Why I Switched to Linux and How Easy It Was

First off, I’m 65 and an acoustic musician who grew up playing classical music and who specializes in music of the 17th and 18th century on copies of instruments from that period. So I’m not some young super geek who’s all about modern technology. In other words – if I could do this, you can, too.

I did get a head start in computing when my mom – out of the blue – bought Commodore 64 computers when they first came out for me and my two brothers. (I only learned years later that she did not buy one for my sister who, to this day, blames that on her inability to do anything on a computer or even a cell phone.) Not long after, teaching at Duke University, I had access to a whole room of early Macintosh computers and I was tasked with keeping the books for and publishing the newsletter for the children’s music program I taught in. I also had access to the beginnings of the Internet which ran between Duke and UNC. Surfing with Lynx! Hyperlinks! It was a really big deal!

Anyway – I acquired my first “PC” from the Duke Surplus Store and the earliest version of Windows I remember was 3.1. I stuck with Windows up through Windows 7 and began to grow frustrated with the either lack of or great expense of or limitations of software that met my needs and the constant upgrade cycle and expenses involved with that. It seemed like more and more limitations were being placed on what I could do with software that I had purchased. Seems like around the same time it was getting harder and harder to repair my own car, too.

That’s when I began to hear about “open source” and someone gave me a disk with a version of Linux on it – Knoppix. You could run it from a removable disk and I played around with it and some of the free software available for it and it peaked my curiosity. Plus, there seemed to be a whole community of people who were tweaking and improving and sharing the software. And that was the main thing – community. It wasn’t some big corporation trying to sell me an upgrade every year and owning and controlling everything I could do. It was folks like me with an interest in making computers work for us – each with our own needs and skills. I was hooked on open source and the sharing and community around it.

In the following years I tried several distributions of Linux and eventually settled on Ubuntu for my desktop computing. I’m currently using Ubuntu Mate which is a desktop distro built on Ubuntu version 16.04. This (and many others) Linux distro is very much like the Windows or Mac systems you are used to – there are only a few small differences to learn for day-to-day use. There is software – much of it free – for everything that you do on Windows or Mac. Often it is the same software ported over to Linux or maybe it even originated on Linux in the first place. Some Microsoft and Apple proprietary software does not run on Linux but there are equal (and in some ways, better) replacements. The Microsoft Office suite of software, for instance, is matched beautifully by the LibreOffice suite on Linux and Word and Excel documents can be easily shared back and forth between the two platforms. Of course, you can always use the Microsoft products online through your browser now if you really want to stick with them.

Stuck I was for a while. I was dependent on Quickbooks for accounting and stuck in their endless cycle of upgrades and it was expensive and the software was not well made. I hated it but it was the only game in town for what I needed it to do. So, I had to buy a new computer to be able to upgrade to Windows 10 and I set it up to dual boot Windows and Ubuntu Linux. Back then it was challenging but now the Ubuntu distribution disks (FREE if you download from the internet and burn to a CD yourself!) set this up for you almost seamlessly. For my day to day computing I booted into Linux and the only time I would boot into Windows was to use Quickbooks. But no more. I finally found a very versatile package call Manager which does everything Quickbooks does and does it much better and (do I really need to say this again?) it’s free.

Free – not like Facebook is “free” where someone is making millions off of your data that you didn’t even know you were providing them or pushing ads at you constantly. No, this is free as in the community of people who see the value and power of having everyone have access to quality productive software. Being part of that community comes with responsibilities, too. I share bugs and issues with developers and try to provide them with useful information whenever I can because we all want things to be better. Sometimes, when I am able, I donate small amounts of money to the organizations or individuals that develop and maintain the software that I find useful in my life. Every little bit helps. If nothing else, showing gratitude and helping others in the community makes life better for everyone.

So here is a summary of what I’m doing and what software I’m using. I have two computers – an old Dell Inspiron desktop and a Chromebook (more about that shortly).

On the desktop:

Ubuntu Mate version 16.04 (still set up to dual boot into Windows 10 but won’t be using that any more).

I use the web, email, compose music, record and edit music and video and photos, manage my accounting, use Skype and other services, create and use documents, spreadsheets, databases, etc. 

Most frequently used software: Chromium web browser, Mozilla Thunderbird email program, LibreOffice suite for word, spreadsheets and databases, Audacity for music recording and editing, Openshot Video Editor, Manager Accounting, Gimp Image Editor (Photoshop replacement), VLC and SMPlayer for audio and video playing, Musescore for writing music scores, and many smaller essentials for note taking, image scanning, etc. All of this software is free and open source. And it’s good!

On the Chromebook:

Did you know you can run anything you run on a desktop on your Chromebook using Linux? It’s great! I did put a larger SSD drive in mine because I wanted to be able to store files and install a bunch of programs and it was VERY easy. Mine is an older one – an Acer C720 – and the instructions are here. And it looks like that little “warranty void if removed” sticker is not legal.

And here are some instructions for installing Linux on your Chromebook (not your only option). Yes – it’s dual boot! It can be either just a regular old Chromebook or you can have a very powerful little Linux laptop and easily switch back and forth between the two. I installed the Gallium Linux on mine and it’s way faster than my clunky old Dell desktop. I have pretty much all the same software on it and store most files in the cloud so I can work from either machine. I use a combination of Dropbox and Google Drive for online storage.

In summary: I personally prefer the Ubuntu variants of Linux and find them very accessible for folks converting from Mac or Windows. You will quickly feel right at home. Power users may prefer other variants. In Ubuntu there are several desktops to choose from. Again, I’m using Mate desktop on my desktop but there are many other choices. Ask around. It’s easy to switch if you don’t like the one you’ve got.

The software has improved so much in recent years that a Linux machine can meet any users demands unless you are totally tied in to some proprietary software that only exists in Windows or Mac land (though you may be able to run it in a virtual machine on Linux).

You can pretty much do anything you want to do with no cost. Operating system and software is free. There is a huge and helpful community to help you and it’s a wonderful experience to be able to help others as you get more comfortable.