Should you stick with Windows?

This is a follow-up to my previous post about Macs (trying to provide an unbiased view). The question of Mac v. PC (“PC” meaning “Windows PC,” unfortunately; Linux seems to get left out of the picture completely) often comes up for Windows users thinking about whether they should switch to Mac or not. So the natural flip side to that question is: should you stay with Windows? Is it even worth exploring alternatives like Mac or Linux?

Well, obviously if you like Windows and enjoy using it, you should stick with it. But it’s not usually those who enjoy Windows who ask about Mac or Linux. It’s usually the dissatisfied Windows users—the ones who imagine Mac or Linux offer a perfect world of trouble-free computing.

So, to you restless Windows users, I have a few questions for you (answer honestly):

  • Is vast consumer hardware selection important to you, especially for base models (not as much peripherals)? Would the thought of researching hardware compatibility before a purchase make you shudder?
  • Do you use any Windows-only software? (AutoCAD, OneNote)
  • Do you own a Zune?
  • Do you often like to play the latest commercial game on your computer (not on a gaming console)?
  • Do you hate learning new ways of doing things?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, I would highly recommend you stay with Windows. If you worry about Windows crashes and security issues, here is what you should do: back up everything, reinstall Windows, set up a limited user account you use all the time, set Windows updates to install automatically, use Firefox with the NoScript extension, educate yourself about social engineering, and stop pirating! Do all that, and you won’t have to deal with (useless) antivirus software, excessive crashing or slowness, and various security compromises.

Now, if you answered “No” to all of those questions, then you may actually be a prime candidate for a switch to Mac or Linux. Windows is not a bad product, despite all the bad-mouthing it gets from some Mac and Linux zealots. Unfortunately, though, it has been shoved down students’ and employees’ throats all over the world to the point where a lot of folks are just crying out for alternatives.

There are various reasons (which I outlined in my last post) you might want to switch to Mac OS X. The biggest one I can think of for considering it as a Windows alternative over Linux is if you have an iPhone or iPod Touch. Apple has made it difficult to get those devices working without iTunes. The ways to get those working in Linux are complicated and often end up obsolete in the face of firmware upgrades.

You might be a prime candidate for Linux, though, if you are a dissatisfied Windows user who avoids iPods altogether (or has an older-model iPod), especially if you don’t have enough money for a Mac and if you primarily email, web browse, lightly word process, organize photos, and listen to music. Linux can do a lot more than that, too, but if you are a professional graphic designer or video editor, you’re probably better off with a Mac.

The best thing about switching to Linux from Windows is that it can be done in slow steps and for free. You can run Linux inside a Windows session (using portable Ubuntu), you can run Linux as a virtual operating system inside Windows (using VirtualBox or VMWare), you can run Linux as a dual-boot with Windows (using Wubi or a traditional repartitioned drive), you can run Linux as a “live” session that doesn’t affect your hard drive at all (just using your RAM and a CD or USB drive), and, of course, you can install Linux right over Windows (though I would recommend that only as a last step).

I’d really like people to get rid of these stupid OS (operating system) wars. Mac isn’t better. Windows isn’t better. Linux isn’t better. There is no better. There is only better for you. It’s all about assessing your needs and your means. If you need Windows-only programs, you’re going to need it (Sorry, but Wine does not work 100%). If you like Windows, use it. If you like Mac OS X, use it. If you like Linux, use it. You actually can use all three (you don’t necessarily have to choose).

At the end of the day, an operating system is only a platform to run applications and manage devices. If your operating system runs the applications you need and manages the devices you own, then you’re set. Switching from Windows to something else isn’t a magic bullet that brings you to computing nirvana. My wife is happy she switched to Mac, and she would never go back to Windows, but she still has problems from time to time. Likewise, I’m happy I switched to Linux, and I would never go back to Windows, but I still have problems from time to time. Computers aren’t magic. They’re wonderful machines that sometimes have problems.


  1. I pretty much agree with you, including the philosophy… However, I don’t see the first bullet as being a real problem for Linux (Ubuntu). Being the sort that has a hard time parting with computer hardware that still works, I tend not to throw things away “just because they’re old”. (Then there’s the “swap meet illness”, which is fortunately only once a month!)

    As a result, I have parts aged from 3-13 years old that make up 7 PCs — widely differing motherboards, video cards, audio cards, SATA/SCSI cards, networking cards, IDE/SATA/SCSI hard drives, CD drives, DVD drives, UPS, USB peripherals, webcams, etc. The ONLY thing that I’ve had problems getting to work was a 1995 US Robotics modem. And my Matrox G450eTV card doesn’t have a Linux driver (but I haven’t researched alternatives yet.)

    And “researching hardware compatibility” for Ubuntu has rarely been more than “Boot up the LiveCD and see if it works.” It’s amazing what Linux just somehow “knows already”. (I’m in the industry and it still impresses me — no driver downloads/installs.)

    And for the second bullet — and your part listing the “slow steps” — You left out one method (my personal favorite): Convert your Windows install (or make a new clean install) in a VMware virtual machine and run that from within Linux. Then you truly have “the best of both worlds”. You have the reliability, robustness, and security of running everyday apps in Linux — or spending time getting used to them, while “your Windows PC” is literally one mouse click away.

    And as you pointed out, there are still things that are not ported to Linux (yet), or don’t have a good enough or desireable alternative (such as Adobe Photoshop). Some of these can be run natively in WINE, some can be run in commercial emulators (such as Crossover Office), but essentially ALL can be run in a virtual machine, since the virtual machine looks, waddles, and quacks like a real PC and Windows doesn’t really know the difference. Or care about it.

    So you can run any of your favorite Windows apps in another window — which can be zoomed to fill your monitor and really, really give the impression that you have a “Windows only” PC running — with really only one caveat: The VMware virtual machines (which I have the most experience with) implement “virtual video cards” that are 2D desktop application types, not 3D hardware-accelerated types (yet). That pretty much rules out playing 3D games in a virtual PC… and maybe AutoCAD (I dunno).

    Two alternatives there: Set up a dual-boot to run Windows with your 3D video card to play games, or get a second-hand (inexpensive; Linux is efficient) PC to run Linux for daily things and network-related stuff (for the extra malware resistance & security).

    As far as the Mac vs PC thing goes, Linux isn’t an either-or / us-vs-them choice: It’s a compatible alternative that can play alongside Windows. Because, often, it’s *necessary* to play alongside Windows.

    And, thankfully, you can. For an additional cost of zero dollars.

  2. Let me add to the above: I have also used 3 or 4 Canon & Epson scanners with no problems, along with Epson & HP printers (including a 1995 LaserJet) — all were plug & play.

    I’ve gotten a few Canon printers to work, but many need a driver — and there’s my only expenditure so far with Linux: Buying a copy of TurboPrint to gain all the nice driver features for Canon inkjet printers (Epson, too). TP’s a purchased download, but it installs neatly and is very polished & full-featured.

    But I gave up trying to get a Lexmark printer to function… Basically they don’t work with Linux at all, so if you have a Lexmark printer (or all-in-one) you want to keep, you’d have to either stick with Windows, or print from a Windows virtual machine (using a shared USB port). You can then have Linux print, too, using Windows as a printer server.

  3. I’m with you in that “There is no better. There is only better for you.”
    But I think that a lot of Linux advocates (myself included), would say that in general, Linux is the best choice.

  4. I’ve not fully switched over to Linux completely. I do still alot of work in Windows (xp) at the present. This is due to the fact that I use certain software that does not have an equal replacement in Linux. There are some similar programs, but none that are as powerful.
    I do however entertain the idea of running VMWare and having Windows run in that, but I’ve a few issues to work out with Ubuntu before that happens. i.e. dual monitors and bluetooth keyboard and mouse. I’ve followed all the advice and NO success.
    I agree with you as well on letting each to their own. I would not try to staunchly convert anyone, but perhaps show them the benefits, and if they can live with it, they can change. I’d help them if they wanted as well.
    In addition to my Windows machine, I do run Linux for my servers. These are tasks I believe to be best suited for that OS, also considering the age of the machines and I can easily SSH into them and do all I need to.

  5. Good write-up for both this and the Mac piece – if anyone asks me about OSs, I’ll point them in this direction instead of stumbling over words.
    One thing I have never understood is why are Macs better for graphic design and all that arty stuff? The only answer I have managed to find is “multitasking” (obviously, more in-depth than just a one-word answer but that was the jist of it.) It doesn’t seem like a sufficient reason to relearn an entire interface though…

  6. One thing I have never understood is why are Macs better for graphic design and all that arty stuff?

    My wife can probably explain it better than I can. I think it actually has something to do with the way Macs display color. Apparently us non-artsy humans can’t tell the difference, but somehow Macs are able to show you colors that are truer to how photos or images will look like when actually printed.

    Also, in art school, I think you just use Macs so much that you get used to a certain workflow (for example, dragging projects onto various Adobe CS icons to launch them) so that Windows begins to feel like a foreign environment.

    Really, though, when it comes down to it, all the programs graphic designers use on Macs are also available for Windows.

  7. “Really, though, when it comes down to it, all the programs graphic designers use on Macs are also available for Windows.”
    That’s what was confusing me.
    That colour display point’s quite interesting though – I think I’ll look into it. Thanks very much.

  8. All right. We are preaching to the quire here, because seriously all readers are converted unix fans all ready.

    Lately, I started thinking: why do I love unix. And really, “love” is the operative word here.

    Do I love linux so much, because it took me so much effort to learn?. The book “Influence” (Robert Cialdini) explains why fraternities and military organizations apply hazing to initiate new members: Apparently, all the hardship endured makes up twice for the awesomeness afterwards.

    5 years ago, if people asked me: why is Firefox better than IE, I’d kindly respond.: it has a pop-up killer!”.

    Now, I just want to smash their head in.

  9. I’ve been a windows user since…well, Windows 95. I’ve owned Windows 95, 98, 2000, XP and more recently, Vista. I’m used to the way the windows interface works (like going to the start menu to turn the computer off…).

    Of course I’ve had problems along the way, I’ve had to reformat, reinstall, hunt for drivers, etc.

    To be honest though, I’ve never had a problem with Vista. Ever. Not a single compatibility issue. I bought Vista the first week it came out, and I’ve been using at ever since. Recently, I moved to Boston from Hong Kong, and could not take my desktop there. I bought a Vista HP Laptop, the DV7. It’s an awesome computer, and once again, it has given me no problems at all. I’ve never had a virus on my Windows system ever since early 2000.

    I’ll be honest, I’m an occasional gamer. I play Team Fortress 2 on occasion, an a few other assorted titles. Vista, and Windows 7 would seem like ideal choices for me.

    However, Vista can be slow sometimes. It eats up a lot of RAM. Also, I’ve used open source applications on Windows as long as I can remember. Open Office and Firefox have been staples of my Windows experience.

    Recently, I got back to Hong Kong for a few weeks. I’ve known about Ubuntu since 2006, but I’ve just been happy with Windows. I decided to give it a try. I went to the website, and downloaded Jaunty 9.04.

    I was extremely impressed. Wubi has taken Ubuntu’s accessibility to a new level. The fact that I can just remove it at will as a normal Windows application is nothing short of brilliant design. I installed it on my main desktop. I have an NVIDIA Graphics card, at Creative Audigy soundcard, an Intel Processor on an ASUS motherboard and an HP Printer.

    In Windows, I would have to install:
    – Motherboard Drivers
    – Soundcard Drivers
    – NVIDIA drivers (from their website)
    – HP Drivers, which installed other HP software

    In Ubuntu, I had to install NOTHING. It detected my NVIDIA card, and prompted me to download propeitery drivers and it was quick and painless. It detected my wired connection automatically too. It detected my printer and its model number correctly the instant I plugged it in…that took me aback.

    I am entirely new to Linux, and I’ve found Ubuntu and the GNOME desktop a joy to use. Coupled with the fact that Open Office and Firefox work exactly the way they do in Windows. Rhythmbox works with my MP3 player. Even I plugged in my Nokia E71 in Windows, it would read it as just another USB Mass Storage device.

    Only the Nokia PC Suite would read it as an E71. I expected the same in Ubuntu…but, it detected my phone correctly as an E71. I still don’t know how.

    I was so impressed that I installed Ubuntu on my HP DV7 Laptop. Same story. Everything worked perfectly. My touchpad, my NVIDIA 9600M, everything. I had instant WIFI access, and I had expected to have problems with that. It just worked. The sound did not work at the beginning, but 25 minutes of searching quickly yielded a simple fix, and the issue is likely to be fixed in Ubuntu 9.10.

    My laptop now works entirely with Ubuntu. I had disliked Vista on my laptop mainly because Laptop Vista installations have a lot of branded crap I don’t need (HP this, HP that, HP Support Centre, etc).

    I installed Compiz, and I have a desktop that far surpasses anything Windows Aero could ever offer. Screenlets let me have a Windows Aero like sidebar. I have a fully functioning smooth 3D desktop on both my laptop and my desktop, and it took minimal installation. The “Add/Remove Applications” and the Package Manager are extremely easy to use. I was VERY impressed with Pidgin too. The GNOME desktop environment was also very simple to understand. .DEB packages are just click and install.

    I even installed it on two old 4-5 year old laptops. Though Compiz is not smooth (understandably, that is just a hardware issue), Ubuntu detected EVERYTHING off the bat. No drivers were installed, and…WIFI just worked.

    In my opinion, GNOME is easier to understand than the Windows environment for someone new to computing entirely. I tried KDE, but, didn’t like it too much (Plasmoids, Kthis, Kthat, bouncy icons, etc).

    If I did not play games occasionally, I would remove Windows completely. I still boot into Vista for an hour or two per week to play a few games, but other than that, I use Ubuntu. It’s quicker, has a better interface and it is more secure than Windows.

    In short, I’ve been a Linux user for 3 weeks, and an Open Source software user for years. I still don’t understand how something free can be so much easier to use than something that costs US$200 or so. It was actually easier than Windows, contrary to all my expectations. This was mainly because of SEAMLESS hardware detection.

    I’ve heard about problems with hardware compatibility with Ubuntu. I had no such problems. I am entirely new to Linux, and I have not compiled anything yet. Ubuntu works like a charm. My music (after the necessary packages were AUTOMATICALLY installed), my Videos (VLC), my peripherals (an iPod, my HP printer, my soundcard, my 5.1 surround sound system, my phone)…everything worked almost OFF THE BAT.

    I am, needless to say, extremely impressed. Anyone that uses Windows for anything other than gaming should give Ubuntu a try. God knows, its certainly not hard to install/uninstall.

  10. the only reason im using crappy windows is because of games/software capability reasons and use linux virtual machines did try microsoft os but it wanted me to buy a new copy and im not wasting my money on another crappy microsoft product thats also set its filesystem cache maximum to 4k+ gigabyes of ram.

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