So Long, and Thanks for all the Phish

(and worms, adware, and spyware…)
Dylan Burger

I am (was) a lifelong Microsoft user dating back to the DOS/Windows 3.1 days; never really wanted to switch. For the longest time Windows didn’t just serve my needs, it excited me. I can remember getting Windows 95 on release day and having the sense of wonder exploring for hours culminating in the discovery of the Buddy Holly Easter Egg. The value of “plug and play” was immediately obvious to me although there were significant growing pains and it wasn’t fully actualized until future versions. Windows 98 was a worthy successor to 95 that began to show us the true potential of the internet. For me, XP was probably the pinnacle of the Windows experience. It had finally matured enough to be stable, hardware compatibility was excellent, and internet usage felt fully integrated into the OS for the first time. Nobody wanted to replace XP! But since XP my love for Windows has slowly eroded- Vista and Windows 8 were particular annoyances: overpricing, excessive hardware demands and a forced move to cloud profiles being my main complaints. Despite these issues, I always managed to stick with Windows. I tolerated the security vulnerabilities that cropped up and rationalized that it was a product of being the most popular OS in the world. I justified the exponential increase in trackers over time as a trade-off for better security and stability (not that it ever felt more secure or more stable). Even frustrations and inconveniences like untimely forced updates, OneDrive, and the Windows store were not enough to push me to change.

One reason that I stuck around has been my career. I’m in medical research and I am heavily tied to Windows due to our reliance on Office Suite and several proprietary software packages for data handing and analylsis. Some in my field have switched to Apple but I’d see compatibility issues crop up during presentations or issues working in shared documents and I can’t afford to have that. Plus, I hate Apple. My God do I hate Apple. Literally every Apple product I have ever used felt like it was built specifically to

p!$$ intelligent people off. No, Apple was not, is not, and will not be an option. Chrome? I do too much work offline for that to be a pleasant experience. Plus I’’m trying to reduce the amount of data I give google, not increase it.

Throughout this process I was aware of Linux, but had not seriously considered it as an alternative. I had briefly used Ubuntu on a friend’s netbook in the late 00s and I owned an early generation Raspberry Pi, but these experiences failed to convince me that Linux was a viable option as a daily driver. So I never seriously explored other Linux distros. As a result, like many a divorcee before me, I stayed in my relationship for far longer than I should have.

The final straw with Windows came in March when the COVID pandemic forced me to face my complacency head-on. A little background: I do the vast majority of my computing on my desktop at work. I run an I7-7700 with 32 GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD on that and I have generally kept my primary system fairly up to date over the years. But my work needs outside of the office (pre-COVID) were limited to use of the web and word/powerpoint. My limited home computing needs coupled with frequent travel have led me to use Windows-based netbooks as my sole home PC for over a decade. At the time of the COVID pandemic I was using a Dell Inspiron 11 3162 with 2 GB of RAM and a 32 GB SSD. The system shipped with Windows 10 taking up approximately 11 GB worth of space. This allowed me to run Office and a handful of applications for basic data analysis and productivity (PDF writer, R, Zotero, Dropbox). It was surprisingly fast for such a low-spec system and the battery life is amazing (I can work for a full transatlantic flight without needing a charge). The problem was that the updates to Windows 10 got progressively larger and larger and my system became bloated. Eventually, even after removing all non-essential software and storing all files/folders on an external drive, I still didn’t have enough available space to download and update my system. At the same time, performance suffered and the lag began to frustrate. Call me crazy, but if a system ships with an operating system then I feel like it should work for the lifespan of the computer.

So COVID-19 hits and now I have to face the reality of working full-time on a system that isn’t receiving security updates, lacks the space needed for any additional software, and lags significantly. I nuked and paved, which recovered some of my space but very soon I was lacking the space to update once more. At this point I decided to look into other options while I purchased a new system. I read from several sources that Linux was quite effective at getting the most out of older hardware and I decided to give it a chance. Worst case scenario I’d just put Windows back on.

For to the uninitiated, installing Linux is quite simple. There are hundreds of guides out there but I find this one to be quite good. My first venture into Linux desktop was with Lubuntu. From my initial research this seemed to be a strong option for older systems amongst the popular distros. This proved to be true and in retrospect it was a perfect choice for an introduction to Linux. I was able to get familiar with the “live” usb process and installing over the existing operating system. I ran into zero issues with the process and was soon exploring the new system. I immediately realized a profound speed difference and I was suddenly space rich (even after installing LibreOffice, and moving my documents folders over). I also really liked the look of Lubuntu (at least compared to Windows 10). I saw enough to hold off on reinstalling Windows for a few weeks and from there I was down the Linux rabbit hole.

Over the next few weeks, I started reading, watching countless Youtube vidoes and listening to Linux-related podcasts such as MintCast and Linux for Everyone (and later Distrohoppers Digest). I began to learn of other distros and the concept of “distro hopping” to find one’s preferred Linux environment. I was generally happy with Lubuntu but wanted to see what others had to offer. My own distro hopping period was shorter than most. I spent about a week trying everything that I could think of: Ubuntu (all official versions), Manjaro (both KDE and XFCE), Fedora (GNOME), PopOS, Zorin, Debian, and finally Linux Mint. Once I tried Linux Mint (Cinnamon version) I was done searching. While I could happily use every single distribution I tested, Mint is far and away my preference and Cinnamon is very much my preferred desktop environment. I love Mint’s look and feel: familiar, yet modern looking and smooth. Most importantly, everything about it is simple. Immediately after the install, everything worked without issue; my printer was working without so much as having to click an icon. If I want to change a setting, the option is always right where I think it should be. Beyond setup and configuration I find Mint to be incredibly reliable: updates have yet to cause any issues for me and the software management system is fantastic.

At this point I had realized that Linux was a better option than Windows for my Pre-COVID needs on my home system. The system was running far better than it ever did on Windows, particularly when browsing, and Libreoffice was an adequate substitute for Microsoft Office. However I now had a strong desire to move on from Windows 10 completely. So I began to search for options for all my major software needs. And while my distro-hopping days were short, my “FOSS-hopping” has been much more extensive (and is still ongoing).

For the sake of brevity, the table below summarizes my personal software needs, the previous software that I employed on Windows, the software that I now employ on Linux, and other options that I evaluated. Perhaps down the road I will write separate columns about my software choices on Linux. For now this is just to illustrate that there are software options out there that have allowed me to move over on a near full-time basis.

As you can see I have found a Linux version or a free and open source software [FOSS] equivalent for almost of the software that I use. I am, as they say, a “Mostly Open Source Software” user at this point. If you are a Windows user still on the fence about switching then I would point out that most of the software above has a Windows version that you can try while still on Windows. For the very rare situations where my current software solution isn’t perfect I currently use Remmina to remote desktop to my work computer. Going forward I plan to try Wine and virtual machines as other options for those tricky Windows software needs but for now I am happy with my setup.

So after a 28 year relationship with Windows I am moving on. Like all separations after a lengthy relationship I anticipate a period of time with some interaction while I sort things out, but I don’t anticipate that taking long. I know that there are Windows users out there who are frustrated. It is easy in that situation to feel like there are no alternatives. But the reality is that there are perfectly viable free alternatives to Windows and many major software packages. Give them a try.

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