How to break free from your computer operating system — if you dare

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • DChamp56

    There should be a bigger disclaimer here that “Linux is NOT for everyone!” Don’t install unless you’ve backed up EVERYTHING you need off of your PC first (not once, but twice).
    I’ve used Ubuntu, and it’s good… but I learned to like and use Windows 10.

  • Jeff W.

    Switching to another OS is not for the faint of heart. Make sure you backup everything and do a full inventory of all the software you use to make sure there a Linux variant. Not only the day-to-day software, but those packages you use occasionally — like TurboTax.

    And open source does not necessary mean free. Usually a donation is requested and if you use it, please donate. While many of the developers volunteer their time, the servers and bandwidth does not pay for itself.

  • Bill

    Take the backup advice to heart. If you have backed up your computer to a single external hard drive (or cloud or whatever) and you wipe your primary internal hard drive YOU NO LONGER HAVE A BACKUP! A backup inherently implies TWO copies of everything that you want to retain.

  • sirwired

    FWIW, I had grown tired of endless disk-thrashing on my work machine, and plunked down $60 to replace the “spinning” disk with a Solid State disk. It came with software that cloned my existing drive (I cannibalized an old external USB drive to use as an enclosure) and I was up and running in about two hours, largely unattended.

    When I booted my machine back up, it was a revelation! I could boot in about 40 seconds (used to take minutes), and S/W updates are a breeze.

    Highly recommended, and a heck of a lot easier than a wholesale O/S change.

  • Jeff W.

    And when choosing a backup utility, use a third party backup program. One that works with Windows and your version of Linux.

    The Windows backup utility works fine, but it is designed to work with Windows. Your Linux distro may or may not be able to read that file. Or it can but you need to go through some hoops to get the files you need.

    Long time Windows users know that programs can sometimes place important files in other locations on the drive. Most modern backup utilities know where those not-so-obvious locations are and will copy everything. Not all of your important stuff is located in “My Documents” or “My Pictures”. Such is the world of Windows…

  • AJPeabody

    If you want to try Linux but are rightfully fearful of messing everything up, don’t use your working computer. Or, rather, don’t use the hard disk for the new operating system. Buy (real cheap on line on eBay) or download and burn to a DVD a live copy of a Linux version. I have a Linux Mint live DVD, for instance. Then trial run Linux by setting your computer to boot from the DVD prior to the hard drive (it’s a BIOS setting). It will take a while to load, but then you can see what Linux feels like.

    I got the live DVD to salvage files from an unbootable Windows XP machine. I used Linux to copy the unbacked up documents from the dead machine. Windows was corrupted, but the physical machine was just fine. So, now I have an unusable XP machine. Well, Mint runs fine on it from the DVD. There is an option to use the DVD to replace Windows and blank the hard drive. I then have a machine that I can experiment with, see if there are working Linux drivers for my printer, etc. It connects to email and the internet just fine already. The dead computer is resurrected, and the Mint disk was free since I downloaded and burned the image using my new Windows machine.

  • The Original Joe S

    First thing i did when I got a new laptop in 2012 was install a SSD. Clean install spinner boot up: 61 seconds. Clean install SSD boot-up: 19 seconds or so.

    Advice from laptop salesman: Don’t upgrade. Keep your old one because, with the SSD, you’d only get 10% or so faster for your $1000. Good advice.

    External small-footprint HD are cheap. BACK UP as said DCChamp above. and use a universal utility [I use Acronis] so you can recover with a CD.

  • The Original Joe S

    So name it “Lazarus”.

  • jim6555

    It’s been at least twenty years since I first heard about Linux and the prediction that it was going to soon replace Windows and Mac/OS as the prevalent personal computer operating system. Obviously, that hasn’t happened. Since Linux has been around for that long and is still is used on less than two percent of personal computers, I don’t expect it to become the operating standard in the foreseeable future.

  • Alan Gore

    Unix is great for making old PCs that have been bogged down by Windows young again, the best ‘distributions,’ as they are called, being Ubuntu and Mint. The problem is that your favorite software probably does not run on it. If you want to browse, mail and do word processing you can get those programs for free. But the big specialty programs are on Windows and macOS, not Linux.

    OS X (now called macOS) is still everyone’s favorite for ease of use and freedom from malware. If your Mac has gotten mysteriously slow, run a free cleanup utility called Onyx to get rid of temporary files and caches that may have slowed your system down. Run Diskwarrior (you will actually have to buy it) to rebuild your hard disk directory, which may have become tangled with age. If that doesn’t revive your system, run the included Activity Monitor utility to see if there are any background programs that are consuming excess processor capacity.

    If none of those steps work, it means that your Mac is ten or more years old. Since by now you have gotten three average PC lifetimes of use out of it, treat yourself to a new one.

  • Jeff W.

    Macs are not 100% free from malware. It is true that they (and Linux) boxes are very rarely subject to such attacks. Cyber-criminals are going to spend their time trying to attack the 90% of computers running Windows, and not the 4% running macOS and 2% running Linux.

    Regardless of your operating system, always practice safe computing practices with virus protection and anti-malware programs.

  • Bill___A

    Valid point!
    People need to remember that changing operating systems is a major decision. All three of the ones mentioned work, but which hardware, peripherals and software do they work with? And how familiar are you and people you rely upon for help with it? I use Windows 10. My wife uses Mac. I also use Linux from time to time. However, we both get what we need done. If you are thinking to use a different OS, make sure you also can “get what you need” done.

  • Charles Owen

    I always tell the story of a student in my lab who was livid that we were running that awful Windows on machines instead of LInux. These were machines used in research on virtual and augmented reality. It was often difficult to get all of the right drivers for the different hardware we use working correctly. He assured us that Linux would solve all of those problems. Long story short: he never got it working. The Linux world has its own confusing world of installers and packages and distributions and can be very hard to work with. I have a package I really need to be running on a Linux server right now, but it’s only available for Wheezy, not for Jessie, which is what we are running.

    Keep in mind that quality in the open source world varies widely. This site is running on probably all open source software that is some of the best written and maintained software I have ever seen (Apache, PHP, WordPress). But, some products, often even very widely used ones, are just awful. Ask any programmer about Eclipse sometime. And you often will have zero support.

  • wilcoxon

    I used to have an older computer running FreeBSD. Personally, I always preferred BSD to Linux (I found the config much simpler and more sane but that was back when Linux config utilities were almost all command-line or directly editing config files so it may be different now). Also, at that time, the BSD package systems were much better than the Linux ones (FreeBSD ports system was the best).

    I would use Linux or BSD again except for one massive omission (for me). None of the open source office suites support Excel macros (which baffles me). LibreOffice has a more logical document model but somehow they made it even more confusing to code to than Excel (code is almost always 2-4 times longer than similar code to do the same thing in Excel).

    If you have lots of Windows software that you need to use, you probably can switch to MacOS. There are packages (Parallels and another I’m forgetting right now) that will allow you to run most Windows software on MacOS (least likely to work is games).

    If you have some software that you absolutely need to run but you want to try switching anyway, you can create a virtual machine under Linux (or BSD or MacOS) with your original operating system to run these programs. It works pretty well but will be slower than running your original OS directly (but may be faster than running your original OS on the old machine you may currently be using (if upgrading machines)). Again, the least likely software to work properly is games.

  • Bill___A

    One might wish to note that Windows 10 does not and has not required reboots during work hours and that one can control the timing of the updates.

    The very first thing that one should consider when you have a problem with something is “whether it is configured properly”. If one wants to use Linux or Mac or whatever, that’s fine, but one must consider what the author is trying to project.

    To the uninitiated, it appears that the “problem” is that Windows is “bad” but what one might ponder if it is wise for someone who does not know how to correctly configure Windows updates correctly – should they go down the path to a new operating system and learn everything?

    Go and get some technical support if you are having problems. All of the operating systems work fine when used and configured properly. I’m really tired of people slamming windows – and although I have not seen much slamming of the Mac OS, it is uncalled for also. I can just imagine the complaining if Windows 10 or Mac had 10 different current versions of their operating system and the apps were different for each one. That’s what Linux is. The amount that Microsoft and Apple charge for their operating systems is very minimal compared to the benefits you get. And if anyone is wondering which is now the most secure operating system now, many authorities would say it is Windows 10. Surprise.

  • Bill___A

    If you are running parallels, you are still running Windows AND also Mac. Two operating systems to worry about and update and pay for…

  • wilcoxon

    Interesting. I could have sworn Parallels used to be one of the lib interfaces (eg just enough of Windows to run most Windows applications natively on a Mac) and not a full VM. Given that VMWare is free (provided you have a Windows PC to image), I fail to see why anyone would buy Parallels.

  • wilcoxon

    Sorry but Windows 10 SHOULD be slammed hard. It is a privacy nightmare (supposedly getting better with the upcoming major update but still deficient – all versions should be able to set info-level to Security) and not all of the info it sends to Microsoft is even controlled by the general setting. Then there’s the whole auto-update fiasco – if I want to turn off updates or install them later, it is not for Microsoft to tell me I can’t. I’ve been considering switching to Android because iOS now does this to a lesser degree (with iOS 9+, it will download updates and nag you even if you have auto-updates turned off (but at least it won’t install them automatically)).

  • Bill___A

    You have some control, but yes you should have to install updates, too many people were leaving them and then having insecure systems. As to the privacy “nightmare” I don’t know what playbook you are reading from. Your ISP knows everywhere you go, somethingbook tracks pretty much everything. On the one hand, you are complaining about being “forced” to install updates which would stop people from hacking and spying on you – and on the other hand, complaining about privacy nightmares. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Everything you use nowadays is likely going to have frequent updates, and you are kidding yourself if you are ahead of the game by “controlling ” them. I have not been “held up” by updates at all, it is all done when I am ready for it. And my computers, both Windows and Mac, as well as Android and IOS devices are all working better than they ever have.

  • Bill___A

    I don’t see why anyone would buy a mac to run Windows programs…..I am typing on a Mac right now and it doesn’t have any “Windows” on it at all. i’ve got apps for the Mac installed.

  • JewelEyed

    Correct. Security by obscurity is not even vaguely a good strategy.

  • JewelEyed

    Then again, it’s nice to be able to choose not to install certain updates at a given time if you find that people installing that update are having huge, crazy problems. I’ve had that happen to me before and that’s why I never keep auto-updates on. I prefer to be able to check on big updates first.

  • wilcoxon

    Exactly. I never install updates immediately (unless I have an immediate need). I will typically install them 1-4 weeks after release (longer if there are problems reported with them).

    The privacy nightmare in Windows 10 is the number of places that Microsoft hides settings affecting information being sent to Microsoft. Then there’s the fact that some settings are ignored or can’t be changed/turned off in some versions (Home has the least control, Pro has a little more control, but you need Enterprise with the supplemental domain server for max control (and, even then, iirc, there are a few settings you can’t turn off)).

    My ISP does not necessarily know anywhere I go. I frequently (but not always) use a VPN so my ISP knows nothing except which VPN server I’m using.

    Incorrect. I absolutely know that my systems work better when I control the updates than when the companies control them. The only times I’ve ever had problems with my systems (except the rare hardware failure) are a few times when I have updated immediately. I only relatively recently updated my iPhone 5s from iOS 7 to 9 and, in many ways, I wish I hadn’t – iOS 9 is NOT fully backwards compatible (and iOS 10 is worse) – primarily the moving of audio books from iTunes into iBooks breaks any car with AMI/MMI (VW, Audi, etc) when listening to audio books (this could have been coded against to work by Apple but apparently wasn’t).

  • wilcoxon

    There are only two reasons I would run Windows apps on a Mac. Excel because I absolutely need VBA macro support (why Microsoft won’t add this to Excel for Mac I have no idea) and games (some are available for Mac but many are not though this is improving).

  • Bill___A

    I have the ability to control mine as I see fit, but I have not been having problems. They are a lot more reliable than they have been. The biggest issue I had with an update over the last couple of years was a samsung one on their andriod tablet where they made the bluetooth keyboard and mouse not work, it was a month and a half before they got the fix for it. Otherwise, my issues have been extremely minor.

  • Bill___A

    Which would cause me to select a Windows machine because the required capabilities were not in Mac. I guess the question is, what’s the Mac giving you as a benefit that you aren’t getting in Windows 10 (and don’t say it is more secure, it isn’t…just less of a target). In most enterprises I know, users are required to supply a valid “business reason” to have a mac and in the overwhelming majority of cases, they are unable to do so.

  • wilcoxon

    Actually Mac OS is more secure but it certainly isn’t bulletproof (and it is much less of a target). Security is far more about being “smart” than the technology. I’ve gone extended periods without running any anti-virus or anti-malware and the last time I had any malware was 1988. For intrusions, the router is far more important than the OS and it’s generally relatively easy (with some setup time spent) to make it very hard to get into the network (barring firmware/OS bugs in the router which are fairly rare).

    The requirement for business justification seems to be changing. The large company I work for has allowed Mac use for years but offered no official support but they recently announced they are adding official support as well (and no justification is required).

    However, the HUGE thing I get with Mac OS is a useful command line (which you also get with *BSD, Linux, or other *nix). I can do many tasks in seconds on a *nix command line that require minutes in Windows (and are frequently impossible on the command line and sometimes impossible at all).

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