Linux: A Getting-Started Guide

Are you fed up with Microsoft Windows and ready to give Linux a try? Here's how to get started. This guide for Linux discusses who the Linux OS is right for, what you need to get started, and how to turn your Windows PC into a dual-boot computer so you can have the best of both worlds--Linux and Windows.

Why Try Linux?

Linux will never be as popular a desktop operating system as Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X, but there are some good reasons to give Linux a try.

For starters, you can download and install Linux for free. Applications that run on Linux machines tend to be free as well, and they include PC essentials such as office productivity suites, image editing software, and video editing tools. Though Linux is not immune to viruses, malware is rarely a concern in the Linux world, especially for home users. And because Linux is less of a PC resource hog than Windows and the Mac OS, it's ideal for use with a laptop, a netbook, or an older desktop.

Finally, as Web services and HTML5-based apps play an increasingly dominant role in our computing lives--from music services such as Pandora to Yahoo Mail to Google Docs to Bing Maps to countless games--the operating system begins to play second fiddle to the Web. Linux is a dirt-cheap alternative to dropping $500 on PC that can run Windows 7.

Who Should Use Linux?

Linux can be a good choice for anyone, but two types of users are likely benefit most from Linux: power users and nontechnical users.

Power users will enjoy Linux, because it's a flexible, highly customizable OS that they can adapt to suit their needs in such areas as the look of the desktop or the ability to prevent any extra software from adding bloat to the system.

Linux is also great for nontechnical users who just want a computer that's easy to use, has many applications available for download, and doesn't require a lot of maintenance. Thanks to Linux distributions such as Ubuntu that are easy to install and use, Linux is no longer "difficult to use."

What Is Linux?

Linux is a Unix-like open-source operating system that uses the Linux kernel as its base and comes packaged with basic software, including a lot of components from the GNU (pronounced Guh-new) project.

The Wildebeest in the Room

There is some debate among Linux users about whether it's correct to call the open-source operating system Linux or GNU/Linux to reflect the fact that Linux distributions are loaded with software from the GNU Project. GNU is another Unix-like operating system, but one that lacks a usable kernel. Typical pieces of GNU that you're likely to come across in Linux include the Bash shell and assorted command-line utilities, GNU Emacs, Gnu Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), GNOME, and GNASH (a Flash player replacement).

Know Your Components

Three main elements of a Linux operating system come up often in discussions of Linux: the distribution, the desktop environment, and the Linux kernel. These components, along with software from GNU, constitute the basic parts of your Linux distribution.

Distribution

Linux Mint 12
Linux Mint 12

The all-important decision in the Linux world involves figuring out which version (called a distribution or distro) you want to use. Options include popular distributions such as Ubuntu and Linux Mint that are relatively easy to install, as well as more-complex and customizable distros such as Arch Linux. To figure out what each distribution looks like and what it offers, consult the website DistroWatch, which offers screenshots, download links, and reviews for more than 300 Linux distros. According to DistroWatch, the five most popular Linux versions at this writing are Linux Mint, Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSUSE, and Debian.

Take some time to poke around DistroWatch and read the descriptions of various Linux distributions to see what each offers, what they look like in a default configuration, and what others think of the OS. Linux newbies will probably do best with Ubuntu or Mint, as these distributions are easy to install and offer the fewest problems for first-time users.

Ubuntu 11.10 with the Unity desktop interface
Ubuntu 11.10 with the Unity desktop interface

You should also be aware that many distributions in the Linux world are built using other distributions as a base. Mint, for example, is based on Ubuntu, which is a variant of Debian.

[RELATED: "A Guide to Today's Top 10 Linux Distributions"]

To see whether any known problems exist for running Linux with your PC model, check out the user forums for your distribution. Though this usually isn't an issue, it does come up from time to time, just as it does with Windows.

If you're buying a new computer, check to see which hardware runs best with the distribution you want to use. Ubuntu, for example, has a certified hardware page that details which desktops, laptops, and notebooks are known to work well with Ubuntu.

[Related: "How To Choose a Linux Laptop"]

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