Chromebooks can now run Linux desktop apps, offering a whole new universe of software to Chrome OS users. You can install a Linux distribution like Ubuntu on your PC, too. But what applications are available for Linux?
Web Browsers (Now With Netflix, Too)
Most Linux distributions include Mozilla Firefox as the default web browser. Google also offers an official version of Google Chrome for Linux, and you can even get an “unbranded” open-source version of Chrome named Chromium.
Pretty much everything inside your web browser should “just work” in Linux. Netflix now works normally in both Firefox and Chrome on Linux thanks to added support for its DRM.
Adobe Flash has become less common on the web but is also available for Linux. It’s included with Chrome, just like on Windows, and you can install it separately for Firefox or Chromium. Linux doesn’t support some older browser plug-ins like Silverlight, but those are no longer widely used on the web.
As the desktop PC world has shifted more and more to online, web-based software, Linux has become easier to use. If an application you want to run has a web version, you can use it on Linux.
Open-Source Desktop Applications
Most of the desktop applications you use on Windows or Mac are probably not available for Linux. However, many open-source alternatives are.
Microsoft doesn’t offer Office applications like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for Linux. Linux distributions usually include LibreOffice instead. (You can also access Office Online in a web browser for free.)
Adobe doesn’t produce Photoshop for Linux, but you can use the open-source GIMP image editor instead. Linux distributions often include other simple media tools like the Shotwell photo manager and PiTiVi video editor, too.
Apple’s iTunes doesn’t run on Linux, either. You can run other media center programs like the Rhythmbox application included with Ubuntu and many other Linux distributions. Or you can use the web-based versions of many online music and video services.
The desktop version of Microsoft Outlook isn’t available, but you can use Mozilla Thunderbird and a simple Calendar app, or just web-based email and calendaring. There are lots of alternatives.
Other common open-source utilities do run on Linux. For example, the popular VLC media player and VirtualBox virtual machine program both run on Linux.
Linux desktop environments come with a collection of software. You’ll get all the standard utilities like a file manager, PDF viewer, text editor, video player, and archiving utility by default.
Of course, Linux does include a powerful command-line environment and developer tools. You get the Bash shell complete with GNU utilities, and you can install many more things with a few terminal commands. Linux’s Bash shell is so powerful that Microsoft added it to Windows!
Minecraft, Dropbox, Spotify, and More
Some of the software you use on Windows is available on a Linux system. This software is often called “proprietary” software because it’s closed-source, not open-source.
If you have an application you love and depend on, it’s worth searching online to see whether it’s available on Linux. You might not find the exact software you’re after, but it may be available on the web, or you may find a good alternative.
Steam on Linux
Valve’s popular Steam gaming service also runs on Linux. Don’t jump for joy just yet, though. While Steam itself runs on Linux, not every game on Steam is available on Linux.
You can browse the Steam OS + Linux category on the Steam store to see the games available for Linux. On the Steam website, look for the Steam icon on a circle next to the game, indicating Steam OS support. Any game that supports Steam OS will also run on Linux since Steam OS is based on Linux.
The majority of Steam games aren’t available for Linux, just as they aren’t available for macOS. However, many games—particularly indie games—are. You’ll have something to play on Linux, but you can’t play everything you can on Windows.
Wine for Running Windows Apps
Wine is an open-source compatibility layer for the Windows API. In other words, it lets you run Windows applications on Linux, macOS, and other operating systems. At least, that’s what it does when it works correctly.
This is an open-source community project that’s reverse-engineering the way Windows works. It doesn’t work perfectly, and it can’t run every application. Even if it can run an application, some features may be broken, other things may not look right, and the application might occasionally crash. It can take some fiddling and configuration to get an application working correctly, too.
Wine can offer better performance than a virtual machine while playing PC games—assuming those games run well in Wine. But you’re almost always better off just running the game on Windows.
If you’re curious how well an application works, consult the Wine AppDB to see what other Wine users have reported. You can also try CrossOver Linux, which works similarly to CrossOver Mac. It uses Wine under the hood but helps walk you through installing and configuring popular applications to work properly. It’s a paid application.
Valve is adding built-in support for the Proton compatibility layer, which is based on Wine, to the latest versions of Steam for Linux. This will be interesting to play with in the future.
Virtual machine programs are available for Linux, too. Oracle’s VirtualBox runs on Linux, and you can also use a Linux-specific virtual machine tool like GNOME Boxes. The Boxes application uses the underlying KVM virtual machine support in the Linux kernel.
Either way, this software will let you run Windows and other operating systems on a Linux desktop. This provides another way to run Windows software if you need it.
Applications you run in a virtual machine won’t perform as well as if they were running on real hardware. It’s also more annoying to share files and other data between software in a virtual machine and applications running on your normal Linux desktop. And the virtual machine won’t offer good enough performance to play recent 3D games, so don’t count on it for demanding applications.
Like Wine, though, this is another way to run Windows applications if you need them. You won’t have the annoying configuration issues you have with Wine, and everything should just run—unless it needs hardware it can’t access in the virtual machine. But it’s still inconvenient to run many of your applications inside a virtual machine.