Trying Linux for the First Time: A Beginner’s Guide

You’re probably familiar with Windows and/or Mac OS. But they aren’t the only operating systems available. A popular alternative is Linux. In this article, Lesley Lutomski introduces Linux and what you need to know to give it a try.


Linux penguin

I’m constantly surprised by people who tell me they’d like to try Linux, but think it’s “too hard”.

There seems to be a common misapprehension that Linux is “for geeks”. Certainly, this was once the case: dedicated users compiled their own kernels, and it wasn’t for the faint-hearted.

But Linux has come a long way since those days. So, if you’ve never tried it, or tried it many years ago and gave up, I’d encourage you to think again.

Choose Your Flavor

Linux comes in many “flavors”, or “distributions”—normally referred to as distros. Some of these are aimed firmly at a mainstream audience, and I’d suggest using one of these to get your feet wet. The best known of these is possibly Ubuntu, which is the one I use and the one I’ll concentrate on here. Linux Mint is also popular, but there are many more.

Ubuntu Gnome desktopUbuntu Gnome desktop

Difficult or Not?

So is it difficult to use? Not in my experience. The first thing I noticed when we switched to Ubuntu was the sudden reduction in the number of distress calls I received from my husband. He seemed to experience fewer problems using the system than he had on Windows XP, and also seemed to feel more confident about trying things for himself, rather than panicking that he might “break something”.

I also set up a Xubuntu system for an elderly friend who had never used a computer of any kind, and she rapidly got to grips with it.

What Are the Benefits?

For many people, cost will be a consideration. Most popular Linux distros—and their associated software—are free to download and use. For others, the open-source nature of the OS appeals.

Linux is also far less susceptible to viruses than Windows. The main reason for this is simply that most viruses are designed to target Windows machines and will have no effect on a Linux system. It’s not true that Linux systems are immune to viruses, but they are very rare. A humorous explanation can be found here.

This added security is one reason we chose it for our elderly friend. Although Linux viruses are rare, ClamAV is free and helps ensure you don’t inadvertently download and pass on viruses to friends with Windows.

ubuntu gnome desktop traditionalUbuntu Gnome desktop – traditional version

Will Linux Be Compatible with My Hardware?

Linux will run well on most PCs, although if you have the very latest cutting-edge technology, you may find it’s not immediately supported.

On the other hand, installing Linux can be a great way to breathe new life into old hardware. Some distros are designed to be lightweight—such as the Ubuntu variant Xubuntu—and will perform well on systems with limited resources.

It’s also possible to run Linux on a Mac, although I have no experience of this. The Ubuntu Forums—a great source of help and support—have a dedicated section for Apple hardware users.

How to Choose a Distro?

The easiest way is simply to try one and see if you like it. This isn’t nearly as radical as it sounds.

Many distros are free to download, after which you can burn them to DVD. They can then be run as a “live” CD/DVD. In other words, you boot your system from the DVD—or a USB drive—and run the OS from there. It doesn’t have to be installed, and nothing is written to your hard drive—although you should be able to access files on your hard drive while in Linux.

This is a great way to get a feel for the distro at no risk, and it also lets you check there are no problems with your hardware. The Ubuntu site provides very clear tutorials for getting all this done.

Ubuntu options

A word of caution, though; running from a live DVD is noticeably slower than running from a hard drive, so you should make allowances for this. Also, should you decide to stick with Linux, you may find extra proprietary drivers to improve the performance of graphics and other hardware.

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Source: Sitepoint