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 and, 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.
  • jymm

    I changed from VLC, which gave me nothing but trouble to Totem and an much happier. Otherwise I like your software list.

  • Marcus Amorim

    At home, for about four years, all use Linux. I and my two daughters are using Ubuntu and my wife are using Mint/Cinamon. Since then, requests for support have been reduced drastically πŸ˜‰

    I have also converted my father, my mother, two sisters and a niece. And the list is growing…

    Notes on migration from Windows to Linux:

    1. My wife took a while to adapt, because she uses MS Word a lot for business and MS spell checker has no competition. After I installed MS Office in Wine, everything was resolved.

    2. I also had installed MS Office for my daughters, but over time they were naturally going to use LibreOffice and no longer have the other installed.

    3. With regard to computer use, my father called me at least twice a week to resolve issues with Windows crashes or slow, now he calls me every two months to take any questions. And also he said: “Before (with Windows), I started the computer and go drink some coffee until boot was completed. Now there is no time to do that ;-)”

    4. My niece had to run Autocad, because it courses architecture faculty. Solved with VMWare Player.

    5. That’s it! It’s just a matter of breaking the prejudice and learn how to use new applications. Many people still think of Linux as “that system where you have to be able to type commands.”

    • RevSixEight

      I signed up for Office 365, works almost like desktop versions in a browser that can be running on anything. Works well except for privacy and everything in the cloud argument. I haven’t tried Wine, but probably should, the new 5.1 Libre Office made their jump ahead of MS. I’d really like to find a good FOSS alternative for Visio someday.

  • Marcus Amorim

    Another one.

    Recently, my wife and I donated a used notebook to an institution where she provides community services. I installed Linux for that.

    Two months later, the person who received the donation came to me with a notebook case. So I thought: “Ok, he doesn’t liked Linux and will ask me to install Windows.”

    Then he said: “can you install Linux on this another notebook? I enjoyed so much that one notebook you donated. It’s the only one that works with all movie projectors we have here!”

  • Soul

    I would love to convert friends and family to Linux, but I just don’t see any distros that I think are good enough.

    All distros I see are either out of date(like Ubuntu LTS), have a short life cycle(15.10, Fedora), or require too much knowledge(Arch).

    PCLinuxOS has been on my radar and looks interesting – Non bleeding rolling release, but their isos are over a year old and I haven’t been able to find any plans they have for the distro. I’ve googled and have been unable to find out if they’re thinking about releasing new isos at all or if they’re thinking about Plasma 5 at all or if they want to stick with Plasma 4.

    • matthartley

      I can understand where you’re coming from. However, I found out relatively quickly that Windows wasn’t good enough, especially everything post Win 7. Even with limited users and remote access, issues kept cropping up. I can see the value of Windows if a specific app is needed, but for casual usage…I just won’t support it anymore. It’s too much work fixing stuff.

      With my mom, I switched her to Ubuntu MATE 15.10 – I chose this release because it’s light years ahead of the LTS in terms of really being dialed in. And, it’ supported long enough for our needs. On laptops, everything just works…including a pause to the keyboard when the touchpad is being used — I love this. And since I TeamViewer in at a set time to handle updates, she doesn’t have to do anything.

      Regarding PCLinuxOS — honestly, it’s the best rolling release distro for the masses. You mentioned ISO age, which honestly in an era of Broadband, isn’t really a big deal. A complete breakdown (recent) of how it comes together can be found here.


      With any OS, especially Linux, the ability to “roll back” is key. This removes any “oops” moments because you can fix it reasonably easy. I’ve found using TimeShift to be a life changing experience. I use TimeShift to backup and restore system directories, since I use Simple Backup to backup the home partition. I setup a separate “install”, on a smaller partition that I use as a rescue disk – also using TeamViewer. The software has an unattended access option under Connection> Unattended Access.


      If you’re looking to turn a Windows box into something far more reliable, you can the PC into a ChromeOS box.

    • Marcus Amorim

      Soul, for most users this “out of date” is more then ok!

  • RevSixEight

    Thanks to Windows 10, All of my home PCs/laptops/ even an old netbook are Linux Mint Cinnamon or Ubuntu Unity. Most everything is done (or is able to be done) on the web with a browser. Moving all data to another physical drive made switching OS easy.

  • philmulley

    I’ve set linux up for a number of friends and family over the years. The only issue I have is the updates: very few seem willing/able to keep their distro up to date. I’d like to sort out a bash script that did the updates for them and then a cron job to schedule them: I’ve got close to this but never really got it working properly

    • matthartley

      Here soon, I’m going to share how I do it. It involves one main partition, a “recovery” partition, TeamViewer, and how I manage updates. I learned early on updating alone isn’t enough. πŸ™‚

      • philmulley

        Cool, sounds like another great article

    • James Van Damme

      Send them an email periodically: “Time to click that icon and update! Failure to do so voids your warranty” or some such cutesiness.

      • matthartley

        Say, now I like that idea! (the reminder) πŸ™‚

  • James Van Damme

    Remember, anybody you set up on Linux will forever after look only to you for any kind of help, including when their internet goes out or their hard drive dies.

  • Bart_at_EB

    The answer to a question like this should be in the form of a grid, showing the different cases. On the top row, “What are the needs/desires of the user?” On the left side, “What are the needs/desire of the maintainer?”

    Otherwise there is a tendency to flip out answers depending on our own outlook. We may love to explore our computers, but most people don’t.

    I think the cloud-computing paradigm of Chromebooks is appropriate for a great majority of users. They want to browse the web, look at email, watch videos. Chromebooks are great because they require almost zero maintenance, and they meet the need of most users. Little training is needed, since most work is done through a browser.

    I have two Linux systems (one Mint, one Arch) and two Chromebooks. My wife has been very happy with her own HP Chromebook, and the only support I need to give her is keeping track of passwords, changing font size, etc. Most of my work (editing) I do in Chromebooks or in a Linux machine with the Firefox bookmark bar set up to emulate a Chromebook (bookmarks for email sites, Google services, etc.)

    I know old-timers have an instinctive distrust of cloud-computing, but I think the objective advantages are so great for many use cases, that Chromebooks and similar set-ups are going to become more and more widespread.

    Better to use one’s time on those people who actually *need* a full-bodied Linux system and will appreciate it, than to get frustrated with loved ones who may not share one’s enthusiasms.

  • Mike

    I’ve set up most willing friends and relatives with either dual boot or occasionally a Windows guest in virtualbox. I have to do the latter with Win2K since running it on modern hardware is pretty much impossible.

    My brother converted me to XnView, an image viewer / editor that solved my batch copy needs in Linux; unfortunately it is closed source but at least cross platform.

    One category that isn’t mentioned often is collection management. I use gcstar to keep track of my physical media – audio CDs and LPs. Have to convert the DVD video database manually since the templates consider ‘TV’ and ‘movie’ two different schemas.

    I found that kid3 is a tag updater with a straight forward UI; it works well for my use case of creating / fixing ID3v1 tags needed by my car audio receiver. K3b seems to be the most full featured optical disk copying & burning package for Linux and I use it a lot.

    On a related note, none of the digital media (audio) playing software I’ve tried has the ability to export database data as a text file for backup and other purposes – any suggestions?

    • matthartley

      Hmm, exporting the library as a txt file or database. I’ll have to look around, I have never tried such a thing. Sounds interesting though.