Linux is Not for the Timid

By Shamus Posted Thursday Dec 7, 2006

Filed under: Random 22 comments

Ubu Roi is talking about the way Windows XP crashes and Linux doesn’t. He poses a question:

I wonder if the learning curve is worth it, especially since I'd have to give up a lot of games and such. Does anyone have any knowledge of how the major A/V players are with Linux? Giving up the animé also is asking too much!

The “worth it” part is something every user must decide for themselves, although I think the key to making that decision is knowing what you’re getting into. What we’re talking about isn’t just a jump to a different interface. The leap from Windows to Linux is nothing like the leap from Windows to something like Mac OS. This isn’t about getting used to new uses for the right mouse button or a new way of having your hard drive arranged. Linux is a whole different beast.

My wife had the same problem a couple of years ago and installed Red Hat. It was much harder than I think either of us anticipated. This is not because Linux users sugar-coated the thing for us, but mostly due to the fact that we’d been spoiled by consumer operating systems and had no idea maintaining an OS could be so infuriating and complex. Note that installing it was no sweat. The process is streamlined enough now that you can pop in a copy of Linux and (assuming you’re using some recent, mainstream flavor) be up and running in about the same time it takes to get Windows onto a new PC. No problem.

The challenges arise when you go to use the thing. There are heaps of programs out there. A/V players. MIDI sequencers. Image editing software. Tetris clones. Disk defrag programs. Emulators. 3D modeling software. Web servers. Text adventures. Databases. Firewalls. Source Forge is a goldmine of software for free, some of it just as robust as stuff you see in the store. However, you can’t just run an installer and use the software.

Some authors don’t think it absurd at all to release their software as source-only, as if compiling a huge project with complex dependencies was something everyone can be expected to know how to do. More sensible authors release binaries, but because Linux flavors are multitude and divergent, it can often take quite a bit of tweaking to get the thing to run. There is no way around it: That nice GUI desktop may look and feel and perhaps even smell like Windows, but as soon as you need to add some software you’re going to need to pull back the curtain and interface with the thing in a console window. You’re going to need to assume root privs, and then muck about letting Linux know that this program is okay and should be allowed in. Sometimes this is easy. Sometimes it is hard. Sometimes it is flat-out impossible. Always it is ambiguous and documented with an experienced user in mind.

When the installation guide tells you: Make sure you gramble the ZPQs before you homuk with the framframs under /bin unless you have NDL enabled, in which case just invoke the dooligan. You had better be ready to work at figuring out what all of that means. You will need to have a lot of time to kill, because unraveling these instructions is going to take a while. My wife was only ever able to find two types of help, when she found any at all:

  1. Welcome to Linux! Here is how to open the console window.
  2. Here is how to recompile Portugese Linux to get it running on an old Sony walkman, using only a 10-digit keypad as input.

But let’s say you get it installed. You’ll install some software, only to find it requires OTHER software. You think foraging for Codecs for Windows Media Player is annoying? That is little league stuff now. The author of the software you’re trying to use may just assume you have, and build his program to depend on, other software which you do not have. The author may or may not tell you where to get it, and if he does it may be a dead link or upgraded to a new and incompatible version. But if you do manage to gather all the required parts, you will still find yourself messing with obscure little text files to adjust settings, specify directories, and give it little hints about how it should behave on your particular and wholly unique incarnation of Linux.

Her Linux experiment ended when she went to put Unreal Tournament on the machine. One of the versions I have came with both Windows and Linux binaries, and she wanted to play a little Deathmatch. All she needed to do was install the drivers for her graphics card. All she had to do for that was… recompile the kernel. Now, this is the fault of NVIDIA, not a shortcoming on the part of the developers of Linux, but this was still a reality that she had to deal with. In the end she decided that Linux was asking too much of her and went back to Windows.

This was three years ago, and I like to think that ATI and NVIDIA have gotten their act together when it comes to Linux drivers, but this sort of thing is still a reality that you might face, and you need to be aware of it.

Despite all of this, I don’t discourage anyone from giving it a try. If you have two machines then I highly recommend sticking Linux on one and seeing how it suits you. When it comes to stability and security, Linux is king. How much usability (particularly in the short term) are you willing to give up to get it?

SEE ALSO: Mark’s comments about the Paradox of choice in regards to choosing a distro.


From The Archives:

22 thoughts on “Linux is Not for the Timid

  1. karrde says:

    I agree with you–Linux is for people who want to spend time figuring out why things work (or don’t work).

    I’ve been a user of Gentoo Linux for about two and a half years now (RedHat and Mandrake for a couple of years before that). Gentoo isn’t as nice about the “first-install” experience, but it is excellent for installing dependencies before you install the main product, and comes with an excellent scripting package for automating the build process.

    It also comes with what claims to be a good set of instructions and info on kernel-recompiles.

    Come to think of it, Gentoo developers assume that the user wants to learn all the hard parts up front, so they suggest a kernel-compile during install.

    I’ve often wondered how much my parents could do on Linux if I could skin it to look like WinXP, put an office program that behaves like MS Office (wish skin), and get all the multimedia attachments in the web browser to work flawlessly.

    Of course, then I’d have to convince them that they don’t need to know where “C:” is, but just to let the system take care of that detail behind their backs…

    And come to me before you want to install your download…

    It would be too much work, unless they wanted to learn how to use Linux.

  2. and to be honest, I think that “stability” and “security” are overrated advantages as well. Consider stability. Anecdotes are not data, but who really gets routine BSOD nowadays? Windows XP does act wierd from time to time but I usually shut down my desk PC at work every night anyway so its not like I need to have rigorous uptime. And my notebook spends most of its time in standby mode, which seemsto work flawlessly enough. I do have to reboot from time to time to “clear the gunk out” if things start slowing down, but thats rare and not that big a burden – especially since I can do a hard reset and be back at my desktop ready to go within two minutes tops. All of this will improve with Vista since it will support hybrid hard drives that store state in flash memory rather than disk, something I will be bloggging more about at shortly.

    And then consider security. I use a wirelss router at home with a simple firewall, and use MAC addess filytering and WPA encryption. I have no machines in my “DMZ”. On my actual machines I use thw windows firewall, AVG Free, and Spybot. I surf teh web from Firefox and even if I dso use IE, I run it in locked down mode (though the new IE v7 runs like that in default, it shoudl be noted). I practice good common sense for email, ie never open attachments labeled with wierd extensions or from unknown people – or even attachments forwarded to me by people I trust. I also use Yahoo and Gmail exclusively for email rather than POP my mail down – Yahoo even has built-in Norton Antivirus scanning for attachments, and Gmail also has some similar scanning (dunno if its google-homegrown or a 3rd party, but I trust google not to do a half assed job here).

    I am sure that I am still vulnerable in some way and invite comments as to how to even further minimize my profile but frankly security is not a concern for me anymore. I like the fact that all of teh above is stuff I can explain to my dad as well – good practices dont require an MS in compsci. And to be honest teh blase attitude that Mac owners have towards their security freaks me out. I could never blithely assume that Im immune to viruses the way that most of my machead friends do.

    windows Just Works for me. That’s really all I ask.

  3. argh! Shamus, if I offer a sacrifice of some kind to your spam filter, will it look more kindly upon me?

  4. Heather says:

    Yup, what he said. Shamus is right. I learned a lot while using Linux, and it ws blessing when we couldn’t afford XP but in the end it was too hard for me to learn, because I didn’t have someone who knew how to use it nearby to show me what to do. I know others on Slashdot who go on about how their “soccer mom” wives used Linux and recompiled etc, but they didn’t have to teach themselves. Linux would have been tolerable if I had someone standing by walking me through, but learning all the code wods and whatnot to make everything work with absolutely no background in programming other than HTML and Basic, well, it didn’t work.

  5. Alex says:

    I have become convinced, over the course of several attempts (books, online courses, smug smartass CS-major acquaintances), that one cannot actually *learn* to use a Unixoid OS. Either you’re predisposed to understand it, or you’re not; and if you’re not, you’ll only make yourself miserable by trying. It’s almost like Linux has created a new subspecies of human – Homo sapiens torvaldi…

  6. supermank17 says:

    I’ve been playing with Linux for a couple of years now, and while I think things have improved some, installing software and using drivers are still two of the most frustrating things about Linux. If you use a debian based distribution (my flavor of choice, Ubuntu is based off of it) the install problem is somewhat alleviated; you bring up the nice GUI based program chooser, click the program you want installed, and it automatically downloads and installs the program, along with any other dependencies. It couldn’t be easier. Unless the program you want isn’t in the software repository, which while rare, does happen too often. In that case, its back to the nightmare of broken dependencies and source code. The driver issue is worse in some ways. Nvidia drivers require you to download a binary driver, then compile a stub file so that the kernel can use it. Step by step instructions are provided, but it isn’t exactly easy and it still irks me that any compilation is required. Especially since the kernel is compiled with an older version of gcc, so I have to install the older version of gcc, boot into a text only mode, set environment variables to use the older version of gcc, compile the stub, (it automatically is installed properly thank goodness) and then finally modify the configuration file to use the stupid driver. And you have to do this EVERY TIME you update your kernel (which is relatively often). I can’t tell you the frustration of spending months setting up a MythTV digital video recorder… only to have all my various drivers break and render the thing useless because it automatically updated my kernel for a security fix.

  7. saskwach says:

    I know what this will sound like, but it’s true: You were using the wrong distribution. My first distro was red hat and it took me about 3 months to get into the dependency hell you described. Then I switched to Debian and have been running the same install (with numerous fairly painless upgrades (and a couple more painful ones)) for more than 5 years. If you want to try out linux today, I’d suggest you go with Ubuntu. It’s based on Debian so it handles all the dependencies for you and it’s got decent documentation to go with the forums where “RTFM” is a banned set of letters.

    By the way, nVidia has vastly improved their linux video driver install process. It’s now as simple as
    1) download
    2) run

    Another nitpick: I was a windows administrator for about a year. Installing windows on a new machine is far more difficult and time consuming than installing linux on a second hard drive and setting it up as a dual boot (with any of the distros I’ve used). Microsoft just doesn’t have to exert that much effort on its installer; Windows comes preinstalled from all the OEMs whereas if a linux distro is hard to install (see Debian c. 2000) people will just give up and go back before they even get started.

  8. Alex says:

    saskwach wrote:
    “Another nitpick: I was a windows administrator for about a year. Installing windows on a new machine is far more difficult and time consuming than installing linux on a second hard drive and setting it up as a dual boot (with any of the distros I've used).”

    EVERY Linux user says this, and every single one recommends a different distro (one sadist even gave me SuSe). And while Windows installs are time-consuming, I disagree on “difficult” simply because you spend about 1% as much time at a command line in Windows as you do in any kind of Linux. (I was a Windows admin for THREE years. ^_^ )

  9. I’ll ditto Ubuntu or a similar distribution.

    One of the nifty things about Ubuntu is you can try a LiveCD (google for “Ubuntu LiveCD”, although at the moment the best hit is actually the second one for me). Burn it, pop it in, and try out what you want to work.

    As a Gentoo user, I’m going to anti-ditto the Gentoo recommendation above. Gentoo is a great starter distro if you want to really figure out what’s going on and I’d recommend it to any first-year computer science student in a heartbeat. He won’t necessarily have any better a time with it than anybody else, but what he learns from the experience will be a lot more valuable. But if you just want things to work, it’s not the way to go. (No matter how you go, you’ll need to learn some things, just as you do if you want to switch from Mac to Windows. I don’t get the sense this bothers you. But Gentoo will force a lot more on you.)

    Ubuntu also has a **wildly** better out-of-the-box additional software experience with its package management than the old RedHats. (See .) If you want something not pre-packaged, you’re back to your old experience that you describe in your post, but mostly, the pre-existing packages ought to suit your needs.

    This is, of course, assuming you’re still interested in Linux at all. If you don’t have a great reason to switch, why bother? (Personally, I find that Windows is getting monotonically worse about trying to control you with DRM and bad EULA clauses, but that’s still an abstract concern for most people.)

  10. Cymru Llewes says:

    I’m probably an anomaly here. I had no trouble getting slackware 8 set up. But once I set it up I left it strictly alone except for updating the security when a breach was discovered. My husband rails about it because he wants to always have the latest bug fixes and all. Me, if it works (or I can happily work around it) then it isn’t broke and I’m not going to upgrade to “fix” it. That said, my galeon is broken due to an upgrade and I think I’ve reached the point of “burning” the box to the ground and reinstalling. Not sure if I’m going to keep on with slackware or not but I’ve got a (S)thinkpad 600E that I can play with distros on so my main box doesn’t need to be my sandbox while I decide what to use. And yes, I do have a W2K game box right next to the linux workstation. I also use it to look at websites that crash linux Firefox but work find with Windows Firefox (youtube!)

  11. Shamus says:

    Fledge: I don’t know what the filtering problem is. Your posts look nothing like spam. It’s making me crazy. Maybe it’s the .info domain? I don’t know. You’d think an adaptive filter would get the idea after I clear a dozen of your comments that you’re a good guy.

  12. Gothmog says:

    I’ll second- (well, third, I think) Ubuntu. I’ve had a very pleasant experience with it, tho I’m still running windows due to the games. A-heh.

    In fact, there’s a neat version called Linux Mint that takes the Ubuntu release and installs all the A/V codecs and whatnot for you. It’s at, I believe.

  13. karrde says:

    Well, yeah…Gentoo is for comp-sci geeks.

    (That’s what I get for hanging around geek clubs at a Tech-University…an altered perspective on what is “easy” for computer users.)

    I think I agree with the comments above. Linux (of any flavor) is not easy when it comes without a nearby Guru.

    I’ll probably take my comments about Linux and multimedia over to the linked blog…

  14. bloopy says:

    this is kind of a dumb question but why do you have to make an either-or choice?. . . can’t you just dual-boot your machine?. . . so that when you want to play games or you can’t find a substitute app for whatever you’re working on, you can just boot into windows?. . .

  15. Tirgaya says:

    Well we all seem to be talking about Linux… but if the original poster just wants a reliable computer that works then I seriously suggest Mac OS X as the OS of choice.

    The best thing about OS X is that users can, if so inclined, learn how to use a UNIX command line from within the “safety and comfort” of a consumer oriented OS. They also have access to all that woderful X11 software. After they gain some expertise that Slackware install won’t look so intimidating.

    The worst thing ? After using OS X for the last four years I really just don’t want to change to another desktop/workstation environment. Nothing else is out there right now that is as easy, powerful and reliable as OS X.

  16. Karl O. Pinc says:

    Linux is not one thing.

    Would you try installing a Win XP program on Win 95, or a Vista program on a Mac? No. Until you learn more, install only those programs that come with your distribution. Run Debian and you’ll have a choice of 15,000 different programs, all available with a click of the mouse using the synaptic package manager. Most other distros have fewer choices, which may not be a bad thing.

    In other words, just because you’ve suddenly got a lot of rope, don’t use it to hang yourself. Stray from your distro at your own risk. There’s a saying: “Use binary-only drivers, hate life.” This applies to adding other proprietary programs into the mix as well. If you can rely on your proprietary vendor for support, great, but most people have terrible experience with commercial tech support. Stray from your distro and you’re on your own with only your own skills to back you up. Wait until you’ve some good geek-fu before going there. By the time you’ve accumulated enough experience with Linux to install programs that don’t come with your distribution, you’ll probably have found less of a need to do so. I rarely if ever find it worth my time, in the long run, to maintain the installation of 3rd party software on my boxes.

    An implication is that you need to pick a distro that will do what you want it to.

    Is Linux _The_ _Answer_. No. Some things will be difficult that are easy on a proprietary platform. Mostly those things that distributors are afraid of for legal reasons, like ignoring Hollywood’s dictates and playing DVDs regardless of where they were made or who made them. Still, once you’ve learned how to do something on Linux the functionality will never be taken away from you. None of this, oh, by the way, we’ve decided you can’t be allowed to skip TV commercials automatically, like TVIO pulled.

    It comes back to the old saying: Unix makes easy things hard and hard things possible. Learning Linux is a long-term investment. For the most part, what you learn will forever be relevant. You won’t have to worry about memorizing some arcane sequence of tasks that will have to be slightly altered and re-memorized the next time the software changes. The fundamentals remain the same, and memorization is not necessary if you learn the underlying concepts.

    If you need handholding, find a local Linux Users Group (you can find one at, or get on the IRC channels that are there to provide support. There’s also email and forums, but those are less immediate and so more helpful when there’s a specific problem. The immediate feedback of IRC is more useful when there’s a need to explore the problem space.


    Karl O. Pinc

  17. Tom Zunder says:

    Things change fast in Linux land. Ubuntu and others are now almost as smooth as Windows, in fact smoother in many ways. Experiences from years back just don’t help. I’d recommend not trying to play games under linux, that just isn’t going to be viable, dual boot or buy a Playstation or a Wii.

  18. Taehl says:

    See, my first Linux experience was an utterly crippling blow. I, myself, am mainly a gamer, but also do a lot of work in texture artistry, game modding, music, etc.

    I started off not knowing a single thing about Linux. The person (read: zealot) who tried to convert me was my stepfather, and he filled my ears with glittering stories of how my modest machine would boot in half the time, run twice as fast, do every little thing my Windows machine did and better, and how I’d never ever need to buy an app again due to the magic of Open Source. Furthermore, it was more customizable, quicker to use, more powerful, more secure… And so on ad infinitum.

    So I install ‘Debian’, which he recommended. This only took, oh, 28 hours to do. Then I wanted to listen to a webradio while I installed some of my precious games. But what to use? Kaudio? Kmp? Kjuke? Kqlhb? Klaudioarch? Was this even the right menu? After finally getting each of those running, none seemed capable of playing any format of webradio. What did I finally fall back upon? Realplayer. I was appalled, but resolute.

    And so I try my games. UT99? I couldn’t even get Wine running. Half-Life? After getting around several desktop dumps, I discover the main menu can’t be rendered. Soul Reaver? No? How about Soldat? It comes in a Linux flavor, after all. That little attempt gave me one of my only snow crashes (where the entire screen is FUBAR-ed), and forced a reboot.

    Within 24 hours, I was setting up my custom color scheme in Windows XP again, asking this oft-mocked OS to forgive me.

    I really, /really/ want to like Open Source. Honestly. But the problem is, it’s not just got a bad learning curve, nay, it’s /anti-user-friendly/, with a community that comes off to me as mostly filled with elitist, bigoted fanatics who have no pity for an interested newb. In the end, I have stuff to do and I’m just not a masochist.

  19. Brian says:

    I have been around computers for 35 years as an end user and I have noticed that there is a tendancy amoungst some to hate Microsoft and even Intel.

    I have used a number of different OS-es: MVS, VMS, other DEC stuff whose names I forget, various UNIX/Risc machines (Sun, DEC, SGI), various early personal computurs including Apples, and many DOS and Windows machines. I have had dozens of Wintel machines over many years and never once had to call MS support line.

    Over this time there were always individuals who were always against Microsoft or “Wintel”. They would often change. One guy, a professor I knew, was originally for UNIX/Risc and hated MS. Later it was the Mac, and he still hated MS. Finally with WinXP he begrudingly accepted it was tolerable as he was having to be economical with his grant money. This guy was one of the more reasonable ones.

    There has always been fanatics against Windows. They could love anything else, it seemed, like a Commodore 64 or some other real immature technology like that.

    Linux is just the latest greatest example.

    Here is my theory. Somehow, a certain percentage of people hate whoever is on top of anything. In computers, a group of them get together and try to “challenge” the guys on top, MS and/or Intel. They really give a valliant try but they have an extreme disadvantage in terms of resources (experienced management, engineers and money). They eventually create something but there never was the resources for it to become mature. It pales compared to the guys on top. In time they become embittered and unethical.

    In my opinion, the whole Linux thing is exactly this. If you listen to them they tell you how easy it is. You try to install and work with it, and there are endless problems. You ask for help and they call you down, for being stupid, lazy, etc. This is unethical.

    The truth is: Windows is a fantastic bargain. A new computer’s pre-installed windows might cost you $100 for an extremely mature and integrated product. The only people who could love Linux are those who have some kind of weird psychological need to hate Microsoft because they are on top. They would rather have all the pain and suffering of trying to be an IT support staff for a horrible OS than pay $100 for a very advanced and user friendly OS (but not have someone to hate).

    This is my theory and I’m sticking with it unless I have some honest to God observations to the contrary.

  20. Sean Hagen says:

    As someone who’s been using Linux since about 2002-ish, I have to say I totally agree with your sentiments about Linux. When I first started using Linux, I tried Red Hat, because after reading around on the web, it seemed like the most user friendly of the bunch. Boy, was I wrong. DLL hell times a bajatraillion.

    After using Linux for about 8-ish years now, I’ve discovered that your choice of distro for your first run can really impact how you feel about it. Some distro’s are really meant for the power user. Slackware and Gentoo especially ( super-power users can opt to compile EVERY package by hand in Gentoo. Holy. Crap ). Others are a bit more user friendly, especially Red Hat Fedora and Ubuntu ( and especially especially in the last two or three years ).

    For someone that just needs a word processor and a web browser, then sticking with Windows or OS X is probably a good idea. For someone that wants to play games, definitely stick with Windows. But if you’re the kind of person that wants to expiriment, tinker, or code, then give Linux a shot. Especially if you want to get into web development, where knowing how to setup, configure, and generally mess around with a LAMP ( Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP ) stack can be a big help.

    tl;dr: Linux has gotten more user friendly in the last few years, but is still an OS meant for hackers, tinkerers, and people who like to mess around with code in their spare time.

  21. Brock says:

    This always seemed a disconnect to me: You would play hours and weeks taking apart games like “MYST”, savoring every experience finding every secret passageway, every plot convolution …

    To me, linux has always just been a bigger “MYST” … (though without the luscious graphics and gaming interface MYST had :) )

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