Linux Misinformation

I’ve been using Linux in it’s various forms for quite some time (around 15 years) in one form or another. I quite like some aspects of it, and now with modern distributions it has become a decent contender for a main stream desktop operating system. However there is a lot of misinformation floating around the net about just how good it is, and after stumbling upon a website called www.whylinuxisbetter.net I thought it might be an idea to dispel some of these myths.

It is often claimed that Linux doesn’t get viruses, which is blatantly not true. I’ve personally cleaned viruses and worms from Linux machines owned by clients. Granted many of these were because of poor decisions made by the person responsible for the machine, but this is also frequently true of infections on windows PCs. Also other OS’s such as Mac OSX and the various flavours of BSD use many of the same tools and are roughly at least as secure as Linux, if not arguably more so.

Linux is often said to be more reliable or stable than windows. This is something that was true historically when comparing Linux to say Windows ME or 98. But compared to a machine with Windows XP sp3 or later? Not really. I used to repair many windows machines during the hey-day of windows XP and the main causes of instability were hardware and third-party software, hardly Microsoft’s fault. For the most part Linux has little third party software to speak of, so only hardware could cause faults. Linux is not immune to hardware faults or third-party drivers.

Hardware support in the form of drivers is another bug-bear for many people. Sure you don’t have to install drivers for most of your hardware under Linux, but if your particular hardware isn’t supported you have little recourse but to get different hardware. I found this recently with a Creative sound card not functioning correctly. Sure there was a kernel module for it, but it didn’t work correctly and I didn’t have time to trawl the vast technical documents to fix it. Under windows this would have been a five minute install the correct driver job.

That doesn’t count the fact that you still do need to worry about drivers for you graphics card. Xorg will work with most hardware out of the box, but with little or no acceleration. If you own an Nvidia or AMD graphics card you need to have installed their third-party driver to really get the best out of your card. Some distributions like Ubuntu have packages for these drivers, but because they are non-free many distributions do not install them or make them available by default.

Other hardware that requires third-party drivers also exists but is fairly unusual. When you do need to install these kernel modules it is not as simple as running a driver wizard under windows. You usually have to compile the module from source which requires a certain amount of technical ability. It’s not all that hard if you know how, but the average user would not cope.

If you’re using older hardware, there is generally pretty good support, except for more obscure hardware. Performance wise it all really depends on your definition of old. A machine say less than 5 years old will work fine in most cases, but be a little sluggish. Older machines however struggle unless you’re willing to make compromises to improve performance. So whilst using older hardware is possible, some things will be unavoidably slower. Much of this is down to the software rather than the OS, so for something like Firefox you can expect similar performance as with windows on the same machine.

Getting software is another interesting point. All Linux distributions have a nice package system that allows you to get software that you need fairly easily. The software available is of varying quality however, some being very good like OpenOffice or GIMP, whilst others aren’t anywhere near as good.

Also older software disappears from the packaging systems once development has stopped or development focus has shifted elsewhere. There is much older software available on other Unixes such as FreeBSD that has disappeared from Linux repositories, some of them still being quite useful, or entertaining in the case of older Unix games. If you use Linux for long enough expect some of your favourite software to change dramatically or disappear, even after just updating your machine. This happens because of the focus amongst some distributions on being cutting edge rather than retaining compatibility or useful software.

The main problem with getting software for Linux (or any BSD for that matter) is that if it is not in the package repository/system it is incredibly difficult to get and install most of the time. It’s difficult to distribute binaries out side of the packaging system for simple download and install on Linux systems. It can be done, but most of the time source code is distributed instead. Again this requires technical knowledge most people don’t have, and this doesn’t include the possible dependency hell involved in the process. If you think about downloading software for Windows or Mac OSX, they are much simpler, you download an installer and away you go, and developers provide good installers for both most of the time.

Updating can also be troublesome, I’ve had updates on several distributions severely break my system or software. Updates to the kernel or X can also result in needing to re-install graphic drivers just to get the display to work again. This varies wildly from distribution to distribution depending on how they perform updates and technical information.

I could cover more of the points in the list, but I think I’ve made my point. For each OS whether it be Windows, Linux, Mac OSX, or a BSD there are a number of advantages and trade-offs. I’m not saying Linux is bad by any stretch, but it does have many of the same issues and issues all of it’s own that can and will put off many end users. We have to remember most end users can not do many of the things that could be required of them when running a Linux system.


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