Computing Without Windows

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Six months ago, Rich Swerbinsky trudged out of the Windows camp and never looked back. The 28-year-old mortgage and finance specialist used Windows-based PCs both at home and at work for years. So when his aging, Windows XP-based home laptop suffered a series of hardware and software failures, Swerbinsky figured he would replace it with another, faster, Dell notebook.

That is, until he started asking around and heard friends rave about the Apple IBook. "I had no idea that Apples were back in the game and gaining popularity and were as high-quality as they were," Swerbinsky says. "I thought they were a dinosaur."

Today, Swerbinsky is the proud owner of a sleek Apple IBook G4, which he purchased at Micro Center for about $1,100. Swerbinsky enthuses about the new laptop--and the Mac OS X operating system that came with it, praising its ease of use and stability.

"I think if you took somebody who had never seen a computer in their life and asked them to diddle around with a Windows PC and a Mac OS X PC, they would find OS X easier to use," Swerbinsky says.

Whether they do or not, these days there are several operating systems that, like Mac OS X, are at least easy to use, opening the door to new choices and healthy competition that can only mean better OSs down the road.

For years there have been several operating systems to choose from, but the newest ones--those based on a Linux kernel--have actually been hard to use, at least for the average user. But times have definitely changed. Get your hands on something like the latest version of Xandros Desktop, a flavor of Linux, and you might swear you've used it before.

None of this means you'll automatically dump Windows (unless you've simply grown tired of Microsoft, as some vocal computer users have). It does, however, mean you have choices. Do a little shopping around, and you may find an operating system that works better for you.

Windows Gets Company

Windows has dominated the desktop and laptop operating system scene for so long, it's easy to see why guys like Swerbinsky might not realize that competition is still out there. In fact, computer owners have never enjoyed a better selection of operating systems, says Jon Changnon, a network security engineer for a large financial institution. Changnon has been using various versions of Linux on his home and work PCs for more than ten years, starting out with the Slackware flavor.

"It's definitely at its most accessible point ever," Changnon says of the Linux operating system. "It used to be a nightmare of finding drivers and getting the monitor to configure correctly for LCD support and all that stuff. Now you just throw in a CD, and you can get a Linux install up and running."

It may not always be that easy, but people are clearly growing more comfortable using Linux. Both Linux and Apple are gaining desktop market share, but the two OSs have a long way to go before they challenge Windows for supremacy. Today, Microsoft's share of the PC OS market hovers above 90 percent, while Linux and Apple each account for about 3 percent of shipments apiece.

Numbers aside, consumers can find a lot to like from either camp. Apple recently rolled out an update of Mac OS X, code-named Tiger, that offers some refinements to the already-polished operating system. Its new, integrated desktop search tool, called Spotlight, adds instant system search, while the Safari 2.0 Web browser adds support for RSS and Atom feeds, which are used by many blogs. There are also the somewhat bemusing Dashboard features, which should invite a surge of useful desktop modules for doing everything from telling time to connecting to Internet-based data sources.

Of course, anyone who buys a new Apple computer will also get the ILife package--including ITunes, IMovies, IPhoto, and IDVD--as part of the deal. The refined and tightly integrated software makes Apple the best overall platform for consumer-based media editing and management.

Linux: Distro Inferno

The water is less clear on the Linux side of the creek. Because Linux is an open-source operating system, different companies, organizations, and individuals are free to craft their own versions. While these different Linux flavors--called distributions, or "distros" for short--use a common set of core code, they are tweaked and extended by the authors. The result: an embarrassment of riches that Changnon admits can get a bit overwhelming.

"There's always the distro of the week, and now there's hundreds and hundreds of distros to choose from," says Changnon. "If you want a safe bet you want to go with one you know has been around awhile."

While there are scores of Linux distros, the most popular and prominent ones can be counted on two hands. Here's a quick list.

Xandros Desktop: It'll cost you 50 bucks, but the Standard Edition Xandros distro is astonishingly easy to install and use. Cheapskates (like me) can get the trimmed-down Open Circulation Edition free using BitTorrent.

Red Hat Desktop: The buttoned-down version of Linux most favored by corporations, Red Hat Linux is a polished, fee-based product that most resembles traditional software in its packaging and support.

Novell Linux Desktop: Built atop the venerable SuSE Linux (also owned by Novell), this distro should enjoy a healthy run with the suit-and-tie crowd now that Novell is working to make this client attractive to businesses.

Fedora Core: Also produced by Red Hat, Fedora Linux is a free distro that shares a great deal of technology with its Red Hat cousin. Fedora Linux often receives cutting-edge technology updates before Red Hat, since the company field-tests new code and features on Fedora first.

Mandriva (formerly Mandrake): Long regarded as the most user-friendly Linux distro, Mandriva can be a bit less stable than other distros.

Debian: Another popular distribution, Debian enjoys a reputation as the hacker's Linux and offers comprehensive control over the system. Installation and setup are much easier today than in the past.

Slackware: A pioneering distro, Slackware remains a favorite among Linux experts for its compactness and speed.

Gentoo: A sleek and swift distro that caters to the technical crowd. If you're just starting out with Linux, you probably won't choose Slackware or Gentoo.

The good news is that the selection of Linux-based software continues to broaden and expand. See "Ubuntu Linux, Free and Fabulous" for a discussion of Ubuntu Linux, a promising new distro. And for advice about how to give your PC a trial run on Linux, read "Test-Drive Linux."

You can also find terrific applications tuned for Linux, including (a free and very complete Microsoft Office clone), Firefox (the popular browser), the Gaim multiprotocol instant messaging client, and the Evolution mail, calendar, and contact-management software that integrates with Microsoft Exchange Server.

"It works great. I can schedule appointments, set meetings, everything," says Changnon of Evolution. "I actually like the calendar in Evolution better. And don't get me wrong. Outlook is one of the few Microsoft programs that I think is pretty good."

In fact, the software works so well that for the first time, Changnon was able to switch off Windows entirely at work and rely on a single, Linux-based PC in the office. It took more than ten years, but moves like Changnon's are now more possible than ever before.

Michael Desmond is publishing director at Bock Interactive, an e-commerce consulting and software firm located in Burlington, Vermont.

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