How To Break Free From Your Computer Operating System -- If You Dare

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Photo illustration by Aren Elliott

Kia Farhang did it.

Weary of the "awful" hour-long updates his Windows computer forced him to periodically endure, usually during prime work hours, Farhang recently abandoned his PC operating system. He switched to Linux, an open-source OS.

The result? Linux turned his laptop into a "very good Mac OS clone," he says. And the price was right. He paid nothing for the software.

If you've upgraded your computer during the holidays and also are thinking of upgrading your operating system, you might be tempted to follow Farhang. But it's not an easy path, and it's not for everyone. I know because I just tried to do it.

While open-source software may represent the future of computer operating systems, it is a distant future for many of us, particularly those who need to run complex tasks on their laptops and desktops. But if you're comfortable around technology and do most of your work in the cloud -- in other words, everything is saved online -- then you might be ready to make the switch now.

First, a reality check: Microsoft's operating systems remain ridiculously dominant, with almost 90 percent market share. By comparison, Apple's MacOS claimed a skimpy 4 percent share in 2016, and Linux at barely 2 percent, according to Net Market Share. The year before, Linux barely registered (it had just over 1 percent). That barely noticeable shift led some observers to predict an impending open-source threat to Redmond's monopoly.

Well, it's a start.

Moving to an open-source operating system, which is to say an OS where the original source code is freely available and may be redistributed and modified, is probably inevitable for you at some point. It can lower costs, make you less dependent on a single product or company, and most importantly, it can keep you from having to upgrade your laptop or desktop every two years. Plus, open-source software promises to deliver better products in a more collaborative and transparent way. If those values and that value proposition resonates with you, then you might be ready for the next step sooner rather than later.

And what, exactly, is that step?

How to switch

Farhang, who works for a digital marketing agency in Riverside, Calif., says he "took the plunge" after a series of patience-testing updates. Forced updates are automatic updates to your operating system that seem to occur without your explicit permission and can consume minutes or hours of computer time.

Linux isn't a monolithic operating system. Rather, it comes in several versions. Farhang chose a version called Ubuntu, which is compatible with a PC and does not cost anything. All told, it takes about half an hour to install and configure Ubuntu on your computer.

The process is dead simple -- no line commands to memorize, no special installation skills required. Just point, click and download.

"The only issue I've run into relates to specialized programs like Photoshop, which just aren't available on Linux," he says. "You can usually get by with open-source versions."

Would he recommend Linux to other computer users? Sure, he says. Ubuntu runs faster and takes up less processor resources, and if you work in the cloud -- on Google Docs, Sheets or Gmail, for example -- then it can make an aging, slow computer run like new. And the price is right.

"If you can install Windows, you can install Ubuntu, so you might as well save 150 bucks and go for it," he says.

My turn?

Envious of users like Farhang (and prodded by my 14-year-old son), I decided to try Linux. The fan on my 2012 MacBook Pro had been spinning uncontrollably for the last few months, even though I run only two programs: a web browser and a text editor. We chose a different version of Linux, Fedora, for my MacBook, because it had the necessary drivers for my hardware.

The results were mixed. In order to make it work, I had to wipe my hard drive -- something I had wanted to do for a long time. Fedora is a gorgeous operating system, with a sleek and intuitive interface, a clean aesthetic, and it's wicked fast. I believed that the processor problems would be fixed by switching to Fedora, but after I got it running, the fan noise resumed.

I wanted to stick with Fedora. I actually like it better than the Mac operating system, which is large and unwieldy (though not as clunky as Windows). But after playing around with it, I decided to revert to my old OS, but kept Fedora on one of my older MacBook Air laptops. The permanent switch will take a little more time and maybe a different computer, but I'm determined to break free from the tyranny of a proprietary OS -- and soon.

I'm the ideal candidate for a switch. I spend almost all day working in the cloud. (My family will readily agree with that statement, although they might add that I have my head in the cloud.) There's no reason to be running the bloatware that Apple and Microsoft force-feed their customers.

Not for everyone

Experts caution that an OS switch might not be the right move for most users. The applications for Linux are limited, so if you think you're going to run your favorite programs from Adobe or Microsoft, you might be out of luck.

"I strongly advise against changing the operating system that came with your computer," says Dave Greenbaum, who owns a computer repair business in Lawrence, Kan.

For starters, installing a new OS like Linux can add time and costs to your computer.

"It's like ordering the appetizer at the restaurant and then putting your main course in a doggie bag," he says. "You’re missing the point."

Never mind the warranty and support issues. A manufacturer may try to void your warranty if you install a new OS, meaning that if anything goes wrong with your computer, you're on your own. Linux also has compatibility issues -- hardware that doesn't work with certain software -- that can eat up your valuable time.

For now, say computer experts, it's something you should try only if you're good with gadgets.

"If you are an enthusiast or a computer science student playing with Linux makes a lot of sense," says Mike Tipton, a retired software engineering project manager from Gassville, Ark. "But if you're not an enthusiast, stick with the native operating system that came with your PC or Mac."

It won't stay that way forever. Long-term, open source operating systems have a bright future and are worth keeping on your radar, say many of those same experts.

"Linux is a viable, usable and practical open source OS, at least as close as we can get today," says Michael Fauscette, the chief research officer for G2 Crowd, software solutions and services review website. "I doubt that open source is the killer of Microsoft and Apple, but it will continue to provide better and better alternatives to users."

It's a future that's free of obese operating systems that help themselves to your bandwidth and your time whenever they please. And it's a future that consumers will want to live in.

Christopher Elliott specializes in solving seemingly unsolvable consumer problems. Contact him with your questions on his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google or sign up for his newsletter.

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