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My 71 year old father expressed interest in a computer. He is a retired truck driver who has never sat in front of a computer.

Having an under-utilized Mac Mini, I could have given that to him with either Leopard or Vista installed. Or I could have taken an old computer laying around the office and put Linux Mint on it.

I sat him down in front of Vista and taught him about the common widgets, basic mouse usage, and other tasks. We went through creating files, transferring photos, deleting files, watching DVD’s…. When he showed undue interest in web ads, I thought I can’t really send a naive user home with a Windows computer, not when he lives 700 miles away and I would be called in to solve problems.

So I sat him down in front of Leopard. While I didn’t need to worry about drive by downloads, he was thrown into confusion by the numerous modal operations that the Mac utilizes.  He had questions like why does the garbage turn into a triangle when I click on some things but not on others, what does it mean and how do I know what it will do?  He found the dock much less user friendly than the task bar, why does clicking there start a program but clicking here just fans out more choices, how do I know what to choose?  I couldn’t convince him that the downloads icon was not a camera.  In general, he was much more confused sitting in front of Leopard.

So, setting the Mini aside, I pulled out a computer that would otherwise end up in a landfill and installed Linux Mint on it.  I found it much easier to get him used to the start menu and taskbar than I did the application folder and dock.  Of course he is a novice and has lots of confusion, but he has no problems importing photos from a camera, launching programs, and navigating his home folder.  Since he had no mouse/keyboard experience I set him up with the Gnome Games package to get used to using the mouse.

Does he still get confused sometimes?  Surely.  Will I have to hold his hand for a while?  Surely.  Is Linux the right choice for everyone?  Obviously not.

But for first time users, Linux offers the ease of use for first time users that Windows enjoys and it offers the safety and security that OS X enjoys.  For me it is a no brainer, I’m sending Dad home with a linux box.

One problem that surfaced on all three desktops is when to click and when to double click and how to know the difference?  Good question for which I had no easy answer…you just have to learn.  This is a usability issue that needs addressed by all three desktops.

Your mileage may vary.  But for me, placing a first time computer user in front of the big 3 desktops, Linux was the way to go.  Also Linux Mint comes with all the codecs, so unlike Vista and Leopard, it just works.

Welcome to the computer age, dad.