Question: I have an older Compaq laptop running the soon to be obsolete Windows XP and don’t want to go to the expense of buying another machine or another windows operating system.
The only things I use it for are occasionally faxing something when the recipient will not accept email, (none of my other newer machines have a fax modem) and my grandson uses it to access the internet and play games when he visits during the summer. He is 9, so he does not have too many more years of visits until he discovers other things to do in Florida besides playing computer games.
So, my question is: Is the LINUX operating system a good alternative to extend the life of this machine? If it’s good alternative, should I install LINUX beside Windows or in the place of? Can I still run the Windows programs?
Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
Answer: The issue of being a private home user and running Linux as a replacement for Windows is a very interesting one, and also one which I have managed to avoid throughout the years. Since Microsoft has recently put out to pasture the most popular version of Windows there ever was, the time has come for me to deal with this question. For those not in the know, let us first discuss what Linux is. It is not an application program; it is an operating system, in the same class as Windows or Apple’s Mac OS.
An operating system is the piece of software that makes it possible to run any other application or user software on a computer. The operating system manages and provides the ability for programs to access the computer’s hardware, and it provides security mechanisms such as password-protected accounts that control user access.
Operating systems have evolved into highly complex, multi-layered conglomerations that are essential to the operation of a computer. Now then, your question essentially is whether Linux is a viable replacement for Windows. As usual, the answer is “that depends.” Specifically, it depends on what you want to do with the machine, and how much time you’re willing to put into learning about Linux.
Where Windows is a vendor-built and supported operating system, Linux is open-source. That means the code base is public, and not supported by a company. Instead, it is supported by the community of users who contribute to its development. Since nobody “owns” Linux the way Microsoft owns Windows, it also means that multiple “flavors” of it exist — at least six or seven depending on how you count them.
The major advantage of Linux is that it’s free. Yes, you read that right — F-R-E-E — free! That alone, coupled with a vehement dislike for all things Microsoft, has been enough to foster a large Linux-loyal army of followers. Linux even has its own mascot, Tux the penguin (Google him for more info).
The major disadvantage is that it is up to you to pick your flavor, then set-up, configure, and maintain your Linux installation. It also might be difficult-to-impossible to find drivers for obscure, specific hardware that is onboard a given machine, such as the fax modem in the laptop you mentioned.
There is no customer-service to call with such questions or when something goes wrong, but there is the Internet, and Linux support groups are very easy to find. A secondary advantage is that it runs in a far smaller footprint, and far more efficiently than Windows. That means that it can indeed breathe new life into that old system you were going to toss.
So what won’t Linux do? Well, it will not run Windows software, for one thing. Outlook, Office, Internet Explorer, certain games, etc. are all designed to run under Windows. The upside is that there are Linux-specific versions of just about any application software you need, so you’ll have ready access to a choice of web browsers, Office Automation Suites, photo editing utilities, or whatever you normally run under Windows — you just have to find them online, and then learn and get used to a new version.
One great advantage is that, since Linus won’t run any Windows software, it is essentially immune to all malware designed to infect Windows PCs.
Like so many other questions I get asked, the answer is highly subjective, and ultimately can only be answered by the individual. Even your dual-booting question is a matter of personal choice, but let me put it to you this way: it is possible to dual-boot with Linux and Windows, but is the added complexity of your installation worth the trouble? And why would you want to bother if you have other, newer Windows machines at your disposal?
There is more information on Linux available via Google than you could possibly read in a lifetime, so that’s really the place to begin the process of deciding what’s right for you.
Werner is a software engineer and has been writing this column since 2007.