Desktop Must-Haves

This article is an introductory piece to get you thinking about the Linux Desktop and all it can do.

So, you've been playing around with Linux for a few years now—running a file server here, a firewall there—but you're finally getting around to migrating your desktop away from Windows. After all, it's either Linux or Vista, and you don't fancy your whole system being locked down with badly implemented DRM or crippled by system requirements. Because when must a mere operating system need 15GB of hard drive space, 512 MB of RAM and a 1GHz CPU just to boot up?

Moving from Windows-land isn't merely a matter of changing the operating system. Unless you're keen on setting up CrossOver Office and moving all the compatible applications across (a problematic enterprise), you're going to have to learn a few new programs that do the same jobs on which you depend. But, before you learn those programs, you need to know what they are.

Based on a thoroughly informal and unscientific survey of those who tolerate me best, I've drawn up a list of the things most people do or need access to on their computers every day. It turns out that most people, at least in my demented little corner of the universe, still use their computers for a fairly narrow range of tasks—certainly more tasks than ten years ago, but not many more. Those tasks fall broadly into four categories: Office, Graphics, Internet and Entertainment.

Office

Believe it or not, even though it's not how people spend most of their computer time, office software is the corner of the computer market of which people are most aware. And, why wouldn't they be? Office software is what we use to manage finances and priorities, create presentations, keep schedules and write letters, papers, diaries and books.

Of course, what you're going to need on your desktop usually is not the same as what you'd need on a work machine. Nevertheless, being a small-business owner, I tend to pick my software with an eye toward openness of data, migratability, interoperability and room for growth. In other words, I want to be able to get at my data from a number of programs, not only the one with which I created it. I want to be able to migrate painlessly to another software package should my requirements grow or change enough that I need to change my applications of choice. I want the programs I use to be able to talk to each other and to other programs out in the broader world. For example, if I write a short story and send it to a friend to proofread and mark up, I want her to be able to read what I send, and I want to be able to read her annotations in red text when she sends it back. I also want my software to be able to do more than I need right now, because if my needs grow, it's less bothersome to learn a new aspect of an existing program than to bring in a support application to supplement it or to migrate to a whole new backbone. Because I have to deal with this stuff every day, I tend to take it into account when recommending software.

So, to start off with our office software, it's best to kill four (well, three and a half) birds with one stone. Most people need to write and edit documents, track numeric data on a spreadsheet and create PowerPoint-style presentations for work, church or underground revolutionary cult meetings (you know, like Linux user groups). Sometimes, people also might want to create a database in an Access-style graphical environment to keep tabs on cult membership or lists of evangelism projects.

Evaluating office software in Linux, when coming from Windows, can be quite dizzying. With KOffice, GNOME Office, OpenOffice.org and a whole raft of word processors and spreadsheets, it's easy to become overwhelmed.

But, for my money, the OpenOffice.org suite stands head and shoulders above the rest. It reads and writes more formats better, and it's less crash-prone and more versatile than most of the alternatives (KWord from the KOffice suite being a notable exception, as it can double as a layout program in a pinch). OpenOffice.org is more resource-hungry though—its only major drawback. High-end spreadsheet users who require complicated scripted math also may want to check out Gnumeric (from GNOME Office) to supplement their office software, as its functions are more powerful.

Figure 1. OpenOffice.org Writer

Aside from the traditional office suite, good bookkeeping software probably is the single-most basic function people require of their computers when the computers are employed as tools. Let's face it, of all the sticking points for Windows-to-Linux migration, this ranks right up there with “my games won't run” and “I can't do without Photoshop” as one of the biggest complaints. Nobody wants to give up Quicken, and less than nobody wants to re-enter years of checkbook, credit and tax records from scratch.

Two good candidates exist in this arena—good meaning, works well, reads and writes Quicken files painlessly and doesn't require special skills to set up and administer. Of the two options, KMyMoney and GnuCash, the former is better-suited for home finances and the latter is better-suited to small business. Both are easy to use and easy to set up, although I prefer GnuCash both for its accounts payable/receivable and invoicing capabilities, and for its extensive and far-above-par documentation. It also interfaces nicely with on-line banking standards.

Although not something that generally is at the top of anyone's list, everyone needs a good PDF reader. Fortunately, not only is Adobe Acrobat Reader available for 32-bit Linux, but also two excellent PDF/PostScript viewers are available in the open-source realm with very comparable feature sets: KPDF (bundled with KDE) and Evince (bundled with GNOME). Neither rises quite to the level of Acrobat Reader—support for locked e-books is missing, for example—but both have one key edge on Adobe's current offering. Because they're open source, they are available for 64-bit systems as well as 32-bit systems, without having to mess with goofy workarounds and wrappers.

Time and communications management are the final stone in our office software rampart. Again, the Open Source world provides an embarrassment of riches: Sunbird and Thunderbird from the Mozilla Project, Kontact (which includes KMail and comes bundled with KDE), Evolution, Pine, J-Pilot—the list seems endless. It's possible to lose entire weeks evaluating the finer points of each (and each has many fine points). However, most people need a good task manager, a good calender, a good e-mail client with great spam filtering, and a way for all of them to talk to each other while being fairly worm-impervious. Of all the above, only two packages put this all together: Kontact and Evolution. Kontact is more heavily integrated in KDE, and Evolution has good integration with GNOME. But on balance, Evolution is more spry, has a better interface design and is easier for the average end user to administer without sacrificing quality and sophistication. Kontact is well on its way to this point, as is the Mozilla Sunbird/Thunderbird combination, but neither has risen to Evolution's level yet. Evolution offers a further advantage to small business users in that it interfaces with popular groupware applications such as Outlook and WebDAV. Granted, most people don't need groupware, but they do need a way to keep track of what's going on in their lives, and Evolution does the job swimmingly.

Figure 2. Checking E-Mail with Evolution

Figure 3. Evolution's integrated calendar, which interfaces tightly with the e-mail client, gives easy control over schedule keeping.

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