Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Free At Last

This week brought an interesting change to my desktop. I finally cut the ties to Microsoft's Windows operating system and went with a pure Linux install for my main work environment. I decided to go with Linux Mint and my experience with it so far has been, in a word, great.

I've been a Linux user for years and dabbled with Red Hat, Fedora, Ubuntu and others, but for various reasons my main desktop environment has always been Windows. It's been the defacto standard of IT departments at companies I've worked for, and at home I'm sort of stuck with Windows XP because of the music software I use (and paid for). I run CentOS and Kubuntu as virtual machines and spend a lot of time in those environments, but for presentations, communications and documentation I've always fallen back into Windows land.

I've basically been looking for any opportunity to ditch Windows, though. It started by swearing never to use Vista. Actually, a laptop running Vista sits on my desk for testing purposes, and very sadly, its rarely opened despite being a fairly nice piece of hardware. Over Christmas, when I found my parents were planning to replace their old computer to something newer, I almost panicked at the thought of them using Vista, which someone has called "Satan in the form of an OS". So my Christmas gift to them was to contribute to the purchase of a new iMac.

The next straw was trying to do some graphing in Excel and comparing my utterly awful output with the slick charts my friend was getting from OpenOffice (the free, open-source alternative to Microsoft Office). Then there's the eye-popping desktop effects we configured on the Linux PC that occupies one corner of my desk at work (for some reason there are a lot of computers on my desk). The visuals in modern Linux packages are absolutely cutting edge, Mac is a distant second, and Windows is still trying to catch up with where the technology was about 10 years ago. I figured the only way I'd ever consider moving to a new Windows OS would be if they re-wrote the entire code base from the ground up, based it on a Linux kernel, mercilessly cutting out the bloat. I just don't think Microsoft has it in their genetic make-up.

Then there was the experience of trying to get my PC out of the clutches of corporate IT's domain controller and reassign it to my own workgroup. It's a long and sordid tale that ended by using "The Ultimate Boot CD" to hack the Administrator password on the system. It was easy to do, and highly recommended, but I'd rather not have had to do it at all.

I'm really not trying to bash Microsoft, either. Up until recently I would have recommended XP over most alternatives to the average computer user. It's just that my recent experiences with Mac and Linux have been soooooooo much better, I just can't see any reason why I would want to install Windows and pay to use something inferior when there's a free alternative that's cooler and better.

So last week when a new PC arrived at my desk (preinstalled with Vista) I took the opportunity to wipe the drive completely clean and install Linux Mint right over top of it. Just for fun I downloaded a theme and set up my desktop so it looks like a Mac, complete with the cool dock and Mac icons at the bottom of the screen. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, like poutine.

Apple has a good thing going because they take some really nicely designed hardware, put it together with some really nicely designed software, include a bunch of really useful tools and features, and sell it as a complete package that "just works". Microsoft can't do that; they're primarily a software outfit that sells a bunch of flavors of their OS and a number of expensive, hard-to-use apps that may or may not work well on your computer. But it turns out that you can now get really good (great!) software for free. So where does that leave Microsoft?

The reason Apple's outlook is tight, in my opinion, is because - in a world where free software is starting to outstrip proprietary commercial software - they sell something that's still really valuable. They sell the convenience of a complete system that's been expertly put together from the best hardware and software their engineers can come up with. They had the foresight (and humility) a number of years ago to completely rewrite their OS with a unix base. Its not that other companies can't produce good hardware (they can) or good software (they can). Its just that Apple has done a great job of assembling the best of both worlds. Inside the Apple playground everything gets along really well. And, let's face it - they have the "cool" image that people want.

But when it comes to choosing an OS to run on a new (or old) PC, Linux Mint has been great and I would highly recommend it.


Anonymous said...

Hi Darren,

Thanks for this great motivation to have a new look on Linux (Mint). One question: You talked about your music software for Windows. What do you do with that software? I'm asking because I'm in exactly the same situation. Want to change but ...

Kind regards from Berlin, Germany
Manfred R├Ątzmann

Darren said...

Hi Manfred,

I've used music software from Cakewalk for many years. I use a version of Sonar that is now a few years old, but it runs very well on my PC of the same age. I've used it for a small amount of recording, which I do less and less these days. I've actually used it more as a host for software synthesizers that I use for practicing, musical meditation, and play. I do some live performances, but have never used a computer on stage before.

I recently got a Macbook and decided to experiment with using it as a host for software synthesizer plugins. Using a firewire external audio/midi interface, I've connected my digital piano and macbook. So far its been working very well and I'm confident enough to use it on a live gig. I've only recorded a few things in GarageBand, but my experience with the Mac in general has been so good that I'm considering upgrading to Logic. After using Sonar, Cubase, and GarageBand (Logic's little brother), I must stay the Mac platform is a joy to work with. As a musician, anything that helps the creativity to flow is really valuable, and I find that the elegant Mac environment helps. I have the cheapest Macbook model available and it is still fine for running Garageband and Omnisphere. Nowadays, I use Mac/GarageBand more than PC/Sonar.

For Linux I would be tempted to try Ardour. It seems to be a great package, but my personal choice so far has been to invest in professional music software. I feel it has been worth the cost, considering the amount of enjoyment I (and my listeners) get from it. Good luck and let me know what you decide!

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