For many users, getting started with Linux is surprisingly easy. New, friendlier versions of the free operating system, such as Fedora and Ubuntu, feature straightforward menus and automated installations that make switching from Windows to Linux a relatively simple process.
But a lot of people who try Linux dump it and switch back to Windows the instant they want to get some work done, mostly because they don’t know which Linux programs to use in lieu of their old Windows standbys. Fortunately, such confusion need last only a moment.
Linux offers equivalents to many Windows applications that are often as good as–or even better than–the programs you’re used to. In some cases the apps are also available in Windows and Mac OS versions, allowing dual-booters to stay with the same set of free programs regardless of the operating system in use.
For your convenience, we’ve provided download links to as many of these applications as possible. The majority of them, however, come preinstalled in the most popular Linux distributions, or are available through online software installers such as Fedora‘s YUM or Ubuntu‘s Synaptic Package Manager. Installing new software through your Linux distribution’s package management system is generally better than installing programs manually, so check your OS’s software repositories before downloading any of the apps from our links.
If you like Microsoft Office, try OpenOffice.org. Microsoft‘s flagship product is feature-rich and friendly, but it’s expensive and it doesn’t run natively under Linux. Though Microsoft doesn’t sell a Linux version of Office, most Linux distributions come with a variety of free office suites, as well as individual productivity applications such as KOffice’s KWrite word processor and Gnumeric spreadsheet.
Nothing comes closer to matching Microsoft’s suite than OpenOffice.org 2.3, which includes the Write word processor, Calc spreadsheet, Impress presentation software, Base database designer, Draw vector-graphics program, and Math formula editor. All of the apps can import and export files in native Microsoft Office formats, or be configured to use them by default. Windows and Mac OS X versions are also available.
In place of Outlook, use Evolution. Microsoft Office’s indispensable personal information manager is one key element for which the OpenOffice.org suite has no counterpart. Evolution fills the gap, combining an excellent e-mail reader with contact manager, calendar, sticky-note, and to-do-list modules.
Evolution supports standard Internet protocols such as POP3 and IMAP servers, LDAP directories, and CalDAV calendar servers, allowing you to import and export information easily and share it with other people online. Evolution will even link up with your existing Google mail and calendar accounts.
Instead of Windows Notepad, run Kate or Gedit. Sometimes you need to type some text, and only some text, without embedded formatting or other hidden codes. Windows Notepad does the job quickly and cleanly, and is so simple that any idiot (like me) can use it.
Linux and Unix are famous (some say infamous) for their powerful and arcane command-line text editors, vi and emacs. No need to yank your hair out when you need to edit a text file, however: The KDE desktop manager (the default in SuSE Linux) comes with the lovely Kate, and the Gnome environment (the default in Ubuntu) offers Gedit. Each is as easy to use as Windows Notepad is.
If you like Quicken, try GnuCash. Though Intuit’s products are still the tops in computerized personal finance management, they don’t run natively under Linux. GnuCash may not be quite as slick, but like Quicken it tracks all of your accounts and expenses and handles double-entry accounting; it can import Quicken QIF and OFX files, as well.
If you are a light user of QuickBooks (I’m still using the 1999 version), you may be able to use GnuCash for your business too. Otherwise, try the more industrial-strength SQL-Ledger application. The best way to get GnuCash is through your package manager, but you can read more info at the GnuCash site.
Trade in Microsoft Publisher for Scribus. Microsoft’s quick-and-easy desktop publisher meets its open-source match in Scribus, which makes designing newsletters, brochures, and presentation slides from scratch, or from included templates, easy.
In addition to offering the usual grid, hyphenation, and typography tools, Scribus can export your document as a PDF file, making it a good stand-in for Adobe Acrobat, too. Scribus can’t import your existing Quark or InDesign projects, however.
To replace Internet Explorer, try Konqueror. If you prefer to surf the Web in Firefox or Opera, switching to Linux will have little effect on your online life: Both browsers exist in native Linux versions and behave almost the same under Linux as they do under Windows. Not so with Internet Explorer, which is a Windows-only application.
If you use the KDE desktop, the Konqueror file browser doubles as a Web browser, letting you jump from files to Web sites without having to wait for a browser to launch, the same way Explorer can. (Konqueror also runs under Gnome, but may start up more slowly when you first launch it.)
Addicted to AIM? Check out Pidgin or Kopete. AOL offers a Linux version of its ubiquitous instant messenger, but why limit yourself to just one network? Pidgin (formerly known as Gaim) lets you connect with friends on more than a dozen IM networks, including AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger.
If you use KDE rather than Gnome, you may prefer Kopete, which offers similar IM network support but integrates better with the KDE environment.
BitTorrent users, try Azureus. Peer-to-peer file sharing isn’t just for pirates these days. Many Linux distributors now offer .iso disc images of their wares via the BitTorrent network. The Azureus BitTorrent client lets neophytes find and share files, but also incorporates advanced features for experts.
Skype runs in Linux, but you could use Ekiga instead. Skype users, fear not: Skype for Linux 1.4 is nearly the same as the Windows version, lacking only video support (as we went to press, a beta version of Skype for Linux 2.0 included video support).
Despite Skype’s popularity, however, you may want to use an alternative open-source Voice-over-IP tool called Ekiga. Using the SIP standard, Ekiga lets you talk to other users of SIP-compatible VoIP programs (including Windows Messenger), and it allows you to make calls to landlines if you subscribe to a SIP-compatible VoIP provider such as Gizmo or Wengo. Unlike Skype, Ekiga doesn’t use your PC to handle other callers’ traffic.
Audio/Video Playback and Authoring
If you’re into iTunes or Windows Media Player, give Amarok or VLC a spin. Your Linux distribution probably comes with a choice of music players, but the one that most closely matches the features of the leading Windows players is Amarok. As in iTunes (or Windows Media Player or Winamp), you can build a library of music, play CDs, create playlists, copy songs to your portable MP3 player, and stream online stations, including Last.fm.
Ripping CDs to your Amarok library requires a bit of Konquerer drag-and-drop sleight of hand, or you can simply use the excellent Sound Juicer or Grip rippers included with your Linux distribution. Amarok even incorporates an online music store, albeit one devoid of major-label artists.
Amarok doesn’t do video, unfortunately. Another excellent free player, VLC, offers a compact, uncluttered interface and plays just about any video or audio file type you throw at it, including streaming video and audio, DVDs, and CDs.
Instead of Nero, use K3B. Nero 8 Ultra Edition does it all–ripping, burning, authoring, backing up, and more, to both CDs and DVDs. K3B nearly matches Nero’s prowess, allowing you to rip or copy CDs and DVDs, format and erase rewritable DVDs and CDs, burn CD and DVD .iso image files to disc, and create audio CDs, video DVDs, and data discs in both formats.
Replace Windows Media Center with MythTV. Wish you could build your own Linux-based digital video recorder like the one in Windows Media Center? MythTV does the job, supporting a number of popular video-capture cards (including HDTV versions) and remote controls.
Installing and configuring MythTV is not for Linux newbies, however. You can sidestep much of the process by downloading and installing Mythbuntu, a Ubuntu Linux variant that comes with MythTV preinstalled.
Other Apps and Utilities
In lieu of Photoshop, use The GIMP or Krita. The GIMP has long been both praised and reviled. It’s a powerful image editor with features that rival Adobe Photoshop’s, but it’s also a little harder to learn. If you’re used to Photoshop, you can smooth your transition to The GIMP by using GIMPshop, a version of The GIMP modified to mimic Photoshop’s interface (as we went to press, a version based on the latest edition of Photoshop was not yet available).
A bevy of free GIMP plug-ins add key missing features, including RAW image support. If you’re just starting out with image editing under Linux, however, you may want to try Krita’s collection of tools, which are geared to beginners and pros alike.
Replace Partition Magic with GParted. Moving, resizing, adding, and deleting disk partitions can be stressful. Windows doesn’t even provide the necessary tools for most of the operations, forcing you to buy an expensive utility such as Partition Magic. Your Linux distribution, on the other hand, offers a powerful, free partition editor called GParted that shows a graphical display of partition locations and sizes and provides drag-and-drop editing tools. You’ll find GParted built into several major distros, and you can learn more at the GParted Web site.
Scott Spanbauer is a contributing editor for PC World.