Want to run a professional PC without splashing out on Microsoft’s astronomically-priced software? Then check out our low-down on its best competitor, Linux.
With the cost of commercial software now reaching up to a quarter of the total price of an off-the-shelf PC, significant savings can be made by buying “empty” and installing open source alternatives.
However, many are at best hesitant about leaving Microsoft’s Windows to take the plunge, and at worst terrified!
So here is what to expect and what not to expect from your Linux personal computer.
Is it really free?
It is cheap. But not exactly free.
Though it can be downloaded for free from the internet ( is a good starting point), it would not necessarily come with the proper support to run on your machine.
Non-technical users should first go for “complete” versions from vendors like Mandrake, Lindows, SuSE or Red Hat.
These companies offer highly-developed versions of Linux at comparatively cheaper prices to Windows XP.
Not only that, Linux also helps in paring down costs due to low system requirements as opposed to Windows’ system-hogging demands.
However, if you go for sophisticated versions like Red Hat 9 or Mandrake 9, you do require at least a basic Pentium processor, 32MB memory and 650MB hard disk – not a problem for most users, but notable for those thinking of changing the OS on a low-spec machine used as a mailing list system or server.
If you are not totally convinced with Linux single-handedly overseeing your whole machine, you can partition your hard drive and load a Linux version that can co-exist perfectly happily with your existing Windows system.
As most files are compatible with both Linux and Windows, you can use your operating systems accordingly.
The biggest distributors of Linux are: Red Hat, Lindows Mandrake, SuSE and the SCO Group.
While Lindows OS is optimised for consumers focusing on value and ease-of-use and is best-known for its “click and run” operation, SuSE is generally considered to be easier to use.
But these two products are the most expensive of the Linux options.
Red Hat is a pioneer in Linux distribution and is very popular among server users.
Its Bluecurve desktop environment is one of the best versions of Linux around.
Mandrake is also based on Red Hat Linux with a suite of highly-refined applications to accompany. It was the first desktop-specific version of the open source OS.
If you are afraid of buying Linux and then not getting on with it, you can have a free trial by visiting .
Knoppix offers visitors a bootable CD including over 300 open source programs, from OpenOffice (an open source MS Office XP alternative) to Mozilla, an effective open source internet browser.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of Linux is the systems’ assembler and vendor.
Hundreds of thousands of local assemblers load their systems up with illegal versions of MS Windows to save cash, thus accentuating the problem of software piracy.
Low-cost Linux means legal and affordable software for all, and most versions of the OS can be used a number of times having being bought once from the distributor.
It’s not just the little guy who stands to benefit either. Big household PC manufacturer names are beginning to harness its strengths too.
HP recently launched a low-end Compaq Presario bundled with Linux OS.
IBM says that it is actively working to launch Linux desktops in India soon.
According to Javed Tapia, CEO of Red Hat India: “Large numbers of hardware and software firms will come to use Linux as its user base steadily increases.”
Linux is not the only part of the open source revolution.
There is now an open source equivalent to almost all popular commercial software (including: personal finance managers, .PDF readers, CD burning applications, download managers, address books, graphic editing applications and image viewers).
Other “free” software includes office suites like OpenOffice (which can be used to open MS Office files).
And apart from being cheaper (or free in most cases), they are also easily customisable.
Most of these programs are bundled with the operating system itself by Linux distributors.
For internet use, you can use browsers such as Mozilla which allows a user to shut off those irritating pop-ups.
Then there is the “Gaim” multi-protocol instant messenger that allows users to log in to two or more Yahoo or MSN accounts at the same time.
“Xine” is another very popular open source application. It is an all-in-one media player that can handle nearly every media file type.
At the same time, it is also possible to use Windows applications such as Microsoft Office in your Linux system, and this applies to almost all software.
Similarly, users can run open source applications like OpenOffice in a Windows machine.
That’s one way of partially converting to the open source platform and saving money on software at the same time.
Linux is also being used in PDAs and other electronic gizmos across the world as an affordable, stable operating system.
Sony Ericsson is already working on Linux-based operating system for its next generation mobile phones.
Yet another benefit of using Linux is the availability of the operating system in most popular languages.
In India, different groups like IndLinux and the National Institute of Software Technology are working to develop Linux and Linux applications in all local languages.
According to a source at IndLinux: “Since culture is embedded in language to a significant degree, the ability to compute in one’s native language can mean a significant boost to culture in non-English speaking countries”.
Linux’s openness allows local linguistic groups to customise user interfaces in far more culturally sensitive ways than in centrally-controlled approaches utilised by Microsoft.
Linguistic groups that may be considered too small a market by big vendors can also customise the Linux interface to suit their customers’ needs.
’Stable and secure’
Linux has been personally adopted by users and IT communities around the world, partly, at least, because of its supreme stability and security.
According to Michael Robertson, founder and CEO of Lindows.com: “Lindows (and other Linux versions) follow open standards. You don’t get locked into a proprietary, monopolistic system where the software vendor has more control over your computer than you do”.
There are also very few Linux viruses and even if your system has a virus, it cannot spread it to other machines.
Then there is the question of straight-out toughness.
“I’ve had my system running for the past 104 days without a single reboot and I’ve heard of people running Linux for three years without rebooting,” one proud user says.
“It’s small things like the fact that you don’t have to restart your machine every time you install or upgrade your software or even change your major system configuration,” he added.
Some problems do exist with using Linux though. Mainly that users have to learn a new operating system from scratch.
Also, some rough edges remain due to the system’s relatively young age.
Certain hardware is not supported and certain commercial software programs are not supported.
There are also some problems in networking Linux with Windows systems.