Five things every Windows user should know

As Windows 8 dawns on the horizon, there's no better time to consider the alternatives.

Microsoft's proud proclamations that Windows 8 won't require users to buy a new PC speaks volumes about the company's longtime business model. After all, each new generation of the company's resource-hungry operating system has traditionally required new hardware as well as software, thus benefiting both Microsoft and its hardware partners.

That it's departed from that approach this time around -- albeit to a limited extent -- suggests it may finally have noticed that consumers don't actually appreciate being forced to replace technology that's still perfectly good. Perhaps more likely, I'm guessing the concession stems in large part from the fact that so many users have adopted other, non-desktop devices, so the old PC upgrade treadmill isn't so viable anymore.

Either way, what pains me to see is how many non-Mac users seem to view Windows 8 as an inevitable part of their future. It's true that Microsoft has agreements with the majority of hardware makers to bundle its operating system on their devices, so it will certainly be omnipresent on the shelves at Best Buy, for instance. That fact, indeed, is the primary reason for its current monopoly in the operating system market.

But there are so many choices, and all too few computer users are even aware that they have them.

Are you considering Windows 8 for your future computing environment? If it's truly the best operating system for your needs, then you certainly should. Before you decide, though, there are a few things that you -- and every PC user -- should be aware of.

1. There Are Choices

The personal computing world has long been described in terms of Macs and PCs -- meaning Windows PCs -- suggesting that those platforms are users' only choices. The arrival of mobile devices and especially Android has changed that to some extent, to be sure, but fundamentally it's still often portrayed as an either/or world.

That, indeed, was vividly underscored just recently by decision-making site Hunch's survey results.

The reality, however, is that there are alternatives -- many of them. Microsoft may have built an empire through its deals with hardware manufacturers to ensure that its software is everywhere, but that doesn't mean it's the best software for you.

If only one type of car were available for sale in your town, would you assume it's the best one?

PC users owe it to themselves to consider their options, and those options include a broad array of Linux distributions tailored to virtually every need.

2. Hardware Can Last Longer

Despite Microsoft's generous assurances, some features in Windows 8 won't run properly on existing hardware. Not only that, but the company is going to great lengths to influence the design of new devices.

Once again, then, users will only fully enjoy any benefits of the new operating system if they pay in and get the hardware that's been customized for it. And with Microsoft's hand involved in the design, there's a strong potential for vendor lock-in.

That's bad for your budget, your freedom and the environment. There's no real reason to replace all this existing hardware, and certainly not with Microsoft-sanctioned alternatives. Most Linux distributions, on the other hand, can run well in diverse computing environments.

3. Malware Isn't Everywhere

Each time a big new virus hits the Windows-using masses, it's common to hear it referred to as "PC malware."

The reality, however, is that it's almost always Windows-specific malware. Windows' ubiquity, among other key factors, makes it more attractive to hackers and more vulnerable to malware than Linux is.

Monocultures are bad in the natural world and they're bad in computing, too. No operating system is perfectly secure, but -- as security experts have noted -- you're a lot better off on Linux.

4. Proprietary Software Will Cost You

Even aside from the fancy hardware and the anti-malware products you'll need to buy, proprietary software suffers from a number of other disadvantages as well. First off, of course, is that it's expensive -- even if it comes bundled on your computer, you've paid for it, you can be sure.

Linux, on the other hand, is free.

Perhaps even more important, though, is the way proprietary software limits what business and individual users can do with it. Because the code is closed, users can't see or modify that code to suit their own needs.

Those on open source Linux, however, can see and alter the code at will. That flexibility, in fact, is one of the primary benefits cited recently by the U.S. Department of Defense.

5. Linux Is Easy to Test, Install and Use

If you feel even the slightest uncertainty that Windows is something you need to remain committed to -- because it is a commitment, and a significant one -- it's well worth your while to take Linux for a test drive.

There are many ways to do that without any commitment, and you can go right back to Windows if you so choose. If you don't, most Linux distributions are easy to install, and they typically even come bundled with a number of great productivity applications as well.

There's also plenty of free and paid support available -- more, in fact, and better, than what many proprietary companies offer.

I'm not saying that Linux is the best operating system for everyone, or that it's perfect. But given all the costs associated with using Windows, you owe it to yourself and your business to consider the alternatives.

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Katherine Noyes

PC World (US online)
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