Intended audience: (1) Those folks who use PCs, but don’t particularly love them. It’s just a basic convenience, on a par with telephones, washer & dryer, refrigerator, etc. This is easily the majority of Americans who own a PC, and perhaps a big part of the rest of the world. (2) Small business owners who have workstations for pretty much the same reasons — an asset which improves the profit margin, may even be critical to operations, but is not the primary nature of the business.
A major element in understanding these users is realizing, while they aren’t cheapskates, they hope to minimize the investment of time and resources into their PCs. If it consumes too much, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. There are trade offs involved, but the most important thing to understand is the computer is just a tool, not the central function, not even a hobby. This is no place for purists and zealots. Nor will this series be of much use to those who must run specialized applications on those computers. The primary use pattern is common documents, standard communications and research, with a minor concern for mere entertainment.
Why would you consider migrating from Windows to Linux? In my work as a volunteer computer service technician, the one thing which finds traction is the impending death of XP. That Vista is significantly different without necessarily being better, and requires hardware they can’t afford, while their current machine is still in good shape, and perhaps the fear (justified or not) which results from all the sales pitches they can’t avoid designed to prod them into buying the next new security package, are all contributing factors. But they don’t want a new hobby; they just want their computer to work with less hassle.
I tell these people there is no magic pill. Switching is a way of shifting the cost profile, which includes time and money. When you start having more time than money, Linux starts to look a lot better. If you aren’t willing to invest that time up front, you can’t get past the hump of migration. If you can put some effort into it, you can afford to relax a lot more on the other side. Naturally this calls for a Linux which doesn’t require constant attention, and there’s precious few projects which consider this at all important, as noted in the past. There are two paths I recommend to folks considering migration: Ubuntu and CentOS.
Try Ubuntu first. There are multiple versions offered at any one time, but for those seeking stability, look for the “LTS” label. Never allow yourself to be tricked into using the most current just because it’s the latest and greatest. Six months from now you’ll have to update, and it will surely break things. If you don’t consider your computer a hobby, stick with the LTS releases, because they are good for a couple of years. Next, join the Ubuntu forums; it’s the best and cheapest support system you’ll ever find for installation and initial setup. Be prepared to explain every time you aren’t a hobbyist and LTS is essential to your purpose. Don’t be drawn into discussions which revolve around why “you just gotta run the latest”. Those who actually can help you the most will understand.
It’s possible you won’t be happy with Ubuntu. The biggest issue is hardware setup, followed closely by the particular system of The Ubuntu Way of doing things. It’s not for everyone. Also, please note as your LTS version ages, somewhere short of two years from the release date, the volunteer support degrades rapidly. The term “support” is a bit ambiguous here. The company which produces Ubuntu offers support in the sense you can expect them to keep providing updates and fixes for the operating system and some of the packages which run on top of that system. They also sell the other kind of support, where you can contact someone who will help you with specific issues. The forums are a way of avoiding the costs of that second kind of support. But the free forum support is provided mostly by Linux enthusiasts and serious hobby users, and they tend to lose interest when you don’t keep up with them. Otherwise, they are some really nice people, and this is about as good as it gets.
If the problem is your hardware is just not powerful enough to run Ubuntu, but is in pretty good shape still, you will need to accept the necessity of spending a lot more time making this work. You can try Puppy Linux. The folks on the forums are just as nice, just as helpful, but the project is much smaller. Also, it simply won’t work on some older laptops, for example. Still, for older machines, it’s one of the best options.
If your PC is less than six years old, and you are more independent, capable of chasing solutions scattered randomly across the web using search engines, or finding and reading somewhat more technical documentation which comes with the system, then I recommend CentOS. This is a project based on the commercial grade Red Hat Enterprise Linux. You can pay for a Red Hat license and get their business grade support (help), or you can use CentOS for free, and still benefit from their system support (updates and fixes). Know up front, this is a more no-nonsense approach to things, but with that comes stability. You install once, and keep it working just fine for a long time — at least five years.
Let’s be frank here: The folks who offer CentOS aren’t all that helpful if you aren’t running a server. That’s the focus of their work, and most of them simply don’t have the mindset for typical consumer computer habits. You can join the forum, but you may be disappointed. However, the product is versatile enough to be used on a home PC with some modicum of effort. As the information for this tends to be scattered and scant in some areas, the rest of this series will be dedicated to describing how most common home PC users can tame CentOS. Most of this is explained elsewhere, but the writing tends to assume a level of expertise most home users don’t have and don’t want to cultivate. You don’t really need to, at least not right away.