Published on October 6, 2010 9:15 AM

Switching from Windows to Linux: One Month On

How easy is it to give up Windows and move to Linux?  To find out, we decided to put Ubuntu on one of the computers in the office that was previously used by a dedicated Windows fan.  The only problem is that it was mine!  The challenge was to last a week without going back to Windows.

The first thing to point out is that, one month on, despite what I had expected, I'm still using Linux: it seems that the transplant has been accepted.

I hope that real Linux fans will forgive me: I don't have all of the background or the vocabulary, so what I'm describing here might seem obvious, but it's the honest opinion of an ordinary user.

Linux: no worries

First of all, I cheated.  I didn't install Linux myself, but I had Franck do it, via Windows.  It was easy, and pretty fast.  It was certainly quicker than your typical Windows installation which can take hours.

The first new feature I discovered was virtual desktops.  They were a real revelation for me, even if I only really started to get the most of them after two weeks when I started to pick which apps to keep in the foreground and so on.

Virtual Desktops

It's hard to understand what virtual desktops are, or why they're useful, when you've only used Windows.  They're handy when you're running lots of programs at once.  We often have a good half a dozen on the go: two browsers (one per monitor), our e-mail, an FTP client, an image editor, a spreadsheet and an IM client are usually all going at once.  With Windows, you spend a lot of time moving the individual windows around, adjusting the layout according to your current needs.  And every time you start a new task, you have to adjust things.

With Linux, though, a small icon is visible in the taskbar that shows a small square divided into four zones.  Each segment represents one desktop, where you can run the apps that you like.  A simple click of the mouse switches from one to the other.

  • Desktop 1: this is now where I keep my two browsers, one per monitor.
  • Desktop 2: image editing: the toolbox lives on the left, while the photo in question is on the right.
  • Desktop 3: for e-mail.
  • Desktop 4: FTP on one side and a spreadsheet on the other.
Pidgin, the IM software that's compatible with Messenger, is visible on all four desktops, stuck to the right hand side of the right monitor.

Once we'd installed my new OS and set things up, making sure to have a double boot but with Linux first, the real problem wasn't not having Windows itself, but the different software available for Linux.  Thunderbird struggled to match Outlook, while the only calendar I use is Google's.  Microsoft Office has been replaced by OpenOffice, and so on ...

Firefox and Filezilla: an easy transition

Let's start with a good surprise: Firefox and Filezilla were both designed by Mozilla to work with absolutely any OS.  All I had to do was copy and paste my profile to get all my bookmarks, passwords and FTP passwords back. It's so easy and works so well that it makes for a smart solution.

Thunderbird: just about

Things were a little more complicated with Thunderbird.  We had to start by importing our mails into Thunderbird on Windows, which takes a very long time and is a  bit of a struggle, and then copy the files we got into Thunderbird for Linux.  Then we still had to set everything up: the filters (I use hundreds of them), search modules and address book all had to be done from scratch.

In general, you'd do well to have somebody who's used to Thunderbird talk you through it quickly if you want to avoid wasting too much time.  Otherwise, you might lose patience, like I did several times when I first started.

OpenOffice: a struggle!

The only part of the suite that I wanted to use for real work is Calc, which is supposed to be equivalent to Excel for Windows.  This was one of the hardest parts, and even now, I still end up cursing the program several times a day.  The inferface is much less simple, the different features aren't implemented as well and the graphics are ugly.  Above all, though, it's slow!  Big files take a long time to open, and adding a new filter to a column is definitely an excuse to go and make a cup of coffee.  It's very different to Excel, which can handle thousands of rows almost instantly.

It crashes, too, and it soon became obvious that some of our spreadsheets were just too demanding.

Gimp instead of Photoshop

This is the part I was most scared about.  Here in the office, we use an older version of Photoshop, so I wasn't worried about missing all the whizz-bang features of CS5, although they are very cool.  But we do use Photoshop almost every day.  Or we did ...

There's no other way of putting it, the switch to Gimp was a big shock.  The change from a plain grey background to a series of floating palettes was visually arresting in its own right.  Then I discovered that the keyboard shortcuts are all different, that the tools are laid differently and the layers are handled in a different way too.  It was enough to leave me with cold sweats.  Until, that is, I discovered an amazing tweak:

Edit > Keyboard Shortcuts: you can use it to map all of Gimp's shortcuts to match the ones you're used to from Photoshop.  Given that we often have to repeat the same action on photo after photo, this option was a real time-saver.

After a while, you soon get used to it, and I can certainly say that Gimp is perfectly adequate for providing the graphics we use on the site every day.  When it comes to detailed work on photos, I still prefer to wait until I go home so I can use Photoshop there.  It's going to take me a few more weeks or months before I can handle that ...