How Linux conquered my desktop

(Linux, Technology)

My first real introduction to Linux came when I started my bachelor’s degree studies at 2009.  Until then Linux was something I had read about in tech news: this strange “not windows and not mac” operating system that seemed to be responsible for a lot of the stuff servers do.  A terminal-based operating system meant for the gurus and genius -level IQ people to use; instead of my plain old self.  Goes without saying that I was very comfortable with my Windows operating system and was intimidated by The Linux.  However due to the fact that I aimed to make tech my profession, eventually I would have to at least dip my toe into the water.

My first Linux experience came in the form of introductory course I took.  The distribution used, you guessed it, was Ubuntu (9.04 at the time I think). Despite my reservations about what I dubbed “going back to DOS” (ergo terminal user interface) I was pleasantly surprised that Ubuntu had full GUI and ran relatively fast, too.

Ubuntu-9.04
My first touch of Linux.

Despite being impressed with the fact that Ubuntu was GUI, my first impressions on the aesthetic side was not that good.  The purple color scheme was ugly (still is) and that initial drumroll drives me nuts – what’s with that drumroll, anyway?

Eventually I was introduced to the server edition of Ubuntu and was met with the intimidating black box of a terminal interface.  However it didn’t take long for me to grow accustomed to it. I blame my earlier home computers (which ran MS-DOS) for that.  When 2009 ended I had cursory experience with two Linux distributions: Ubuntu and CentOS.

Time went by and most of my Linux experiences were limited to running a development server on virtual machine while doing my studies.  Despite being happy with what I got (Windows 7 had just come out) there was still that small nagging feeling that I could use something else – I am a tinker when it comes to my computers and the operating system within.  I try my best to customize the look and feel of my setup to fit my personality and workflow: as such the advertised customizability of Linux was appealing.

First half of 2010 put my studies in halt and forced me to concentrate on other things.  As such I didn’t think about Linux again until my studies begun again at autumn.  While I was still fascinated by Linux and contemplated of being one of the “tech gurus” that ran Linux in their homes, two things stood in the way: 1. I spent a lot of time playing games so Windows was required and 2. I still felt intimidated by Linux and its’ intricacies.  The potential advantages did not outweigh the time and risk.

That is to say, that was until my laptop decided to get hot… a lot.

I was comfortable looking into the innards of a desktop but laptops were a whole another beast.  I did not want to risk the laptop being destroyed by my fumbling around. Paying for maintenance was out of the question, a student as I was and needed to calculate every cent I spent.  So, I opted to try to reduce the load.  At first, I downgraded back to Windows XP and was satisfied with that for the time being. Eventually I came upon the idea that I might be able to kill two birds with one stone: get into Linux by forcing myself to use it on a daily basis and reduce the load to my computer with what was advertised as light on resources.

As my experience was limited, I went with the safe option and installed Ubuntu.  Still ugly and that drumroll was still there, but I weathered the annoyances.  I spent several weeks with Ubuntu, getting to know it and use it.  Still, despite my success with it, the performance left me wanting.  I felt that this was not the sleek, fast and lightweight Linux I had heard so much about.  So I tried something else.  I tried CentOS.  Another failure ensued: although CentOS performed better, in my opinion it was purely a server-distribution and I quickly changed away from it.  Thus begun my distro-hopping year.

2011 saw me changing from one distribution to another, trying it out on my laptop for a time.  I tried Puppy but felt that the features were not enough, despite being very light on my system.  I installed Mandriva since it was advertised as an easy transition from Windows. Went back to Ubuntu a couple of times and so forth.  Finally I settled for Fedora and spent the next three months (the longest time with a single distro) using that on my laptop.  Fedora seemed to hit the sweet spot at the time.  It was intuitive and easy to use, yet also felt light on the laptop resources.

2012 marks the time when I abandoned Linux for a while.  My studies started to demand more of my time and I needed familiar and reliable platform to do my work, so I bought a new laptop and fell back into Windows 7 and remained on that platform for the next year.  I was satisfied with the return back but also felt that the experience with Linux was rewarding and vowed to return back to it once time allowed.  Then 2013 happened.

2013 marks an important date for technology world with the revelations of mass surveillance of the American intelligence community by one Ed Snowden.  Being a tech student, I was more security-conscious than your average person.  Moreover, much of my personality and indentity is bound to my computer and digital world.  As such, when these revelations hit me I felt violated, betrayed.  Windows had served my needs faithfully and I had felt secure in my computer usage. Then I was met with the bombshell that not only was my computer activity subject to the whims of a foreign bureucrat who could twist and turn the facts as they saw fit to make me into whatever mold they desired.  So it was that I looked back to my earlier days with Linux and started to meet the challenge head on: I would replace Windows with Linux and finally be free.

My journey back into the Linux world begun as it did the first time with my overheating laptop: I hit the books.  More precicely: I googled “best linux distro” and started reading various blog posts and lists.  My previous experience had left me with somewhat sceptical mindset.  Even though Fedora worked well enough on my laptop, it was still bloated with additional software I didn’t want or need.  Based on my expectations and any hype I heard about Linux, I opted on three criteria to judge my next distribution:

  1. No bloat: meaning that only what I need is installed and nothing more
  2. Total control of what gets installed
  3. More frequently up to date

So, I hit the same blog posts and top ten lists as before but this time I viewed with a little bit more experienced eyes.  Within most of those posts, there was one distribution amongst them that was praised but also met with a warning: not for beginners.  In my initial run I naturally stayed away from this distro but this time I felt that I was advanced enough to try it out.  The distro fulfilled each of my criteria – that distribution was Arch.

Arch is a little bit of a strange beast in the Linux world.  Most Linux distributions are derivatives: based on a distribution, which I’d like to refer as root distribution.  Ubuntu, for example, is a derivative of Debian.  Arch, on the other hand, is a root distro itself and seems to enjoy steady but in terms of adoption percentages relatively low following, which seems to increase by a percentage or so every year.  At the time of writing this post, Arch enjoys the position of 10 at Distrowatch’s popular distributions list.  Arch is also what you call rolling release, meaning that it stands on the bleeding edge, incorporating new versions of packages among the fastest.  Though this can cause stability problems, having the latest software all the time does tend to feel better.  A case in point: I needed PHP 7 for a project I as working on.  Arch incorporated it as soon as stable version was announced while CentOS, my preferred server distro after Arch, is still running 5.4.  Truly, Arch hit the sweet spot and I took upon myself a challenge to install Arch on my desktop (dual booted next to Windows 7).

My first attempt at Arch’s installation was a disaster.  Why was it a disaster?  Because I did not take to heart the most useful tip Arch-veterans like to throw out at newbies: I did not RTFM or rather, I did not read it completely and follow it step by step.  I cannot recall where did I deviate originally, but by carefully following the steps I eventually managed to install Arch. It took me an entire weekend.  What did I do after that?  Nothing.  I let it stay and simmer for a while.  I was overwhelmed and tired after the installation process, and did not feel like jumping into the deep end again.  So I waited for a couple of weeks until touching Arch again.  Just for kicks, I installed it once again (this time with better results) and endeavored to start using it and learning in the process.

The thing about Arch is that the warning of “not for noobs” is deserved and to the point.  As such I did feel like walking on eggshells when dealing with Arch for the first couple of months and I am certain the installation would have taken even longer time if not for the extremely jam packed documentation that is the Arch Wiki, which is one of the most comprehensive (while at the same time very compact) Wikis around and despite being Arch centric, does serve as more general source of Linux related information.  Another great feature of Arch is AUR (Arch User Repository).  AUR is essentially another set of packages one can install from a central location with little ease provided and maintained by the community.  Individuals provide the packages and maintain them.  There is a joke going around that if a new Linux package comes along today, AUR will have a package ready tomorrow in the latest and that rings surprisingly true.

The next big decision about my installation was the desktop environment.  At first I went with Gnome but absolutely hated the unity so I went with KDE.  Yet this kind of made my criteria No. 1 invalid since KDE installs a lot of extra stuff alongside what is necessary.  However, its’ level of customization and stability as well as seamless integration with other applications won me over for a while, so KDE remained on my desktop.  On my laptop, I opted to try something different. Instead of choosing from already established DEs, I opted to patch together one of my own.  I took Openbox as a window manager, Compiz gave me some eye-candy (wobbly windows for the win!) while Tint2 served as taskbar.  Cairo-dock gave me the OS X -dock feeling and Thunar was my file manager of choice. Despite being heavy on resources, Wicd served as my network manager.  All in all, this group of different software put together in the confines of Unix philosophy turned out to work pretty well.  Eventually I did abandon that setup in favor of XFCE due to an update breaking something so bad I couldn’t fix it.

In the end, it took me well over a year to finally reach a point when I could claim that my daily routine mostly is run via Linux.  I still play games on occasion and to do so requires me to restart and boot into Windows 10 but I have reached a point when booting into Windows is something I do only at the utmost need. Everything else is ran on Arch Linux with Cinnamon desktop environment.  Would I recommend Arch?  Absolutely.  Would I recommend it for beginners? Only if you want to learn how Linux works under the hood and have time and patience on your hands.

my linux desktop
This is what my desktop looks like now.

That is how Linux conquered my desktop and became my primary operating system.  This story is most likely not very original.  In fact, I am willing to bet that 90% of Linux users went through the same steps (and same emotions) as I did to get into the point where they are now.  The road has been long and filled with hardship and wonder but it was well worth it and I am glad I took upon the challenge.  Else I’d be running Windows 10, now wondering whether I should start using Linux in my day-to-day routine.  I’d like to think that I dodged a bullet there.  Yes, I still use Windows 10 when the need arises, but that need keeps diminishing.

Thank you for letting me share this story.

PS. this post was written on a Macbook Air with Arch installed 😀