Friday, April 11, 2014

You're IT: A Friday Thirsty

Proffie Galore sends in this Friday Thirsty about operating systems.  An IT Thirsty might be a first and I'm hesitant to try it.  But, how can I resist Proffie Galore?  Why would I want to? 

-- Beaker Ben

You probably heard that Microsoft this week stopped supporting (i.e., sending patches and security updates for) both Windows XP and Office 2003. Seems these programs were poorly designed with regard to planned obsolescence. Way too stable, with way too many satisfied customers. I was one of them.

I dislike the newer versions my college has forced on me at work. And even if I wanted to upgrade at home, my present computer wouldn't have the capacity required; I'd have to buy a new computer and add perfectly functional e-waste to the unconscionable stream produced by my first-world culture.

So I have decided to switch to Linux Mint Petra with Cinnamon Desktop and LibreOffice, even though until two hours ago, the only word I understood in that phrase was Linux. Apparently this current version of Linux is very user-friendly and will run just fine on an older PC that ran Windows XP. You can even set up a dual boot with Windows XP so you can keep your old programs for a while and ease the transition to Linux-based software. And it comes pre-loaded with LibreOffice, the successor to Open Office. All free and nearly malware-immune.

Here's the Thirsty:

What's your operating system? If you use XP, what are your plans? If you use Linux and LibreOffice, have you had any problems with compatibility trading documents with colleagues or deanfolk?  Any tips about making the transition from Gatesware?

If you're a smug Apple user, feel free to smirk.


  1. My own computer runs Windows 7 with Office 2010, as does the computer that I use at work. I do have a four-year-old netbook that I use when I need mobile computing power, and it came installed with Win XP and Office 2003.

    Both my home desktop and my XP netbook dual-boot with an installation of Ubuntu Linux, although I spend most of my time in Windows. Now that support for XP has ended, however, I'm going to dump XP from the netbook and just run Linux.

    Whether you will have any compatibility issues with Linux and LibreOffice really depends on how complex your documents are going to be. For basic word processing documents, using a single font style and limited formatting and markup, you should have no problems whatsoever. An essay with footnotes, some bold and italics in the references, and the occasional indented paragraph, will be absolutely fine. Where free office software like LibreOffice tends to suffer, in terms of cross-platform compatibility, is when your documents begin to get very complicated, with a wide variety of strange formatting and other unusual stuff. For most people, this isn't an issue; in fact, most people only ever use about 2 percent of the features of MS Word and other office software.

    Another way to deal with losing Office is to switch to an online solution like Google Docs. I've found that the documents produced by Google Docs are generally excellent, and you can export them in a variety of file formats, including .doc and .docx. Using Docs requires changing your attitude to your documents a little bit, because it's primarily an online service, although if you use the Chrome browser you can work offline as well. I tend to use Google Docs more as a backup than as my main word processor, but if I suddenly lost all access to MS Word, I think I could live with Docs quite happily.

    I have, for the past few years, tried out a variety of these free alternatives to MS Office because I teach at a state school where plenty of the students don't have much money. While the school computers all have Windows 7 and Office 2010 installed, I have made very clear to my students that they don't need Microsoft products in order to do their work, and I'm happy to accept electronic papers submitted in a variety of formats. I edit and mark up student papers using the markup features (comments, etc.) in Word, and sometimes these don't translate quite so well to other word processors, but I always return student papers as a PDF document as well, which allows them to see all my markup and comments by opening the file in Acrobat or an alternative PDF reader like Foxit (my preferred PDF reader).

    1. Thank you! I didn't know there was an alternative PDF reader.

  2. You're going to get long answers on this one, since we Linux users tend to be a voluble and committed lot.

    Linux Mint Petra is a joy to use. If you don't find it suitable, don't like the interface, or have any other problems with it, there are many different Linux distros to try, even other graphics environments within Mint, but I think for normal desktop use, you're not going to beat Mint Petra with Cinnamon.

    Background: I'm a long-term Linux user, although have Windows and Mac systems to use. I've used Linux since the late 1990s for servers and a few desktops, but the desktops were always a struggle to get pieces working, so I opted for Mac and Windows for both work and gaming. When Windows 8 came out, I was lured by a "how bad can it be?" thought and installed it on my PC. The experience was horrible and frustrating. No, I don't miss the "start" button. I just found so much about it annoying that each session left me with a new list of complaints.

    Mint has become the most popular Linux distro now for a reason. It's pleasant, professional, and incredibly stable. The community is friendlier than some Linux groups, and will answer questions. There are also many how to's and tutorials at the Mint web site that will give more information than you'll want to know about using the software.

    There are some good virtual machine systems (of various cost) that will allow installing other operating systems and software on top of Linux, but the one many people use is WINE -- which is free, open source, and runs much Windows software quite well. It can be a bit intimidating to set up, so use one of the interfaces to it. A good one is PlayOnLinux -- although started as a way to run Windows games on Linux, there are many types of software supported, including Microsoft Office (you do need a copy of whatever software you want to run, of course). You should be able to find that under the Mint Software Manager. Once installed, the PlayOnLinux interface will provide a list of supported software, and a click will run the install scripts to get things set up for you -- again, there's a community that will list bugs and known problems, or answer questions, although the support is more hobbyist. Programs under PlayOnLinux/WINE will look just like a Windows desktop, and you can run in compatibility for different versions of Windows, too. Another useful piece of software is WINETricks -- it's a one-stop interface to download things like Microsoft system libraries needed to run some software (like .Net). If you try to install something through PlayOnLinux or WINE, but get an error about some DirectX or Visual C runtime missing (or the install hangs mysteriously), WINETricks is where you can locate and download those -- again, should be in the software manager.

    If you don't want to get into running Windows software on the system, LibreOffice should be fine, and will read/write MS Office format, but might not like the most recent .docx. I regularly share comments with students and don't have problems (other than students who can't figure out how to see comments at all).

    Foxit is an excellent alternative to Acrobat. I once ran into a situation where Adobe kept messing up the formatting of a chart in a PDF, but both Foxit and Apple's Preview were able to generate the file correctly.

    Firefox or Chrome are just as you are used to from Windows, and the various mail and IM software is stable.

    Another trick to remember about Linux is that different user accounts are well separated. If you want to try out something but not risk your work settings, set up a different user and try out whatever you want on that account. Your other account will be the same as you left it when you last logged in.

  3. I am one of the smug smirkers at home, but my work laptop is running Windows 7. I'm curious what you end up experiencing, so let us know after a while how it's going, will ya?

  4. I'm in the (extended) process of migrating from an XP netbook to a Win 7 netbook, bought rather hastily this fall because our (Microsoft) email system stopped talking to any browser than ran in XP. I'm still figuring out what to do with the XP netbook. I'm told it makes a very nice Linux machine (in fact, apparently people buy it for exactly that purpose), but it will also handle Win 7, and I suspect I'll get a solid state drive (for more speed as well as more room) and use it as a combination backup computer/backup drive. I used Open Office for a while on the new netbook (before installing MS Office) and was quite happy; there was a bit of a learning curve, but not much, and even a few small features I liked better. I've had a good many students use Open Office on various platforms (I first started recommending it when a lot of cheap computers were being sold with Microsoft Works, which was a compatibility nightmare), and have never run into even a minor problem trading files back and forth, marginal comments and all, so I think that's a good option whatever you decide to use as an operating system.

    Another option I've heard about, available if you decide to try Win 7: you can set up an XP virtual machine to run software that won't run on 7. I may do that in order to keep using some older software (e.g. the full Adobe Acrobat, which now comes with a single licence; I bought the new version for my Win 7 machine, but would like to use my old one on the old machine rather than buy a second licence).

    I will say that I'm happy with Win 7 (and am hoping that something more like it and XP replaces Windows 8 well before 7 goes obsolescent).

    1. " Microsoft Works, which was a compatibility nightmare "

      Oh yes, it caused no end of problems. What was the point of Works if it wasn't compatible with Word?

    2. At one stage, Works came with an actual cut-down version of Word, yet was still incompatible. It wasn't supposed to be compatible. Works was a Win 95/98/ME/Bob era product to get people who were not going to cough up the money for Office on the Microsoft ranch. At the time Works was the "home" version of office software, and there was still some competition (WordPerfect wasn't completely dead). In, if I remember, 2000 or so, MS put a Word version into Works, then by 2004 had dropped Works in favor of different versions of Office (home and student, basic, professional). If Works had been compatible with Office, then how many people and businesses would have opted for Office, given the huge price difference?

  5. I use Ubuntu or more recently Xubuntu on a several machines. Xubuntu 12.04 LTS is wicked fast on my new Intel NUC with dual monitors at home. I may upgrade to the more recent version in a couple weeks. Or not. It seems to have all the good aspects of WinXP, and it also runs on my 10-year-old laptop just fine. I've used VirtualBox to run virtual machines (but haven't yet tried the virtualization in Win7).

    LibreOffice (and OpenOffice) are similar to M$Office 2003 in look and feel. The word processor and spreadsheet (Writer and Calc, if memory serves) are pretty compatible with their 'real' counterparts in M$Office 2007/2010, but Impress (the counterpart of powerpoint) less so. If you intend to swap PPT files with other proffies, it may take a bit of effort. I see Defunct Adjunct has already addressed other compatibility issues.

    I am here to tell you that you too can come to terms with Win7 and Office2010, to which my uni has migrated over the past year. On my new school-issued laptop, I've set up my Win7 profile as close to XP as I can get it. I like the "recent places" shortcut in Win7 (and in Win8.x and Server 2008), which is an actual advance over XP. My wife's new home machine is running Win8.1 because that's what it came with, and I've set it up to be as like XP as possible, but it strays even farther from XP than does Win7. I don't like any of the 'metro' (full screen) apps. If you like to use your desktop computer like a multitasking desktop computer (as opposed to like a one-app-at-a-time tablet) then I'd avoid the Win8 flavors.

    One thing that works very well for me is to run remote desktop sessions on my uni's server, which currently runs Win Server 2008. They have Office 2010 on it, as well as a few other essential apps. This makes it possible to 'phone in' from any of my Linux machines and see the same desktop, shortcuts, etc. no matter where I am or which machine I'm on. My dual-monitor desktop machine at work is actually a Linux box, which IT can keep their hand off, thank you. As I do at home, I use it to access email, read PDFs etc. on one monitor while the other monitor is essentially a thin client running a desktop session on their server.

    OK, I should stop hogging the floor.

    1. Does running remote desktop sessions require leaving one's desktop on at work 24/7?

    2. It shouldn't, unless there's something physically on the desktop computer that you need.

  6. I'm a non-smug Apple user. In my particular field of High-energy Particle Hamsters, Macs occupy about 2/3 of the computers in use, with linux varietals a lot of the remaining. These are, of course, just the machines we use to read and write; the actual machines we use to DO things are all unix-based systems of one sort or another.

    LibreOffice isn't terrific; be wary about adopting it wholesale. Keep everything in PDF form: that way you can at least print it out, if not edit it. This actually holds for ANY format, including Office.

  7. Bill Gates is EVIL. He is the ANTI-CHRIST. He should be burned alive at the stake fueled by every extant copy of his evil software. Where are the matches?

    Why yes, I am busy making the time-consuming and expensive transition from XP to 7 on all the machines in my office, lab, campus observatory, and remote observatory. How ever could you tell?

    The standard operating system in professional astronomy is in fact Solaris, the Unix variant that runs on Sun workstations, also standard in professional astronomy since the '80s. Many astronomers also use Linux on their laptops. The problem for me is that I'm the only astronomer in my physics department and university, and indeed within 100 miles (and yes, I get all the UFO calls). Unix support on my campus is slim to non-existent, so I was forced to turn to the dark side. It sucks: at least Darth Vader had some choice in the matter.

    1. That said, being able to choke people to death by the power of the force is AWESOME. Bill Gates is too evil for this to work, however.

    2. I'm not a huge fan of Microsoft as a corporation and, as I said in a previous comment, I dual-boot my computers with Windows and Ubuntu, but I have to say that Windows 7 has proven to be a very stable and, for the most part, easy to use operating system. It improves in many ways on XP (the less said about Vista, the better), which was itself a solid OS.

      I understand that making the transition to Windows 7 on multiple machines, especially on computers that use specialized scientific software, is probably a headache, but once you've got it all set up, I don't think you'll be disappointed with Windows 7. About the only thing I really don't like about it is the incredibly (and needlessly) complicated permissions procedure if you need to tinker with folder and file permissions between users.

    3. Frod, I have often wished to choke students across the classroom with the lift of two fingers. Just briefly, to get their undivided attention.

      As for Bill, while the Force is strong in him, he is not said to have a magnetic personality. So staples might be the answer.

    4. Bill Gates' philanthropy makes it hard for me to hate him as a person. But does it excuse the hegemony of Microsoft? Is Gates a new Rockefeller or Carnegie?

  8. Xubuntu and LibreOffice. Like others above I have found very few compatibility issues, and these can often be resolved by asking your collaborators to send files in an earlier version of Office. Track changes works well between Word and Writer. Impress is more of a problem, but again asking for files saved in an older version of Office can help. Limiting use of multimedia (i.e. videos or sounds) will help too.

    Google is your friend if you ever run into any problems. With an older computer there is a good chance someone else has had the exact same problem and written a walk-through.

  9. I was an Apple user but became quite disenchanted with it after I had problems with my dual-processor G4 machine. Apple wouldn't sell me spare parts and the repair shop I took it to was run by smart-aleck know-nothing kids.

    That's when I decided to either build my own machine or use second-hand units and install my own operating system. I now have several used computers at home that run either Linux or FreeBSD. I've also tinkered with OpenIndiana (based on Solaris) and PC-BSD (based on FreeBSD). Many of those machines I rebuilt and upgraded.

    Meanwhile, I still use an iMac I bought after my G4 malfunctioned but I can't wait to retire it. It's the worst machine I've ever used.

    As for older machines, try Lubuntu or Puppy Linux. I've installed the former on a computer that's over 15 years old and it runs like a charm.

    Frod: check out Scientific Linux.

  10. For those looking for a free Office alternative, another suggestion for both Windows and Linux users is Kingsoft Office. It has a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software. The word processor is so similar to Word 2003 that I'm shocked there hasn't been some sort of copyright infringement lawsuit.

    Kingsoft also has downloads for iPad, iPhone, and Android, so you can have a pretty full-featured office suite on your phone or tablet. I have it on my Nexus 7" tablet, and while I wouldn't want to have to do all my work on such a small device, it can be handy to have the option, especially if you have a bluetooth keyboard as well.

    1. Note that Kingsoft has a Free and a Professional (paid) version.

      The only significant difference between them is that the free version does not allow you to create and edit macros. For advanced users, especially scientific users, this might be a problem, but for those of us who mainly write papers using fairly basic formatting, it's not much of an issue.

  11. I use Windows 7 with Office 2010. I also have the full version of Adobe Acrobat for creating and editing PDF files.

    Windows XP users should be able to use the Windows 7 interface without too much difficulty as they are very similar. I recommend avoiding Windows 8 unless you have a touchscreen or you have no other choice. If you get stuck with Windows 8 there is an add on called Classic Shell ( ) which makes Windows 8 appear and operate more like Windows 7.

    For very basic documents OpenOffice or LibreOffice will do an acceptable job. If you need actual MS Office compatibility (especially PowerPoint) you can get a free OneDrive account from Microsoft which will give you online access to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

  12. I left a long comment yesterday, but it apparently didn't post (don't mean that to sound passive-aggressive -- I think I screwed up the captcha).

    I use Mac OS/X and Linux Mint Petra on PC. I have a Mac laptop, so fine there. My desktop was one I built for gaming and work if needed, and I'd had Windows 7. I stupidly decided to try out Windows 8, which I hate with a passion -- yes, I gave it a chance, and it didn't get better. Thus, I'm back using Linux. I tried a couple of different ones and settled on Mint. I've used it for about a year, and have been very happy with it. I have updated to new versions, and each one has been solid. It's an excellent distro, with hugely dedicated developers (a couple of guys in France do almost the entire thing).

    If you find that LibreOffice doesn't do what you want, it is possible to install MS Office on Linux. Look in the Mint software manager for WINE and PlayOnLinux. WINE is a free virtual machine system that mimics Windows -- will look just like a Windows desktop when running, and you can set it to be compatible with different versions of Windows, from, I think, 2000 (definitely XP) to 8. PlayOnLinux was originally created to get games working in Linux, as a one-stop place to click to run setup scripts. It's expanded to include other common software, such as iTunes and MS Office (granted, you must have a legal copy of whatever you're trying to install). If you get an error message on WINE that some library is missing, WINETricks lets you install Windows drivers in Linux. All are documented with instructions online, and the Mint community is very friendly. Mint is based on Ubuntu, so software that runs on Ubuntu will work on Mint, too.

    I second the vote for Foxit for PDF's -- does the job without all the Adobe junk. If you don't like LibreOffice, a good word-processor only option is Abiword -- looks just like Word 2003. Also, be sure to check the community site for whatever software you decide on, as there are often good templates for style guides and such.

    Last Linux tip (aside from don't be afraid of the terminal and command line) is that the user accounts are well separated. If you want to try out different software or do something you're not sure about, set up an additional user account and use that one for "testing". Your other user account will be unchanged.

  13. Well is my brain fried! I'm no slouch, having been comfortable in MS-DOS and built a PC from motherboard up, but all this jargon makes my head spin. And on top of all these enthusiastically geeky responses (and I say that in the nicest sense), Beaker Ben said he can't resist me! Even Proffie Galore blushes.

    A few clarifications: my work PC runs Windows 7, and while I dislike it, I did adapt to it and Office 2010 with barely a grumble (though I can't for the life of me see why bigger is better). At home the issue is a ten-year-old PC without the power to run Windows 7.

    I will sort through this very encouraging feedback and advice and let you know how it goes.

  14. "At home the issue is a ten-year-old PC without the power to run Windows 7" : are you sure ? I upgraded several ten year old XP computers to Windows 7 and they run happily. The only real limitation is memory (I think you need 1Gb).