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Living free with Linux: 2 weeks without Windows

Can a dedicated Windows user make it for two weeks using only Linux? Preston Gralla tried it and lived to tell this tale.

January 21, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - It's one of those perennial age-old battles that can never be resolved. Coke or Pepsi? Chocolate or vanilla? Linux or Windows?

I've been in the trenches of those wars for years. I've written about Windows since the days of Windows 2.0, including numerous books and hundreds or even thousands of articles, blogs and columns. Along the way, I've been called every name in the book -- and many you won't find in any books, either -- by Linux proponents, because I've extolled the benefits of Windows, while ignoring those of Linux.

So I thought it was finally time to confront the issue myself. How does Linux stack up against Windows? Which is really easier to use and less expensive? Which actually lets you be more productive? In short: Could I live without Windows at all and run my life on Linux for two weeks without spending a penny for software? Since one of Linux's great virtues is that it, and many of the applications that run under it, are open source, part of the attraction for me was to see if I could use an operating system and applications that were completely free.

To put myself to the test, I borrowed an IBM ThinkPad T41 with 1.5GB of RAM and a Pentium M 1.6-GHz processor. It already had Windows XP installed on it, but if I wanted, I could wipe the drive clean.

Choosing and installing Linux

The uninitiated (as I was) will most likely be initially overwhelmed by the number of Linux distributions available, many of which sound as if they were named by participants at a Star Trek convention after too much late-night carousing: Gentoo, Debian, Knoppix, Madriva, SUSE, Red Hat, Xandros, Ubuntu -- and that's just a very short list.

My goal was to live in Linux for free, so that ruled out commercial Linux distributions such as Xandros. I checked with a number of Linux pros and fans, and in the end, I relied on my most trusted expert, my 18-year-old son Gabe, who recommended that I go with Ubuntu, using the Wubi installer. Wubi creates a multiboot system on a Windows PC that lets you boot into either your existing version of Windows or into Ubuntu. You don't have to modify any partitions, and you don't have to use a different boot loader than the one Windows uses. As an added bonus, it can be installed and uninstalled like any other Windows application.

Living with Linux
Ubuntu has a clean, uncluttered interface.
Click to view larger image

At first, installation seemed straightforward. I downloaded the Wubi installation file and ran it, which in turn downloaded a 694.5MB file. The installation program told me it needed to reboot. I told it to go ahead.

The Hardware Gods, though, were not pleased; perhaps I had forgotten to sacrifice a goat. My ThinkPad T41 didn't reboot, even though the installer tried. So I took matters into my own hands and chose to reboot from the Windows Start menu. (At this point, the installation program was still running in Windows.) Once again, it stood firm and refused to reboot.

As a long-suffering Windows user, I'm used to this kind of thing, so I tried the three-finger salute and pressed Ctrl-Alt-Del -- twice. Again, no go. Eventually, I had to unplug the machine's power cord, take out the battery, then put the battery and power cord back in. Then I restarted.

At first, things seemed to go according to plan. After the restart, a dual-boot screen appeared, asking whether I wanted to boot into XP or Ubuntu. I chose Ubuntu and figured I was on my way. Wrong. I booted into a screen that looked like this:

BusyBox v1.1.3 (Debian 1:1.1.3-3ubuntu3) Built-in shell (ash)
Enter 'help' for a list of built in commands.

As a Windows user, I'm used to seeing incomprehensible screens. But this one put even Microsoft to shame. I rebooted again (this time it worked) and once again chose Ubuntu from the dual-boot screen. Once again the mysterious screen appeared. I typed "help" at the prompt to find the list of commands. The "help" was of absolutely no help. I got a listing of several dozen commands -- things like alias, break, continue, pwd, loadfont and so on -- but no information about what they did or how to use them.

I rebooted yet again. And this time, for reasons known only to the Linux Gods (perhaps they don't require goat sacrifices after all), I booted into a Ubuntu GUI that began configuring my system. Finally! Well ... not quite finally. After about 10 minutes, Ubuntu stopped functioning and the PC rebooted on its own.

After that reboot, though, all was right with the world. Ubuntu finally installed on the system as a dual-boot option and was absolutely rock-solid every time I booted into it. So solid, in fact, that it never failed to boot. So solid that I never experienced a single crash or Blue Screen of Death in all the weeks that I used it, either in the operating system itself or any of the applications I used -- something I certainly can't say about Windows XP.

Amazingly -- at least to a Linux novice like me -- Ubuntu recognized all the hardware on my T41, including the built-in wireless card, so I didn't have to fiddle around with drivers. If Microsoft had done this good a job with drivers on Vista, perhaps that operating system wouldn't be so troubled right now.

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