Penguin at the Window: Linux as an Alternative to Vista

One thing must be said from the start: Microsoft Vista is a modern operating system that offers a variety of genuine improvements over Windows XP. On top of that, Vista also looks much spiffier than its predecessor.

Even so, there are a variety of reasons not to blindly reach for Vista. A consideration of the alternatives is in order, and Linux is at the top of the list.

Among the central features Microsoft is touting for Vista is added security for personal data. While true, operating systems like Mac OS or Linux are considered more secure: there are practically no viruses attacking Linux computers, says Oliver Diedrich from the Hanover-based magazine c't.

And while Vista has finally made a more significant separation between user and administrator rights, this is long since a standard part of Mac OS and Linux.

One key sticking point with Vista is the way it hogs resources: the system will only run in entirety on new, well equipped computers. Linux, often represented by the penguin mascot, can run without problem on machines with less memory, processor and graphic card performance.

Linux also turns heads compared with Vista and Mac OS when it comes to price: it is free. Mac OS only runs with Apple hardware. And the Home Premium version of Vista, comparable with the Windows XP Personal Edition, is available for $199 as an update and $299 as the full version.

Linux can be installed off CDs included with many computer magazines or directly off the Internet - albeit without a manual or support.

Anyone needing those services will have to pay out around $50 to a Linux distributor like "Suse." On the other hand, a "system builder version" of Vista Home premium is available without manual or service for $199. Linux can still be installed and passed on to friends as many times as desired.

"A lot of money has been sunk into Linux," says Oliver Diedrich from c't. Companies like IBM, Novell or Red Hat are interested in continued development.

Linux is still not the best option for everyone, though. "We've tested various versions. And we weren't happy," says Peter Knaak from the German consumer testing organization Stiftung Warentest in Berlin. Problems can pop up with things like connecting a printer.

"Normal users are quickly overwhelmed." Diedrich sees it differently, though. Any hardware that Linux doesn't recognize is either "exotic" or especially low-end models.

Another problem with Linux is related to the MPEG2 video format: film DVDs cannot be played back on Linux systems without add-ins.

"Users can solve that problem, though" Diedrich says, with the help of the Internet, since the Linux community is happy to provide fellow users with help. That's why Diedrich recommends going online before selecting a Linux distribution and checking out the corresponding community. Are the people who use a given distribution ready to help, or more arrogant techno-geeks?

One problem that even user groups can't fix: the dearth of games for Linux. As the majority of computers run with Windows, Linux versions are not worth the effort for game makers. There is a way to test out Linux on the fly: live distributions like "Suse" or "Ubuntu" can be run in full off DVD. And for those who prefer to sit on the fence, Linux and Vista can also be installed parallel on the same computer.    


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