In the U.S., July 4th is a time for barbecue, fireworks and . . . open-source software? In honor of a time when American patriots declared their independence from imperial rule, I decided to declare Windepence from the Microsoft monarchy. In lieu of Windows 10, I've been using Linux as my primary OS for home and work for the better part of a week. My experience has been frustrating at times, but mostly rewarding.
When it comes to Linux, I'm not an expert, but not exactly a newbie either. The open-source OS is like an old college friend I see once every few years then forget about until they post something outrageous on Facebook. Over the past two decades, I've tried several different flavors, from Red Hat in the late 1990s to Ubuntu just a few years ago. I've also used Raspbian on my Raspberry Pi. However, I've never employed Linux as my primary OS for several days in a row, until now.
Before I got started with my experiment, I asked the Tom's Hardware community which version of Linux I should install. I got a lot of great suggestions, but I went with Linux Mint; Ubuntu is the most popular flavor, but I'd used Ubuntu before and wanted something that was new to me, and Mint is supposed to be more user-friendly.
I installed Mint on my home laptop, a ThinkPad T440s with a 1080p screen, a Core i5-4200U CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. I normally use a company-issued laptop at the office, but I brought my ThinkPad with me so I could use Linux at work all day. Both at home and in the office, I attached the laptop to USB docking stations with dual, full HD monitors.
Installation: Can't Dual Boot
Installing Mint was fairly easy and quick, but I totally messed up the dual-booting, making it difficult to switch back and forth between Windows and Linux. To get started, I downloaded the Mint install ISO file and "burned" it to a USB flash drive using the free Universal USB Installer. I had a difficult time getting my laptop to boot off of the flash drive, however. Even after I pulled up the boot menu on my laptop and selected the USB drive, I would get shunted back into Windows, rather than seeing the Mint installer.
Finally, I determined that I needed to change a setting in my laptop's BIOS so that it would be able to boot in both UEFI and Legacy modes. Most modern PCs with Windows use UEFI booting, which adds a layer of security and efficiency over the old-time Legacy BIOS boots of yesteryear. However, for reasons I don't understand, I couldn't boot the install disk without enabling backward-compatibility. When I went through the installation process, I chose the option which lets you create a dual-boot system. Mint then told me, incorrectly, that it had detected Windows 8 on my computer and would put it onto the boot menu. Though I have Windows 10 (not 8), I assumed that the program just had the version number wrong (after all, my computer originally had Windows 8 on it) and that I'd be able to get into Windows. I was wrong.
Every time I booted up, I was greeted with a menu from GRUB, a popular Linux bootloader, that had entries both for Linux Mint and for Windows 8. Unfortunately, if I chose the Windows 8 option, I got a blank black screen with a flashing cursor on it. After doing a lot of experimentation that involved editing GRUB's configuration files to change the partition, I got a different boot error when I selected Windows: boot loader is missing.
Eventually, I figured out that if I wanted to get Windows 10 I need to go into my BIOS and change from Legacy to UEFI boot mode (having both modes enabled wouldn't work). In UEFI mode, the computer boots straight to Windows, skipping the GRUB menu. In Legacy mode, it gives me the GRUB menu, which can't boot Windows. It looks like there's a way to install Mint via UEFI mode so it would work with Windows 10, but it seems I'd have to overwrite my current Linux installation and start from scratch to do it.
Look and Feel: The 1990s Wants Its Icons Back
Linux has advanced in so many ways since I was experimenting with Red Hat in the late 1990s, but its look and feel still feels like it's stuck in an earlier era of computing. There are many different desktop managers that Linux Mint is available with, but I chose the "best looking" one, Cinnamon.
No matter what desktop theme I tried (more on the theming later), the icons and fonts harkened back to Windows 98 or Windows 2000. Every icon was completely flat, and all the typefaces I tried looked extremely primitive and jagged. In terminal mode, which I had to use a lot, the letters weren't evenly spaced, leading to some weird gaps within words. The stripped-down Start menu also looks like it was designed during the Clinton administration.
Themes: An Exercise in Frustration
Installing desktop themes in Linux Mint is an exercise in frustration, because it seems like the people who made the OS don't understand what a "theme" is. There are a handful of built-in themes and a library with dozens more that you can download, but there appears to be no way to just switch to a theme and have it modify your icons, fonts, desktop wallpaper and window widgets like themes do in Windows.
In the Start menu, there's a Themes app that lets you choose among different options for your window borders, your icon set, your controls (buttons, widgets), your mouse pointer and your "desktop," which is actually just the taskbar and Start menu. However, if you install a theme, you then have to go separately into each of these five menus and select your theme from each one of them and that doesn't account for the wallpaper or system fonts, which don't appear to come with the theme.
So, for example, I downloaded this Windows 10 Light theme for Mint, hoping to make my Linux UI look just like Microsoft's. However, even after I selected the "desktop," window borders and controls (aka buttons) as Windows 10, I had no option to add the Windows 10 desktop icons (which are in the photo on Mint's site) or the desktop wallpaper. I had the same issues when I downloaded several other themes, including New Minty, which promises a custom, two-pane look to the Start menu that was nowhere to be found.
Perhaps the fonts, Start menus, icons and wallpapers are all hidden somewhere where you can download them and copy them to the correct directories, but changing the look and feel of your UI shouldn't be this difficult. In Windows, you can change the complete theme with a single click.
Software: Pretty Much Everything I Needed
Though Linux doesn't have every app that I use on Windows, I was pleasantly surprised by how many of the programs I use on a daily basis are available for Linux. And, even in those cases where an app doesn't have a Linux version, there were decent substitutes.
All four of the conferencing / chatting apps I use daily have native Linux versions. That includes Skype, Stride, Slack and Zoom. All of them worked really well, with few UI differences from their Windows versions. The only major drawback I noticed is that Skype for Linux doesn't let you choose your microphone, even though it lets you choose your headphones or speakers. It will use whatever microphone you've set as default for the system as a whole.
Dropbox also worked flawlessly, syncing files from my other devices. I did find one minor drawback versus the Windows version, though. In the Windows File Manager, the icon for the Dropbox folder has a Dropbox logo on it to make it easy to visually identify, but in Linux Mint's Files app, the folder had the same icon as every other folder.
Chrome, my browser of choice, is available for Linux in two different versions. Because it was listed in Mint's default software repository and, at first, I didn't know the other one was available, I installed and used Chromium, the open-source version of the browser, which worked perfectly and synced my extensions and passwords with my Google account. There's also Google's version, which you can download directly from Google.com, and it adds native support for soe media codecs, including H.264 and MP3.
Substitutes for Apps Not Available in Linux
As expected, there were a few apps I use regularly which have no Linux version. Though you can access web versions of Microsoft Office programs like you can on any device, there's no Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc. for Linux. Mint comes with LibreOffice, which can read and write Office file formats, preinstalled. So when I downloaded a few Excel files, I had no problem opening them.
I missed Outlook the most, because I use Microsoft's email client not only for managing my correspondence, but also for managing my meeting schedule. Linux Mint comes with Thunderbird, Mozilla's free email software installed, but I've used earlier versions of that app before and didn't like them. So I decided to go with Mailspring, another free email app that works with Microsoft Exchange accounts. I really like the look and feel of Mailspring, which has everything I liked in Outlook, except the calendar features.
Under Windows, I use Adobe Photoshop Elements to edit photos for articles. I don't do anything fancy with it, though; most of the time, I'm just cropping images to a particular size and aspect ratio. Linux Mint comes with GIMP, the most popular Linux image editor, preloaded, but I don't like GIMP's interface because it puts the toolbar and layers in windows that are separate from your picture. So I went with Pinta, a less-famous application that looks and feels a lot like Paint.Net, the best free Windows photo editor. Pinta worked well enough for cropping, but unfortunately, it didn't provide a way for me to resize individual layers, a problem I experienced when I tried to paste a logo on top of a photo and then scale it down to fit.
You Better Like the Command Prompt
While I haven't seen any data on this, I think it's safe to assume that most Windows users never go to the command prompt. You can live your whole life in Windows without ever seeing the prompt or even knowing what it is.
However, in Linux, there are still many occasions where you really might need to launch a terminal window and enter some commands. Most software is either available via the software manager, which is like an app store, or as a .deb file (which is an installer), but not all of it. During my week with Linux, I used the terminal window to:
- Install DisplayLink drivers for my dock: I use USB docking stations at home and, like all USB docking stations, they use DisplayLink technology to transmit video from your laptop to the monitors. To get my laptop working with my docks, I had to download a zip file from the DisplayLink site, unzip it into a folder and then run an installation script from the command prompt. Of course, DisplayLink probably could have made this available as an installable .deb file, but chose not to.
- Install GRUB Customizer: In my failed attempts to fix the dual-booting situation, I found an app called GRUB Customizer, which allows you to edit the boot menu. Since Customizer wasn't available in the Software Manager, I had to use commands to install it.
- Speed up my TrackPoint: Linux Mint has a control panel which lets you set the speed and sensitivity for your mouse and touchpad, but unfortunately these settings didn't affect my laptop's TrackPoint pointing stick. After doing some web searches, I found a forum post explaining exactly how to set the TrackPoint speed by using a series of commands.
- Get information about my partitions: Also, as part of my attempt to fix the dual-boot problem, I needed to get the UUIDs and other properties of my SSD partitions. To do so, I had to use commands, because I couldn't find a way to get that data through the GUI.
- Erase unnecessary files: My Linux partition was dangerously close to running out of storage so I followed some instructions for deleting the app cache, a set of archived installers from software you already have loaded. I saved 1.1GB this way.
Performance: Ok, as Long as I Don't Dock
Every aspect of Linux Mint worked smoothly on my four-year-old laptop when I used it by itself, but I experienced some visual slow downs when I was connected to dual monitors via either my home or work docking stations.
When docked, the mouse pointer would occasionally leave trails and artifacts on the screen, and, if had a lot of tasks running, I experienced some lag. However, lately, I have also some lag (but no ghosting or artifacts) when docked under Windows so the problem is probably with either DisplayLink's drivers or my CPU's reaction to the Spectre / Meltdown updates rather than with Linux.
The Bottom Line
Linux is definitely good enough to use for the kind of productivity work I do. There are some challenges, but if you have patience, you can work around most of them. If you're like me, you'll feel a great sense of satisfaction when you find a solution to a problem as I did when I discovered how to change my TrackPoint speed.
However, the bigger question is: why would you use Linux instead of Windows? If you build your own desktops and don't want to spend $90 on a Windows 10 license, Linux is a free alternative, but most system builders want to play games and the majority of titles on Steam don't work in Linux. If you buy a prebuilt PC, it comes with Windows preloaded so there's no economic reason to go with Linux.
The best reason to use Linux is not to save money, but to avoid Windows. If you're morally opposed to Windows for whatever reason or you just like the challenge of an open-source OS, you can have a good experience with Linux. But if you just want to work or play, Windows is still a lot easier to use, has much more attractive UI and offers a much broader range of software.