In 2013, I ran an interesting experiment: using Linux on my production machine instead of Windows. "Why would anyone want to do that?" you may ask.
Well, for a bunch of reasons. First of all, the impending "XPocalypse", as they called it at the time: in April 2014 Microsoft would stop sending out any further security updates. While this seemed to trigger some undue panic at the time, the idea of running a system structurally unprotected against virus and hackers was worrying indeed.
Second and more personal reason, throwing away stuff makes me feel guilty. Planned obsolescence is my bane, because I feel the draw of new & shiny like everybody else, but disposing a fully functional PC would have made me feel like an irresponsible child. (Keep in mind that when I *do * must get rid of something to save space in our tiny Tokyo flat, I actually give it away through free ads just to avoid the moral burden of waste…).
On the other hand… "As far as I’m concerned the latest version, Linux Mint 15, Olivia, is now not merely the best Linux desktop, it’s the best desktop operating system of all." "Cinnamon, which is the Mint interface I chose to review (…) is designed for power-users who already know how to use a WIMP-style desktop. A Windows XP or 7 user who’s never touched Linux in their life will find Mint Cinnamon far more user-friendly than Metro."
The first part of the installation was pretty smooth: I simply downloaded Linux Mint 15 "Olivia" - Cinnamon (32-bit) (indeed, they DO like over-complicating things over there) and launched the installer from a USB stick.
The installer came with its own tool for resizing hard disk partitions (read "carving out space from your Windows drive to be used by the new system").
I was confident the tool works fine, but this being my production machine (and having a special 7th sense for picking wrong options in menus), I bought a new 1TB hard disk from Amazon just to be safe. The peace of mind of leaving my old system alone was well worth 50 EUR.
About fifteen minutes later the system was fully installed and ready to go. Well… at least in theory, as my first boot led to a garbled screen! Apparently, my video card (AMD Radeon HD6670) wasn’t properly supported by the default drivers. So I had to boot in "compatibility mode" and find a way to fix it. Hopefully, there is a link to a support chat room straight in the main menu. A quick chat with an helpful volunteer, a quick change in the configuration menu and I could finally access my new desktop
Linux Mint 15 boot screen
Using Mint itself was a complete non-event for me. First of all because the interface was very similar to Windows, down to the placement of certain options and settings.
But most importantly, because I was using a lot of open source applications already. Firefox, Thunderbird, Filezilla, VNC… It’s hard to feel lost when you get to use the exact same tools, and without even having to download them, since they come pre-installed into the system.
For the few that were missing, like Skype or Dropbox, I had a tool called Software Manager that works pretty much like Google Play or the App Store. You search the application, you glance the reviews, and then you just have to click in order to get it installed right away.
The process is not perfect, for example I had to install Dropbox twice before I could get the contextual menus to work, but it felt solid enough - and knowing that I could instantly access a huge library of free and tested applications of all kinds was definitely a plus.
Mint 15 Software Manager
Nope, Linux cannot run Trados, nor memoQ, nor Office. Linux cannot run any Windows application at all. In order to use them, we need a virtualization layer, a software able to bridge between the Windows and Linux world.
The lightest, less intrusive solution was CodeWeavers CrossOver which, for 60 USD, allows applications to run natively in a thoroughly tested platform. Alas, both Trados and memoQ just sort of kinda worked with this and that setting and the Moon and Jupiter in that quadrant… and really didn’t seem reliable enough for production.
This meant using a real virtualizazion platform, able to run a full Windows system inside Linux. and the first solution I tried was VMware Player. As it wasn’t available through the Software Manager, I downloaded it from here, and faced a constant stream of tiny issues. First the installer wouldn’t launch, then I couldn’t get a link to the application and finally I had to give up because (after much tweaking) I still didn’t manage to properly access files. From what I saw it’s a great application, maybe even faster than VirtualBox, but the installation process was just too complex for a beginner like me.
So I ended up using VirtualBox, which is hosted inside the Software Manager/ Synaptic/ Repository thingie and thus more thoroughly tested.
As I mentioned above, this kind of solution creates a full "virtual" computer via software on which you install Windows. This meant actually popping in the Windows installation disk and wait it to complete but, most importantly, meant that I needed a full Windows license.
In my case it wasn’t a problem, because through my previous systems and years I have been accumulation 3/4 different installation disks (they are fairly cheap to buy in Akihabara).
Luckily, the process was much smoother than with VMWare, the only concerns being the inordinate time Windows XP took to download its 200+ updates (I actually left the system running overnight for it to finish) and a problem with USB devices (which was fixed with a one line command).
At the end of the process I now had a fully functional Windows machine next to my Linux desktop.
Virtualised Windows XP running inside Mint 15
One might wonder what’s the point of it all if you are still using Windows XP anyway, especially if we consider that virtualization drains quite a lot of CPU and memory. For the first couple of day I wasn’t very sure about it myself, but facts proved me wrong.
First of all, the virtual system was very fast: I could boot it and start translating in less than 20 seconds. Better than the real thing. I guess there is some very smart optimization going on, but I think the main reason is how lean the system is.
And that’s the second big plus so far. When I had a real Window system, it covered my translation tasks (memoQ, Trados, Xbench, dictionaries…) but also all my daily and communication needs (Thunderbird, Firefox, Skype, Dropbox, music player, Kindle…) Now things were clearly separated: Windows is 100% translation focused, Linux covers the rest. This is clearly helpful for the system itself, but also for me. memoQ was slowly digesting a huge file on Windows? No problem, in the meantime I could do this month’s invoices on my Linux desktop. Two PC for the cost of one.
Finally, one might wonder how slower the computer was compared to before, now that it has to run two systems in parallel. In truth, it wasn’t slower at all, since it was using resources that were wasted.
First of all, I had a dual core CPU but most of the programs I used weren’t optimized for that, so the second core sat dormant 90% of the time. On top of that, while I had 4 GB of RAM physically installed, Windows XP was only able to access 3, one GB sitting dormant again. Now, if you consider that the virtual Windows machine takes for itself one core and 1 GB of physical memory, we can substantially say that it ran for "free".
How the experiment ended? After about one year of Linux life, my PC finally stopped working. So I bought a new one with Windows 10 and that’s what I’ve been using since.
You could think that Linux caused my old PC demise, but it’s actually the opposite. It was an old computer, with a poor build and no room for upgrades. Linux stretched its usable life by letting it run a lighter, more efficient operating system, although one with less flexibility.
And that is the main trade-off in my opinion: nowadays, Linux definitely equals Windows in terms of "getting things done". LibreOffice, Firefox, VNC are completely on par with anything Windows has to offer.
But if you need something more exotic, like installing a specific piece of hardware or opening a very specific file format, chances are that Windows will be the only platform that allows it. And unfortunately, I interface with so many people out there that having that flexibility is almost indispensable -hence my return to the Microsoft fold-
Would I do the Linux switch again? Maybe, if I found myself in the position of having to stretch the life of a computer a little bit further. This said, it’s hard to find tasks that are really that taxing anymore. Most of the programs we use now are either cloud based (and thus running with someone else’s CPU power) or seem well below the capacity of our processors…
Still, chances are that the first PC my daughter will have is a Linux one. An old laptop with Elementary OS? That sounds unbeatable!