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Why Linux? Not so sure as I used to be

  1. Jan 12, 2010 #1

    when I was a first term Physics student, many fellows recommended me to try Linux. Now I'm a 5th term student, and I know many people in Physics at our University (like doctorate students, post docs), and most of them use Linux.

    When I've switched to Linux some 2 years ago, I liked the idea of free software, of a stable and virus-free system, of the fast performance (compared to Windows), of software which focuses on the essential things (e.g. k3b vs. Nero), easy and free updating (very unlike Windows), and of the many general things one learns about computers if one deals with Linux (partitioning, mounting/different kind of file system, software repositories, open source world / Ubuntu / Launchpad, powerful utilities like latex, gfortran, gcc etc...).

    But now, I'm not so sure about all these virtues anymore. Certainly, the above things are good facts about linux. But is it all worth the fuziness?

    • Inkscape is great software which I use frequently (scientific posters, illustrations for e.g. labreports), but CorelDraw is simply the best. And it's not available for Linux. Try making a complex A0 poster with Inkscape - it definitely shows the limits.
    • My hobby is digital painting. Getting my Wacom tablet to work with Linux is very difficult with the latest Ubuntu. Gimp is nice, but compared to Photoshop or Corel Painter, it's like a house cat vs. tiger and lion. Neither of the great painting tools is available for Linux.
    • Digital painting is only a hobby, but Matlab and Mathematica are my subject. There are substitutes (Octave and Maxima), and I tried them, but I would never never use them because in fact, compared to Matlab and Mathematica, they are second class. I wouldn't think of programming every day in a software which is always two steps behind the software which it tries to imitate.
    • When I say not available for Linux, I mean: possibly available after much fuzziness with Wine or VirtualBox or the like. But is it worth it?
    • OpenOffice is great, but has many weaknesses compared to MS Office. I write in Latex and make calculations in Matlab, so I only use Impress (presentation software). You cannot e.g. import vector graphics properly. You cannot export simple animations like appear/disappear into pdfs like you can in latex beamer...
    • Concerning Hardware, I already talked about wacom... My Brother printer has Linux support, but the print is misplaced. This cannot be fixed without lots of fuzziness in directly config files, which sucks.
    • Most (yet not all) good open source tools are also available for Windows.
    • Windows programs like Corel Draw or Photoshop are highly expensive, even if one buys student licenses. PS: ~200€. Corel Draw: depends on the version, >= 100€. Corel Painter: >=100€. Windows itself: free for students under MSDNAA.
    • There is little hardware fuzziness in Windows.

    My conclusion is: I simply don't know. I don't feel so comfortable with doing all my computer work on Linux, at least not as comfortable as, say, 1.5 years ago when I had less experience and more enthusiasm.

    I am sure some of the above issues are familiar to the Linux users among yourselves. How do you cope with them? What are your thoughts on what I have written? Do you sometimes feel it would be nice and warm to switch (back) to windows? Is it worth using open source software only for the sake of using open source software, even if you sometimes (certainly not always) feel it is second class software (Gimp, Inkscape...)

  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 12, 2010 #2


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    Why not use both depending on the task?
  4. Jan 12, 2010 #3


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    Sounds like you might benefit from running Linux in a virtual machine with a windows host.
  5. Jan 12, 2010 #4

    But doesn't this beg the question "why bother with Linux at all?"

    Know what I mean? If you have to get a Windows machine anyway, why bother VM'ing Linux?
    Would it be for the occasional free tool in Linux that does 'do the job?'
  6. Jan 12, 2010 #5


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    I find Linux to be a much better development environment than windows for many different reasons. Using GNU Tools on windows platforms is a huge headache.
  7. Jan 12, 2010 #6
    I dual boot between windows and linux 'cause one of the programming frameworks I use isn't even available for windows and I need to talk to hardware, but I'm too used to windows to switch over entirely.

    Python using numpy/scipy and matplotlib are great substitutes for matlab if you don't need the toolkits. I also find them easier to use in linux, but that's just 'cause I'm too lazy to sort it out in windows.

    If you don't need linux don't bother with it. I'm very much a "use the right tool for the job" type of person, but for me linux often is the right tool. Plus all the printers I use are HP, and hp's linux drivers are awesome.
  8. Jan 12, 2010 #7

    Ben Niehoff

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    I agree, Linux is quite limited for the kind of work you describe (however, Mathematica does have a Linux version, which I use, and I would guess Matlab and Maple do, too).

    My solution is to dual boot, and use whichever operating system is best suited to a particular task. My machine is partitioned into 4 parts:

    1. Windows C:\ drive. Contains operating system and programs
    2. Linux ext4 partition
    3. Linux swap area
    4. K:\ drive, formatted as NTFS

    Both Windows and Linux are configured to point to the K:\ drive for documents. Under Linux, this is accomplished by mounting the drive during the startup sequence, and creating a symlink from /home/user/Documents to K:\Documents. Similarly, Windows is configured so that the (My) Documents shortcut points to K:\Documents. There is a "power tool" utility from Microsoft which lets you do this...it makes some registry edits.

    This way, both operating systems can access the same document tree, and I can use them however I want. The latest ntfs-3g drivers for Linux support advanced permissions settings under NTFS...so it all works rather well.
  9. Jan 12, 2010 #8


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    I cut my computing teeth in the Unix world and have always felt comfortable with Linux. However, for reasons similar to those you stated, I migrated to Windows years ago as my main platform, and now I also have Mac OS X so that I can help students who have it.

    So, the main reason to learn Linux at all, in my opinion, is as a job skill.
  10. Jan 12, 2010 #9


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    That's the setup I used to use on all my computers. For my latest one I decided to try running Windows in a virtual machine since I use it so infrequently... it's slower than it would be natively, especially on graphics-intensive applications (like games and video playback, I'm not talking about drawing programs), but not so much as to make it unusable.

    Regarding some of the points kP brought up, there are certainly some things that really can't be done on Linux, at least not without some sort of emulation. For instance, if you're a digital artist and you need the specific advanced features of something like Corel Draw or Photoshop, then sure, that's a good reason to go with Windows. But I have never thought of the GIMP or Inkscape as second-class programs. They've always done a fantastic job when I've needed the capabilities of a raster or vector graphic editor. I have had access to Photoshop in the past but I personally have never had any reason to choose it over the GIMP.

    OpenOffice is not as well developed as MS Office, but again, I've never needed the advanced features in MS Office. In fact, I rarely even use OpenOffice; I prefer LaTeX for both written documents and presentations.

    None of the open-source equivalents of Matlab are particularly well developed, as far as I know. Matlab does have a Linux version available, though, so that's not really an issue. I actually prefer to do numerical calculations in Python using the NumPy/SciPy library; even though it's not designed as an equivalent, it works great for the same kind of number crunching I would previously have done in Matlab. Plus, Python is a general-purpose programming language so it's far more flexible. The one advantage Matlab retains is the nice GUI (and in some cases, documentation).

    With Mathematica, it's the same; none of the open-source equivalents are particularly well developed. I haven't found any satisfactory replacement for it. But Mathematica does also run natively on Linux. (I'm fortunate enough to be able to get it at no cost through my physics department)

    No, certainly not. But of course that's a personal thing; my thoughts on the matter are pretty irrelevant to you.
    Well, as I've said, I do not regard the GIMP or Inkscape as second-class software. But I know the feeling, since I compose music as a hobby - or, I used to before I got busy - and the premier composition application, Finale, has no capable equivalent on Linux. (Although now that I think about it, maybe it's about time I take another look at Rosegarden... but I digress)

    I don't think there's any reason to limit myself to open source software. But there's a wide range between that and always using proprietary software by default. Certainly I like to support the cause of open source software; I think it's an idealistically important concept and I don't want to see it die out. Plus there's always the practical matter that if I don't like something about a program, or if I need a new feature, with open source I can always just tweak it or add it in myself.

    Part of the process of moving over to Linux, I think, is learning how to adjust your workflow. What I mean is that, when you're confronted with the problem of how to accomplish task X, rather than just thinking "what program would I use on Windows? -> what's the Linux equivalent?" you start to consider more general alternatives, maybe altering the task a bit. For instance, when Inkscape didn't cut it for the vector graphics I needed, rather than wishing for something like Adobe Illustrator, I hunted around and discovered TikZ (which, incidentally, is now actually my favorite way to create diagrams, as long as I'm not in a hurry).
  11. Feb 5, 2010 #10


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    Linux, to me, is my "hot-rod in the garage." Some guys work on their '69 Dodge Charger on the weekend - maybe drive it around a couple times a year, but most of the time is spent under the hood.

    Some weekends, I fire up my Gentoo installation and tinker for hours. I rarely "take it for a spin," except to show my fellow nerds what I've been up too. :biggrin:

    When I need to get work done, I use my Mac.
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2010
  12. Feb 5, 2010 #11


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    A suggested dual boot setup:

    Hard drive #1:
    C: only contains boot stuff like NTLDR and boot.ini.
    D: OS #1
    E: backup for hard drive #2 partitions

    Hard drive #2:
    F: OS #2
    G: backup for hard drive #1 partitions

    I use OS #1 to backup OS#2 and vice versa. In addition I actually use separate partitions for the OS, applications, and data. If i get some type of virus or install something I end up not liking, since the OS partition is relatively small, with applications and data in other partitions, the restore time is much faster.

    My actual setup:

    hard drive #1
    C: only boot stuff
    D: OS #1
    E: important data (source code, application data backup, ...)

    hard drive #2
    F: OS #2
    G: applications (mostly games)
    H: documents, music, videos

    hard drive #3
    I: swap file and temp area for OS#1
    J: swap file and temp area for OS#2
    K: used for backup of D -> H partitions (each in it's own folder)

    external hard drive #4:
    Used for backup of E and H partitions.
  13. Feb 7, 2010 #12
    I did search for such comparisons on line and most of them said inkscape and Gimp are almost as equal to it's proprietary counterparts. Be sure to learn the software well...you most probably know photoshop and Corel Painter well but not inkscape and Gimp. I'm not sure though.

    Similarly, I do not prefer coding for proprietary API or learning proprietary stuff cause whatever you learn about is the property of that organization...they have the rights to do whatever they like with it, discontinue it, have a major change of programing syntax etc... None of these will happen with opensource. If something you think is missing in opensource and can be improved, you can always report and the developers will respond, or you can get a developer (a friend or a group) to implement the feature; on the other hand it depends on the mood of the proprietary organization if your requested feature will be implemented or not...there's absolutely no other way.

    So whenever I learn, I never do the proprietary stuff. That's IMO

    The matlab wiki says "Operating system Cross-platform"

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MATLAB-R2008a-for-Linux.png [Broken]

    I don't know matlab so I dont have an idea actually.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  14. Feb 20, 2010 #13
    I definitely agree with this. TikZ is amazing. I always use it to make nice diagrams for homework, reports etc. It does have a steep learning curve in my opinion but once you are somewhat proficient with it, becomes a very efficient tool. Latest builds (can be found http://www.texample.net/tikz/builds/" [Broken] ) have a whole lot of libraries and an extensive over 700-page manual with gazillions of exercises.

    I have read that for plots matplotlib is quite good. However, I've only recently begun to study python, so I haven't yet tried matplotlib but the examples online do look quite nice.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
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