Which desktop OS to use

The last week or so, I've been going back and forth over what to run as the primary OS on my upgraded home desktop. Right now I'm running Ubuntu 10.04 on it, but I keep thinking maybe I should switch to Windows 7. I'm using it to run Win7 under VMWare anyway, so I'm wondering if I should just invert the arrangement and run Ubuntu under VMWare instead.

So to help myself decide, I'm going to list out some of the various pros and cons. Of course, this is just for my case - this is not universally applicable, your mileage may vary, etc. I'm basing this list on my usage patterns over the last 2 year, since I started running Windows on some of my personal (i.e. non-company) machines again.

Every-day desktop software

This is obviously one of the biggest categories, and one of the reasons I'm leaning toward Windows 7 in the first place. For my every-day non-development desktop computing needs, I need the following tools:

  1. Web browser
  2. E-mail client (no, I don't want to use a web client, even if it's GMail)
  3. Desktop RSS aggregator with multi-system syncing (no, I don't particularly like Google reader, except as a back-end)
  4. Multi-format universal video player
  5. Music player/manager
  6. Podcatcher
  7. Comic book reader

For items 1, 2, and 4, I already have favorite apps that are cross-platform - Opera, Thunderbird, and VLC. So those requirements are a wash.

Pro-Windows

On Windows, I'm currently using FeedDemon for RSS and MediaMonkey for music, and I quite like both of them.

On Linux, I don't have favorite apps for those. Recently, I've been using Exaile for music, but I'm not particularly attached to it. I just haven't found anything good since Amarok 2 came out (which I absolutely hate, despite really liking Amarok 1.x). As for an RSS reader, I've tried Liferea, but didn't particularly care for it. Mostly I've been either reading my feeds on a Windows box or just using Google reader, which I'm not crazy about.

Pro-Linux

On the Linux side, I do have a favorite comic reader an podcatcher: ComiX and gPodder respectively. However, I don't think either of them are really irreplaceable. While I don't have any complaints about gPodder, my podcatching needs are fairly basic - download and transfer to my MP3 player. I have a feeling the podcasting features of MediaMonkey would be just fine for this. The same is probably true of ComiX - I don't really need any complicated management features, just a good viewer for comic archives. I've played with a few other comic readers, and there are probably several that could do the job. For instance, HoneyView seems like it would fit my needs quite well.

Verdict: I have to go with Windows on this point. Most of the every-day stuff I really care about is either cross-platform or Windows-only, while I'm not really so attached to my current Linux tools.

Development tools

The development tools are a little different from the every-day tools. In part because, in many cases, there isn't really much of a choice. In the case of things like language-specific IDEs, you either use a particular tool and just use whatever platform it's supported on, or you make things waaaaay harder on yourself than they need to be. In other words, if you want to be idealistic in your platform choice, you suffer for it.

In my case, I'm currently doing mostly LAMP and FLEX work, and want to get into more .NET stuff on the side. That means that I need not only the IDEs and development tools, but also the supporting servers for those environments. I also need good command-line and scripting utilities as well as a good desktop virtualization package.

Currently, I favor Komodo Edit and gVim for PHP, Python, and other general-purpose coding, with a little Eclipse mixed in on occasion. Both of those are cross-platform, as are PHP and Python. For supporting servers, I also need MySQL, PostgreSQL, SQLite (more of a library than a server, but I'll list it with the other databases), and Apache, all of which are also cross-platform. So in terms of what I can use, it's a wash on all of that.

Pro-Linux

However, while most (if not all) of the LAMP stack runs on Windows, it's kind of a second-class citizen. In my experience, it's much easier to install and administer this stuff on Linux. Of course, that could just be because I'm more familiar with them on Linux, but that's not really the point.

In addition, Linux gets some points for the command-line. Granted, now that Powershell has come along it's not nearly as many as Linux used to get, but it still wins on ease of installing packages and having things like FFMPEG.

Pro-Windows

Obviously, Windows wins on everything dot-NET. IIS, Visual Studio, SQL Server - all of them are Windows-only and must-haves for anyone wanting to do "professional" .NET work, by which I mean work that "counts" on your resume. (No, Mono with MySQL isn't good enough, unfair as that may be.) It also wins on the FLEX front. While the FLEX SDK is cross-platform and runs on Linux, the IDE, Flash Builder, only runs on Windows and Mac. It's Eclipse-based, so you'd think it'd run on Linux, but it doesn't. Don't ask me why.

Windows also gets a small win on virtualization. Mostly, I use VMWare, plus a bit of VirtualBox, both of which are cross-platform. However, anybody who ever has to do IE compatibility testing will tell you how handy VirtualPC is. Not in and of itself, but rather because Microsoft puts out pre-configured images for testing IE 6 and 7. Just download, extract, and run - no hunting down copies of Windows with the appropriate IE version. Granted, it's annoying that the Windows installs on those images expire every few months, but they're still useful.

Verdict: I think I have to give Windows the edge on this one too, much as it pains me. I just need the Windows-only tools, and it's easier to run the resource-sucking ones like Visual Studio and Eclipse natively than in a VM. And as for the LAMP server tools, I can easily set up an Ubuntu server VM to run in the background without assigning it too many resources.

Remote access

I've gotten very used to being able to access my home desktop from anywhere. Therefore, I need some kind of secure, easy to use method for connecting to it. I also need it to be something I can set up on someone else's computer in 5 minutes without admin access. I do use Opera Unite for some of this, but that doesn't cover everything - I want something a little more robust and general purpose.

Pro-Linux

Let's face it - SSH rocks. There's just no getting around it. It's secure, simple to install, simple to set up, and simple to use. Also, it gets you full access to the command line, which is pretty powerful. I also tunnel VNC over SSH for nice, easy graphical access to my machine.

Pro-Windows

Let's face it - Remote Desktop beats the pants off of VNC. I mean, it's not even close. Granted, VNC is cross-platform, but RDP offers more features and it's a lot faster.

Also, there are SSH servers available for Windows. They're not as "native" as SSHD under Linux, but they still offer remote command-line shell (usually based on Cygwin, so it's Linux-like) as well as SCP and SFTP.

Verdict: It's pretty much a draw on this one. The SSH support for Linux is better, but Windows has some SSH and better remote graphical capabilities.

Inertia

When switching platforms, you need to account for overcoming the inertia of your current environment. That means coming up with new tools, new customizations, new data organization, etc.

Pro-Linux

Eight years is a long time. That's about how long I've been running Linux exclusively on my home desktop. I've been building up my environment since the bad-old-days when Netscape Navigator 4 was the best browser available and you had to recompile your kernel if you wanted to use a CD burner. I have scripts that won't run on Windows, symlinked configurations that won't work on Windows, and, or course, lots of things organized in a very UNIXy way.

Pro-Windows

The nice thing about Windows 7, as opposed to previous versions, is that it's a bit easier to organize things in a UNIXy fashion. Plus, there's always Cygwin and so forth. But really, there's not much to say here. The only saving grace here is that most of my existing Linux investment isn't irreplaceable.

Verdict: Linux, obviously. But while the margin is pretty good, it's not overwhelming. I don't do that much in the way of heavy customization anymore, so it's actually not as big an issue as it would have been a few years ago.

Final Verdict

Well, I'd say it's pretty obvious at this point. The preponderance of the pros seems to be on the Windows side.

On the one hand, the idea of this transition makes me a little uncomfortable. I've been a Linux user for a long time, and will continue to be one on the server-side. But at the same time, the more I think about it, the more sense this transition makes. While I'm still a Linux fan, I've grown less concerned with the desktop side of it. These days I'm more interested in things "just working" than in twiddling with my desktop or finding free software to do something I could as easily do with freeware. By the same token, distance has dulled any animosity I may have harbored toward Windows.

So we'll see how it goes. I actually installed Win7 on my desktop yesterday afternoon (I started this entry a week ago - just didn't get around to posting it). I'll be posting updates on my difficulties and migration issues. Hopefully it will be a pretty smooth process.

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