How switching my parents over to Linux saved me a lot of headache and support calls

During me being at my parents over the holidays (Christmas 2017) I had the usual IT-support stuff to do, that always happens to tech savvy kids when they are back at home.

As I am a happy Linux user for over a decade now, I asked myself if it would be a good idea to switch my parents away from Win 10 to a GNU/Linux (I will call it only Linux during the rest of the post. Sorry Richard 😉 ) based system.

I did that and now 2 years later I still think it was a good idea: I have the peace of mind, that their data is kinda safe and they also call me less often regarding any technical issues with the system. (Yes, Win 10 confused them more than Ubuntu does).

In the following I would like to describe this ongoing journey and how you can follow my example.

The post is structured in three parts:

  • Preparation
  • Switching over
  • Ongoing improvements
  • Conclusion

Please keep in mind, that this setup is my very own solution and it is likely, that you need to tweak it to your needs. Disclaimer: I do not care about “FOSS only” or something.


Background about my parents computer usage: They mainly use their machine for email and web stuff (shopping, social media, online banking,…) and are not heavily into hardware intense gaming or so.

As my parents already used a lot of Free Software as their daily drivers (Thunderbird, Firefox) I did not had to do a big preparation phase. But still I switch them (still on their Win 10) to LibreOffice so that they could get used to it, before changing the whole system.

That is my first big advice for your:

Try to not overwhelm them with to much new interfaces at once. Use a step by step solution.

So first of all, keep them on their current system and help them to adapt to FLOSS software that will be their main driver on the Linux later on.

So two steps for preparation here:

1) Sit down with your folks and talk trough their daily usage of their computer (Please be not so arrogant to think you already know it all)

2) Try to find software replacements for their daily drivers, that will work flawlessly later on the Linux machine. The ones I would recommend are:

  • Firefox as Browser (and maybe Email if they prefere webmail)
  • Thunderbird for Emails
  • GIMP for Image Editing
  • VLC as Media Player
  • LibreOffice instead of MS Office

So as you now did find out and setup replacements for the proprietary Windows software, you should give them time to adapt. I think a month would be suitable. (FYI: I got the most questions during this time, the later switch was less problematic)

Switching over

So your parents now got used to the new software and that will help you to make them adapt easier to the new system, as they now only have to adapt to the new OS interface and not additionally also to a lot new software interfaces.

Do yourself a favor and use standard Ubuntu

I know there are a ton of awesome Linux distros out there (Btw. I use Arch ;)) but my experience during this journey brought me to the conclusion, that the standard Ubuntu is still the best. It is mainly because, all the drivers work mostly out of the box and the distro does a lot automatically. (Because of that, my parents where able to install a new wireless printer without even calling me…beat that Gentoo ;))

On top of that: The Ubuntu community multilingual and open for newbies.

The journey until Ubuntu

Until Ubuntu we tried different other distros, all suffering at some point (Please bear in mind, that this are all awesome projects and for myself they would work 100%, but for no technical people as my parents a distro just needs to be real solid):

1) Chalet Os as it was promoted as most lookalike to Windows. As it is based on XFCE it is lightweight, but the icons and styles differ all over the UI. So you get confused because the settings icon always looks different, depending where in the system you are.

2) Elementary OS because I love the UI myself. No clue why, but my parents never got warm with it. It is just a bit to far away from what they are used to.

3) Solus OS has again a more windows looking ui and it worked better for my parents. But after all you have to say Solus is just not there yet. The package manager has to less packages and whenever you have a problem it is super hard to find a solution on the net. Plus: The UI crashed at least once a day. (IMO a driver problem with the machine, but still after hours of work we did not find a solution.)

4) Finally Ubuntu and that now works nice and smooth (For over 8 month now)

Nuke and pave

So you selected the distro and are now able to nuke and pave the machine. I think I do not have to explain in-depth how to do that, just two important things:

  • Backup all you parents data to an external hard drive (Copy the complete C: drive)
  • Write down upfront what software you want to install and make sure you also backup the configuration and data of those

Cheating: If you want to amaze with the new system even more and the machine is still on a HDD, replace it with a SSD, so the Linux system feels even better and faster 😉


After you installed the distro, do a complete configuration. (Yes, go trough every setting and tweak it if needed)

Now install the software your folks already used on their Windows machine and make sure it is configured in the exact same way as it was on the old system! (That will help a lot in keeping the moral up, because then their is already something that feels familiar to them)

I found, that it is best to place the shortcuts of the applications your parents use the most in bar on the left side on Ubuntu, so they find them easily

Sit down with your parents and ask them, what data the need from the old system and copy only that over. Hereby you clean up the file system by not copying over the old crap they did not use for ages and if they find out later, that there is more data they need it is stored on the backup drive.

Introduce them to the new system

After the configuration and setup is now complete you need to allocate some time for introducing them to the new system. You know you parents best so do it in the way the like it.

For me the following routine worked best:

0) Explain it to them in two individual sessions (as mostly one of them is more tech savvy then the other one and so both have the chance to ask you individually)

1) Shutdown the machine

2) Let him/her start the machine

3) Tell her/him to try to do their daily business and whenever questions come up explain how to solve the issue (Never touch the mouse or keyboard! If you take it over, it is very likely that you will be too fast)

4) Stop after 60 minutes and if there are still questions do another session the next day (Imagine yourself learning something completely new to you – maybe Chinese – are you able to concentrate more than an hour?)

Some topics I would recommend you to cover during the introduction:

  • How to setup a new wifi connection (especially if the machine is a laptop)
  • How to install new software
  • How to setup a new printer/scanner
  • How to print/scan
  • How to restore deleted files
  • How to get data from/to a USB-stick or mobile device
  • How to shutdown the machine (not that easy to find on Ubuntu)

Ongoing improvements

So normally now the system should work as intended and if you are lucky it saves you a lot of problems in the future. In this section I will give you some more recommendations, that helped to make the experience even better:

  • Linux does always ask you for your password if you are doing something that could deeply harm the system. So I told my parents: Whenever that dialog (I showed it to them) pops up, they should keep in mind, that they could destroy the whole machine with this operation and if they want they can call me first.
  • Show them the app store and tell them, whatever they install from there is safe (so no viruses or something) and they can install everything they want as long it is from there. It makes fun to find new cool software and games, so help them to experience that fun too 😀
  • Backups! As it is really easy with Linux you should do a automatic daily/hourly backup of their complete home folder. I use borg for that. (I plan to to write an in-depth blog post about borg in the future, it will be linked here if it is done). So now, whenever my parents call me and tell me that they deleted something or that the machine does not boot anymore I can relax and tell them, that we can restore all there data in a matter of minutes….you can’t image how good that makes me feel.
  • It is not FOSS, but I did install google chrome as it was the easiest for watching netflix and listening to spotify.
  • I would recommend installing some privacy plugins and stuff into the browser your parents use, so you get them even safer.
  • If you have some software that does not have a good replacement, try to use wine for it. Worked well with MS Office 2007. (Sorry LibreOffice, but you still can’t compete with MS here). PlayOnLinux did help me a lot with the wine setup

Edit 21.01.2018 – 10am: Thanks for all your feedback recommending WPS Office! We tried it a while ago and it was less stable than the Wine+MS Office setup, that is why we dumped it again. Another reader suggested OnlyOffice which I will give a try, as I did not know it before

  • If possible activate the automatic update and installation of all security updates.


For me the switch made a lot of sense, as my parents are not heavy technical users of there systems. Should yours be into Photoshop, video editing or gaming I do not think it will be so easy to do the switch over, as Linux and its software is still not a good competitor in this areas.

I would love to get your feedback on this blog post: Did you switch your parents to Linux and how did that work out? Do you have other insights that should be added to this post? Hit me up via [email protected]

Thanks for reading! Simon Frey

p.S. One reason why my parents machine did not boot anymore for several times, was a plugged in usb stick and the bios tried to boot from it. So do not forget to reset the boot order to first boot of the hard drive 😉

Old Tux Image Source (CC BY-SA 3.0):

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