Don't Fear the Penguin: A Newbie's Guide to Linux

Getting started with Linux can be an intimidating task, particularly for people who have never tried any operating system besides Windows. In truth, however, very little about Linux is actually difficult to use. It's simply a different OS, with its own approach to doing things. Once you learn your way around a Linux desktop, you're likely to find that it's no more challenging to work with than Windows or Mac OS.

In this guide I'll focus on Ubuntu, the most popular Linux distribution today. But Ubuntu is just one of many different flavors of Linux. Literally hundreds of distributions are out there, appealing to a broad range of users--from teachers and programmers to musicians and hackers. Ubuntu is the most popular distribution because it's easier to install and configure than most others; it even comes in a few different versions, including Edubuntu and Kubuntu. If you happen to be running a different distribution, such as Fedora or OpenSUSE, you'll likely find that much of this guide still pertains to you.

Welcome to Ubuntu

It's little wonder why Ubuntu is one of the leading Linux distributions for desktop PCs; it makes installing Linux simple. ("Ubuntu Linux: The Easy Installation Guide" will walk you through it, step by step.) But once you have Ubuntu installed on your PC, what next?

The short answer is: Whatever you like. Ubuntu may be free, but it's hardly a toy OS. If you can do something with Windows or Mac OS X, you can do the same thing with Ubuntu.

Figuring out how to do what you want isn't always obvious, however, and Ubuntu has its own concepts and quirks that set it apart from other OSs. Experience is usually the best teacher, but if you need a gentle push in the right direction, this guide offers a novice's tour of the Linux desktop--so fire up your Ubuntu system and follow along!

Exploring the Interface

Ubuntu log-in screen

One of the first things you'll notice about your new Ubuntu system is that you need to log in each time you boot, giving the user name and password you specified during installation. If you prefer--and you're not worried about other people accessing your PC when you're not around--you can configure the system to log you in automatically from the Security tab of the Login Window panel of the Administration menu (more on that later). Even if you do that, however, don't forget your password; unlike in Windows, you'll need to enter the password again whenever you install software or perform sensitive administration tasks. (That may seem annoying, but it's an important part of Linux's famously high security.)

Password entry for administrative tasks

Ubuntu's default Gnome GUI desktop borrows many ideas from other operating systems, so it should seem immediately familiar. The alternative Kubuntu version of the OS uses a different desktop environment called KDE. I won't discuss KDE here, but whichever desktop works best for you will largely be a matter of personal preference. Neither Gnome nor KDE should pose much difficulty for an experienced Windows or Mac OS X user. Gnome is slightly more Mac-like, while KDE's interface is more similar to Windows.

Gnome desktop

In Gnome, the top and bottom menu bars together perform functions equivalent to the Windows taskbar. The top bar contains menus for launching applications, navigation, and system configuration, while the bottom bar keeps track of currently running programs.

In addition, the left end of the bottom bar includes a button to hide all currently opened windows, while on the right are squares that represent "virtual workspaces." Gnome allows you to open two or more workspaces, each of which acts as a separate desktop, just as if you were working on multiple monitors. Clicking on the menu-bar squares lets you jump from one workspace to the next. You will also find the Trash icon on the right.

Navigating menus and windows follows customary conventions. The left mouse button selects items, and double-clicking opens or launches an item. The right mouse button brings up a contextual menu. A number of global keyboard shortcuts are available, too, including Alt-Tab to switch between windows, Alt-F1 to bring up the Applications menu, and F1 for Help.

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