Many of us have our household or family computer, and a dedicated computer in the shack. That way our shack computer will always be available for ham use. Our shack computers provide digital communications, QRZ look-ups, rig control and programming, and maybe even Winlink email. But what do we do when the shack computer needs to be replaced?
Lets face it, our computers don't last forever. There are many reasons we might need to replace our computers, from hardware failures to technology becoming obsolete. So do you replace it with a brand new computer, or do you look for an alternative solution. If you are looking for an alternative solution, then this article is for you.
Linux is an operating system that is completely free, no strings attached. It was started by a Finnish student Linus Torvalds who wanted a free operating system similar to Unix. With the help of others, he created Linux and the rest is history.
Let me first start by addressing some of the myths that surround Linux. I have been a Linux user for over 10 years and have watched Linux grow. Some of these myths were true at one point, and some of them are just completely not true.
- Linux is too hard to install: This used to be true. If you didn't understand drive partitioning, then you might not get it installed. But installing most distributions are as easy today as any Windows or Mac OS.
- You have to be a geek to run Linux: That can be true and false. Linux comes in many distributions which offer many different features. Some of the distributions can be very difficult for a beginner. Others, however, are easier to use than Windows. A good example is Linux Mint. It will automatically detect and configure most of your hardware during installation. Imagine your wireless adapter useful out of the box without having to download and install drivers.
- Linux doesn't work with most hardware: This one is not only false, but the opposite is actually true. Who remembers when Windows Vista came out and all of a sudden you could no longer use your printers and other peripherals? I had clients who were very upset because they had to buy new printers. All of those continued to work on my Linux systems. Linux hardware detection and driver support is far better than Windows. I have never had to install a network adapter driver since using Linux, it has always been installed and configured during installation. Windows just started doing this in Windows 7.
- Because Linux is free, it's not secure: Again, not true. Because Linux is open, there are thousands of programmers who are working with the source code. With so many eyes on the code, it is very difficult for malicious code to be inserted. With closed operating systems like Windows and Mac OS, you have to rely on them to fix security issues. Plus, Linux is designed by default with security in mind.
- Linux doesn't have any good software: I would rather say that some Linux software is not as pretty as Windows and Mac software, but as good if not better. For Debian based distributions, there are over 28,000 software packages waiting to be automatically installed. Over 75 of those are Ham radio specific, including logging programs, antenna design programs, rig control, APRS, satellite tracking, digital software, radio programming software, Morse code trainers, and many more. Linux will run a lot of Microsoft software through a free program called Wine. For the software that it won't run, there are great alternatives. As an IT manager, I have some of this software running on our Windows machines because of how good they are.
Linux - Try before you buy...er install
Linux comes in many distributions. For the beginner, I think Ubuntu or Linux Mint are great distributions to start with. They install easy, have a good menu system, and are polished. Many people start with these and end up staying with them. While I use Debian for my servers, I use Linux Mint on all of my desktops and laptops. If you don't want to lose what you currently have on your computer, you can try Linux with a CD. Download the Linux image from the Web site and burn it to a disk. Then, put the CD/DVD into the drive and reboot your computer. Linux will run from the CD/DVD without touching your hard drive. That way you can try the distribution without installing. I actually recommend this before installing. You can try different distributions and find the one you like. Then you can install it. Just remember, running Linux from a CD/DVD is much slower than after you install it. So don't think that Linux is slow; it's the CD/DVD drive.
There are currently over 300 actively maintained Linux distributions to choose from. So how do you know which ones to select? Below is a list of the most popular distributions being used today that I think are good for beginners.
- Ubuntu: This is probably the best known distribution. It is based off of Debian, but maintains its own software repositories. It is modern without being bleeding edge, which provides stability. It offers updates on a 6-month cycle.
- Linux Mint: This distribution is based off of Ubuntu, but is very popular because it contains media codecs and proprietary software not included in Ubuntu. This is my distro of choice for desktops and laptops, and the one I recommend for beginners.
- Fedora: This distribution is developed by Red Hat. It is bleeding edge which means it contains the latest software versions and has higher updates. This results in more frequent changes and less stability.
- openSUSE: This distribution is a community-created distribution that is sponsored by Novell. Like Fedora, openSUSE is a bleeding edge distributions. It does have a very user-friendly desktop environment like Ubuntu and Linux Mint.
- Puppy Linux: This distribution is an older, smaller distribution. It is not as polished and pretty as the ones mentioned above, but it is a great distribution for using on old computers.
Ham Radio Linux Distributions
This is exactly what is says. These are distributions that have been set up specifically for Ham Radio. Like regular distributions, you can run off of the CD/DVD to try it out. If you want a Linux-based computer dedicated to your Ham shack, you need to look at these as options.
The purpose of this article is to show you that Linux is a strong alternative to Windows and Mac operating systems. If you have an older (or even new) computer not working, or don't want to spend a lot of money on software, then Linux is the answer. For more information on Linux and Ham radio in Linux, see the resources below:
- Hamsoft: A list of Linux-specific Ham radio software.
- Linux Journal & Ham Radio: An article about Linux and Ham Radio
- Ubuntu Hams: A group of Ham Radio Ubuntu users