8 things you can do with Linux that you can't do with MacOS or Windows

Why should you try Linux? This is why.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
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Bhen I first started using Linux back in 1997, the open-source operating system was primarily used by computer science students, hackers, and programmers who wanted a more powerful, flexible, secure alternative to the Windows operating system. It was serious and geared toward serious work. Computer engineering students clamored to get Linux installed on desktops and laptops so they could help build for the future and expand their skills.

Fast forward to now and Linux is used for everything (from phones, tablets, cars, appliances, IoT devices, and much more). Why? Simply put, it's more flexible and secure than Windows. 

Also: Window Maker Live is a throwback to the exciting days of early Linux

Linux can be bent and twisted into just about anything. But Linux is not only more flexible, reliable, and secure than the competition, it's also a lot more fun. I've spent many a day (and weekend) tweaking the Linux desktop simply because I could.

With Linux, I've configured desktops that have been so amazing my friends wanted to know how they could achieve the same look. Their disappointment upon realizing their operating system wasn't capable of such a feat was always telling.

Also: Why don't more people use desktop Linux? I have a theory you might not like

Beyond the cool-looking desktop environments, what are some of the other really cool things that you can do with the Linux desktop that you can't do with other operating systems? I've rounded up eight compelling reasons below for why you should give it a try.

AfterStep on Ubuntu

AfterStep on Ubuntu.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

With Linux, you can: 

1. Change it

Linux is about choice. Some might say too much choice can be a problem. The thing is, many Linux desktop distributions make the hard choices for you -- which kernel, which bash shell, which startup service, which network manager, which package manager. Some distributions intentionally limit those choices to keep users from being inundated with options. But even those distributions can be changed.

Also: The best Linux laptops

For example, if you opt to go with Ubuntu Linux and you don't like GNOME, you can install KDE Plasma, Xfce, Pantheon, Budgie, Enlightenment, or any number of Linux desktop environments. And that's part of the beauty of Linux… if you don't like it, change it. Or, you can choose a different distribution that defaults to a different desktop environment.

In a matter of minutes, you can change your desktop environment to one that resembles Windows, MacOS, or something completely different.

2. Revive old hardware

Remember when Windows 11 was released, and a lot of people soon discovered that the computer they bought three years prior wouldn't support the latest version of the operating system? That's not the case with Linux. In fact, there are versions of Linux (such as Lubuntu and Linux Lite) that are specifically created to run on older hardware (although they can also run on newer machines as well).

Also: Lubuntu is Linux for those looking to simplify and speed up their desktop experience

You might have a machine lying around in a closet that's five years old, and you assumed it was headed for the recycler. Grab a lightweight version of Linux, install it on that aging machine, and watch it run like an absolute champ.

3. Never worry about lock-in

One of the problems I have with operating systems like Windows and MacOS is vendor lock-in. With MacOS, you do things the Apple way. With Windows 11, you do things the Windows way. With Linux, you do things your way. 

In other words, if there's something about the way the desktop functions that you don't like, you can tweak it to fit your needs and workflow perfectly. And nearly every Linux distribution allows for such customization. I don't know about you, but I would much rather work in a way that perfectly suits my needs rather than in a way that aligns with a third party's idea of what is efficient. Most often, I find their idea of efficiency is nowhere near mine.

4. Upgrade without reboots

How many times have you gone to upgrade either Windows or MacOS, only to find out the upgrade actually happens during a reboot? For me, I could use that time actually being productive. That's yet another reason why I find Linux is superior to the competition. 

Also: Want to save your aging computer? Try these 5 Linux distributions

With Linux, I can do a full upgrade, all the while continuing to work on the desktop. In fact, with many Linux distributions, the only time you have to reboot after an upgrade is if the kernel is upgraded and even then, the reboot is only necessary to ensure the new kernel is loaded and running. Otherwise, you just keep on using the OS while the upgrade runs in the background. Some distributions (such as Fedora) run updates during a reboot. 

That, of course, only applies when using the GUI tool for upgrades. Run the same upgrades with sudo dnf upgrade and the only time you'll need to reboot is when the kernel is upgraded. When you check for Updates using the GUI, the package manager will download them and then prompt you to reboot so the updates are applied. There are other OSs, such as Pop!_OS, which require a reboot to install new firmware and for upgrading to a new major release.

5. Run Windows software

That's right, for those who must run Windows software on Linux, there's a way, and it's called Wine. Wine is an installable piece of software that allows you to install Windows software and run it on Linux. Wine is not generally installed by default, but it's found in most distributions' default repositories so that it can be installed from within the various app stores available on Linux.

Also: How to run a Windows app on Linux with Wine

Speaking of which…

6. Install tons of software… for free!

You might have heard many people say there's no software available for Linux. They're wrong. With Linux, you'll find thousands upon thousands of free software that can be installed from the GUI app store found on your desktop. And thanks to the likes of Snap and Flatpak, you can even install proprietary apps, such as Zoom and Spotify, on Linux with ease. 

I realize that MacOS and Windows both have a large selection of software to install from, but you won't find nearly the selection of free software (and without ads) available for installation. Also, managing installed software is so much easier with Linux (either from the command line or the GUI). Even better, you can add third-party repositories to your package manager to install even more software. In other words, Linux offers considerably more flexibility with regard to software installation.

7. Wow your friends

As I mentioned earlier, with Linux, you can create a desktop environment that is sure to wow your friends. Back in my early days, I used to spend hours tweaking the AfterStep and Enlightenment window managers to the point where they looked as if they were from the future. I used transparency and window effects that were unheard of on Windows, and everyone who saw my desktops wanted them. 

Also: How to enable Linux on your Chromebook (and why you should)

Although few Linux desktops are as flexible as those, there are still desktops (such as Xfce, Enlightenment, and KDE Plasma) that can be configured to look like technological works of art. Not only is this a great way to make everyone around you jealous… it's a lot of fun.

8. Enjoy unheard of reliability

In the years that I've been using Linux, I've rarely experienced any serious issues. Although I did one time wind up having a server hacked and a rootkit installed, that was an anomaly for me. Outside of that, the vast majority of the issues I've encountered were fixable within minutes. And because Linux gives you all the troubleshooting tools you need to solve those problems, resolving an issue is generally a log file read away.

Also: The best Linux distros for beginners

Linux just works. It really is that simple. But more importantly, it works and works and works. So, if you're looking for a way to put the fun, flexibility, ease of use, and reliability back into computing, do yourself a favor and give Linux a try.

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