Running your home office on a tight budget? There’s a way to get all of your software—operating system (OS), productivity suite, scores of applications—completely free. It’ll cost you, but not in the way you might think.
This life-changing alternative is Linux, which gives you more flexibility, more have-it-your-way customization, and more control than Windows or OS X users could ever dream of. I caution that it’ll cost you because it’s decidedly not for everyone. While it’s far friendlier today than it was a year or even six months ago, Linux still requires you to invest, nay, enjoy some time spent setting up and tinkering with your PC.
Inspired, like OS X, by Unix, Linux is open-source software, which means that not only is it given away free to users but its code is given away free to programmers who can make and share their own modifications. Imagine a world in which Microsoft (which, at long last, finally offers SQL Server on Linux) allowed developers to offer differently tweaked versions of Windows: one for servers, one for children, and one for games.
Linux distributions (dubbed “distros”) range from tiny embedded-code platforms to lavish laptop and desktop OSes with graphical user interfaces (GUIs) replacing commands typed at a terminal. Linux’s nerdy foundations, however, are never far away. While you can buy ready-to-run distros on CDs or DVDs, to get the OS for free you must be willing to download a distro as an .ISO image, for which you use a utility to burn to a bootable optical disc or, with fewer PCs nowadays offering optical drives, a USB flash drive. (I found Rufus especially handy for the latter.)
Boot or Brick
Most desktop distros offer to guide you through the not-for-newbies process of creating a Linux partition in your unused hard drive space, and a dual-boot menu to choose Linux or Windows at system startup. Before you take that fateful step, many distros will boot and run (albeit at a reduced speed) from a “live” CD or flash drive but there’s a geeky gotcha there, too: Even once you master the trick of tapping F12 or some other key to interrupt startup and boot from other media, your distro of choice may be incompatible with recent PC technologies called UEFI and Secure Boot. Your PC should let you turn these off in favor of what’s called legacy BIOS, but carelessly applying such settings can leave you with unnerving error messages and a computer that won’t start.
I recovered from such blundering and was able to briefly test distros ranging from Fatdog64 and Solus to Peppermint and Ubuntu. But you should be ready to spend some debugging time even though, I hasten to add, Linux circa 2016 is positively welcoming compared to the last time I played with the OS.
Most of the versions I tried listed available Wi-Fi networks, prompted for a password, and got me online as smoothly as Windows or OS X on their best days. Linux has gotten much better at finding and installing printers (though multifunction printer/scanner/copiers can still be tricky). There’s still a civil war involving different ways to package and install new apps, but most distros’ app store-style software managers shield you from the dorky details.
And, if you don’t like the way Linux looks, you can change it—not just swapping the wallpaper but opting for a completely different desktop environment (such as one optimized for Mac-like ease of use or Windows 98-like simplicity or blazing performance on the old PC you relegated to a closet for its lack of RAM or storage). My favorite distro Fedora (Ubuntu and Peppermint are close behind) is available in seven “spins” ranging from the full-featured Gnome and KDE to the minimalist Xfce and LXDE.
The lean and mean distros tend to come with smaller, separate productivity apps such as the Abiword word processor and Gnumeric spreadsheet. Fuller-featured systems almost unanimously opt for what’s arguably Linux’s crown jewel: an office suite that’s also available for Windows, LibreOffice.
A Genuine Office 365 Alternative
Free for the download, LibreOffice combines word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, database, drawing, and math equation modules, which you can launch either separately or from a central console with access to recent files and (much scantier than Microsoft Office 2016) templates.
Its interface is inelegant, with mile-long pull-down menus atop icon toolbars, which are duplicated in a pop-out sidebar. You can spend a day in the Tools/Options menu alone. And you’ll look in vain for equivalents to Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft OneNote, and Publisher. But its features and functionality rival Office’s and blow away browser-based competitors such as Google Apps—footnotes, endnotes, columns, contour wraparound graphics, pivot tables, scads of 2D and 3D chart types, and flashy slideshow effects.
While only Office can give you 100 percent compatibility with Microsoft data files, LibreOffice scores in the high 80s or low 90s, opening all of the fancily formatted Office 365 documents I tried with hardly a hiccup. The open-source suite can also read an amazing number of obscure or vintage file formats.
Unless you need some of LibreOffice’s specialized capabilities, it’s hard to envision a big demand for the Windows version—Microsoft Office 365 Home rules the business world, and people with philosophical objections to proprietary software seem unlikely to snub the evil empire’s suite while embracing its OS.
But the combination of LibreOffice and a favorite Linux distro, while a longshot for most home offices, can take you a surprisingly long way while saving you a few bucks, especially if you’re looking to pep up an old or technically obsolete PC, and it can be, yes, kind of fun to tinker with. You might even find yourself resurrecting that charming old word, “hobbyist.”
Have you tried or considered Linux, or do you stick to the straight and narrow? Share your experiences and pro-and-con arguments in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.