Linux for your Loved Ones

Few things in this life are more frustrating than trying to provide tech support to loved ones. If you’re reading this, odds are you’ve run into this experience yourself at some point in your life. Now, I should point out that no operating system is completely free from bugs. Even the most locked down devices, such as tablets or Chromebooks can still experience challenges due to connectivity.

I believe today’s popular Linux distributions are a far better option in the long run. Using a Linux distro often means you can work with existing PC hardware instead of buying new stuff. And unlike Google’s Chromebook, you’re not providing remote access help over wifi – the older PC running Linux happens to have a wired connection. This alone is enough to save one’s sanity.

Another advantage to getting your loved ones into Linux is that there is more room to grow. Today’s distributions come with fantastic photo management applications, a free office suite, and other great applications. How does this differ from ChromeOS? Well, they work extremely well offline and they don’t require you to have a consistent Internet connection.

Oh sure, you can use ChromeOS in a very limited capacity offline. But it’s no match for what today’s distros can do offline in terms of functionality.

Picking the right distribution

We know which distributions of Linux we think are great! But your friends and family may have very different needs. As a general rule, I recommend letting them try out, at least, three different desktop environments. Many folks find that Linux Mint running Cinnamon is the best way forward. Others may find PCLinuxOS with KDE to be a perfect match. My own mom decided on Ubuntu MATE 15.10 due to its “Welcome” feature and the fact it just felt “right” without any extra configuration.

This process of distribution discovery can be done smoothly by relying on any “Live” distro and booting from a USB key. Once you’ve come up with the right distribution for your friends or family, the next step is to migrate their data over to the new Linux install.

Migrating user data over to Linux

When migrating to any new operating system, the general rule for migrating a casual user’s data comes down to this: backup their user data. And I mean all of it. Since anything user-specific is going to be happening here. Now, if you’re looking to backup Chrome browser data, I highly recommend using the Chrome sync feature. It’s the easiest way to move between Windows and Linux while keeping your Chrome bookmarks, cookies and passwords intact.

Assuming the new Linux installation is to be a “nuke and pave” installation, which means destroying the Windows install, you’ll find restoring your non-Chrome user data is simply a matter of drag and drop from the backup location.

Recommended software

For most people, the core applications needed will be access to Firefox or Chrome, games, an office suite and the ability to play music.

Music: Pithos (Pandora), Spotify, Clementine, and Tomahawk are my top recommendations. If you need to sync your music to a mobile device, Clementine using an SD card in the phone via MTP will provide you with the best results. What is MTP? Basically, it’s a media transfer protocol that allows you to move media from one device to another. And while it’s possible to move media directly from your PC to your smart phone, it’s far easier to simply install mtpfs via apt and then mount an SD card into your music player. Less of a hassle with device names, permissions and other headaches.

Video: If you’re looking for a media management application, Kodi or Plex are the best bets. However, for simple video playback, it’s difficult to beat VLC in this department.

Office suite: LibreOffice all day long. There is nothing else that really touches it. That said, if you simply “must” have a Microsoft Office look-alike for your family or friends, then wps-office (KingSoft Office) is a possible alternative. It also has a habit of handling docx files with far greater consistency than LibreOffice.

Games: For those looking to play simple games, there are plenty to be found in the repositories of the select Linux distribution. However, for self-proclaimed gamers, I recommend looking into Steam for the best possible selection of video games. And to learn more about what is hot and what sucks in Linux gaming, look to Linux Game Cast — they walk the walk.

Remote support and updates

The last consideration before you switch your loved was to Linux is deciding how you’re going to offer support. For myself, I swear by TeamViewer since it’s so easy and reliable across most network conditions. This is a great tool for offering hands-on support. However, when it comes to simply maintaining the user’s computer for them, I would also suggest looking into X2Go with No-IP (or similar) for routing.

Unlike standard remote access software, X2Go allows you to log in without to disturb anyone currently using the computer. You can thank it’s multiple user support for this feature. X2Go provides a stealth way to keep the updates in place and run user directory backups, without bothering anyone. All you need to do is configure your loved one’s router to work with No-IP/etc, open the needed ports and with X2Go server installed on their system, then you’re all set.

Sound off

So what about you? Are you planning on switching anyone over to Linux anytime soon? Perhaps you’ve thought about it, but have been on the fence because you’re still deciding on the right distro? Software suggestions? Perhaps you have war stories from previous family conversion attempts? Hit the comments below and tell me about it.

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Matt Hartley
Founder at Freedom Penguin
Freedom Penguin’s founder & talking head – Matt has over a decade working with Linux desktops, his operating system experience consists of both Windows and Linux operating platforms. In addition to writing articles on Linux and open source technology for Datamation.com and OpenLogic.com/wazi, Matt also once served as a co-host for a popular Linux-centric podcast.

Matt has written about various software titles, such as Moodle, Joomla, WordPress, openCRX, Alfresco, Liferay and more. He also has additional Linux experience working with Debian based distributions, openSUSE, CentOS, and Arch Linux.