KDE Neon desktop with a few programmes opened.

The Other Operating System

The tech news has been rife with stories about Windows 7 reaching its end-of-life stage, a special point in software support where support ends. Unless you have some kind of sweetheart contract with Microsoft, your Windows 7 computers will no longer receive any security updates, feature updates, or anything further from Microsoft.

And you can't deny, Windows 7 had a good, decade-long run. It solved the Windows Vista problem by replacing Vista and pretending it never existed. It brought along new features like supporting virtual hard disks, a new version of Media Center, the "Library" style of file management, and that toolbar. Whoof, the toolbar alone was not only a great user level feature, it was an attractive way to present your programmes, system tools, and software.

So now there are stories about how to upgrade your computer to Windows 10, because, like Vista, we do not speak of Windows 8. And while 10 might run well on some of the systems out there that are currently running 7, there are going to plenty that aren't up to the task. I mean, if you have an eight year old computer lying around with Windows 7 on it, it's likely sporting far less RAM than modern systems take for granted. The processor is going to be much slower than a processor from the last couple of years. It will almost certainly have a classic spinning hard drive that doesn't even spin as fast as a standard desktop drive, which means access times are slower compared to most of the other hard drives around. And it'll be abysmally slow compared to modern SSD storage systems.

That in mind, do you have a moment to talk about the glory of our lord and saviour... Linux?

Now before you close this window and walk away humming a jaunty tune about how nobody has time for that, I think a lot of people out there have a completely outdated, and frankly archaic view of Linux. When they think Linux they think about this:

The KDE Konsole command line
Oh dear...

Or they think about this:

The KDE Konsole running top.
Oh crap!

And yes, Linux is still very happy with its command line and there is a terminal programme where you can go and type strange commands like:

 ffmpeg -loop 1 -framerate 1 -i cover.png -i track.mp3 \-c:v libx264 -preset veryslow -crf 0 -c:a copy -shortest output.mkv

or

rsync -a -v --ignore-existing --progress /Volumes/MainDrive/Documents/ /Volumes/Backup/Documents/

 But for those out there p'shawing the idea of Linux because of the Terminal and using the command line, I want you to remember that there are hundreds of millions of people using Macs... and they don't even know what a Terminal is.

Macs run macOS, and you can launch a Terminal window and issue commands via the command line just like you can launch a command window in Windows and do the same thing. Who cares? There are millions of people using Macs and Windows machines every day who not only don't know what to do with the command line features of their operating systems, they don't even know the feature exists.

So let me tell you about the Linux machine that I use on a daily basis. While my operating system of choice is macOS, I often find myself downstairs in front of the fire with an alcoholic beverage and a small laptop running KDE Neon. Now, this laptop is better kitted out than something from eight years ago, but it's not rocking high level specs. The processor is a low level Intel. It's got 8 GBs of memory, and a small SSD. It's nice, but a gaming rig or MacBook Pro it ain't.

Now you may be scratching your head and wondering what in the hell a KDE Neon is. Here's the point where I admit that Linux's biggest strength can sometimes be its greatest weakness. When you start looking at Linux, you can choose between different distributions. Think of these distributions as "models" of Linux the way you might think of the different models of cars from a given auto manufacturer. All of those cars have many of the same core features like engines, brakes, steering systems, radios, lights, and signals. But each one offers something different, or presents those features in interesting ways.

You get the same sort of experience when picking a model of Linux. The underlying system is pretty similar to any other model of Linux, but the features are what sells the car and the features are what lead you to try a certain kind of Linux. Linux's greatest strength is that you can choose what your operating system looks like, what it does, how it acts, and even pick one based on how powerful your computer is or isn't. Its greatest weakness is that you have to choose.

When you get a copy of Windows 10, it's Windows 10. It looks like, acts like, works like, and performs like every other copy of Windows 10. macOS looks the same on my MacBook Pro as it does on an iMac Pro. But Linux? You can be in at a conference, in an audience where each person in your row has a laptop and every one of them is running a different model of Linux that doesn't look the same as the others.

But let's get back to perception for a minute. Lots of people think about Linux as a black screen with green letters where you type commands. That totally exists and one variety is called Ubuntu Server. I run a couple of systems on Ubuntu Server myself. And you're right, it's all command line and it looks like the pictures above.

But my laptop? No, beloved. That looks like this:

A semi-cluttered KDE desktop.
Oh hey! It runs Spotify!

Or if you prefer a clean screen:

A clean KDE desktop.
A hazy shade of winter.

You might think it looks like macOS, and believe me, that's intentional. This system is running KDE, which is short for K Desktop Environment. KDE is pretty. It's literally designed to be beautiful to look at. You can also get into the System Preferences app and configure KDE to have a look that you prefer. In my case, I prefer something that looks like macOS in Dark Mode. But if you're a light mode person, that's cool, you can do that to with a couple of mouse clicks. Getting into everything KDE can do would be a book, literally a book, and that's not for this post. Instead, let me give you a few suggestions on various models of Linux I think are worth trying.

Oh, and the best part? They're free. All of this is free. No money down. You owe nothing. If you don't like it, you're out some time, but you're not out of any money. Linux, at its heart, is a free and open source operating system. You can download all of these models of Linux for free, and try them out. And if you like a certain model, you can stick with it, and never pay a dime.

All of these suggestions are based upon Ubuntu Linux. In my two and a half decades or so of using Linux, Ubuntu is the one I go to because it works. There are few, if any headaches and, for me, these headaches are brought on by my own wants and needs because I'm a nerd trying to make Linux do something special. For almost everyone else, they can install Ubuntu on their machines and almost never fiddle with it, other than to simply use it as their computer.

Right so:

Ubuntu Desktop - The standard Ubuntu Desktop works on low end and high end computers. But it comes with a look and feel that may be jarring, at least for new users. The desktop shares a little bit in common with Windows, a little in common with macOS, and then there's the stuff that are unique to Ubuntu Desktop alone. It's not bad, and it's a good place to start, but if you're looking for a more familiar experience, check out other options below.

Kubuntu - Do you like the images of my desktop? Then grab this one! Kubuntu is a model that also offers KDE with all the bells and whistles that go along with it. I'm running KDE Neon which is kind of a cutting edge way to use KDE because Neon itself is offered by the makers of KDE themselves. So it's always got the new and shiny just as soon as it can possibly have it. Kubuntu, meanwhile, offers all of the shiny, and most of the new, in a more stable environment. Kubuntu requires a slightly up-scale computer in terms of specs, but it'll run fine on a semi-decent five year old laptop.

Ubuntu MATE - Pronounced mah-tay, the MATE desktop is kind of a throwback to the halcyon days of Linux when people weren't trying to be so creative with their desktops and how their computers work. If you're using a computer that's a bit on the low end of things, Ubuntu MATE is a great place to start. It presents a wealth of options and specialisations to get you an attractive, and functional, desktop despite the fact that you don't have double digit amounts of RAM.

Xubuntu - The X is a Z and that means this is pronounced Zoo-boon-too. Let's say you're running a low end laptop, and you think, yeah, it's probably time to recycle this beast. Well, wait a sec, and go check out the system requirements page for Xubuntu. Does your laptop have a single gigabyte of RAM? Does it have 7.5 GB of storage space on the hard drive? If the answer is yes, then you can run Xubuntu! Some people will say that Xubuntu is stripped down to run on lower end devices, but my take on it is that Xubuntu is optimised for speed. Xubuntu is pretty fast on a low spec computer, and it's absolute lightning on a high end machine. In some instances, where I needed to run a Linux server but had to have a desktop on it? I installed Xubuntu. It gives me a graphical desktop, and all the tools that come with that, but it takes almost nothing to run it and so the speed is phenomenal.

So before spending some more money on Microsoft, maybe give Linux a shot. If you're at all handy with a computer, and you can install Windows on your machine? Then you can install Linux. And it's well worth your time, and money, to try.