If you are looking for an operating system that offers the best values, none can compare to Linux.
First of all, it's free. Most Linux distributions can be downloaded gratis from the developers' Web site and you can install it on however many computers you want. Secondly, it comes with a lot of things, such as office tools (word processing, spreadsheet, presentation), audio and video playback, Internet and e-mail, instant messaging, and so on. Basically everything a general user would want to use with a computer is there when the installation is done. For those applications that are not there, chances are you can download them for free.
There's also a Linux application called Wine that allows you to run Windows software within Linux. What is special about Wine, however, is the fact that it's not a traditional virtual environment and therefore runs Windows applications very much the way Windows does, without much overhead. Unfortunately, not all Windows applications work with Wine and even if they do, you might not be able to install or run them the way you do in Windows.
Wine, which was developed in 1993, is a recursive acronym for "Wine Is Not an Emulator," though this doesn't make it true that it is not an emulator. Rather than acting as a full emulator, it implements a compatibility layer, providing alternative implementations of the DLLs that Windows programs call, and processes to substitute for the Windows NT kernel. The Wine project has run into a lot of difficulties, mostly because of the incomplete and incorrect documentation of the Windows API. For this reason, after 15 years of development, the first version of Wine (1.0) was release in mid-2008.
Over my Christmas break, I decided to try out the latest version of Wine with my most frequently used Windows application, which is called World of Warcraft (or WoW). Just so that it's clear that I am not antisocial, this didn't take away much time spending with friends and family, as it actually took me less than an hour to do the whole thing.
I started out with getting an ISO image of the ever-popular Linux distro Ubuntu version 9.10. After that, I burned the image onto a CD and started the installation from it.
If you have ever installed an operating system, such as Windows, the installation of Ubuntu is very similar to that. You just need to insert the CD into the optical drive, boot the computer from it, and follow the instructions. The installer will do everything for you, including configuring the hard drive and setting up dual-boot if you want to use it on the same computer that also has Windows installed. In this case, make sure you pick the amount of hard-drive space you want to use for Linux carefully, as this can't be changed once the new OS is installed.
Note that in case there's no free space on the hard drive, the Linux installer will automatically shrink the partition used by Windows and free some space for Linux. This process, apart from making the Windows partition smaller, doesn't change anything else and your Windows should work like normal. However, a good rule of thumb is to make sure you back up important files prior to installing Linux.
In my case, I installed Ubuntu 9.10 on the same Core 2 Dual machine with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive that runs Windows 7 into a dual-boot setup and the whole process took less than 30 minutes. After that, at boot up, I have the option of booting in either Windows 7 or Ubuntu.
Once the installation is done, though Ubuntu runs fine, chances are not all the hardware components, such as video or sound, have their optimized drivers installed. You need to manually do this by running the Hardware Driver utility (System -> Administration -> Hardware Drivers); this utility will list the hardware components that require proprietary drivers and you just need to install (or activate) them. In my case, I needed to do that for my video card, which is a budget Geforce 8300GS with 510MB of RAM.
The next step is to install Wine. You can do that via Ubuntu Software Center (Applications -> Ubuntu Software Center). Here, you select "Get Free Software" then search for "Wine." In my case, I found two versions of Wine: Wine Microsoft Windows Compatibility Layers and Wine Microsoft Windows Compatibility Layers (Beta Release). I picked the beta release. (Obviously newer is better, right?) The installation of Wine literally took a few seconds with the Internet connection I used, which was really fast. If you use a regular DSL, this might take around a minute.
Now it's time to install WoW. I did it the way I've always done in Windows in the last couple of years: copying the whole "World of Warcraft" folder over from another computer. This is because installing the game from scratch would take hours, considering all the updates and the almost 20GB of storage space that the game requires. With Linux, however, you might not be able to install WoW from scratch anyway. The WoW installer that I tried refused to continue, citing that the computer doesn't meet the game's requirement. This is probably because it could read the computer's hardware via Wine.
Because WoW wasn't installed from scratch, I couldn't launch it from Wine's Start Menu (which resembles that of Windows'). Instead, I need to call the game's executable directly. The trick is that you need to call it via Wine Windows Program Loader by right clicking on the Wow.exe file and choose "Open with Wine Windows Program Loader." It won't work if you just double-click on it.
And that's it, the game loaded and worked just like in Windows. I could run it in full-screen mode, Windows mode, using the add-ons, etc. The performance was decent. At the recommenced settings, I had consistently 20 frames per second in Daralan, the notoriously slow and laggy area of the game. In other areas, such as dungeons, I was able to get up to 45fps, which was really impressive considering the budget video card.
Overall, it was a really interesting and exciting experience. However, WoW crashed during start-up a couple times; this could be solved by simply restarting the computer or reinstalling Wine. This is probably where the "beta" notion of Wine is to blame.
Other than WoW, I tried a few other Windows applications, such as iTunes and QuickTime, and they worked, too. however they didn't always work the way you expect in Windows.
All in all, Wine will not make an alternative to Windows, but the fact that now I can run my favorite game in Linux makes me believe that Linux is really an ideal operating system for savvy users. So if you think you are one, make a backup of your Windows computer and try it out. It's a lot of fun and doesn't cost anything.