Digital Fever – Choices, choices, choices
By Mike Kroll
Well Microsoft has finally released the long anticipated and much hyped Windows Vista operating system. When this software was released to the general public three weeks ago Microsoft and its founder Bill Gates said there was only one word to describe the new OS, “wow!” I'm afraid I must disagree with Mr. Gates on this assessment as I find the delivered product to be a big yawn. Apparently I am not the only one to feel this way. Despite massive positive blather by the many computer magazines (that depend upon Microsoft for ad revenue and fear retribution for reporting honestly that Vista amounts to little more than expensive and resource squandering eye-candy) so far sales of MS Vista have been well below projections.
If you have already made the leap to Vista I hope you enjoy your adventure and highly recommend that you shell out for the additional memory before going nuts over Vista's performance. For those who haven't yet made the decision but are contemplating either buying a new computer or upgrading an existing computer please allow me to offer you some advice.
First, if your existing computer is more than a year or two old forget about the option to upgrade to Vista. If that older computer runs Windows XP well enough for your needs and you are satisfied with it just ignore the hype and continue using what you have. If your existing computer is new or relatively new but has an Intel Celeron processor or an Intel Pentium 4 less than 3.0 gigahertz or any AMD processor slower than the Athlon XP or Sempron 3000+ Vista is not a realistic option. Do not let someone talk you into replacing that processor – that's a sucker's move. Instead stay with Windows XP and consider investing in some more memory (especially if you have 512 megabytes or less of random access memory) or a better video card for a performance boost and to get at least another year or two out of that computer (you will thank me). Regardless of what you have read there is nothing wrong with Windows XP that Vista will magically fix. At this point in its lifecycle Windows XP still has lots of useful life left despite its imperfections and warts.
Second, if you are in the above group hardware-wise but have already grown sick and tired of Microsoft and Windows you do have alternatives. Most people use their computer to do basic word processing, spreadsheets, browse the Internet, send and receive e-mail, store and manipulate digital pictures or music and play simple, non-demanding games. If this description fits you there is an alternative most never consider, chuck Windows and blow raspberries at Microsoft by adopting a variation of Linux. Linux is a totally different operating system based on the concepts originated in Unix, one of the most stable and long-lived operating systems around.
Unlike Microsoft products Linux systems almost never crash and many operate for years without requiring a reboot. That's why Linux is the choice of many who operate computer servers such as those that host web pages or e-mail servers across the Internet. While Microsoft has heralded improvements in security as one of the “wow” features in Vista the fact is no version of Windows can hold a candle to any version of Unix or Linux in terms of security. Viruses and spyware are Windows plagues and virtual non-issues in any other operating system including Linux and Apple's Mac OS X (which itself is built upon a variant of Unix!). While Linux isn't typically sold at your nearby discount store that doesn't mean Linux is hard to get. In fact, Linux is available totally free for the asking and you can install your copy on as many computers as you wish without piracy concerns.
As an operating system there is no version of Windows than can hold a candle to any modern Linux in terms of utility, stability, or the ability to multitask. And Linux has multiple graphics user interfaces from which you can choose your own favorite. And for those of us with perfectly good computers that just don't have the horsepower required to run Vista Linux is a sight for sore pocketbooks. Any computer that can run Windows XP can run Linux as well or better without the need for costly upgrades. Unlike most other operating systems Linux is more of a tool chest. In addition to the expected operating system functionality Linux includes virtually all the other software programs you will need for no extra charge. If you have an Internet connection you can download even more software for Linux, most at no cost other than the Internet connection and your time.
Microsoft and other critics of Linux will tell you that as an Open Source product you cannot get the necessary support for the software that Microsoft offers. If you have ever actually tried to obtain support from Microsoft then you already know what a ludicrous statement this is. Unless you shell out big bucks to purchase a support agreement from Microsoft that company does almost nothing to support its users. Hell, Microsoft doesn't even provide basic documentation with Windows anymore. In contrast the user community surrounding Linux is very active and eager to assist users encountering problems provided you have an Internet connection and ask for help. Like most Microsoft products there are numerous third-party books available to assist you with Linux or the many application programs that are available for it. Compared to Windows there is relatively little you cannot do with Linux at little or no additional cost. People who try Linux with an open mind are nearly always amazed and impressed.
But you need not take my word for that. Get on-line and check out a web site for Ubuntu Linux (ubuntu.com). From this web site you can order a cd-rom copy of Ubuntu Linux absolutely free – and that includes free shipping! Ubuntu Linux is distributed on a Live CD that will let you try out Linux without the need to actually install it on your computer by merely booting off the Ubuntu cd-rom. The experience is similar to what you will encounter if you run the complete install of the Ubuntu system but since it runs off the cd-rom it will be a wee-bit slower.
Third, if you existing computer is older and has either Windows ME or Windows 98 as its operating system you really should be in the market for a new computer as upgrading is NOT a realistic option. Buying a new computer right now means that you will have a variety of operating system options to choose from. Of course there is the obvious option of buying a new computer with some version of Windows Vista installed. If you do your shopping at a big box store or buy a Dell or Gateway this will seem to be your only option, but that is a misperception. Being in the market for a new computer means that you can look beyond those obvious vendors. Unless you are a dedicated PC game player, or have a huge investment in PC software that only works in Windows you too should be considering either Linux or Apple's new Macintosh computers.
The Apple Mac OS X is without a doubt a much better operating system than any version of Microsoft Windows ever released. As I noted earlier, the Mac OS X is based on Unix, BSD Unix to be precise. Apple has essentially created an elegant and eminently functional GUI for the tried and true, stable OS that does things right. Computer science classes could be taught using Windows as the counter example of how an operating system should be designed. Most of what Microsoft has tried to do with Vista is to bring the look and feel of the Mac OS X to a Window platform. While visually Microsoft succeeds somewhat a pig dressed up in finery remains just a pig.
The Mac OS X is about to undergo its own upgrade soon. The current version is know as Tiger and the new version will be Leopard. Apple is always tight-lipped about such things but there can be little doubt that an already impressive OS X will become even stronger. As an interesting aside I want to point out that ever since Apple switched to using Intel processors in its computers the Mac OS X has been nearly capable of running on standard PC hardware and could become a Vista killer if only Apple would choose to offer such a version of OS X in direct competition with Window Vista.
Apple's critics, including myself, have always complained about the lack of real user choice in hardware as well as the clearly higher prices charged for comparable Apple hardware versus PC hardware. These criticisms remain valid although Apple has reduced the pricing delta somewhat. Buying an Apple Macintosh computer will not be possible for the low, low advertised prices we have all become used to in the PC universe-- but then again nobody should really be buying these poorly built and underpowered “value priced” PCs anyway. Buyers of such value PCs this past holiday season will no doubt discover that upgrading to Microsoft Vista is a painful process in most cases. If you are spending the money to buy a properly equipped Vista-ready PC the extra cost of going with an Apple Mac will be much less than you think.
I know that market forces being what they are lots of my customers will be using Vista machines and discovering that Microsoft still hasn't managed to get the OS right. They will still suffer from the inevitable system crashes, viruses, spyware and other malicious software that flourishes amidst Microsoft products. And I guess I should be grateful for the amount of work this means for my shop but my conscience demands that I recommend against jumping into the Vista pool. If you are buying a new computer give the Apple a good hard look and remember that for most people Linux offers a low-cost alternative that simply works better than Windows.
Mike Kroll operates “Dr. Mike Computer Therapist,” a small computer repair shop in Galesburg, Illinois. You can e-mail him at: Dr.Mike@Bizconnect.net or stop by his shop to “Get Therapy” for your computer. Mike even continues to make house calls in his Mobile Therapy Unit!