Why Running a Linux PC is a Lot Like Owning a Classic Car

Monday Oct 22nd 2007 by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
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There's nothing wrong with turning your PC into a project, it’s just that projects don’t make it practical to get from A to B, or to get any work done.

There’s an enormous difference between your average PC consumer and the hardcore computer enthusiast. One of the key differences is how much time someone is willing to expend on a system.

It’s easy to tell the difference between someone who’s an aficionado and someone who just owns a PC – ask them how long they took to set it up. If you get a blank stare, you’re talking to a user. If you get a three hours lecture about RAM timings and the pros and cons of running a RAID 0 array, you’re talking to a fanatic.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that there’s only one kind of enthusiast. There’s a whole spectrum, ranging from those who like to tinker to those rare types that live and breathe silicon. The hardest of hardcore abandon the mainstream world of Windows and Mac and have switched to a Linux distro.

The ideal home or office PC is one that doesn’t require much in the way of effort to get it going – anything more involved than plugging it in and pressing the on switch is usually considered too much effort. Your average mass market PC (think of a Dell or an HP) is built to just work with the minimal of tinkering and maintenance, much like a modern car (except that most car owners understand the importance of maintaining a car, while few think that a PC deserves similar attention). Most people just want to slip the key into the ignition and be on their way.

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But there are many hardcore computer devotees have opted to shun such simplicities and have chosen a more hands-on approach to computing. These are the classic car owners of the PC scene.

In case you’re wondering, being a classic car owner has very little in common with regular car ownership. Sure, the vehicles might make use of an internal combustion engine, run on gasoline and have pedals and a steering arrangement that’s familiar, but the similarities start to run dry at that point.

A main difference between a mass market PC (which will run Windows, because not even Mac has a big enough user base to have achieved critical mass) and one running Linux is how much knowledge you need to be able to survive. Even if someone knows nothing about their system and totally hoses it, if they’re running Windows there’s a good chance that they’ll know someone who’ll know just enough to be able to reload the OS and get things going again.

Run Linux and you’re on your own. If you’ve got Internet access on a different PC then you can tap into the collective consciousness of the most excellent specialist Linux forums out there, but back in the real world, finding someone with any real knowledge about Linux is rare.

The same goes for classic cars. Things are fine when your classic pride and joy is working as expected and does all the right things, but once something goes wrong, things can get troublesome. Even paying for spares or a fix is tricky because you need to find someone who knows what they are doing or who can get you the right part.

You’ve chosen to take the road less traveled. And while you’re not on your own, it can sure feel like it at times. Forget encountering serious problems; sometimes things that should be trivial –such as finding drivers – can be an odyssey for Linux at times. Sure, it’s getting better but there are still no guarantees. If you’re not happy trawling forums for answers and getting your hands dirty with the zeros and ones, you’re better off paying the Microsoft tax and sticking with Windows.

Next page: If you do want to drive a Linux rig...

Get Behind the Wheel

But if you want the whole classic car experience with a PC, then here’s the recipe. Find an old PC, preferably one that wasn’t very good to begin with (maybe an old Dell that was never that hot) and install Linux on that. There’s a popular myth going around that Linux is ideally suited to old hardware. I’m not sure where this myth came from but my experience suggests that while Linux has lower hardware requirements than Windows Vista, you still have to be realistic as to the performance that you can expect from old hardware.

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A software upgrade, even changing the OS, is no substitute for having the right hardware. If a system is struggling under the weight of Windows 98, installing one of the Linux distro onto it is clutching at a straw. There’s a good reason that you can’t still buy a 2001 era Pentium III system – they weren’t that good in the first place, and compared to even a cheap modern PC, they’re effectively prehistoric. Spend some time working with (and trying to get some work done) on an old system, and you start to appreciate the snappy performance and improved reliability that a modern system offers.

But the main reason why I feel that running a Linux PC is a lot like owning a classic car is because the community make it feel that way. Linux users seem to be tinkering with their rigs endlessly. Not only do they seem to be jumping from one distro to another trying to find the ultimate setup, but new distros are also coming out with astounding regularity. One of the cornerstones of the Linux community is continual improvement, and this means that things are always in a state of flux. Just as most classic cars end up being projects on wheels, Linux-based PCs seem to be projects on desks.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with having a project, it’s just that projects don’t make it practical to get from A to B, or to get any work done.

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