Windows has some catching up to do

This old laptop is actually running a lot more programs at the same time than it looks like. It has four workspaces (virtual screens), three of which are active with a number of programs each. Then again, it is running Ubuntu Linux, not Microsoft Windows. Oh, and there’s an USB memory key and a 2 TB external harddisk tucked away behind it…

I am impressed by Windows 7, but already Ubuntu Linux is ahead in some ways, and it can be hard for Microsoft to catch up. On the other hand, there are ways in which Windows is better. If I were to say it in few words, Ubuntu is better for grandmothers and teenagers, Windows for those inbetween.

Ubuntu Linux is the most popular of several user-friendly variants of the free operating system. It is free not only as in free speech but also in the sense that you don’t pay for it. Just download it off the net or copy it from a friend or get it in the mail. (Not sure if you have to pay postage.) And it really is Grandma-friendly, if a computer can ever be that.

The program installs itself after some pretty simple questions, like what language you prefer and what timezone you will use it in. If there already is Windows or MacOS on the computer, you can choose whether to keep these, and whether you want to decide how much space to give each of them or if you will let the installer decide.

The computer has a couple start menus in the upper left corner (although you can drag the task bar elsewhere – I have mine at the bottom like I did in Windows). There are a number of useful programs installed already, like web browser and media player and text processor and spreadsheet. (Seriously, who uses spreadsheets unless their boss tells them to?) There are even small games. But the really nuclear feature that blows Windows out of the ring is the Add Programs feature. You want some more? Just open the Ubuntu Software Center, pick categories (or search if you have an idea of what you want, like “chess” or “Bible” or whatever grandmothers do these days). Once you find something interesting, you can read a blurb about it, and if you want it, just click. The software installs itself and will show up in the start menu in the correct category.

It does not stop there. Add hardware? By all means.  Plug in a printer, a camera, an MP3 player – pretty much anything that uses USB or Firewire and some things that don’t. It is very rare that you have to use the CD that comes in the box, the one marked “Windows”. Especially if you are online, but often if you are not, Ubuntu will just tell you what you have installed and that’s that. No whining that Oh Noes This Was Not Certified For Our Newest Brand Of Windows. Rather it just works. There are a few things that truly do need Windows to work, because they were made that way, but these are generally way outside the Grandma range. And for each passing month people are adding new stuff to the system.

That’s another part. Even more than Windows, Linux has a heap of downloads. It is rarely a day that there is not a small colored arrow in the task bar, hinting that new updates are ready. In case Grandma does not take the hint, a text box may appear the first time. You have to give your passwords to install those though, so if we’re talking about a great-grandmother she may be a bit nervous about doing that. You should visit occasionally. That said, unlike Windows you will not be forced to restart the system. (You should do this twice a year or so, when there is a major update to a new and better version. But there is no need to do it for daily updates.)

Another thing, if you don’t download the updates, you won’t get virus and worms and Trojans and keyloggers and spybots and adbots. If one particular brand of Linux becomes extremely popular, perhaps someone will write this kind of malware for it, but currently there is none, and the system is built up in such a way that the user does not have root access anyway, so it is limited what a virus can do. Theory aside, the fact as of today is that you just don’t get virus and stuff like that if you use Linux. Even if you don’t update. And on top of that, Canonical (the people who made Ubuntu) don’t take remote control of your computer and restart it in the middle of the night like Microsoft sometimes does if you leave it on.  To be a bit harsh, I say that it is sometimes hard to see the difference between virus and Windows, since they both suddenly start doing strange things on your computer without you touching it. Not so with Ubuntu Linux. It does its job and gets out of the way.

Unlike Windows, Ubuntu does not get slower as the months pass. Well, it may get slower over the years as you upgrade to new versions with even more features. But if you just run the same version, it won’t get slower as the hard disk fills up. This is because it uses another file system. (You can choose to format disks with FAT or NTFS, but Grandma sure won’t do that.) There is no need to defragment the hard disk, and you also don’t need to clean the Registry because it does not work that way. Even if Ubuntu had not been faster from the start (which it is), it would have been much faster after a year or two when Windows starts to slow down noticeably.


Now for the teenagers. Well, it is not literally restricted to teenagers. Anyone who has a lot of time on their hands and no pressing obligation, which means both teenagers and single college students… Anyway, if you have the time to go “under the hood” and tune up the operating system of your computer, Linux is the way to go. You can basically make your own operating system, bit by bit. Of course, this means typing a lot, most of it lines starting with “sudo”. But there you have it. Real computer geeks would not be satisfied with clicking a mouse anyway.

Let’s say, for instance, that you have an old laptop with a slow hard disk and only 256 MB memory, but it just happens to have a free USB 2.0 port. (I guess it must have been fairly early with USB 2, or perhaps it just was late with the low memory. Anyway, you are in luck.) So you rummage in your computer gizmo grab bag, or even go out and buy a fast USB memory key. The faster the better: Speed is more important than capacity here.

Once you have found a small memory stick, you plug it in and open it from the desktop to see what name it is given in the /media/ folder. You open a terminal window and go to that folder. Then you create a file there, making sure it is not larger than the actual capacity of the USB drive. For instance, sudo dd if=/dev/zero of=swapfile1 bs=1024 count=4194304 will create a 4 GB file (1024 * 4096) with blocks of 1KB initialized as zero. Obviously if your drive is only 4GB, you will want to pick a lower number so you don’t get an error message instead of a swap file. Make sure you really are in the folder of the USB drive or you will create it on the slower hard disk – if there is room there.

Once the computer has chewed its way through creating this file, you make it into a swapfile with the command sudo mkswap swapfile1 (you should get some message to confirm that this has happened.) Then finally you can start using it with the command sudo swapon -p 3 swapfile1 where -p is the code for “priority” and you can use basically any positive number afterwards. If you have more than one swapfile, the one with the highest -p will go first, then when it is full the next will get a go. You may want to run swapon -s afterwards to see statistics of use, but if you have lights on your USB key they should start blinking pretty soon when you start working again.

You may want to save the command sudo swapon -p 3 swapfile1 to a file with the .sh file extension, which you can run if you have to reboot the computer for some reason. Perhaps you already have a file with commonly used commands that you run on such occasions. If not, let us assume you just name the file “”, in which case you just run sh next morning or whenever. Of course, if you include the command in a file that lies in another folder, you must have given the path to the filename in the shell file, like this: sudo swapon -p 3 /media/MyUSBkeyName/swapfile1 (where the name will vary depending on a lot of things). Let’s just hope it stays constant from one day to the next. Then again, unless you are used to Windows, you probably don’t reboot your computer every day. It is probably busy downloading unspeakably secret stuff all night, if you are the aforementioned high school or college student.

Of course you could make the whole USB drive into a swap partition and edit the /etc/fstab file to set it up as swap at startup time. But this was just a demo, which incidentally works, and gives you 4GB (or whatever) of slow memory in addition to the 256 MB of fast memory. (Flash memory is rather slow to write to, but it excels at small random reads, which is what happens when you actually use the swapped memory, since you never know which part you are going to use. Especially not if you are a teenager.)

This in contrast to Windows XP, where you do it graphically:  Open Control Panel, System, and set the virtual memory page file to the desired size and location, reboot (because nothing happens without reboot, you know) and then watch as nothing happens, because the page swap file is created before the USB key is initialized… Shame, but at least you don’t need to use four-letter words like sudo on your road to failure.

Windows Vista is even simpler: It won’t start on 256 MB. But on a larger system, it can use fast USB memory to cache various files, speeding up the system response on computers with slow hard disks and low memory (low by Vista standards, like 1 GB and such). Actually, this “readyboost” feature was what made me think of it. But a teenager does not need to think: Doing crazy things is its own reward.


I expect Windows to keep its dominance in the workplace though. There is a lot of “legacy” software out there, which nobody wants to write from scratch again. In fact, in many cases the people who wrote it are dead or retired (or fired after a merger long ago) so you would have to think the whole thing anew. Until Linux runs all kinds of Windows software better than Windows (instead of just some of it), there won’t be much change there.

Windows also has a strong position in gaming. While some games written for Windows also run under Linux (such as City of Heroes) and even may run faster, other titles don’t run at all (such as The Sims 2 and The Sims 3.) In many cases the reason is as prosaic as copy protection that uses the Windows Registry or even undocumented Windows features.

With a free operating system now being neck to neck with the rather expensive Windows and MacOS, it may only be a question of time before free games also reach the same level as their commercial counterparts. But they aren’t there yet, so if I live, I am likely to own a machine with Windows 8 someday. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. Pretty soon, Ubuntu Linux may not just be a better operating system than Windows, but also a better Windows than Windows. Wait and see.