Recently I wrote about how I had been present at the birth of the internet, when Windows 3.11 was hot and Xerox's TabWorks was still a challenger in the PC GUI wars. At the top of the page, I dropped the U-bomb (Ubuntu) and several readers were quick to drop a line asking what I was talking about. Apologies. I too often assume that everyone is as geeky as I am. At their request, I am going to talk about Ubuntu, and something related called the Tor Network. Note: these two links are to the official sites and the downloads are guaranteed to be clean and secure.
Some background. Back in the Dark Ages, most software was free and written by geeks sitting in their basements coming up with cool apps to do specific jobs (pun intended).
Along comes an evil corporate overlord named Bill Gates, who more or less stole the idea for Windows from Apple (who had licensed it from Xerox), then proceeded to vacuum up a bunch of freeware, modify it slightly, copyright it, and sell it to an unsuspecting general public. This included DOS, which was the foundation of Windows until the XP version. Suffice to say court battles flew and Microsoft had to make changes to avoid looking and feeling like Apple.
Just for grins, the desktop on my Win8.1 machine is customized to look and feel just like a Mac.
The "freeware for humanity" part of the hacking world never died, and in fact it is growing rapidly now because of all the government and corporate back-doors on everything these days. One doesn't need to have something to hide in order to want to deny the use of their personal information for someone else's profit. You want to sell my data? Pay me!
Sometime back, maybe 12 years or so, a new OS showed up called Ubuntu. At first, it was very basic and kind of clunky, but it had two advantages: 1) it was private and secure, and 2) it took food out of Bill Greed's mouth. That it was free for all was a big bonus, as well.
This past week, Ubuntu released version 16.04, which is it's most feature-packed and secure version yet. One of the strongest "selling" points is that there are literally thousands of people worldwide working on the open-source code, sealing up holes and polishing the surface. Anyone that tries to insert malicious back doors will see them slammed shut in short order by several hundred other folks.
Ubuntu is based on Linux, which is an operating kernel much like the WinXP kernel or the OSX kernel. It's just a way of addressing all the hardware in a computer and routing information through it in the most rapid and lossless manner as possible. The new version offers both x64 and x86 versions. One major disadvantage of Windows has always been that it loads all kinds of drivers at startup, unlike Mac and Linux, which slows the machine down significantly since the paging files in RAM are constantly in flux. While this may not irritate the average user, someone doing audio/video editing or CAD will lose quite a bit of speed. For the average user, kernel issues show up in things like copying files between internal and external storage.
Where Ubuntu really shines is privacy and security. The new Ubuntu defaults to full privacy mode, though you can select to send usage reports and other data useful to developers. However, no one will collect you personal information or enter your machine without you express knowledge and permission.
This has been a major issue with Win10. The default settings in Win10 send all sorts of private usage information to Microsoft on a regular basis. Also, Win10 uses a distributed distribution model, much like torrents, to deliver all those free copies of the OS to other users, meaning it is sucking up your bandwidth without notifying you. If you are on a metered line, or use a lot of bandwidth to deliver content, you will pull your hair out trying to figure out why your connection is so slow.
As with anything new, there is always a learning curve, and with Ubuntu in the past, this was pretty steep, especially if you were migrating from Windows. If you use Android frequently, you will have a definite advantage, as the layout and settings feel very familiar. The basic Ubuntu package comes ready to use and automatically sets itself for most typical devices and accessories. The interface is clean and if you like to piddle with things, there are hours of clicking and downloading add-ons to create the experience you want.
Finally, there are piles of freeware and donationware available for Ubuntu. The office productivity suites are capable and can handle all popular file types - in or out. The VLC is a great media player with lots of touch-screen features. There's a lossless media type called FLAC that is an audiophiles' dream format, since it doesn't compress data. Video editing suites, browsers and all the other major apps that you want and need are easily installed and a great many are free. There are work-arounds, as well, that allow you to run Windows apps in Ubuntu.
There are three options for loading Ubuntu. One is a test set-up that runs the system off of a CD/DVD. This wont give you full functionality and it will be a bit clunky, but you can get your feet wet before jumping in. The second option is to create a dual-boot system. If you feel comfortable doing a little poking and prodding, you can set up a Windows system to give you a special screen at start-up where you can choose to launch Ubuntu or Windows. Many folks go this route and often use Windows as a shell within Ubuntu. Finally, you can completely replace the Windows OS with Ubuntu. If you are going this route, be sure to backup your data because it will perform a deep format on your hard drive.
I have several computers that I use for different things. I have one dedicated to Win8.1 (I refuse to use Win10), another dedicated to Ubuntu, and a third that has Win7 and Ubuntu in dual-boot mode. In my experience, the 64-bit dedicated Ubuntu machine delivers what 64-bit always promised: lighting fast, no hangs and plenty of fun tinkering with the system.
Regardless of what operating system you use, I highly recommend the Tor Network for those who prefer privacy. The Onion Router network is a global group of volunteer (unlike Win10 users) who allow folks to bounce through their servers and pop out with their IP addresses blocked and no way to get attacked by the vicious bastards who ought to be shot for writing viruses, evil Java code and malware. You are at least three bounces away from your actual location, so no one can collect personal data about you or what you are doing.
It's also a great way to get around censorship. Many countries now block content that they don't like or don't want you to access. Using TOR, you can select servers in friendly and free nations to pop out and access whatever you want. An example here in Indonesia is that the government blocks the word "breast." If you want information on Breast Cancer, you can't get it because of censorship. TOR solves that problem in less than 30 minutes.
If you use a VPN, this is pretty much the same thing, only free. The linked article recommends VPN for enhanced security and protection, but a well-set up TOR browser does virtually the same thing.
TOR also offers access to the notorious Dark Web. Think of this as a series of gopher tunnels in Caddyshack, with hundreds of alternative websites that aren't cataloged by the Google/Bing crowd. The sites are denoted by the extension .onion, and include every know perversion, drugs, stolen identities, hitmen, etc., but also some cool chat sites and discussion boards, and so much more. The experience is somewhat similar to the boat ride in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. There are plenty of guides to get you off and running.
If you have a true traveler's spirit and seek out experiences that most folks will never have, then this is for you. I do not vouch for anything in the Dark Web. You are on your own, but if you get adept at it, you will be able to find out what's in your neighbor's smart fridge or what they are watching on Netflix. An abject lesson in web privacy and security.
Thanks to the readers who asked for this information and I hope this helps you expand your computing acumen. I am a person who highly values my privacy, not because I am hiding something, but because I don't like mega-corporations selling my data for profit and not sharing with me. Just as I won't wear clothing or use items with logos on them, I won't freely give up my personal data without a fight.
And I especially hate when those mega-corps use my own data against me as a target of their omnipresent advertising. To them I say, "Pay or go away."