Living free with Linux: 2 weeks without Windows

Can a dedicated Windows user make it for two weeks using only Linux? Preston Gralla tried it and lived to tell this tale.

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Work productivity

Getting up to speed is one thing. Actually being productive is definitely another. How well, I wondered, would Linux fulfill my various computing needs?

I'm a writer, and what I spend most of my time doing is, of course, writing. Ubuntu comes with Version 2.4 of OpenOffice.org, which includes OpenOffice.org Writer, which (I already knew from the Windows version) is a top-notch free application.

As I mentioned earlier, Ubuntu had installed Version 2.4 of OpenOffice.org, although I knew that Version 3.0 was available. But unaccountably, Ubuntu's Update Manager didn't inform me that an upgrade was available, even though it did tell me about numerous upgrades of other software I've never heard of, and certainly will never need. (If I ever needed xulrunner or Yelp, though, the Update Manager was here to help.)

Since Update Manager didn't seem to want me to upgrade, I decided to try it on my own and downloaded Version 3.0 for Linux from the OpenOffice.org site. I unpacked what I downloaded, but when I checked the unpacked files, there seemed to be no installation file to run. So I checked the OpenOffice.org site for download instructions. I found them and they weren't easy. It involved first opening a terminal prompt and then finding the proper directory for the unpacked files. I found the directory, which was named -- I kid you not -- OOO300_m9_native_packed-1_en-US.9358.

Once there, I had to issue the command rpm -Uvih *rpm. I tried it, but was told that "the program rpm is not currently installed." To install it, I discovered, I had to type the command sudo apt-get install rpm. (And Linux is supposed to be easier to use than Windows?) I followed the instructions to install rpm, and then once again typed rpm -Uvih *rpm. Still no dice: I was told that it wouldn't work because I had to "use alien." At that point, I simply gave up. Version 2.4 of OpenOffice.org, I knew from previous experience with the Windows version, works just fine.

Living with Linux

OpenOffice.org's Writer is a surprisingly powerful word processor.

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OpenOffice.org's Writer is a surprisingly powerful word processor, and the Linux version looks and works just like the Windows version. For my needs, it did just about everything I asked. The interface's layout, although clumsy-looking and a bit cartoonish, gives instant access to all the tools one needs, including search and replace, drawing, creating tables and hyperlinks, and even creating backgrounds for documents. Those who don't like Office 2007's ribbon interface will find it superior to the latest version of Microsoft Word.

Because OpenOffice.org supports the .doc format, I could create documents in it and exchange them with others. (Working with .doc files is a must for writers -- for many, it's the lingua franca of journalism.) However, it has one serious drawback for writers or anyone who collaborates using .doc files: It doesn't support Word markup (redlining) and comments. So at times, I had to send the marked-up file to my Windows PC and work on the document there. Those who collaborate using markup in .doc files need Microsoft Office -- OpenOffice.org simply won't cut it.

The OpenOffice.Org spreadsheet was similarly easy to use. I'm not a spreadsheet jockey, so don't need to create complex spreadsheets and can't compare it to Excel for sophisticated tasks. But for most simple tasks such as budgeting and the like, it was simple and straightforward. Its graph creation is particularly useful, with a simple wizard that practically creates its own charts. For tasks like that, it's clearly the equal of Excel.

OpenOffice.org also has one great feature that Microsoft Office lacks -- it will open any kind of Office document from within any of its applications. In Office, for example, if you're in Word and want to open an Excel document, you need to open Excel, then browse to a spreadsheet and open it. In OpenOffice.org, software works the way it should: When you're in Writer (or any other OpenOffice.org application), you can press Ctrl-O to launch the open dialog, and browse to any document you want to open, whether it be a word processing document, spreadsheet or other OpenOffice.org document. When you open it, the right application automatically launches.

Sharing files

As I detailed earlier in the story, I had serious problems connecting my Linux machine to Windows Vista PCs on my home network. Because I often use multiple PCs, this made sharing files difficult, to say the least.

The kludgiest way to do it was to send files from machine to machine via e-mail. An even better solution (in some circumstances): Use Google Docs. If I had to work on a file on the Linux machine that I had created on my Vista PC, I opened Google Docs on my Vista machine, imported the file into Google Docs and then later opened it up in Google Docs in the Linux machine. After I finished working on it, I could open it in Google Docs on my Vista PC.

Google Docs doesn't have as fully featured a word processor as OpenOffice.org or Word, but for straight-ahead writing and editing, it did what I needed. That isn't to say that Google Docs is perfect. The original file's formatting was sometimes changed or lost, and I occasionally had a hard time with boxed text. As with OpenOffice.org, I couldn't use some advanced features, such as tracking changes. Still, though, for most basic tasks, it worked well.

Google Docs does have an offline feature that lets you store and work with files when not connected to the Internet, but I found it to be less than perfect. To do it, you have to first install Google Gears, which I did on both my Vista and Linux machines. I found using Google Docs offline to be somewhat flaky on my Vista machine -- it would occasionally freeze -- but it worked without a hitch on my Linux system.

In addition, there are plenty of weird gotchas I came across using Google Docs offline. You can't edit spreadsheets or presentations offline, for example. And you won't be able to create any documents offline. You have to first create them online, then sync them with your local PC to make them available offline. So it's far from a perfect solution, but it works in a pinch, especially if you always have an Internet connection.

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