Operating systems: upgrade or reinstall? guilt or pleasure?

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Through the years I’ve run many versions of Microsoft Windows. For the last two and one-half years I’ve had Apple Macs, so I’ve used both OS X Leopard and Snow Leopard. I don’t even know how many different desktop Linux distributions I’ve installed, but I’ve certainly installed Linux at least 20 times, maybe as many as 40.

When I was an active Windows user, and I now count my yearly usage in minutes, I would do the requisite big upgrades between versions, but not too often otherwise. Sure, when I had a hard drive crash, I would have to reinstall it, but that was unavoidable. Afterwards, the machine would feeler fresher, and newer, and just faster. Sure, I was probably putting in a faster drive sometimes, but I think the real advantage was that I was getting rid of all the crud that had accumulated in the registry and elsewhere. Formatting or reformatting the disk also took care of any defragmentation problems, also speeding things up.

A couple of times I reinstalled Windows just to see if performance would improve, and it always did. It was a pain, though, and eventually it became scary.

I say scary because of the validation scheme in more recent versions of the operating system. What if it didn’t like me anymore? What if it thought I should buy a new version of Windows because I changed the hard drive, or the memory, or the keyboard, or I parted my hair on a different side that day? Therefore I tried to make sure my data was backed up but I didn’t overdo it on reinstalling Windows on the same machine.

With my Mac it was a slightly similar story. I know OS X checks if I am eligible to install it, though it feels much less policed to me. It’s also a fact that OS X runs on Apple hardware by design (and yes, policing), so clearly I’m allowed to run a copy of the operating system. It’s not like I’m getting a lot of non-Apple hardware and installing the same copy of OS X over and over: I don’t experiment with “Hackintoshes.”

It’s also true that I just haven’t felt that I needed to reinstall OS X. Nothing has broken or so slowed down that I felt the urge to wipe the disk and start over. In fact, I thought my days of dealing with a fragmented drive were over, but that turned out to be not quite true. You see, I wanted to install Windows Vista under Bootcamp (basically dual-booting Mac style) because I needed to test some software, and so I needed to repartition the hard drive. It didn’t take and it didn’t take. Eventually I realized that I had to defragment the hard drive and I had to purchase a program to do it. I used iDefrag but I believe there are others. It’s ironic that I needed to do this in order to install Windows, but it was a Bootcamp requirement, not one for Microsoft’s software.

The proprietary and protected nature of both Windows and OS X make me hesitant to reinstall the operating systems, though somewhat less so with OS X.

I feel no such hesitation with Linux.

With all the computers I own today, all my data is backed up, often to the cloud. If you took away a computer and gave me a new one, in just a few hours I could be up and running again. Indeed I go back and forth with the same data between Linux and Mac all the time.

With Linux there is no guilt in installing a new distribution. If I screw it up, I start over. If I want to try Fedora instead of Ubuntu, I just wipe the disk and try it out. No guilt and no fear.

There is no user validation or software activation for the common Linux desktop operating systems. I can install it once or ten times. You get the idea.

It’s very liberating.


  1. If you figure that “most” people only upgrade their OS by buying a new machine, the experience is getting rarer by the year. Unless you use Linux. Perhaps most also feel that they really don’t have the time or energy to learn to fix a new Windows installation if something doesn’t take. (Rarely does Windows work consisently among installations, even on the same machine.)

    Linux is even easier if your primary computing tasks are done in the cloud. Load and go! As you know with Windows, after you install the OS, you’re just getting started. Now you have to find, purchase?, and install any apps to do much with it. Is the same true with OSX?

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  4. “With Linux there is no guilt in installing a new distribution. If I screw it up, I start over. If I want to try Fedora instead of Ubuntu, I just wipe the disk and try it out. No guilt and no fear.”

    I prefer the other side of the equation – since moving to Debian, I’ve never needed to reinstall the OS from scratch over the lifetime of any of my hardware. Things just don’t slow down as time goes on, meaning I don’t have to reinstall for that reason. And the continuous incremental upgrades I get from running the “testing” release mean I have continuously updated versions of all the software I run, from the kernel, through libc and X, to KDE and related apps, without ever having come across a major bug – defined as software I use frequently simply refusing to run or the system not booting. So I never feel the need to reinstall anything through fear of an in-place upgrade not working quite as well as a fresh install.

    With Linux, there is no need to reinstall. It doesn’t just “screw up”. If I want to upgrade major parts of the infrastructure, I just tell “apt” to do it. No hesitancy and no fear.

    *That’s* liberating.

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