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Windows 10 has been perhaps the most successful Windows ever. It’s faster, more feature-packed, and more secure.
But it’s a mixed bag. Microsoft is thirstier than ever for users’ private data, and it is acting more hands-on than ever before. They want to control what software you run, and when you run your updates. And at a fundamental level, it’s still Windows, and still especially vulnerable to viruses and malware.
It’s for this reason why many users are looking to make the switch to Linux. If you’re one of them, you’re going to want to read on. We’re going to talk about how to move your home office computer from Windows to Linux, without losing your mind.
Picking the Right Distribution
Over the past twenty years, Linux has moved from being something utterly incomprehensible to many, to being a viable operating system for most users.
Hardware support used to be patchy, and it was rough around the edges. It didn’t look or feel as good as Windows or Mac. But now, it’s reached the point where Linux is as easy to use as Windows and OS X.
While thousands of different distributions of Linux are available, the majority of them aren’t suited for the home office. Some are aimed at a specific niche, like digital creatives or scientists. Some, like Devuan, exist to make a political statement. There are esoteric and joke distributions, like Hannah Montana Linux and Justin Bieber Linux.
These only have a few users, if any. The biggest distributions are the ones you should care about, and those that tend to be more generally focused. Right now, Ubuntu (and the Ubuntu-like distributions) are amongst the most popular for consumers and office users. These are the ones you should use for your home office.
You can even buy computers with Ubuntu preinstalled. You’ll find a number of boutique, Linux-oriented manufacturers exist, like System76. But some major computer manufacturers, like Dell, sell machines preinstalled with Ubuntu. If you’re so inclined, you could even pick up an old MacBook Air on eBay and install Ubuntu onto it!
As a bonus, most commercial Linux software is packaged for Ubuntu and Ubuntu-derivative systems. If you use another distro, you might have to use some complicated command-line-fu to get it running on your machine.
Printers and Other Peripherals
Moving on, let’s talk about printer and hardware support.
The reality is that most home offices tend to be austere, cheap machines bought off-the-shelf from Best Buy, or similar big box computer stores. They’re not going to ship with any exotic hardware, like a top-tier graphics card. Even if it does, chances are good that there’ll be native driver support for it.
But what about peripherals? Well, again, you’ve got nothing to worry about there. Linux is great for its support of third-party peripherals, like USB headsets, webcams, keyboards and mice.
Even when it comes to printer support, Linux shines. Most printers work well, largely thanks to the widespread adoption of CUPS – the Common Unix Printing System – and manufacturers actually releasing their own drivers. But if there’s any doubt, the Ubuntu website has a comprehensive list of supported third-party printers.
But if you really want to be safe, you should get a HP ePrint compatible printer. Not only do these allow you to print from anywhere in the world, just using your email, but they’re also essentially platform agnostic.
Transferring Your Files Over
Once you’ve settled on the distribution you’re going to use, and ensured all your peripherals work, you’re going to want to move all your files over. This can be done in a couple of ways.
Firstly, there’s the tried-and-tested external hard drive. Large terabyte hard drives can be found for less than $60. It’s worth noting that if your machine supports USB 3.0, you should ensure the disk you purchase likewise supports USB 3.0, in order to benefit from its greatly improved file transfer speeds.
But what if you want to transfer your files over the network?
Well, you could set up a local file share. I’m going to recommend against this though, for the simple reason that if a Windows machine on the network gets infected with ransomware, it would affect all the files available through the network share.
Plus, it’s something that differs between distributions, and cannot be succinctly be explained in a couple of paragraphs.
Thankfully, several great third-party services can be depended upon. If you’ve got a lot of files to transfer, you’ll probably hit the limits of Dropbox and SpiderOak rather quickly. But thankfully, there’s BitTorrent Sync.
The free version is pretty solid, and will allow you to shift unlimited files between machines. Seriously, as many as you want. There’s no fair-usage limit either, since your files aren’t going through their servers, but directly to the computer you’re transferring them to.
The biggest downside is that it can be really slow, especially when compared to directly copying it to a hard drive. Moreover, if your ISP is one that throttles BitTorrent traffic, you can expect it to be even slower. Sadly, it’s impossible for ISPs to differentiate between illegitimate and legitimate BitTorrent traffic, so they just treat it all the same.
But if you’re not too worried about time, or don’t mind leaving your computer on overnight to transfer your files over, BitTorrent Sync is the program for you.
Choosing the Right Productivity Suite
Moving on, we’ll now focus on document management and office productivity, since that’s the main job of a home office computer. As you might expect, office productivity on Linux is a bit of a minefield, and it’s easy to use the wrong program, simply out of ignorance.
It should go without saying that there’s no version of Microsoft Office for Linux. But that’s okay, because its role is filled by two competing versions of (essentially) the same program, as well as legion of online office suites.
OpenOffice vs LibreOffice: Which One Should You Use?
Let’s jump into the deep end by looking at LibreOffice and OpenOffice. Although they’re often confused and conflated with each other, these two programs couldn’t be any more different, and have a history filled with acrimony and turmoil.
The story starts in 1999, when Sun Microsystems acquired a German startup called StarDivision, who were working on a free, cross-platform office suite called StarOffice. Sun immediately renamed it to OpenOffice, and released it to the open-source community under a permissive open source license. It was a hit.
But there wasn’t much money to be made in giving away a fully-featured office suite. It didn’t help that Sun was having money problems independent of OpenOffice. In 2010, they were (controversially) bought out by Oracle.
Oracle is a controversial company in the open source community. After a few years, the core OpenOffice developers decided to defect, and forked the code to LibreOffice. This became the main rival to OpenOffice.
(Something similar happened with MySQL, with some dissatisfied developers forking it, to create rival MariaDB.)
Oracle rapidly lost enthusiasm for maintaining OpenOffice, and in 2011 they gave it to the Apache Foundation, who have been maintaining it ever since as Apache OpenOffice.
At face value, both products are fundamentally similar. They both include programs for making presentations and dealing with spreadsheets. You can use both to write word documents and to draw diagrams. But some key differences give LibreOffice a massive advantage.
LibreOffice has a superior development strategy. While most end-users don’t (and shouldn’t) care about this, it ultimately translates to it getting security and performance updates quicker. LibreOffice also has better (but not perfect) compatibility with Microsoft Office file formats, and a sleeker aesthetic. It’s just better.
Apache OpenOffice on the other hand is, for all intents and purposes, on life support. It’s struggled to attract and retain developers, and sorely lags when it comes to updates. This terminal decline probably won’t be reversed.
It’s for this reason why most distributions, including Ubuntu and Linux Mint, ship LibreOffice as their default built-in office suite. So, in most cases, you don’t even have to worry about installing office software when you switch to Linux!
Office Document Compatibility
For the most part, LibreOffice does a good job of maintaining compatibility with Microsoft Office. If you’re editing (or creating) documents of low-to-medium complexity, you should be fine, although in my experience, documents can look subtly different from system to system.
But there’s something you should be aware of. If you’re working with a document that uses VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) or macros to automate certain tasks, you’re going to be in a world of hurt. Compatibility for this on LibreOffice is poor to say the very least. That’s because the programming language and APIs (application programming interfaces) they use are fundamentally different.
There are converters, like those from Business Spreadsheets, but they can be very hit and miss. Realistically though, if you’ve got any spreadsheets or documents with VBA code, you’ll almost certainly have to re-write them with LibreOffice Basic.
Actually Running Microsoft Office
The latest version of Microsoft Office for Windows is awesome. It’s understandable if you are reluctant to to switch to LibreOffice from it.
Sadly though, it doesn’t work with Wine or CrossOver Linux. Neither, for that matter, does the second-newest version of Office, Microsoft Office 2013. They fail to install completely.
However, if you’re happy to lower your sights a little bit, Microsoft’s Office 2010 is reported to work well on CrossOver Linux. Although it’s getting harder and harder to find, you can still get your hands on legit copies from Amazon and eBay.
Alternatively, if you’ve got a spare license key for Windows, you could run it in a virtual machine. Of course, this wouldn’t be a seamless experience.
What about Online Office Suites?
Of course, there is another option. We are, of course, talking about online office suites which run in your browser. The two most well-known are Zoho and Google Docs.
But there’s a lesser-known one by Microsoft called Office Online. You can get it for free. Although, if you want all the features of Office Online, you’re going to need an Office 365 subscription, although there is an option for a free trial, for anyone who isn’t keen on committing to something they haven’t tried.
This comes with pretty much every component of Microsoft Office you could possibly need, like Word, Powerpoint, and Excel. It has all the features most home and business users require. As a bonus, it also works on Linux.
Linux Was Made for the Home Office
Although things won’t work exactly as they do on Windows, Linux is a great platform for the home office. Especially when you consider that it’s faster, and way more secure than Windows.
While you might miss the features of some Windows-only programs, you can guarantee that the Linux versions are almost as good, if not better.
Have you switched your home office to Linux? Tell me about it in the comments below!