OS Smackdown: Linux vs. Mac OS X vs. Vista vs. XP

Four experts defend their chosen operating systems in an opinionated free-for-all

Linux: Light on its feet and ready to strut its stuff

Let's get the unpleasant part out of the way first: If running Adobe Premiere is the most important thing in your life, or you want to play Halo, Linux isn't going to do it for you, at least right at the moment. While most Windows software can run under Linux in one fashion or another, applications that make extensive use of hardware drivers or high-end graphics may not work right.

But for everything else, Linux is definitely the way to go.

Unlike Mac OS and Windows, Linux is free as air and open to development by folks who are motivated by the desire to make the technology better, rather than by corporate tech farms whose real interest is the bottom line. Which is all very nice, but is it any good as a desktop operating system? You bet.

Size and speed

Let's start with the hardware footprint: With the possible exception of BSD, Linux's 'sister,' Linux is the lightest thing you'll ever install on your computer. While the minimum required hardware for Windows has been bloating, and Macs need more and more horsepower to run OS X, you can still dig out your old 486 and fire up Linux without problems.

I recently got one of the One Laptop Per Child XOs -- a machine with 256MB of RAM and a power-miserly processor -- and had no trouble running Xubuntu Linux on it. Meanwhile, Windows XP needs to be sliced and diced like crazy to fit onto the same hardware.

It's not for nothing that you'll find Linux inside of devices where hardware cost is an issue, like DVRs (TiVo anyone?) and routers. I was somewhat shocked to find that my recently purchased 52-inch LCD TV has a Linux kernel inside of it. If you hunt around, I'll bet you'll find at least one device in your home running Linux.

Stability, security, transparency, flexibility

Linux is not only small, but it's also stable. I have several Windows boxes at home, and it seems like whenever I blink, something has gotten screwed up in the registry or I have a Dynamic Link Library conflict.

Linux has all the configuration data and libraries right out where you can see them, in files. You can see what's changed and make edits manually, without having to figure out which of 9 million HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE registry entries is the one you want. Even the system-configuration tools that have nice graphical user interfaces (GUI) end up generating human-readable and editable files at the end of the day.

In the recent "Pwn 2 Own" hacker challenge, computers running Mac OS X and Windows Vista were cracked, but the Linux machine wasn't. I won't claim that Linux has no security or virus problems, but they tend to be right out in the open where you can see them if you look. At the moment, there are far fewer Linux viruses out in the wild than Windows viruses, and there are fairly bullet-proof ways to detect viruses under Linux using checksums on files.

Conversely, it's much easier to move your Linux system to new hardware or clone an existing system because there's no licensing. I've never had a problem moving a Linux system disk to a new computer, even when the hardware was drastically different. There's basically no way to do this on either a Windows or a Mac system.

You also have your choice of Linux distributions, from geek-friendly Debian and end-user-friendly Ubuntu to business-friendly Red Hat and Novell SUSE. And no matter which one you pick, you can rest assured that they'll all run the same apps.

Applications and interface

It used to be the conventional wisdom that the problem with Linux was desktop applications. But with tools such as Wine, CrossOver Linux and VMware Player, many Windows applications run just fine under Linux these days.

And in some cases, native Linux applications may serve you just as well. OpenOffice is a mature replacement for Microsoft Office, and there are good (and free) tools for video and photo editing, audio editing, and many other common applications. Just do a quick Google search for "Linux video editing," for example, and you'll see what I mean.

More importantly, more and more applications are transitioning to Web-based versions using JavaScript or Flash/Silverlight/Flex/Air. Who cares if you can't run TurboTax on Linux, when you can use the Web-based TurboTax right from your browser?

Finally, the Linux desktop experience is now the match of any other desktop GUI in existence. The user interface is intuitive and clean, but still powerful. If you choose a user-friendly distribution like Ubuntu, installing Linux is as easy as installing Windows -- and unlike Windows, you can even "try before you buy," since distributions such as Ubuntu have a "live" install CD/DVD.

You can even run a full Linux distribution such as Damn Small Linux from a 128MB (or larger) USB drive. Did your Windows PC crash again? Plug in the USB drive, and you've got access.

Heck, most Linux distributions will even shrink a Windows partition and set up dual-booting automatically. Ignore all the fear, uncertainty and doubt you'll hear about nightmare installs and bad device support -- that's from the bad old days!

Bottom line

Linux is free, fast, small, powerful, stable and flexible. It will get you off the "new hardware every other year" life cycle and let you concentrate on being productive rather than playing nursemaid to your operating system. You almost certainly already have Linux in your home or business, even if you don't know it. So why not give it a try on your desktop?

-- James Turner

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