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Linux: A Getting-Started Guide

Ready to try Linux? Here's how to get started.

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

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.

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"]

The Desktop Environment

Your desktop environment is your system's user interface. It determines how windows and icons are styled and how you navigate through your system. Among the many different desktops available in the Linux world are Gnome, KDE, Xfce, and LXDE. Ubuntu maker Canonical released a new desktop interface in April 2011 called Unity, which is based on Gnome.

The desktop contains various components, but at this point it's enough to know that you are free to choose pretty much whichever desktop environment you want to use. Distributions such as Ubuntu, Mint, and OpenSUSE provide an array of different desktops that you can easily install. Ubuntu 11.10, for example, offers Unity, but you can easily install variants of Gnome. Another alternative is to use KDE in Ubuntu--either by downloading Kubuntu (a variation on the Ubuntu system that installs KDE as your default desktop) or by installing KDE in the standard version of Ubuntu.

The best choice for beginners is to stay with the default desktop environment for your distribution. But desktops in Linux are interchangeable; so as you become more comfortable using Linux, you can try out different desktops to see which one you like best.

Linux Kernel

The kernel--the software layer that acts as the go-between for your applications and your PC hardware--is the core of any Linux system. This is the component that you are least likely to have to deal with as part of maintaining your system, especially if you choose a beginner-friendly system such as Ubuntu or Mint. But as you delve into the Linux world, you'll probably find people talking about the kernel on forums and help sites, so it's helpful to know what the term refers to.

The stable version of the kernel at this writing is version 3.2.2. If you choose, you can update your kernel as new versions come out, but it's much simpler to wait for your particular distribution to roll out kernel updates.

Time to Try Linux

Now that you have a sense of how some of the Linux distributions differ, it's time to try out a few and see what you think. Unlike with Windows, you don't have to buy a CD or purchase an access code; instead, you can just hop online and download any distro you want to try, for free. And if you don't have the bandwidth to download Linux, many distros will send you an installation CD by mail (usually for a nominal fee).

Many distros--including Debian, Fedora, OpenSUSE, Linux Mint, and Ubuntu--also offer downloadable live CDs. Live CDs let you run the operating system without installing it on your hard drive. That way you can get a better sense of what it will be like to use a particular distro. Live CDs tend to be less responsive (and to run slower) than the actual operating system. The main thing to focus on with live CDs is the look and feel of the interface and the way the system is organized.

To create a live CD you must download the OS and then create a disc image on a blank CD, external hard drive, or USB flash drive. If you've never copied or burned a bootable disc image, try Ubuntu first before moving on to other distros. Canonical has a convenient step-by-step online guide for downloading and creating an Ubuntu live CD using Windows or OS X.

Let's Get Serious

Okay, you've tried out a bunch of live CDs, and now you're ready to install Linux on your PC. Let's assume that you've decided to go with Ubuntu and that you're installing it on a Windows machine (yes, some people do install Linux on a Mac). If you are new to the Linux world and still rely on Windows for certain programs, or if you need to use Windows for your job, you can install Linux alongside Microsoft's OS in a dual-boot configuration. This way, each time you boot up your system, you can choose to run either Windows or Linux.

Ubuntu comes with a handy feature called Wubi (Windows-based UBuntu Installer) that lets you access Ubuntu inside Windows as if it were an application. Like a live CD, Wubi may cause Ubuntu to run a little bit slower than it normally would, but it will give you the chance to acclimate to Linux if you aren't willing to jump in right away.

Once you learn your way around the system, Linux is just as easy to use as Windows or Mac OS. But Linux differs from those systems, and consequently it takes some getting used to. For this reason, you may want to take your Linux transition slow.

The alternative is to adopt what my colleague Tony Bradley calls the scorched-earth option: Wipe out Windows and install your Linux distribution as the sole OS on your machine. This is the method I chose when I moved to Linux full-time, and I found that going this route was fairly easy. The only major drawback of this approach involves needing to run a piece of custom software built on Windows or OS X for your job. If that's your situation, you should probably go with a dual-boot solution.

Creating a dual-boot environment doesn't require much heavy lifting. Many Linux distributions provide step-by-step instructions for installing Linux on a Windows PC in a way that supports peaceful coexistence. Ubuntu offers dual-boot setup directions, as does OpenSUSE. Also, consult PCWorld's "How (and Why) to Partition Your Hard Drive" for advice on how to lay the groundwork for creating a dual-boot PC.

[RELATED: "30 Days With Ubuntu Linux"]

The Terminal (Mostly Optional)

You can spend your whole computing life inside Linux and rarely have to open a command line prompt to get things done. Nevertheless, learning at least a few basic operations can be helpful, though doing so is entirely optional.

Bash (Bourne again shell) is the standard command line interpreter for most Linux distributions (as well as for Mac OS X), and it's a lot easier to use than you might think. Among the helpful commands that you may wish to learn are how to create empty files and directories (folders), how to search for and kill a running process on your system, how to view hidden directories, how to switch between directories, how to open files and applications, the 'locate' command, the 'find' command, and the 'grep' command. At some point you may also want to learn how to install an application from the command line; but with a system such as Mint or Ubuntu, that method should rarely be necessary.

You can find many novel uses for the command line, too. For instance, you can use Bash to run a text-only Twitter client called TTYtter, learn to use command-line text editors such as Vi or Emacs, try a simple to-do list program called Todo.txt, use Python as a handy calculator, browse the Web with the text-only browser Lynx, run system backups using Rsync, create text shortcuts (called aliases) for executing daily tasks, and automate tedious or repetitive tasks (such as backups) using Cron. All of these operations and programs are much simpler to use than you might think, and learning them will greatly enhance how you use your computer.

Even if you're not interested in the command line, you may need to access the Terminal to deal with occasional (but increasingly rare) hardware problems such as adjusting a laggy mouse driver. Otherwise, you can live happily inside Linux without ever opening the Terminal program.

Ubuntu Software Center

If you decide to go with Ubuntu as your distribution, you'll pick up most of your applications from the Ubuntu Software Center, an online store for downloading and installing applications and utilities. The Ubuntu Software Center began shipping with Ubuntu in 2009 and subsequent Ubuntu releases have included incremental improvements. The store currently offers numerous free software packages as well as some paid apps. Using the USC is as simple as searching for a program and clicking Install.

By default, Ubuntu comes with a lot of great software, including Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird (email client), the Libre Office suite, Gedit text editor, and GIMP. Those applications also come with many other Linux distributions; or you can install them after initial setup. You can get a lot of popular third-party software for Linux, just as you can for Windows and OS X; examples include Google's Chrome browser, Skype, Spotify, and Scrivener--a popular word processor designed for professional writers. Much of this software, including Skype, Spotify, and Scrivener, tends to be marked "beta." But don't let that scare you off: All three work very well in Linux.

If you can't find a Linux version of the software you need, you can try running Windows apps in WINE, a program designed to handle that task inside Linux. WINE may not be able to run every program you throw at it. But if you absolutely need a piece of Windows software, and no Linux alternatives are available, give WINE a try.

Finding Help

If you run into problems while using Linux--whether hardware issues, software installation problems, or something else--you can turn to numerous online forums for help. Typically each distribution maintains its own forum where you can seek out assistance, and many third-party sites are full of solid advice, too.

The best way to find help is to start with a simple Web search for the problem you're having. Searches often lead Ubuntu users to the official Ubuntu user forums, but Stack Exchange's Ask Ubuntu is also a good source for information.

When researching problems, you may find that the first few sites you visit may offer complex and over-the-top solutions that require 15 lines of code or mucking about with some file buried deep in your operating system. But chances are that any issues you come up against as a beginner will be comparatively trivial and easy to solve.

Consequently, the best way to research your problem is to assume that it can be solved with a few simple mouse clicks or less than one line of code entered at the command line. There are exceptions to that rule, of course; but if you begin by assuming that the answer to your problem is simple and exhaust all of the straightforward possibilities before moving on to far more complex solutions, you'll save yourself a lot of time and hassle.

These basic tips should help you get started with Linux. So give a few live CDs a try, and see what you think. You'll be surprised at just how useful a Linux system can be.

Connect with Ian Paul (@ianpaul) on Twitter and Google+, and with Today@PCWorld on Twitter for the latest tech news and analysis.


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