If you have heard about Linux you’ve probably heard that it is free, quicker than Windows, more secure than Windows, immune to viruses and very complicated. And details aside, those rumours are fairly accurate.

One problem with Linux is the question: “What do you mean by Linux?” –  because you won’t be downloading “Linux”. You’ll be downloading one of the myriad of distributions: Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, Mint, Kubuntu, Redhat and so on. They are all “linux” but with various changes to the GUI, packages included and have  more fundamental differences too. This is very confusing for most people and understandably so.

Assuming you’ve settled on a distribution (and by the way I’d recommend Ubuntu or Mint) you might be wondering about which application programs you will be able to run on it. And the good news here is that there are 1000’s of great applications, most of them free, covering the majority of functions you are likely to want your computer for: Word processing, email, internet, music, video and so on. Many of these apps work really well and look great into the bargain. And much of this will be FREE. Imagine the potential cost savings – not paying for Vista and MS-Office could save large amounts of money then and there, and in the future when you don’t pay for upgrades and new versions.
So jump now right? Free computing is surely the way forward?

Well maybe. Whatever its proponents argue, even the friendliest linux distributions are not as simple to use, as well supported by the manufacturers or as easy to troubleshoot as Windows or Mac. If you are lucky and your system contains parts and peripherals that come with suitable drivers for your Ubuntu distibution and the installation goes OK then you will probably have a refreshingly positive computing experience “out of the box”. But if not, and you are not the sort of person prepared to get technical fast, you might well be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.

Many Windows problems are solved with settings you can find hidden in the graphical interface, or with a patch you can run off the internet, or maybe by installing or reinstalling something. But with linux distros you are likely to be instructed by forum gurus to “edit fstab from console – as root obviously”. And if that doesn’t mean anything to you, you have a pretty steep learning curve to climb. Linux is beautifully logical and doesn’t try to hide its computer science roots from the world but one reason Microsoft and Apple do so well is that they know users want to use and not become computer experts. In fact, if you want a solid linux system with an elegant GUI and perfect compatibility with hardware and drivers etc then you can get one, it’s called Macintosh and it costs you.

I personally believe that linux troubleshooting is still too difficult for the average user and therefore not a great choice unless that user has support to hand from someone fairly tech-savvy. The cost argument also losts some weight when you consider that Windows is usually free with most new machines so you’re often not paying for it anyway, until it’s upgrade time at least. But if you are not scared of getting into the guts of an OS then jumping ship makes good sense. Once you have stopped paying an arm and a leg for your OS and common apps, it’s hard to go back. Older machines or wimpy netbooks struggling with bloated Windows installations can whizz along nicely with a linux installation. And once you have your linux running nicely, it is more likely to stay that way than your XP or Vista setup.