Linux vs. Windows: Should Your Office Make the Switch?

Last Updated Jun 22, 2011 1:53 PM EDT

Admit it: You've always wondered about Linux -- that "other" operating system. Is it really comparable to Windows? Could you run your business on it? Would switching save you money?

Recently, I decided to find out. After the failure of my HP desktop (which had a surprising outcome), I pulled out an old Acer laptop to use as an interim workstation. It had an expired Windows 7 beta installed, so I decided to wipe the drive and install Ubuntu 11.04 -- arguably the single most popular version of the Linux operating system.

For the past three weeks, I've been using that Ubuntu-powered Acer almost exclusively -- and the results have been surprising, to say the least. Allow me to share a few notes from my experience:
  • Ubuntu was a snap to install, and the Acer boots and runs quite a bit faster than it did with Vista, the OS it originally came with. It also did a great job of finding and installing drivers for everything: video, the Wi-Fi adapter, and so on.`
  • Anyone accustomed to Windows should have a fairly easy time transitioning, though there are a few aspects of the interface that seem a little backwards. Finding a newly installed program, for example, is way more complicated than it should be.
  • Firefox is the default Web browser. After installing my beloved Xmarks add-on, all my bookmarks and passwords appeared like magic, allowing me to quickly get back to my Web-based work. And that's key, as I spend most of my day in my browser.
  • Ubuntu has its oddities like any other OS. Every time I boot up, for example, a dialog asks me for my "login keyring." I have no idea what that is or how to get rid of it. Also, the Pinta Image Editor program I installed routinely crashes when I exit.
  • I've yet to find a decent VPN client that will let me connect to the one corporate network I need for one of my blogs. Consequently, I have to return to a Windows machine to get that part of my job done. I'm sure there's a viable utility out there; I just haven't found it.
  • Dropbox is available for Linux, but SugarSync -- currently my preferred Web-storage service -- isn't. I can access my files via my browser, but that's not quite on par with having them local.
  • There's no iTunes for Linux, meaning I can't sync my iPhone or iPad. That's a pretty major obstacle, though Apple's forthcoming iCloud may solve that problem.
  • There's no Outlook for Linux, either, which may be a dealbreaker for some users. The rest of Office is decently represented by the bundled LibreOffice suite, which includes word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. Likewise, there's Evolution for e-mail, calendaring, and contact management -- but the program's a lightweight compared with Outlook.

My Dinner with Ubuntu

The surprise, for me, was that I could get the majority of my work done on an old, "slow" PC that I'd written off as useless. That's definitely one of Linux's charms: it has very modest system requirements.
I also found it very comforting to work without the threat of malware, which is more or less non-existent in Linux. (Of course, there's always phishing, which is OS-agnostic.)

For my work situation (which, again, is largely Web-based), Ubuntu made a fine substitute for Windows. In fact, I'm still using it, even though my HP has been repaired and returned. I can't abandon Windows altogether just yet, but that day may come.

Something else to keep in mind: every time you buy a new PC, you're paying upwards of $100 just for the Windows license. If you buy 10 machines, opting for Linux could save you $1,000. (The trick is finding a vendor that offers the option. I know Dell does.) Ubuntu, like all Linux distributions, is free.

And pretty awesome. If you haven't tried it, you owe it to yourself to do so. Hit the Download page and check out the "Try it from a CD or USB stick" option.

In the meantime, head to the comments and let me know your thoughts on Linux vs. Windows. Think your organization is ready for a change?

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    Rick Broida, a technology writer for more than 20 years, is the author of more than a dozen books. In addition to writing CNET's The Cheapskate blog, he contributes to CNET's iPhone Atlas.

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