Linux as a viable alternative to Windows

published 04/20/19

updated 04/21/19

Linux has been getting a lot of attention lately as an alternate operating system to Windows - especially as a gaming platform. I believe this is in part due to Jason Evangelho, who's currently writing a series of articles about the viability of Linux as a gaming platform. But it's undeniably even more due to Linus Tech Tips and Google, but especially Linus Tech Tips.

LTT recently made two videos about gaming on Linux, one declaring that "Linux Gaming FINALLY Doesn't Suck" and the other declaring that "Microsoft Should be VERY Afraid" of Linux as a competitor - specifically in the gaming market. LTT is probably the biggest tech channel on Youtube at 8.4 million subscribers, so that's some pretty high praise. And Google has recently released Stadia, a cloud gaming service that allows users with low end hardware to run high end games by streaming them from a remote server. This isn't a new concept, and isn't even the first cloud gaming solution in existence, but it's mostly unique in as far as it's Linux-based. So the theory goes that Stadia will convince more game developers to support Linux more often, because the cloud is supposedly "the future of gaming," and Stadia is likely to quickly become the biggest cloud gaming platform - being that it was developed by the internet dictator, Google. Of course similar things were said about Valve's SteamOS, even though it ultimately had very little impact on Linux gaming.

Don't get me wrong, Valve is doing and has done a lot for Linux gaming, especially with Proton, and I'm grateful to them. I'm very optimistic about gaming on Linux in the future, primarily because of Proton. Valve's awesome. I'm just saying, as someone who bought into the hype, that Steam Machines were significantly overhyped and have now more or less been forgotten. Game devs do not care about SteamOS, though they may care about Proton.

Gaming on Linux is an important discussion, since the majority of pc users are gamers, or at least play video games. If another platform can match or best Windows in gaming ease of use and performance, it is feasible that a vast amount, potentially even a majority, of gamers will jump the Windows ship in order to follow the better experience. So if you care about increasing Linux's market share on the desktop, you care about Linux gaming. If the majority of users move to Linux, or if even just enough move to Linux to almost match, match, or especially somewhat overshadow Mac's market share, more developers will finally begin to support their software on Linux - including game devs. And the more software that runs on Linux, the more likely it will be that more users will move to Linux. But this article isn't going to be about gaming on Linux, as far more capable and knowledgeable people are already covering it elsewhere.

See, while gamers might be the dominant demographic of pc users, gamers don't exclusively use their computers for gaming. Many artists, developers, writers, general content creators, and just average people use their computers for work, hobbies, and recreation (such as gaming) and they may be hesitant to switch simply because they're afraid they won't be able to use software necessary for their work or hobbies on Linux. Especially people who use Microsoft Office and the Adobe Creative Suite. These products don't support Linux, and they don't "easily" run on it, to the point where finding alternative software is generally a better choice. Moreover some people might not know much about how Linux works in general, because the only os they've ever used is Windows. This article is for them. I'll start with

Some general reasons why Linux is superior to Windows

There are various reasons why Linux is a generally better system than Windows, independent of gaming. In summary: Linux has less overhead than Windows, which translates to better performance; Linux handles software updates more efficiently than Windows; it's usually easier to install software on Linux than Windows; the Linux directory structure is easier to manage than Windows; Linux doesn't require an antivirus, visuals on Linux are more consistent.

Please note that I'm not an expert, and all of what follows in this article is based on my own research. If you're still confused after reading, don't believe something I've claimed, or have more questions, I recommend you ask in a Linux community as you'll find people who are way more knowledgeable than me in any of them. Or if you do know your stuff and I got something straight up wrong, feel free to get in touch and I'll edit the article to correct the mistake.

Here are some places to ask questions about Linux:

But I've always heard it's super hard to install stuff on Linux!

This is honestly one of the more annoying myths about Linux because, if you've used modern Linux distros, you'll know that it's incredibly simple to install software on Linux. To install applications on Linux, you open what is essentially an appstore, choose the software you want to install, and click "install." On the off chance what you want to install doesn't exist in the appstore, you can head to the Flathub or the Snap Store, which are like distro-agnostic appstores. The software hosted in them can be installed on virtually any distro. But if you can't find your software there either, then you head to the developer's website and download and install it just like you would on Windows.

But the best part of software management on Linux, in my opinion, is that whenever an application updates, it gets sent to the appstore - even if you didn't install the application through the appstore. So you update everything from the same place instead of being prompted to update when you open the application. You get notified when there's an update available for an application, even when you haven't launched it in a while. And applications don't nag you to update them when you're running an older version. So the next time you launch it, you don't have to wait for it to update before you can use it.

Also, system updates on Linux don't usually require restarting your computer, and nothing ever updates or reboots without your permission.

What do you mean Linux doesn't need antivirus?

What it says on the tin. There's a few reasons why Linux is more resilient to malware than Windows, which renders antivirus irrelevant on Linux systems. A lot of people will tell you that, primarily, there are simply fewer viruses for it. It makes sense when you think about it, right? The majority of users run Windows, so the majority of malware specifically targets Windows. That may not really give you a great feeling of comfort and security, though, because you might think that if Linux gets more popular, obviously more malware developers will target Linux. Popularity is a two way street, huh? The argument kind of falls apart a bit when you remember that the internet runs on Linux. Where Windows dominates home desktop machines, Linux dominates servers and mobile devices. There's far more to gain, arguably, by attacking Linux because Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the vast majority of the rest of the internet is served to users on machines that run Linux. If you want to steal a lot of data, there's no one better to target than Facebook and Google, two companies who essentially know literally everything about literally everyone. But who knows? Maybe the people who write malware figure that people who run servers are knowledgeable enough to thoroughly and aggressively protect their services to the point that it's just not worth the effort to attack them. Either way it's something to consider.

There are other reasons why, though. Linux is just generally more secure than Windows. You normally only install software through the appstore, and the software that is available through your distro's repos is carefully reviewed, tested, and curated by the same people who make and maintain the distro. So it's much harder for malicious software to make it onto your machine simply because it's hard for malicious software to make it into the software repos you install from. Whereas, when you install something on Windows, you search for it on Google before, hopefully, finding the developer's website and installing it. But it's not uncommon for users to download software from unofficial sources and end up running installers that are riddled with adware, malware, or just general stuff they don't want or need. And it's not unheard for an attacker to trick users into downloading malware, thinking it's something they want, only for it to have turned out to be nothing but a virus.

And that's not even the only reason Linux is more secure than Windows. Attackers need root (administrator) access to do significant damage, and nothing on Linux ever runs as root unless the user very explicitly makes it. If you ever end up with ransomware running on Linux, it's only going to be able to lock your user folder (unless you ran it as root.) Your system will still be bootable and accessible, and therefore could still be saved and repaired. On Windows, you're constantly prompted for your admin password to make various changes, and a lot of (probably most) users don't bother to read the popups to double check and be sure they're not about to run something they don't want to run.

So Linux isn't invulnerable, it's just safer than Windows.

Now all that being said, there are antivirus(es?) for Linux, so if you're really too paranoid to use your machine without an antivirus, you can install one. It's just that it won't really do you any good, it'll be security theater, for lack of a better term. So if you really want to run an antivirus on your Linux box in spite of all this, here are some popular antiviruses for Linux: ClamAV, Avast, ESET NOD32. Something you'll probably notice while looking at those pages is the language used, particularly stuff like "protect your Linux email servers, file servers, or the entire network," and "email scanning, web scanning, and end point security." Currently existing antivirus programs on Linux tend to emphasize server security, because, as I mentioned earlier, Linux runs the internet. The majority of Linux machines in existence right now are servers, so that's what the security solutions are made for. I understand ClamAV to be the most popular antivirus for Linux, but given the phrasing on the product pages, I'd recommend NOD32 over the others simply because it's phrased with desktop Linux as the focus.

Isn't performance bad on Linux? Isn't that why gamers are on Windows?

It's complicated. Gaming performance on Linux isn't bad unless you're running a non-native game on Linux. Games which are made to run natively on Linux run as good or better than they do on Windows. But you can run games that don't officially support Linux through software called WINE. The performance you'll see in games you run through WINE is typically worse than it is on Windows because WINE has to translate calls from DirectX to OpenGL in real time. This results in a lot of overhead that's simply not present in Windows, and ultimately slows down your game. There's a lot of efforts going into improving WINE performance right now, namely Valve's Proton, and it's already vastly better than it was before Proton was launched, just 8 months ago.

But Linux is otherwise generally more efficient and responsive than Windows, because that overhead doesn't exist when you're not running a native Windows game. There is less overhead on Linux than on Windows because Windows keeps various background services and processes running, even when they're not needed or wanted, which creates overhead. Linux only runs what you tell it to run, which is why it's said that Linux has less overhead. And less overhead means better performance because the system resources are freed up for stuff the user actually wants to run.

What's a directory structure and how is it better on Linux?

A directory is a folder. So when I say "directory structure," I'm referring to the way folders are organized on the system. I'll talk about the user's personal folder in this section, just as an easy example. The system folder on Windows is at C:\, the user's folder is at C:\Users\username and the structure of a user folder on Windows is typically a horrible mess because programs fill it up with various folders and config files. And that would be bad enough, but there's seemingly no standard on where to place user-specific config files, so programs also clutter up child folders of the user's directory. Including My Documents, My Games, Desktop, and so on.

The system folder on Linux is /, and the user's folder is at /home/username (this can also be referenced as ~/.) Programs on Linux usually store local config files in hidden folders located at /home/username/.config and /home/username/.local, some software does still store their configs in ~/, but they're hidden too, so there's no visible clutter in the user's home directory on Linux.

What do you mean visuals are more consistent?

Most applications on Linux will respect and inherit your system theme. All you have to do is select your theme in your system settings and all your apps will use it: your file explorer, your browser, your music player, your text editor, everything. On Windows 10 when you apply a dark theme it only applies to the settings app itself, Groove, and a couple other applications. There's a dark theme for Edge but you have to apply it manually in Edge's settings. Obviously there are dark themes for other browsers too, but they don't use the same colors as the Windows dark theme so they still stand out, and you still have to apply them individually.

Linux respects your customizations and your eyes. You'll never run into a situation on Linux where you apply a dark theme in your system settings and then open the file manager, only to go blind momentarily because it doesn't inherit the system theme.

There are thousands of themes available for Linux that are really easy to install without having to modify any files. Literally the process is download it, put it in a folder, select it in your settings. Compare that to Windows 10 where only two themes are officially supported, Windows 7 where only one theme is officially supported, and installing user created themes on Windows involves modifying important system files and can potentially break the interface with no easy to revert the changes.

Linux isn't universally better than Windows

I love Linux, but it's not a flat upgrade over Windows. There are issues you'll no doubt encounter while running it that you simply won't encounter on Windows. Some of it isn't really Linux's fault, it's just that most things are made for Windows. But most users who'd be interested in migrating from Windows won't care about that.

In particular, peripherals which require custom software, such as Razer's products, can be a pain on Linux if you care about using all the features provided through the software. In other words, if you buy a "gaming" mouse or keyboard you may find it tedious or impossible to adjust the LEDs or DPI. If you're so determined to switch to Linux that you're willing to invest in new peripherals that will work better with Linux, there are companies which explicitly make their products to function with any operating system. It seems that Roccat is especially popular among Linux users.

Linux also doesn't have great HiDPI support. It'll work just fine for anyone with just one display, or multiple displays that are all the same resolution. But per-display scaling is so difficult to do it's almost not worth the effort. This actually isn't always true, because the functionality is implemented in a display manager called Wayland, but most distros ship with Xorg by default because Nvidia cards don't work well with it. But the display manager is something else that most users won't care about, much less change, so I'm not really going to cover them.

Will my software run on Linux?

Probably yes. I'll cover more specific software in the following sections, but generally speaking, unless you use some pretty obscure software, you'll have no trouble running everything you need on Linux. And even if you do run obscure software, WINE doesn't exclusively let you run Windows games on Linux, but essentially any Windows software. One huge caveat is that Microsoft Office and the Adobe Creative Suite (including Photoshop) don't support Linux and are generally hard to install through WINE.

Now that being said, MS Office has an online version that can be used on literally any platform really easily, so there's no need to run the full desktop client for most users. There's even a JAK wrapper for running MS Office Online on your desktop, from the developers of Manjaro. It's basically like an Electron wrapper. And it definitely is possible to run MS Office and the Adobe Creative Suite through WINE if you really, really need to. It's just a bit of a hassle and probably not worth your time - because there are alternative products which serve their users just as well.

So let's get into some specific software,

Web Browsers

Almost definitely yes. Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera, Vivaldi, and Yandex all run natively on Linux. If you use a browser more obscure than that, it may or may not run on Linux, but I'm not going to go over every browser here. Microsoft Edge (and Internet Explorer) does not run on Linux, even if you may be able to get it working through WINE.

Office

So, as I mentioned before, Microsoft Office doesn't run on Linux, but there are ways around that. Microsoft put their office suite online in an effort to compete with Google's online suite. It syncs with your OneDrive and everything. It's even free, so you don't have to pay for a full Office license to use it. And if you'd rather run it on your desktop, not in the browser, there's a Linux-specific application for that.

But there are also alternative office suites that are compatible with Microsoft file formats you could use instead. Most Linux distros ship with LibreOffice installed by default. LibreOffice isn't the best alternative, though, as its compatibility with MS Office is, at best, a little spotty. I recommend OnlyOffice instead, as it has far better compatibility with MS Office. There other alternatives too but I'm not very familiar with their overall functionality and they have much smaller userbases, so I'm not going to sit here and tell you not to use them, but I'm also not going to tell you to use them. I will link you to their product pages, though, so you can look into them yourself if you want to:

Image Editors

Photoshop doesn't support Linux. There are ways to run Photoshop on Linux, but you may encounter various issues trying to do that, and it's kind of tedious to install.

If you don't use Photoshop, then your favourite image editor probably does run on Linux, because your favourite image editor is probably GIMP if you don't run Photoshop. But there are two kinds of people in this world, people who love GIMP, and people who despise GIMP. So if you don't want to use GIMP but are still willing to consider other alternatives, then check out Krita. GIMP is often said to be more for enhancing photos, whereas Krita is much more specifically designed for and targeted at artists.

A couple other alternatives worth checking out are MyPaint and Polarr.

Video Editors

Adobe After Effects, Adobe Premiere, and any other Adobe products do not support Linux. But it may comfort you to know that the pros, and I'm specifically referring to people who make real movies, use Linux. Hollywood runs Linux. So there definitely are, real, quality video production tools available for Linux. Honestly, just stop using Adobe's suite.

Small creators, like Youtubers, who run on Linux swear by Kdenlive. It's a powerful video editor with a simple interface and generally easy to understand features. OpenShot is a competitor for Kdenlive, and is arguably even simpler to use.

The pros, the Hollywood level creators, use LightWorks and Blender. If you're looking to make a career in this, you should definitely learn how to use both of these tools, especially Blender.

Screen Recording

Probably. The most popular, and one of the only, screen recorders I know of, OBS, does support Linux. Fraps doesn't, and neither does Camtasia. If you use something more obscure your mileage may vary, but almost literally all Youtubers and content creators run OBS these days, so I'd honestly just recommend switching to it.

Music Players

Maybe. MusicBee doesn't support Linux, and neither does Microsoft's Groove Music. Clementine, VLC, and Spotify all do support Linux. And there's a myriad of other music players that are cross platform, and many that exclusively run on Linux. I personally recommend Lollypop.

Email Clients

Almost definitely yes. Thunderbird supports Linux and there are various other alternatives that do too. If you run something more obscure than Thunderbird, your mileage may vary.

Text Editors (and IDEs)

Almost definitely yes. Developers may not always develop their software for Linux, but they do use it. Developers love Linux. The only popular text editor I know of that doesn't support Linux is Notepad++, and I don't know of any IDEs that don't support Linux. Even Microsoft's Visual Studio supports Linux.

Finding Linux alternatives to Windows software

If I didn't cover software you use in this article, there are easy ways to search for alternatives to any piece of software. I recommend AlternativeTo, which is a website that lets you search for alternatives for virtually any known software as the entries are generally maintained and updated by the users. For any particular piece of software, you can sort by platform and license. For example, here are alternatives to Google Chrome that run on Linux and are open source.

Linux App Finder is a site that lets you search through categories of software to find potentially useful tools that run on Linux. Linux Apps is essentially the same thing. And so is this page on the Arch Wiki. So are Flathub and the Snap Store, but you can actually install software from Flathub and the Snap Store too.

I also have a repo on GitHub called MetaLists that is a collection of software lists which focuses on Linux compatible apps. Ideally it's also maintained by the users, as anyone can contribute through git.

So,

Is Linux a viable alternative to Windows?