Contrary to popular belief, the cops will not arrest you if you don't use Windows. There are some interesting alternative operating systems out there -- and with perseverance, you won't go crazy trying to use them.
Chief among them is Linux, the largely free, enormously geek-popular system that hard-line anti-Windows users rave about, which has Tux the penguin as its mascot.
There are others, including FreeBSD, which has been around for more than 20 years in one form or another, and BeOS, which has such a hard-core following that "Be" fanatics stuck with it even after the parent company folded last year.
I tried out a free version of Red Hat Linux on my computer and found that it worked reasonably well once installed.
But let's get one thing straight up front: Installing any Windows-alternative operating system is not for the technologically squeamish. Unless you're a somewhat advanced Windows user, I wouldn't try it without a geek or doctor present.
Even for an advanced user, getting a new operating system to do everything we take for granted with Windows can be a time-consuming and daunting task. Surfing the Internet, sending e-mail, and looking at digital photos require a labor-intensive setup with Linux and its brethren.
(If you're really dying to get a Linux system without the hassle of installing it, you can buy a Linux-based computer "out-of-the-box" at either www.dell.com or Wal-Mart.)
Another major stumbling block is software. Most of today's high-end and oft-used applications -- Adobe Photoshop Elements, Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, Roxio CD-burning software, and just about every cool game -- are written for Windows or Apple's Macintosh computers.
Sure, there are Linux-based alternatives, like the free Microsoft Word-emulating program OpenOffice, but in many cases they don't have the ease of use or firepower of Windows-based software.
So why do it? Why use a different operating system in this Microsoft-controlled digital world?
There are several reasons. First off, there's the moral reason offered by a growing handful of Windows dissenters, who have turned to another operating system in a virtual protest of Bill Gates' iron grip on today's PC.
Another reason is financial. Linux, FreeBSD and BeOS can be downloaded free (although Linux, which requires about a 1.6 gigabyte download, can take a while).
You also can buy registered versions of Linux and FreeBSD at most computer stores starting at about $70. The big difference between downloading Linux for free and paying for it is that paid versions come with nifty software and even access to a tech support line that will help you set everything up.
Linux also ranks high in stability and network security. You're much less likely to see your system lock up or crash once Linux is installed, and the networking environment is generally considered much more secure than Windows, keeping hackers out.
Last, but not least, there's the programming angle. If you're someone with such proficiency that you're comfortable learning to compile or write your own software, the programming environment is more accessible in Unix-based systems like Linux.
My wife's 17-year-old nephew, for instance, is an aspiring programmer who loves Linux and can't do without it. Of course, he works for a government computer think-tank and scored 1460 on his SAT, so he's not your average computer user.
The uber-geeks that love Linux often point out that it and most of the programs written for it are "open source," which means the language of Linux is free source code available for anyone to understand and use. With lots of developers manipulating the code, the reasoning goes, programs will be more useful and bug-free over time.
To find out just how well Linux worked, I set it up as a second operating system on a 733 MHz Pentium III computer. Windows remained on the computer as the first operating system.
I recommend that you keep Windows on your PC if it's already installed and run the alternative operating system, whether it be Linux, FreeBSD or BeOS, on a second hard drive partition. This takes a little doing, but it's not too difficult and the documentation for all these systems spells out what you need to do in step-by-step instructions.
If you want to go the free route, you'll need to download three huge Linux installation files. Even on a high-speed Internet connection like a cable modem or DSL line, this will take eight to 10 hours. So start the download and go to bed. Hopefully you'll check in the morning and it'll all be done.
Of course, you could just go to a computer store and buy the registered version on disc.
Linux has many different versions, or distributions, to choose from, and which one you pick depends on your individual taste. The two most popular versions are Red Hat ($150 if you want to get technical support), generally the top choice, and Mandrake ($70 with technical support), which in many ways closely emulates the look of Windows.
They are cantankerous installations, to say the least. You'll need to make a 3.5-inch boot floppy from a file you've downloaded. Then you'll need to burn CDs from each of the three giant-sized files you've downloaded (Nero and EasyCD Creator are good burning programs that should do the trick).
Once you create the CDs, place the first disc in your CD-ROM Drive, place the boot floppy in your 3.5-inch drive, and reboot the computer. The Linux installation program starts and, hopefully, nothing will go wrong.
Unfortunately, something always goes wrong.
In my case, Red Hat Linux didn't like the configuration of the hard drives on my computer, causing the installation program to lock up at the "partition check" phase.
That was Greek to me, so I headed to another computer in my house and surfed the Internet until I found a likely solution: I had to give special instructions to the installation program -- specifically, typing "linux ide (equals) nodma" at the installation command prompt.
Once I did this, Red Hat Linux took another 45 minutes to smoothly install itself on my computer.
As soon as I tried to log on, however, I had another snag. I was prompted for a log-on ID and password -- which came as a surprise to me, since I had specified a password during installation, but not a log-on ID.
So it was back to the Internet to solve this issue. It turned out that the default log-on ID for Linux is "root," or, in some cases, "local host.localdomain." That makes perfect sense, right?
I logged in successfully this time and was pleasantly surprised by the smart, crisp look of Linux. I also was surprised by the Windows similarities -- there's a program menu in the bottom left-hand corner much the same as the Windows Start menu; a handful of basic icons on a desktop; and the usual assortment of basic utilities, such as a CD-burner, Web browser (your choice of Konqueror or Mozilla) and an e-mail client.
Once you've installed this alternate system, you'll need to get used to a whole new host of programs you may not have used in the Windows environment.
Using Linux is like being in a foreign land, sometimes trying to learn a foreign language. But if you're patient, have a modest degree of computer savvy and like to tinker off the beaten path, you can get a new operating system to function at most levels as efficiently as Windows.
Just remember to have a lot of aspirin handy.
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