Apple has convinced millions that they can make the switch from Windows to OS X, but those curious about Linux have to see for themselves if they can work or play on a free desktop. The short answer is that, for most halfway tech-savvy people who aren't hardcore gamers, yes, you can. There are positively addictive productivity apps available for Linux, along with tools to make switching between Linux and other systems easy, or just running Windows programs themselves if you need to. Today we're detailing a Linux desktop that helps you move quickly, work with Windows, and just get things done; read on for a few suggestions on setting it up.
Setting up your system
If you're dual-booting with Windows, there's no reason to build a wall between the two systems. Most modern Linux distributions can read and write to hard drive spaces created for Windows, free Windows apps can grab files from Linux, and many free programs can even share configuration settings. See our guide to using a single data store when dual-booting.
Even if you're devoting your whole hard drive to Linux, you don't have to leave Windows behind. Free virtualisation software VirtualBox is a fairly user-friendly solution to running Windows inside Linux. I've found that it works great with most flavors of XP, but, as you might imagine, has a few problems with the "home" versions of Vista, and requires a swift system to not occasionally lag a bit. One nice compromise to needing just that one must-have Windows app for work is running it seamlessly in Linux. On my own system, VirtualBox is the solution for Office 2007 apps and, when I need it, iTunes (without USB/iPod functionality, unfortunately).
Some apps, however, can run without building whole virtualization machines. The WINE project works to create a framework that can run many useful Windows apps, including a good number of games, Adobe Photoshop, and the "viewer" apps that let you read and print Office documents. These days, they've even got a working version of Google's Chrome browser. Check out our guide to installing and using WINE for help getting started.
Clever hackers have not only copied some of the coolest tools available for Windows and Mac systems, they've extended them to work with other parts of the desktop in some seriously cool ways. Check out a few of our favorites:
GNOME Do: It's in the same field of Alt+Spacebar launchers as Windows' Launchy, and strongly styled on OS X's Quicksilver, but GNOME Do has grown into its own kind of productivity tool. Plug-in designers have taken full advantage of webapps' APIs, giving you the ability to quickly compose new email messages (in a local client or in your webmail), search for files or folders, add calendar events, and switch music tracks when a stinker comes up in shuffle. Oh, and it also finds applications super-quickly as you type, making desktop icons seem kind of, well, quaint. Here are installation instructions that should work for most Linux systems.
Launchy: If you're a devoted user of our readers' favourite application launcher, you're in luck. Launchy recently debuted its Linux port, and it works just like Windows. With a few changes to accommodate Linux's file system, many of the tweaks detailed by our own devoted Launchy user, Adam, will work just as well.
Avant Window Navigator: A lot of people prefer OS X's dock to the cluttered taskbars of Windows, and while most GNOME-based distros come with a top and bottom bar, it only takes a few clicks to ditch them. Like GNOME Do, the Avant Window Navigator (AWN) dock has a big collection of useful applets, including simple to-do lists or <a href="http://www.rememberthemilk.com" remember the milk widgets, email and RSS checkers, a Stacks-style folder launcher, and, of course, shortcuts to your most frequently launched apps. You can style the bar however you'd like, including a near-exact copy of the OS X dock. The AWN project's wiki has a installation guide that puts the most up-to-date version of the dock and its many applets into most popular distributions.
Cairo-Dock: This dock follows the same extensible template as AWN, but many prefer its easier-to-tweak configuration and slick graphical effects to the somewhat buggier AWN. The project's download page has compilable source and Debian-based installation packages, but most Linux users will want to install from their system's own installer.
CheckGmail: Most ambient mail notifiers serve only to draw you into a browser or email client by throwing subject lines and senders at you. CheckGmail, on the other hand, serves as its own mini-reader, letting you read, archive, or delete messages within a small white pane, and using your Gmail account's RSS feed for minimum bandwidth use. Works great with Google Apps mail as well, and it's totally customisable in appearance and timing.
Timer Applet: Available in most Linux systems' repositories, this unobtrusive applet works great for those who like to work in timed bursts. Start the timer as either a running clock or set it to alert you at a custom interval of time. For those who like to track their time across multiple tasks, whether for personal tracking or client billing, the Hamster tracker has a similar drop-down interface for keeping yourself on-schedule.
Super-charged GEdit: Lots of Mac users—especially coders and technical writers—swear by their TextMate, a context-coloring, smart-functioning text editor. The built-in text editor in GNOME-based systems, GEdit, can gain a few super powers of its own, as detailed by the New Linux User blog. Since it's tightly integrated into the desktop already, it makes GEdit into a right-click power tool. KDE users can also add highlighting to the system default Kate.
"Cloud" solutions: Web-based backup is all the rage lately, and Linux hasn't been left in the dust. Dropbox, recently opened to public beta, features a nifty client that integrates into the GNOME taskbar and automates back-ups from a chosen folder. SpiderOak offers a similar 2GB of space, with a more GUI-focused client. And if you're mostly a word-processing or spreadsheet user with a hankering to do some tweaking, you can automatically back up to Google Docs, or install an OpenOffice extension to edit and synchronise documents between the open-source office suite and Google's online offering.
Those are just one editor's recommendations for making Linux a friendly, secure, work-able environment. Let's hear from those already rocking the open-source system what tools and tweaks are indispensable to getting work done.
Kevin Purdy, associate editor at Lifehacker, loves checking out readers' pretty and productive desktops. His feature Open Sourcery appears weekly on Lifehacker.