The favorite operating system in the world by far is one form of Microsoft Windows or another. Given a random desktop computer or laptop, your chances of finding Windows on it are extremely high. So why would a geek like me not run Windows as his main PC operating system? The reasons are vast and varied, but simply put, Microsoft windows locks you into a small world where changes to the operating system are made to make Microsoft money, not to necessarily benefit the consumer running the software. Microsoft is much more worried about the large corporations running their OS on their thousands of computers and servers than they are about you or I running vista home basic on our one PC.
So, what do I use? Have you heard of linux? Linux is another operating system like Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Mac OSX. It does not run in Windows, it runs instead of Windows. Unlike Windows though, there is more than one "flavor." Windows for the most part has one (pc) line that has multiple versions. For example, you could be running 2000, XP, or Vista, but they are (basically) newer or older versions of the same operating system. If you are using linux, you could be running Ubuntu, Debian, PC Linux, Open Suse, Slackware, Red Hat, or dozens of other "flavors" of linux. Each Flavor will have newer and older releases just like Windows. For example, Ubuntu releases a new version every six months. You could be running Ubuntu 8.10, Ubuntu 8.04, Ubuntu 7.10, Ubuntu 7.04.......
Why would I use some operating system that has less than 1% of the destop market when a more common, arguably better supported, and more familiar choice is available? Three reasons. Customizability, stability, and security.
Linux is customizable beyond anything windows offers out of the box, and you don't have to hack the operating system just to customize your toolbars or window borders. See, the great thing about linux and (practically) all linux software is open source, so if that is your thing, you can change anything you want, as much as you want. Now, most of us aren't going to go mucking about in the source code of our programs, so that doesn't help us much. But there is a large (very large) community of individuals who do muck about in it, and the community comes up with a lot of quality work every day. With this community creating content all the time, a large pool of free, quality software is available for download.
Second is stability. Have you ever had Windows get s-l-o-w? How easy is it to keep windows running smoothly after you've had a computer for a few years? Thankfully, linux is completely different. Linux will not slow down unexpectedly, nor will it slow down more the longer you have it. Also, gone are the days of rebooting Windows just to try to get it to run a little faster. Linux is stable enough that you can leave it up and running for weeks or months without the slightest hint of slowing down. I have not been able to leave it on long enough to notice any slowing of my system. You will also not need to reboot every time an update comes out for the operating system. The vast majority of updates do not require a reboot, and the ones that do will not nag you that you need to reboot every minute until you do.
Third, linux is infinitely more secure than windows. Hopefully, you have an anti-virus running right now on your computer. If you don't, you really ought to. Windows has a lot of viruses, trojans, and worms that can infect your machine and really slow down your computer, steal your personal information, or even use your computer to send spam! With linux, you don't have to worry about that! All those infections work on Windows only, not linux, and there are (practically speaking) no viruses, trojans, or worms for linux that you have to worry about.
Taking linux for a test run
Hopefully I've at least convinced you to give linux a try, even if you decide that it is not for you. Thankfully, it is really easy to take it for a test run without needing to commit.
The flavor (or distribution) that I use is called Ubuntu. There are two ways to get a copy, and they are both free and completely legal. The first is to order a free CD or DVD. When you follow the link, you'll want to choose the desktop version. Shipping can take up to 8 weeks, but at least you don't have to download anything, and you'll get a very nice looking install disc.
The second way is to download an .iso file that you can burn to a CD. You can do this either with a BitTorrent client, or as a direct download. If you can, please use the BitTorrent download to keep ubuntu.com's bandwidth costs low. As an incentive, the BitTorrent download will max out your download speed and download much faster than the direct download. You can find the torrent file here. If you can't or don't know how to BitTorrent it, the direct download will still work just fine.
Once you have the .iso file, you'll need to burn the image to a cd. If you don't have software to do this, you can find my favorite here.
Now that you have your CD, you have two options for trying Ubuntu. The first and easiest is to put the CD in your computer and reboot the computer. If your computer doesn't show you the Ubuntu boot screen, check here, here, or here for help on getting it to boot to the CD. Once it has booted, you will be running Ubuntu from the CD without making any changes to your computer. You can do almost anything you want to see what it can do and when you are done, reboot and remove the CD and you're back to Windows. Just keep in mind that this will be a little slow as it is running from your CD-ROM drive, not your hard drive.
The second way is more permanent than running Ubuntu from the CD. While you are in Windows, put the Ubuntu install disc in your CD drive. An autorun prompt might come up and ask you if you want to run the software provided on the disc. Confirm that you want to run the software. The Ubuntu CD menu will appear. There is a button that says "Install inside windows." Select this and follow the instructions to install a temporary install of Ubuntu onto your disc. Once it is finished, reboot the machine and you will be given the option to boot into Windows or Ubuntu. Select Ubuntu and explore!