Adventures in Linux

For the last week I’ve not actually booted into Windows at all (well, unless I’ve been at work). Instead at home I’ve been using the wonderful Linux Mint.

I’m not entirely sure why I started doing this. There was certainly no cut-off point where I thought ‘right, that’s it, no more Windows ever again!’. I do recall a few months back having wondered what it would be like to have Linux on my actual desktop PC rather than just using it as a kind of necromantic spell with which to revive any dead PCs that people give me, but that was about it.

My introduction to the world of Linux had what I imagine to be a fairly typical starting point. A few years back I moved into my flat. The previous tenant was a friend of mine who’d left a few bits and bobs behind. One of these bits and bobs was a purportedly ‘dead’ PC which couldn’t be used because the hard drive was screwed. It was an old IDE hard drive, but I managed to find a replacement, and found myself wondering how to get it working. I thought about buying an old OEM copy of Win XP for it, but something in my baulked at shelling out for an OS for an old computer. Why not try Linux? So I did: Ubuntu looked easy (and it was), and so on it went.

So up until recently, if someone had given me a dead laptop or some computer parts I’d usually have installed Ubuntu. I like brown for a start (cue synaesthetic mixed metaphor: it was like having a chocolate and coffee flavoured OS, purring away like a Burmese cat on a warm summers evening), and the out-of-the-box Gnome 2 desktop was a bit like a friendlier version of Windows. Plus it was free, and so were all the weird little bits of software on it, so I didn’t have to worry about nasty license restrictions should I upgrade or find myself reinstalling anything. All in all a very happy option that I was pleased to use.

Unfortunately Ubuntu utterly shot themselves in both feet with the ‘Unity’ desktop. Like Windows 8’s Metro and touch-interface obsession and Skyrim’s completely unsuitable UI on the PC, this was a triumph of ‘Vision’ over usability and common-sense, which shot my workflow to hell and rendered using the OS a hopeless mess. Meanwhile Gnome 3 was doing something similar in it’s gnomey cave, thus similarly alienating its user base.

Sadly I had to put Ubuntu to bed as a result of this ‘blue sky’ meddling by the Unity visionaries, and didn’t bother with Linux much after that. However, the idea of having a free operating system, thus reducing my dependence on Windows, kept its appeal. I kept finding myself contemplating different imaginary scenarios where I’d work almost entirely with free/open source software, and so searched around for another distro that would be attractive, pleasant to use and, erm, actually usable.

For the benefit of Windows users reading this, it’s here that one of the most striking differences between Linux and Windows becomes apparent: the interface (desktop, windows, menus, buttons etc) is in fact seperate(ish) from the actual operating system itself. This means that you can have Linux installed, and depending on your hardware or your UI preferences, you can choose between different ‘Windows-ish’ setups. Up until recently there have been two main contenders, Gnome and KDE. Both of these offered a Windows-like experience, together with the various widgets, multiple workspaces and so on. Switching between different workspaces is great if you’re into multi-tasking, and is something I miss when working with Windows. There were subtle differences between Gnome and KDE, and these have become more marked as both have sought to make use of accelerated graphics hardware in different ways.

Neither Gnome 3, nor KDE really appealed to me. Ubuntu’s Unity was awful due to the way it hampered my ability to rapidly switch between tasks, Gnome 3 did similar, and KDE never really felt particularly ‘solid’.

Lately though, whilst Googling different versions of Linux, I found Linux Mint. I had used it before (when to my innocent mind it was just a ‘green’ version of Ubuntu), but not extensively. I saw that Clem Lefebvre and his Linux Mint team had heeded the criticisms levelled by the Linux community at Unity and Gnome 3, and set about finding solutions that would enable them to maintain a usable and pleasant Linux Distro that didn’t piss people off or crash their PCs. Thus Linux Mint is available with two Desktop environments: Cinnamon and MATE. Both are simple and enjoyable to use, and although they’re both very new they both feel and behave in a solid fashion. What’s most cheering about these projects is the way that folks working on both the MATE and Cinnamon projects have been careful to listen to the needs and the wishes of their userbases, improving those things that need to be improved whilst keeping the things that work well.

Since installing Linux Mint 12 as a second OS on my desktop PC, I’ve been tinkering around with it quite a bit. It was only yesterday that I noticed that the tinkering had become full-time use for the last week, and that I hadn’t actually used Windows at all at home during that period.

Mint boots quickly on my PC, doesn’t pester me with security updates, and doesn’t spend the first half hour working at a crawl whilst the antivirus updates itself. I can just get on with whatever everyday tasks I want to do, and Mint gets out of the way. The desktop customisation means that I’ve been able to arrange things in a manner that is both aesthetically pleasing and functional, and I’ve been learning about Linux on the way as well.

In fact, it’s the last bit that’s been the most satisfying, because even though there are icons on the desktop and menus here and there just like Windows, Linux differs to Windows in many ways so there’s been loads of new things to discover. I’ve been finding out about the file structure, the way permissions are used and also how to use scripts and terminal commands.

I’ll still be using Windows for music production (I swear by Orion and Komplete) and learning ASP.NET stuff (Visual Studio 2010 has no parallel). Oh, and AAA games like Skyrim too, but for everyday stuff I’ll stick with Mint.