Saturday, April 16, 2016

Do I have to have Windows 8 / 8.1 / 10 / whatever?

So you're looking for a new computer 'cos your old vintage 2003 laptop just ins't keeping up any more. Not to mention the fact that the case is cracked and split, the screen has a crack, some of the keys don't work too well since you spilled Mountain Dew on it, and your friends mock you for still using Windows XP.

So you want something cool. Something that you can make look the way you want it to look. Something shiny - something you can attach to the TV, even! But what do you really need? A friend just bought a new machine and found that she can't upload pictures to Facebook for some reason. She was also convinced to buy an antivirus program, only to find that the OS came with one! (PC World did a good article on the subject way back in July 2012 that's worth reading).

Check off what you do on this list:

Listen to MusicWatch DVDsCapture video for DVD
Word ProcessingUse a SpreadsheetCreate pictures, charts, etc
Create PresentationsDatabase WorkEnail
Anything with a browserWindows-specific programsMac-Specific Programs

Windows 8
If you're looking at Windows 8 (right) with horror, it seems like you had a lot of company. Don't buy this with the expectation that you can sit back and do nothing. Windows 8 had a large enough upgrade (to 8.1) that it is now officially no longer supported by Microsoft, just like Windows XP!

Windows 8.1
The replacement for Windows 8. Basically, Windows 8 with some GUI tweaks to appease the vociferous detractors. The appeasement didn't work!

Windows 10
The great white hope for Microsoft! "Everybody is going to upgrade their operating systems to Windows 10 because many features were added by the developers. The big thing is that the Start Menu button was reverted back that was previously removed/changed in Windows 8 and Windows 8.1" (here). Well, somewhat tongue-in-cheek there, and no comment at that time on the compulsory updates that seem to be causing a lot of people a lot of problems, but Win 10 does appear to be a genuine improvement - over 8 and 8.1, at least.

Here are some possibilities - maybe not all obvious:
Windows 7  --  this is probably the easiest thing to install on your PC. Just stick the disk in, blow away Windows 8, and install it. Easy, right? Well, there is a small step that you absolutely have to do first, but essentially yes.
Apple Mac OS/X - a very nice system indeed, if you can give up your Windows-specific programs. I doubt it'll run on your PC after you blow Windows 8 away!
Linux - there are lots of versions to choose from; you can "try before you buy" by using what's called a "Live Image" disc, where you boot off a CD and get the system - a little slow - that you would be using and you can see what you'll get before getting it.

For both Linux and Windows 7 there's a small procedure you'll need to go through before you can install them on your new machine. All Windows 8 machines are supposed to run with a replacement to the old and much-hacked BIOS, called UEFI. The requirement for this system, imposed by Microsoft, is supposedly to protect you and I (the un-knowing and helpless consumers) from malicious software ("malware") that would write changes into a special part of your hard disk - the part that contains the very first code that the computer runs every time you start it up. Once there it's very hard to get rid of.

This is a laudable move ..... except ....... very few instances of code doing that are around any more, as it's difficult to do and there are lots of easier ways to get your info. You may remember an uproar a few years ago about Sony trying to stop you copying their CDs (here)? Well if not, the skinny was that they decided to stop people copying their CDs in a rather proactive way, and took over their computers to do it! Not once (2005) but again in 2007! They received a rather large fine for being naughty!

So the idea with the new version of the BIOS - with UEFI - is that simple programs can't turn it off - it has to be a real live human. So you should be able to press Del or F2 or whatever the system wants you to press while it starts up, wander your way through the menus, and eventually find a switch to turn it off. Just how you'll identify the switch isn't, of course, defined!

As I said, this kind of attack, while it does exist, really isn't that common. What you are far more likely to encounter is something called "Phishing", or "Social Engineering", where someone sends you an email with an attachment that you open but which is, in fact, a program designed to do something bad. Similar examples include the perennial repeats of emails from the infamous "George Layba" promising you vast amounts of money in exchange for your bank account(which will be swiftly emptied if you do what they ask!). A larger and more sophisticated attack has more recently been coming to us all courtesy of the Chinese company that took over IBM's PC operations, Lenovo. Take a look here and here for info about Lenovo selling you computers with spyware already installed!! The second guy seems fairly blase about the whole thing, but could be right, I suppose. One should be more careful after getting caught three times!

Anyhow, what does this strange thing called Linux look like, and can I use it?
Well, the answer to the first question is somewhat frightening, because it is what you've asked for with no hope of getting - "whatever you like" ! Well, almost. There are around a hundred different distributions! Here's a list with links to many. Here's a site called DistroWatch, that tries to keep an accounting of the number of installs of each distribution and ranks them accordingly. Right now there are about 900!
If you take time to investigate you'll find that all these versions tend to form family trees. For example, Debian is the name of a basic distribution, and then there are a lot of distributions that take Debian and change certain things - such as trying to make it easier to use (Ubuntu), or specialise it for, for example, musical applications (KXStudio), and Distrowatch has a nice feature that allows you to select what you want from your machine and see what there is to choose from.
When I started out I chose Ubuntu, which was fine. However, the makers introduced a new interface called Unity, which I didn't really like (curiously enough it's rather like Windows 10 !) so I moved. To a descendant of Ubuntu called Mint.

As you can see, it actually looks rather like a version of Windows - I have it set up to have the menu drop from the top left, but the bar could be at the bottom. There are two columns in the menu drop-down - categories and programs. This means that you move the mouse over the category you want and, if you were using my system, you'd see this:
So the products that I have installed include (with their Windows equivalents)

  • GIMP (Photoshop)
  • ImageViewer (Acrobat)
  • Inkscape (FrameMaker)
  • MyPaint (Freehand drawings)
  • SimpleScan (scans from my Brother MFP)
  • Xara Xtreme (vector graphics, like Corel Draw!)

So yes, there are many programs out there that will do what you do on your Windows or Mac machine, but do it on Linux. Are they as polished as those commercial programs? Oftentimes not quite, but don't forget that they're usually free! That lets you try out various programs and make a good choice for your needs - or else use a combination of several - without going bankrupt in the process!

So no - you don't have to upgrade to the next version of Windows. I work with MS SQL Server using Windows every day, but use Linux for preference at home. In fact, Microsoft is porting SQL Server to Linux in 2016!


Anonymous said...

Cheers Mike - interesting reading but can't say I'm thrilled with Win10 but did like Win7. Guess like other ex-QMC chaps I'm getting old eh but then again aren't we all. Pete UK

Michael Irwin said...

Tell me more about what you maybe don't like about Win 10 ... maybe there are things I can find to help you like it better (especially if you end up _having_ to use it!!)

PM me on FB or Linkedin or GMail (dcpking).