Switching the family PC to Linux from Windows

imageThis is my chronicling my experience of switching the family PC to Linux from decades of Windows.

Click here to follow me on Google+.

Why am I doing this?  Several reasons, but it’s easier to just explain what lead up to it:

We’ve got 2 computers in the house; my primary computer, which is a self-built Windows 7 Ultimate, Intel Quad-Core 2.4Ghz, 8GB RAM, multiple hard drives adding up to around 5TB, two 21” monitors, etc…  It’s my work horse.  I use it for everything, including running a virtual server to host web sites.  Since I’m a .Net developer, I must use Windows.

But, the family PC (which is always a hand-me-down from my development PC, whenever I upgrade), was running Windows Vista (We never had any real problems with it, other than I hate the UI).  About a year and a half ago, some installation got botched and Windows was in an everlasting “I’m still installing something right now, so you can’t install anything else” mode.  This meant, no more security updates, no more browser updates, no more Windows updates, etc…  I couldn’t reinstall Windows because my MSDN subscription had run out and the keys were no longer valid.  So, I decided to just let it bit rot until it either couldn’t run anymore or until it got so out of date with the security updates that one of the web sites the wife and kids peruse to eventually infected it.

Well, it turns out the lack of security updates won out by letting it get infected.  Some virus got on there that launches some fake security app no matter what you try to open.  So, I shut it down and called it off limits until I could find a solution.

My options:

  1. Bug a friend for a Windows key from his MSDN sub.  Since I’d already done this once, I didn’t want to abuse that.
  2. Buy a full blown copy of Windows.  Too expensive and not worth it since the PC is used for nothing more than a web browser, really.
  3. Install Linux.

What I chose and why I chose it:

Well, you already knew which option I chose (Linux).  But here’s why:

  • The wife and kids used nothing but the web browser.  Their idea of “computing” is FaceBook, webmail, ClubPenguin.com, some Bokugan web site, Youtube, Kroger coupons, Google searching, and the likes of that.
  • There were only two actual programs they ever used.  Both games:  Age of Empires, and Unreal Tournament, and they rarely played those games.  And, for those, I’m going to install VMWare player for Linux.  I’ve already got an XP VM that they can use to run their Windows specific games.
  • A web browser was really all they needed.

So, all I needed to do was to install some OS that supported networking and a web browser.  Linux fits that quite nicely.  So, the next dilemma was which distro of Linux to use?  Every year or so, there’s a different community favorite.  At the moment, Ubuntu seems to be the most popular and word is that it’s the best for non-geeks.  So, I chose that.

I downloaded the ISO and found that my CD burner couldn’t burn to any of the blank CDs I had.  It said their speeds were wrong!  To be honest, I haven’t burned a CD in years.  I haven’t bought any blanks in 4 or 5 years and the last batch I bought is still sitting in the corner, collecting dust.  I found another option on the Ubuntu site:  Install to a USB Flash drive.  Awesome!  I had to download a utility called the “Universal USB Installer”, or something like that.  You run it and point it to an ISO and to a USB stick and it’ll make the USB stick bootable with Ubuntu Linux.  I did that, plugged it into the malware infested Windows Vista box, went to the CMOS setup and told it to boot from the USB device, and viola!  It booted directly to a fully functional Ubuntu desktop.  Sweet!

One problem though:  Wireless networking.  It successfully found and used my Netgear wireless USB adapter and showed all the available wireless networks (mine and my neighbors), but I’ve not yet been able to get it connected to my wireless network yet.

Stay tuned as the dilemma unfolds…

[Update 2011-09-01]

It’s now much later and I got the networking working shortly after I published this article above.

Well, it’s been about 2 months since I switched the family PC from Windows to Linux.  What are the results?  I’ll divide this into categories of problems you’d expect (and wouldn’t) and report on what’s happened.

How did everyone react?

Kids:  No complaints.  In fact, they seem to be enjoying discovering new things with the new user interface.

Wife:  No complaints other than the fact that she can’t play her old “Age of Empires” game (A Windows based game).  My solution will be to install the VMWare free player for Linux to run Windows XP in a VM (with no internet access, on purpose).

Me:  I almost never use their computer because I’ve got that self-built beast of mine in my home office and my Android phone elsewhere.  Occasionally I’ll pop on over to the family PC to look something up before we head out the door to find coupons and such.

What about setting up the network?

This turned out to be pretty straight forward and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it automatically recognized my USB wireless dongle.  All I had to do was putz around the settings until I found something related to networking and set the DNS servers, picked the appropriate wireless network (mine, as opposed to my neighbors’), entered my wireless password, gave it a static IP address, set the netmask, and that was about it.  Yep, this is not territory for the average home user, of course, but for me, it was pretty simple.  My prior experience with Linux was with Red Hat 6 from many years ago and it was still a command-line hellish nightmere.  There was no “discovering” anything like in this latest version of Ubuntu with 100% GUI for everything I needed.  I just never had the time or a reason to sit down and study and memorize all those cryptic command line utilities that I’d left behind in the 1980’s in other OS’s.

What about printers?

I bought an Epson Stylus NX420 for my daughter’s homework needs.  My piece of crap Kodak printer I’d just purchased a month or so prior ran out of its “starter” in prematurely, by Kodak design, so it was only $8 more to buy a whole new printer WITH ink… not just with ink, but with FULL ink!  Anyway, I didn’t think to look for Linux compatibility, but when I plugged it in, amazingly, Ubuntu recognized it (but as an NX400, I think).  I could have accepted that, but gosh darn it! I bought an NX420, so I set about Googling what I need to get it working as an NX420.  After just a couple minutes, I found a link to a driver with instructions.  It failed and didn’t get everything installed, but when it was done, NX420 was an option!  I chose that as the printer to install and it just worked!

What about the scanner that’s built into the printer?

This is a different story.  The printer driver uses the printer functionality flawlessly, but it doesn’t recognize the scanner.  I did see references to making that work when I was looking for the NX420 driver.  I’ve not needed to mess with that yet, so check back here later for an update once I do that.

What about word processing, spreadsheets, and e-mail?

There are multiple, out-of-the-box solutions.  For word processing and spreadsheets, LibreOffice is already installed.  This is an awesome, free, open source office suite that’s compatible with Microsoft Office.  I use it as my primary office suite on my main computer on Windows.  It’s the successor to the slightly older and now rejected by the community “OpenOffice”.  Also, there’s “Google Docs”.  I got my daughter started on that for her word processing and printing from it works just fine.  More about Google docs in a bit…

As for E-Mail, everyone already uses GMail’s web interface, so that was already taken care of when I got the network working.  (FireFox is pre-installed in Ubuntu and I also downloaded and installed Chromium (Google Chrome for Linux), specifically for cloud printing (more on that in a bit too).

But, an option for E-Mail is to use a native app (always my personal preference).  Thunderbird is a free, open source E-Mail client made by Mozilla, the same folks that make the FireFox browser.  I’ve been using it for years on Windows and it’s available for Linux too.  This isn’t really an option right now since we have no hard drive in the PC at the moment… just the USB flash thumb drive that Ubuntu boots from.

Unexpected problems?

None really.  It went much smoother than I was expecting based on my prior brushes with Red Hat and Suse Linux from years ago.

Expected problems?

I did have some problems that I was expecting, but actually fewer than I expected!  My choice of booting Linux from a flash drive was because I didn’t want to reformat the infected hard drive (I need to pull it and hook it up to my office PC to extract the saved data (photos, videos, and some spreadsheets)).  Now, since I decided to use Ubuntu from a bootable flash thumb drive, I had no hard drive and it was designed to be sort of a read only boot drive, so I couldn’t save any settings I made, which means, if the power goes out or someone reboots the machine, I’ve got to start over from scratch (upgrade FireFox, reinstall Chromium, reconfigure the network, reinstall the printer).  It also means no one can use any of the native apps that save stuff, like Thunderbird for E-Mail, LibreOffice for word processing or spreadsheets.  The built in games are fine though… all you lose are your high scores.


I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised at the ease of getting everything working and extra surprised that my wife and kids are perfectly happy (with the notable exception of wifey not being able to play “Age of Empires”, which we’ll fix shortly with VMWare).

I’m not one of those Linux advocates you see harping Linux all the time in online forums and warning each and every year for the past 15 years (this year will be the death of Windows).  Quite frankly, I’ve been happy with Windows since the Windows 3.1 days that began in April of 1991 when I bought my first x86 machine that was accidentally released with Windows 3.1 on it before it was officially released.  I never had any real complaints with Windows until Vista, but not for the reasons you think.  The security warnings weren’t numerous for me and quick frankly, I was glad to see the ones I saw because they were appropriate for the moment, with the one exception of when I’m in Task Manager and click “Show processes from all users” and I get a security warning.  I had zero driver or compatibility problems with Vista except for some ancient DOS programs I’d written decades ago no longer functioned (no great loss there), OH! and the crappy, Phisher-Price GUI where they started stripping out useful functionality that only got worse with Windows 7.

So, I was so impressed with Ubuntu, that I plan on transitioning myself from Windows to Ubuntu on my primary machine.  I’ll start with installing it into a VM and try to use that VM primarily.  If or when I’m comfortable enough, I’ll put Windows 7 Ultimate in a VM and make Ubuntu Linux my primary OS that I’ll boot into and only crank up the W7 VM when I need to do some .Net programming or whatever tidbits here and there that I can’t yet do in Ubuntu.

Unfortunately, I’ll never be able to fully ditch Windows because, I do, after all, derive my income by writing software for Windows machines.


Should YOU switch?  Of course, I can’t answer that for you.  But I can give you some things to consider and you can decide whether or not it’s worth trying.

First, I’d like to say that if you can, you should!  It’s free.  Just imagine never having to buy another copy of Windows again or making some change, then Windows thinks it’s an illegal copy and forces you to reactivate again or call an 800 number to get permission from Microsoft to continue to use your own d$#%ed computer!  Um, yah, about that.  If you’re going to buy a name brand PC, you’re likely going to be forced to buy Windows because it’ll be included in the price of the PC with Windows already installed.  You can ask whomever you purchase your next PC from if you can get it without an OS, or better yet, with Ubuntu pre-installed.  Alternatively, you can buy a case, motherboard, CPU, RAM, and a hard drive and assemble your own PC (it’s remarkably easy), then install Ubuntu yourself.  You may need a little help with a techy friend… everyone’s got at least one of those around these days!  BTW, building your own PC is cheaper and when you’re done, you’ve got standard parts (case and motherboard shapes) that you can swap out and upgrade, unlike you get with a name brand PC like a Dell or HP that use proprietary cases and motherboards that are not even remotely possible to swap out.

OK, enough of that.  Even if you choose to stick with proprietary PCs like Dell or HP or Acer or Gateway or whatever, it’s still cheaper to switch to Linux because when that next version of Windows comes out, you won’t have to shell out $150 or so for it.  Linux is always free, so you just download the latest version when it’s available AND you have multiple Linux distributions (“distros”) to choose from.  Ubuntu is just one of them.  There’s also Red Hat, Suse, and plenty of others too.

You can download it here.

Now, how do you decide if it’s right for you?

  1. Write down what you do on your computer for like a week.  Write down every piece of software you use.  I’ll bet you’ll find you probably don’t do much outside of your browser.  Most everything that requires a browser can be done on Linux because Linux has FireFox, Chromium, and others.  About the only browser NOT on Linux is Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and most people will tell you that’s a GOOD thing!
  2. Decide which pieces of software you can’t live without (Quicken? some game? something else?)  Then Google for “linux alternative for ”.  Obviously, you replace with the piece of software you can’t live without.  You’ll probably find there are viable substitutions already available on Linux, and most likely, they’re FREE!  There are even alternatives to Quicken on Linux.
  3. What hardware do you use?  Do you have web cams, scanners, printers, all-in-one office machines, high end video cards, etc…?  Go to their respective web sites and look for Linux support.  Chances are you’re not going to find it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use the hardware on Linux… It just means there’s not a manufactured provided driver.  You can Google for drivers for your hardware for Linux and if your hardware is fairly popular, chances are you’re going to find a suitable Linux driver for it.

If you found anything that you can’t live without (software or hardware) that’s either not supported on linux or doesn’t have a viable alternative, you might be stuck with Windows.  You can always look for a similar product that’s supported on linux though.

But Linux is so different, I don’t have time to learn a completely new OS!

Unfortunately, there’s no way out of that no matter which OS you go with, because Windows 8 is going to be so radically different from all prior versions of Windows, you will not recognize it at all.  Microsoft has essentially started over with the user interface in Windows 8 and redesigned it from the ground up.  Ubuntu Linux will be MUCH MORE familiar to you than Windows 8.  So, when Windows 8 comes out, you’re going to have no choice but to learn a new OS anyway, so why not go ahead and make the switch to Linux?  The learning curve from Windows XP or 7 to Ubuntu will be MUCH SMALLER than the learning curve from XP or 7 to Windows 8.  Yes, it’s THAT different!

Is there an easy way to learn it without jumping ship and swim or die?

Yes!  You can run Linux in a box, as if it were just another Windows app.  Download and install the free VMWare player here.  VMWare is an awesome piece of software that provides a fake, virtual machine to trick an alternate operating system into thinking it’s running on it’s own machine.  You can actually boot up Linux (or Windows or any other OS) inside that virtual machine, even while you’re browsing the web on your host PC.  You can play around with Ubuntu in that VM until you’re comfortable enough to make the switch and install Ubuntu on your machine as the primary OS.  Then, you can install Windows in a VM and crank it up only in the rare cases you need it.

BTW, if you want an invite to Google Plus, e-mail me at image. That’s not a clickable e-mail address… It’s a picture to prevent spammers from easily scraping it. You’ll need to type that address, exactly as you see it, including the G and the + in front of the word “Invite”.

See this image? image_thumb26
You’ll find an actual working version of it at the bottom of this article. Please click the appropriate buttons in it to let your friends know about this article so they too can quickly quickly get up and going with Ubuntu Linux too.

Check back later for updates too!

Click here to follow me on Google+.

Good Luck!

Leave a Reply