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Windows 7 Vs. Linux: The Battle For Your Desktop

Early reaction to Windows 7 is that it's a winner. Could the successor to Vista be Microsoft's last gasp, or does open source have a formidable new rival to Linux?

With the release of Windows 7's first public beta, there's a feeling in the air that Microsoft has finally created the Windows they've been promising for a long time. They've got little choice: the public and professional reaction to Vista, and mounting pressure from low-cost Linux on low-cost computing devices, means they've had to act fast.

There's fierce debate in the air about what 7 means for both Windows and Linux. Microsoft's last gasp? Linux's formidable new enemy? Closer inspection shows us it's not really either of those things. Linux has made strides of its own on the desktop and made it possible to build netbooks at low cost--and while Windows 7 will almost certainly take a bite out of that market and impress existing Windows users all the more, Linux has also become its own animal.

Windows 7 screen shot.
(click for larger image and for full photo gallery)

In this article I'm going to look at how Windows 7 and desktop breeds of Linux shape up against each other, mainly in the light of what's come before on both sides. This is not a formal review. In the first place, Windows 7 won't be released until the end of the year. Secondly, the goal here is not to award either Windows 7 or Linux top ranking. This is an exercise in which the two are compared side by side, to see what each one does in particular categories and why.

First Foot Forward

Since most people typically buy Windows with a computer as a preload, they don't have to deal with the process of installing the OS. The same now goes for machines that come with Linux preinstalled. However, those trying out the Win 7 beta -- and those installing Linux on an existing system -- have to dive into the installation process in some form.

The Windows 7 installation process ought to be familiar to anyone who's installed Vista: it's significantly faster than installing XP, and requires fewer setup choices along the way. Windows 7 still very much insists on being the first OS on the system, though. If you want to create a dual-boot, you're still more or less required to install some variety of Windows first, then Linux. Otherwise you're looking at having to repair one or the other OS to get them to boot.

One thing which Windows has added incrementally over time is better pre-boot environment support. You can boot the installation DVD and bring up a command console to perform a small subset of admin functions, including performing a full system image recovery (provided you made one to begin with).

Installing Linux used to be half the struggle right there, but the process has become a great deal easier. Ubuntu even gives you the option of running straight from an existing Windows partition (the "Wubi" feature) with only a minor performance hit. Another positive change is how the "hit rate" for hardware detection has gone up with each successive release. I'm now at the point, as described later in this piece, where one of my notebooks has all of its various components detected natively in Linux and requires no tinkering to work.

The other major thing Linux continues to offer in this regard -- and which Windows still seems unable to provide due to its own architectural limitations -- is the live CD, or live USB drive. Boot it and you're in a full-blown copy of the OS, with the biggest hindrance being the transfer speed of the boot media. (Running from a live CD is not something you can do for daily work.) This sort of thing is only possible in Windows with a great deal of acrobatics; in Linux, it's as natural as walking.

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