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Computer Care: Linux offers a free Windows alternative
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Free is good, especially when it refers to computing. I think just about everyone would agree to that statement.

In computing there is trialware, which is software that is free to try; freeware, which is no-cost software to keep, and open source software, which is somewhat different still.

The open source programs follow the rules of FOSS, Free Open Source Software, and the GNU Project, a free software, mass collaboration project that began in 1983 at MIT. They state the programs are to be free of cost but also free to implement change.

The source code that was used to write the software is to be included with the program.

The philosophy leans more toward the concept of free speech, rather than free beer.

If you download Program 2.0 from the Internet and know of a way to improve on it, you do. Then you send it back from where you got it, making note of the changes and rename it version 2.1.

We’ll get to software in a minute, but on a grander scale, there are free operating systems. Early in the last decade of the last century, Linus Torvalds, a then 21-year-old University of Helsinki computer programmer, wrote some Unix-like code that was to be a free operating system, one he didn’t think would catch on.

Today, Linux, as it has come to be known, is available in dozens of languages as well as in dozens of “distros,” or distributions, in both 32- and 64-bit. The most well known is perhaps Red Hat, but there is also Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian, Knoppix, Xandros, Mandriva and many more.

Linux began in the DOS age as a command prompt operating system, eventually morphing into a GUI, or Graphical User Interface, as Windows is now. It still helps if you know some of the old commands, but you don’t have to.

Some distros you don’t even have to install. These are called “live” versions and are generally a bit smaller in content than their big brothers.

Look at zenwalk.org for a good one. They run at boot from the system memory. You put the CD in, boot your computer and in three minutes you are running a version of Linux, a turn-key, free operating system. When you reboot, you’re back in Windows. It is that easy. I’m not making this up.

If you have a large enough hard drive, you can install Linux next to Windows. Have a dual-boot computer. When you turn it on, you’ll have the option of booting into the OS of your choice.

All versions come loaded with applications, utilities and games. You can write a document or scan one, use a calculator, send e-mail, connect to the Internet, chat online, edit photos, listen to music, watch videos or create one, create a Web site, burn CDs, play solitaire or Sudoku and more — all for free.

The equivalent of Office, Visio, Ghost, Paint, Roxio and Movie Maker are respectively: Open Office, Dia, Cineluna, Clonezilla, Gimp and Infra Recorder.

Go to www.openoffice.org for the free version of that nice Office-like suite.

Just as with the distros, there are many more free apps available for download. A couple of good places to start are at www.linux.org and www.linuxfreedom.com/distros. You’ll find links to the distros, applications from anti-spam programs to MP3 players and fun things like Alien Arena and Astro Menace.

You may find fees at some of the sites. That is only if you want an actual CD with Linux on it. It also covers support. But if you find the download button, there will be no charge. Download the iso file, burn it to a CD or DVD and you’re good to go. There are also many good tutorials on the sites if you need help. Linux users also have lots of online forums you can join or browse for answers.

It needs saying that Linux computers don’t catch viruses or get infected with malware. Not like Windows PCs do, anyway. I don’t believe it’s because the system is immune though. I think it’s more due to the fact there are simply not enough Linux users that warrant the writing of nuisance viruses by the netcompoops that do. As Linux systems become more mainstream, they, too, will most likely also succumb to viruses.

Even though you are a Windows user, whether XP, Vista or Win 7, you should still consider trying Linux. Install it to a large hard drive or just run it from RAM. Either way, you’ll be impressed with its versatility and stability.

Not only will you have a new OS to explore with new apps and games to try, but Linux proves to be a valuable tool as well. Should you experience trouble with your Windows installation as many of us do, Linux gives you a back door to your files.

From the Linux file manager you can access Windows files and either invoke a repair or save them to an alternative destination.

So although there may be no such thing as free beer, an investment in Linux is worthwhile and won’t cost a dime.

Arthur Glazer is a freelance writer and computer technician in Gainesville. His column appears biweekly. Arthur welcomes your computer questions and ideas for future columns.

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