load my.doc file from the USB. I found I couldn’t access it. Tails wouldn’t allow me to find the .doc document I stored on the USB. After an hour looking for it, insulted, I booted the computer back into Windows whereupon I immediately retrieved it from the USB. After additional reading about Tails, I found it doesn’t allow access to the USB drive other than what is boots and what is considers a “persistent volume” which it states is a security risk.
I hope I’m wrong. I want Linux to improve and I want to be a Linux user. In its current form, Linux is severely deficient. It’s been a good learning curve and I’ll undoubtedly return to it at some point in the future.
I dabbled with the following Linux distributions:
– Black Lab;
– Debian Cinnamon;
– Debian Gnone;
– Debian KDE;
– Debian Mate;
– Debian Xfce;
– Elementary OS;
– Ipreda LXDE;
– Kali Lite;
– Kali Mini;
– Linux Lite;
– Linux Mint Cinnamon;
– Linux Mint KDE;
– Linux Mint Xfce;
– Makulu Aero;
– Makulu Unity;
– Makulu Cinnamon;
– Makulu KDE;
– Netrunner Rolling;
– Parabola Mate;
– Porteus KDE;
– Porteus Mate;
– Porteus XFCE;
– Sabayon Gnome;
– Sayayon KDE;
– Sayayon Minimal;
– Sayayon Xfce;
– Salix Mate;
– Salix Ratpoison;
– Salix Xfce;
– Tanglu Gnome;
– Tanglu KDE;
– Ubuntu Mate;
– Ultimate Edition;
– Voyager X2;
– Zorin OS.
Whether Linux is more secure than a Mac or Microsoft Windows is still grey to me. It appears to me that the safest system to use is the system that’s constantly updated against vulnerabilities including zero-days (the concept of finding a vulnerability unknown to a vendor: zero day literally means no days have passed since the vulnerability was found). Such systems include Mac, Linux, and Microsoft Windows. As such, I’ve found nothing to convince me that one system is better, unless that system is no longer supported (eg, Microsoft XP). Numerous Linux distributions proclaim to be virus free. This is misleading. For example, the last distribution listed above “Zorin OS” on its home page at zorinos.com (at the time of writing) states, “Thanks to Zorin OS’s immunity to Windows viruses you will never have to worry about any of that nasty malware.” However, Linux does have viruses, albeit a few. I understand also it is entirely possible to be infected in Linux by use of certain emulators with the most popular being Wine. It seems people either agree or disagree with the “do I need an antivirus for Linux” question. As a Linux newbie it’s unimpressive to see such a disparity on a basic issue all Windows users are exposed to.
My foray into Linux wasn’t a waste of time, in fact, enlightening by experience and a realm I want to continue to explore and build upon this good foundation. I recently rolled back Windows 10 and installed Windows 7 as I now understand the privacy implications and the persistent sharing of private information with servers – some known and others not.
I don’t want to return to Windows 10 and my next operating system will be a Linux distribution. I have some learning challenges to overcome until I switch, and there are many people out there using and enjoying Linux. I’m not yet one of them. I’m an average computer user looking at the security and privacy issues due to Windows 10 and my privacy is more important to me than a free Windows 10 upgrade that persistently sends my personal information of unknown content to a server I cannot easily determine, and how that information is being used. Linux circumvents these privacy issues and bolts on additional protection and philosophies that align more with what I want from an operating system that holds my personal and confidential life information.
My personal favourite distributions are (in alphabetical order):
- High security including an anonymity mode for internet use;
- Visually basic and uncluttered;
- Opportunity to learn penetration testing and general computer security;
- A useful USB pendrive to carry around and use, and also to install on other computers.
- Visually appealing with a familiar “Microsoft Windows” feel;
- The distribution most likely to be used among some of my Windows friends when asked to choose;
- Appealing with a good balance of Linux and Windows visuals;
- Like most distributions, a good choice of pre-installed software, including more configuration options;
- Is not installed to hard drive and perhaps the most privacy and security hardened Linux available today;
- Useful to carry on a USB/pen drive;
- Good selection of software, and looks and feels like a solid Linux system