Making Linux A Genuine Windows Replacement

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linux as a windows replacementWith Windows 8 casting a long shadow over the PC industry and Valve committing to create Linux-based gaming PCs, there’s never been a better time to start using Linux. For many users, the Linux desktop is now there — so many applications have moved to the cloud, hardware support has improved, and the desktop has been polished. You can even watch Netflix and play a variety of games on Steam — two big holes that have been filled recently.

We’ll be starting with Ubuntu 12.10 for this tutorial. Ubuntu 12.10 is a more complete desktop than Windows out-of-the-box, coming with the LibreOffice office suite, Firefox and Thunderbird for web browsing and email, Transmission for BitTorrent, and applications for everything from watching videos and playing music to instant messaging and tweeting.

Installing Ubuntu

While installing Ubuntu, you’ll be asked whether you want to install some third-party software. This package includes Flash and codecs for listening and watching a variety of common music and video formats. Unless you have an ideological objection to installing closed-source software and patent-encumbered codecs, be sure to install this.

Once you’ve installed Ubuntu and rebooted into your new system, ensure you install the latest updates using the Software Updater application that appears.

linux as a windows replacement

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Videos & DVDs

First we’ll look at ways to play videos — either from your hard drive, DVDs, or the cloud.

  • VLC: You may also want to install VLC, although the default Movie Player application (Totem) should work fine for most users. If you want VLC, open the Ubuntu Software Center after rebooting into your installed Ubuntu system, search for VLC, and install it.
  • DVD Support: Ubuntu — and other Linux distributions — can’t play DVDs out-of-the-box. All commercially produced DVDs are protected with CSS encryption, which only licensed DVD players can decode normally. However, the CSS encryption is incredibly weak, and it’s trivial to break the encryption whenever you insert the DVD into your computer — breaking the encryption will allow you to watch the DVDs you legally own and have paid for. However, breaking the encryption — yes, even to watch DVDs you’ve paid for — is a crime in many countries. The Ubuntu wiki has instructions for installing DVD support, but you should check your local laws before installing it.
  • Netflix: While most web apps will work normally in Linux, Netflix won’t — it’s using Microsoft’s Silverlight for its video player. In spite of Microsoft’s promises about Silverlight being cross-platform, they’ve refused to cooperate with the Moonlight project on this. If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you’ll want to install the Netflix Desktop app so you can play Netflix. Netflix Desktop contains a patched version of Wine that has Microsoft’s Silverlight plug-in working properly — however, it’s a very slick and easy-to-use solution.

To install Netflix Desktop, open a terminal and run the following commands:

sudo apt-add-repository ppa:ehoover/compholio
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install netflix-desktop

You can then open the Netflix Desktop app from your Dash and follow the instructions. Press the F11 key to toggle between full-screen and windowed modes.

linux windows replacement

You may also want to install the excellent XBMC media center, which you can grab from the Ubuntu Software Center.

Web Browsers

Ubuntu’s default Firefox browser is okay, but I’ve preferred Chrome for a long time. If you also prefer Chrome, visit Chrome’s download page and download the DEB file for Ubuntu. Double-click it and install it — you can then open Chrome and log into Chrome sync with your Google account details. The Linux version of Chrome supports web apps, extensions, and all the other good stuff the Windows version supports.

If you’re an Opera fan, you’ll be happy to know that Opera also provides an official Linux version.

linux windows replacement

Instant Messaging and Voice Chat

Ubuntu supports a variety of instant messaging and voice chat applications, from Google Talk to Skype.

  • Pidgin: Ubuntu’s default Empathy instant messaging client is okay, too — but I’ve always preferred Pidgin. Like most open-source apps you might want, Pidgin is available from the Ubuntu Software Center. It’s cross-platform, so you can easily move your Pidgin settings between Linux and Windows.
  • Google Voice and Video Chat Plugin: The voice and video chat plugin allows you to participate in Hangouts, have voice calls, and call phones from within Gmail.
  • Skype: You may also want to install the official Skype for Linux. However, Skype for Linux has always been a bit behind the times — even before Microsoft purchased them.
  • Mumble: The Mumble voice chat program, often used  by gamers, also has an official Linux version. You’ll find it in Ubuntu’s Software Center.

linux windows replacement

PC Games

Steam for Linux was recently released, and it’s now in open beta — you can head to the Steam website and download the installer package for Ubuntu. Steam for Linux currently offers about 62 supported games. If you’ve purchased Humble Indie Bundles, you should have quite a few games that already support Linux — although the Linux versions may not have been added to Steam yet. Even if you’ve never used Steam before, Team Fortress 2 is free to play and works on Linux.

Expect to see many more games come as Valve releases their own Linux-based console, porting all their own games over and giving third-party developers a good reason to support Linux.

linux for windows

Cloud Storage

These days, almost everyone has some sort of cloud storage service they use — if only to transfer files between a few computers or other devices. Many cloud storage services offer official Linux clients:

  • Dropbox: Dropbox is the most mature cloud storage service in many ways, so of course it offers a Linux client. You’ll want to install the Linux client if you use Dropbox.
  • Ubuntu One: Don’t count Ubuntu One out — it works great on Ubuntu, where it’s preinstalled. However, Ubuntu One also offers Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS clients, so you can use it almost anywhere.
  • Google Drive: This is a sore spot — Google promised the Linux version of Drive was “a priority” but it hasn’t materialized in the nine months since. If you’re a Google Drive user, your best option is probably the third-party Insync client for Google Drive.

SpiderOak and Wuala also offer official Linux clients.

linux for windows

Office Documents

Ubuntu and most other Linux distributions come with the LibreOffice office suite, which is based on OpenOffice, already installed. It’s a great package of software that will be fine for most people. You can even use it on Windows to save money on Microsoft Office. However, its compatibility with Microsoft Office documents is not perfect. If you don’t like LibreOffice, you have some other options:

  • Office Web Apps: Microsoft provides free Office Web Apps. They run in your browser, so they can be used on Linux. If a Microsoft Office document isn’t loading properly in LibreOffice, you may want to give the Office Web Apps a try.
  • Google Docs: My personal solution of choice. If you don’t care too much about compatibility with Microsoft Office documents, Google Docs works well on Linux, too.
  • Microsoft Office on Linux: If you want the real Microsoft Office, you can use Wine to install it. Wine allows you to run Windows programs on Linux — however, it’s also not perfect. If you have a more recent version of Microsoft Office, it won’t work in Wine. All versions of Office will run perfectly in a virtual machine like VirtualBox, so that may be your best, most stable option. (See below for more information about VirtualBox).

Tools of the Trade

As a tech blogger, I need a few tools that you might be interested in, too:

  • GIMP: It’s no longer installed by default, but GIMP is the most powerful image manipulation program for Linux (short of running Photoshop in Wine). As a fan of Paint.NET on Windows, I gave the Paint.NET-inspired Pinta a try — but Pinta just isn’t powerful enough for me yet. You’ll find GIMP and Pinta in Ubuntu’s Software Center.
  • Shutter: Shutter is a powerful screenshot-taking tool that you can install from the Ubuntu Software Center. Most users will probably fine with the screenshot tool included in Ubuntu, though — press Print Screen or search for Screenshot in the dash to activate it.
  • VirtualBox: Virtual machines allow you to run other operating systems in a window on your desktop. If you don’t want to play any Windows games, this is a great solution for running the occasional Windows program on Linux. VirtualBox is in the Ubuntu Software Center

linux as a windows replacement

That’s about it for my Linux desktop — between web apps like Rdio for playing music (there’s a Spotify app for Linux if you’re a Spotify user, however), and the default apps for everything else (Gedit can take the place of Notepad++ as a solid text editor), Linux is a better alternative to Windows than it’s ever been. The one dark spot is still games, but there’s Wine for installing Windows games if you want to get your hands dirty. We’ll be seeing many more games with Valve’s Linux-based Steam Box on the horizon, too.

For more great Linux applications you might be interested in installing, check out our list of the best Linux software. For gamers, check out our page of the best Linux games. If you’re interested in learning more about Ubuntu, download our free beginner’s guide to Ubuntu.

Are there any other must-install applications you use on your Linux desktop? Leave a comment and share them!

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Comments (108)
  • gnUX Computers

    If you want to watch netflix on GNU/Linux – just download and install Google Chrome browser:

  • Angelo

    I almost ditched Windows a long time ago. My first experiments were with Suse Linux 6.0 (I think). Now I am on Ubuntu for desktops/laptops and one server I have at home (no GUI on this system). Only a few applications don’t run under Linux, such as Quickbooks (I own a business and unfortunately my CPA is “married” to Quickbooks) which does not run under Wine. This is why I still have a desktop running XP. As soon as I am ready to ditch Quickbooks in favor of GNUCash, Windows will be history. No need to reinstall periodically the system, even a crappy netbook runs Ubuntu with Unity (maybe something lighter would be nice), no OS crashes (however, applications do crash occasionally), updates applied in one shot, rare reboots etc. Being free is not my main concern, but it certainly helps. And boy, no more 5 minutes to boot an XP system.

  • hotdoge3

    Mint 14 (one GB) windows 7 (3.8 GB) download I go with Mint

    Libre Office or Open Office is good and free.

  • null

    i really want to use ubuntu, but there is a big problem: no drivers for switchable graphics for linux :( i have a hp dv6 notebook and i don’t like the ubuntu with no graphic card :/ the space on the screen is small (with large buttons) and i dont know how to fix this :'( if someone know what i need to do plz HELP ME :'(

  • Furqana Fathuzzaman

    Linux is almost ready to be my replacement for windows..

    Unlike most people, I actually really like Ubuntu’s Unity. Well, I’m switching to Linux on 12.04 era, so I don’t have “hard to change” feeling from previous gnome 2 looks, and I feel Unity is more newbie friendly.
    The HUD is really useful, and global panel gives me more space (I don’t need a bar dedicated only to title like in browser).

    Unfortunately, my notebook was broken, and unfortunately, looking at 12.10, I feel ubuntu becoming more bloated with useless things, like webapp (I prefer browser if I have to connect to internet anyway) and social media integration (I’m not using that much, and I prefer a separate/3rd party software for that).
    True, I can stay with LTS, but until ubuntu can make up those bloatedness with speed, I think it’s a time to try other distro..

    And so I’m trying Mint 14 cinnamon now. So far so good. Even though it’s not as good as in windows, at least I can use my dual gpu nvidia with bumblebee. And I haven’t found any problem yet, although I miss HUD sometimes..

    The only thing I’m still trying to fix is -like many other linux distro- the power management. Linux isn’t too battery friendly, at least compared to Windows..

    • dragonmouth

      “until ubuntu can make up those bloatedness with speed, I think it’s a time to try other distro.”
      The general tendency is for Operating System and Application software is to grow bigger and bigger. This due to more and more “features” being incorporated into the software. There was time that all Linux distros fit comfortably on a CD. Today most of the popular ones are over 2 GB in size.

      Considering that Canonical and Ubuntu are trying hard to become the Linux equivalents of Microsoft and Windows, I doubt if there is any chance that Ubuntu will become smaller or faster.

      Depending on how proficient you are in Linux, you may want to consider building your own distro. With SUSE Studio you start by choosing the basic system, then adding only the application you want/need. When you’re finished, you download the .ISO you just created. It’s all done through a GUI.

      If you are more adventurous/proficient, you can start by installing antiX Core or TinyCore and then installing applications. This requires more expertise since most of the work is done using CLI.

      You can also re-master the distro you currently have using the Remastersys program. What you is uninstall the applications you don’t need/want and then use Remastersys to create an .ISO file of the resulting distro.

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This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.