Computer Stuff

Operating Systems and Desktop Environments

I’m currently running Kubuntu as my primary OS. Kubuntu is a version of Ubuntu using the KDE Plasma desktop environment, which is fully-featured, customizable, and surprisingly well-performing.

I used Windows 7 for most purposes other than programming up until 2015, when I switched to using Linux full time (initially Linux Mint followed by Kubuntu). Based on my experiences, I encourage other Windows 7 refugees to give Kubuntu a try.

The remainder of page contains some useful resources for Linux and Windows.

NOTE: Some of the content on this page is out of date.

  1. Recommended Free Software
  2. Recommended Firefox Add-ons
  3. Getting Started with Linux

This is a list of free programs (many open source) that have proven useful to me. Most are Windows programs or cross-platform.


Program Description Availability
7-Zip file compression/decompression program Windows, Linux, Mac
Anki spaced repetition flashcard software, especially good for Chinese/Japanese Windows, Linux, Mac, Android
Avast excellent anti-virus software Windows
CCleaner easy crap removal, program uninstall, and disabling of start-up programs Windows
Comodo Firewall more powerful replacement for Windows Firewall Windows, Linux
CPU-Z easy access to useful hardware information Windows
Cygwin get a Unix shell and environment on Windows Windows
DoPDF allows you to print to a PDF file from any program Windows
Dropbox easy backup and file sharing system Windows, Linux, Mac, Android (limited)
Filezilla super easy FTP/SFTP client Windows, Linux, Mac
F.lux shifts your monitor’s colors in the red direction after sunset to keep you from staying awake all night Windows, Linux
Foxit Reader PDF reader with a tabbed interface Windows, Linux (old)
HWMonitor view temperature of your computer’s HW components in real time Windows
Image Resizer for Windows Explorer extension that shrinks photos for web upload Windows
ImgBurn CD/DVD image burning program Windows
JabRef bibliography manager for LaTeX Windows, Linux
LibreOffice fork of OpenOffice that has surpassed the original Windows, Linux
Macrium Reflect easy drive imaging and backup/restore Windows
MalwareBytes malware removal software Windows
Microsoft Expression Web good code + preview HTML/web editor Windows
MikTeX easy-to-use distribution for the LaTeX typesetting system with on-the-fly package downloading Windows, Linux (in development)
Mozilla Firefox still my favorite web browser Windows, Linux, Mac, Android
Notepad++ excellent text editor with Scintilla and numerous plugins Windows fancier replacement for MS paint (not as complex as Photoshop or Gimp) Windows
ProcessExplorer more powerful version of Windows Task Manager Windows
PyCharm IDE for Python (community edition free) Windows, Linux, Mac
RStudio IDE for the R statistical programming language Windows, Linux
Scribus open source page layout program, replacement for Adobe InDesign Windows, Linux
Sublime Text another excellent text editor, with an unlimited-length free trial Windows, Linux, Mac
TeamViewer easy-to-use remote desktop server/client Windows, Linux, Mac, Android
TeXstudio excellent editor/IDE for LaTeX Windows, Linux, Mac (experimental)
TightVNC remote desktop viewer for the VNC protocol Windows, Linux (old)
VirtualBox run another OS in a virtual machine Windows, Linux, Mac
VLC Media Player can play every file format you can think of Windows, Linux, Mac, Android
WinDirStat disk usage analyzer with block-based visualization Windows
Xming X server for windows (old version available free) Windows
XShell excellent terminal emulator and SSH client (free for home and school use) Windows

Some useful add-ons (extensions) for Firefox:

Add-on Description Notes
Adblock Plus Blocks annoying banners, pop-ups, and video ads The unrelated Adblock (without the “Plus”) is also supposed to be good, but I’ve never had a problem Adblock Plus so I haven’t needed to test the alternative.
Classic Theme Restorer Allows you to revert the awful UI changes in Firefox 29, among other customizations.  
HTTPS-Everywhere Forces site to load via HTTPS for improved security. Breaks some websites, but can be disabled easily.
Rikaichan Pop-up Japanese dictionary. Hover your mouse over a word to see its meaning and pronunciation. Requires a separate dictionary add-on (several languages available).
Roomy Bookmarks Toolbar Allows you bookmarks to display as icon/text only to save space.  
Xmarks Sync bookmarks, history, and tabs across multiple devices and browsers.  

Getting Started with Linux

Linux is now at a point where it’s fairly easy for non-computer specialists to switch over and take advantage of a free, robust, and endlessly customizable operating system. Why bother? In my mind, there are quite a few:

  1. To avoid vendor lock-in. The Linux world is predominantly free and open-source. It’s unlikely that you will ever be stuck with files that cannot be opened. In the worst case, the program that created them will still be freely available.

  2. To take advantage of the power of a Unix-like OS. Some things just work better on a Linux (or Unix), which is built to be fast, secure, and modular. Many administrative tasks that are difficult or error-prone in Windows, like putting your home directory on a separate hard drive, are dead simple in Linux. Your computer will install updates only when you give the OK (no mysterious background installers running at inopportune moments). It’s also a much nicer programming environment. (This is less relevant for Mac users, since Mac OS X is based on Unix.)

  3. To have the ability to fully customize your system. This is related to #2. For example, you may dislike some aspects of the default user interface for your OS, but since many graphical desktop environments are available for Linux, you get the freedom to choose one that suits your needs and preferences. You also have much more freedom to customize things like docks/taskbars, menus, and keyboard shortcuts without installing sketchy external software.

  4. To give new life to older hardware. Except for some computational or graphically intensive programs, you can have the benefits of up-to-date software on hardware that is 5-10 years old or more. Now that Windows XP has been discontinued, Linux offers a way to avoid replacing old computers in order to maintain a secure, usable system. (The same goes for old Macs). Often, the most you would need to revive a 10-year-old computer is a $30-40 memory upgrade.

  5. Because you believe in the value of free and open-source software generally. Commercial software companies don’t always act in their customers’ best interests, so supporting free, high quality alternatives will put pressure on them to step up their game.

I would say that the primary downside to Linux, even today, is that it has an inherent learning curve – you get a lot of power, but need to understand a bit in order to use it. You will have to understand the concept of a window manager, for example, in order to swap one for another. You will also have to use the command line occasionally, if only to copy and paste code from web forums (because graphical tools vary more than command line tools, help will usually be given in the most general form).

My recommendation is to start by experimenting with Linux in a virtual machine (using VirtualBox), so that there is no chance of hurting the rest of your data accidentally. Try downloading and installing one of the more user-friendly distros, such as Mint, Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, or Mageia, and playing around a bit. A Linux distro, short for “distribution”, includes the Linux kernel (the core of the OS) and other basic components as well as a collection of ready-to-install, compatibility-checked software packages which can be downloaded from a centralized repository.

Most distros offer several versions of the install CD/DVD with different desktop environments; I recommend Cinnamon, MATE and KDE, which are among the most user-friendly and familiar in feel for Windows users (and probably the least obnoxious for Mac users as well). For older computers, the very traditional XFCE works extremely well. The two other biggies, Gnome 3 and Unity, are less traditional and currently suffer from the Windows 8-like “you can do it our way and no other” syndrome. Unity also tries to be like a tablet on the desktop, again like Windows 8.

Many install disks double as “live” CD/DVDs, which allow you to test the OS and desktop environment on your system before installing, which is extremely helpful for confirming hardware compatibility. If you don’t want to bother with testing every combination, just go for Mint + Cinnamon. This combination is exceptionally easy to use, and Mint users can install most packages from the well-known Ubuntu as well as its parent, Debian.

Once you find a distro and desktop environment that you like, you can either install it alongside your current OS (if you chose Mint or Ubuntu, which can install to a virtual hard drive inside Windows while still booting natively) or partition your hard drive for a true dual boot system. Other people have already written about this better than I can – Google is your friend.

(c) Kenneth Hanson | Built with Jekyll and Bootstrap | Page last updated on 2019-12-09