The Linux world circa 2012 must look bizarre to Windows users. Or pershaps, I should say, bazaar. Hundreds of distributions, arguments about which desktop is best, applications that require a text editor to configure. It’s hard to know where to start. Here’s what I’d tell a Windows user interested in trying Linux.

Is Linux really better than Windows?

Not for consumer or routine office applications. Windows has better drivers for graphics cards. Although Linux works as well as Windows for internet video like YouTube, some multimedia apps like Netflix aren’t yet designed to run on it. For work, Linux has a competent office suite (LibreOffice), but it’s not in the same league as Microsoft Office.

What type of person would be happier with Linux than Windows?

Linux is for people who want to do more than browse and write business documents –people who want to connect to other computers (not just other Windows PC’s) and run their own servers. For internet connectivity, Linux is superior to Windows. Above all, Linux is for people who want the freedom to choose their own tools from the vast world of open source software.

What’s a good way to see if Linux suits me?

Try a “live” distribution: one that you can boot from a CD, DVD or USB stick, without installing to your hard drive. A virtualization manager like VirtualBox is even better. It can load the .iso image files without burning them to disk.

Which version of Linux should I pick?

CD/DVD media is cheap. Try at least a couple of them. See DistroWatch for a list of the leading distributions and links to their websites. There are dozens catalogued. However, most derive from a handful of major players. I recommend starting with distributions that use the Debian (DEB) or Redhat (RPM) package managers for installing software. The leading ones are:

How fast a computer do I need to run Linux?

It depends on what distribution you install, and especially on what desktop environment you select. Aside from CPU-intensive tasks like decoding videos, the amount of RAM is more important than processor speed. For those that want an easy install, Linux Mint comes pre-installed with all the proprietary drivers and codecs you need. You should have at least 1GB RAM if you want to run its default desktop (Gnome). For a more lightweight desktop, try Lubuntu, a “re-spin” of Ubuntu. It will run decently on most any CPU from the Pentium III era to the present, providing you have at least 256mb of RAM.

What’s the best desktop environment… Gnome, KDE, XFCE, or LXDE?

All of them. With Linux you don’t have to choose. You can change your current desktop after installation. All the desktops you installed are available from the login menu – you can switch between them on a whim. If you don’t like one, install something different.

If I install Gnome or KDE as my desktop, am I limited to certain applications?

No. Your software package manager will automatically install the required libraries to support them. There are a few “applets” that are tied to speciifc desktops and only run when it’s active. The rest are available no matter what environment you select. You can run, for example, the K3B CD/DVD burner under Gnome, even though it requires the Qt libraries from KDE. Vice versa, you can run a GTK+ application like Firefox under KDE.

Where do I find applications to install? How do I install them?

Unlike Windows, you don’t have to hunt for software on a bunch of different sites, and cross your fingers hoping it doesn’t contain malware. Your distribution provides a graphical tool that lets you browse thousands of packaged apps available from central repositories. Debian and Ubuntu come with the Synaptic package manager. Ubuntu takes it a step further, with a simplified Software Center. Regardless, all major distributions provide a graphical manager where you can click on and install packages without haivng to do any advance configuration or compiling.

What are some good Linux equivalents for my every-day Windows applications?

  • Internet Explorer: Firefox or Chromium (the latter is the open source equivalent of Google Chrome)
  • Windows Media Player: SmPlayer, Videolan client (VLC), or XBMC for video; Clementine for audio
  • PDF viewing: eVince or Okular
  • Microsoft Word, Excel or Powerpoint: LibreOffice (a “fork” of OpenOffice)
  • Microsoft Outlook: Mozilla Thunderbird
  • Remote Desktop: Remmina, Terminal Server Client (TSC)
  • Photo manager: Shotwell, Digikam
  • Video editor: Openshot
  • CD burner: K3B
  • Text editor: Geany

  • Also, there’s a package called Wine, which can run some Windows applications directly under Linux

The Linux file system looks very different from Windows. How do I keep from getting lost?

Linux doesn’t use drive letters like C:. and D:. Every partition is part of a single hierarchical tree. File paths use forward slashes (/), not backslashes (\). There’s only a few directories that a beginner needs to understand. The top (root) of the filesystem is indicated by /. Your home directory is /home/your_user_name. Configuration data – what Windows applications call “Preferences” – is stored in plain text files. Your personalized settings are in your /home directory, typically inside subdirectories that begin with a period. For example, your Firefox browser settings can be found in /home/your_user_name/.mozilla.

Linux is also a multi-user system, with tools intended for IT administrators (that’s you, too!). The defaults for applications managed by an admin – “services” like web or file servers, and other global settings – are segregated in a different branch from the /home directories. They can be found in the /etc path. For example, when you use SAMBA to share files with Windows computers, the configuration files are in /etc/samba. Similarly, everything that tweaks the Apache web server is in /etc/apache2,

What’s a good way to partition my hard drive for Linux?

Create two partitions. One will be “mounted” as the root (specify its mount point as /) and contain the entire OS and installed applications; one will contain only the home directories (mount point = /home) and their data. Allow at least 30GB (preferably more) for the root file system, unless you’re only planning to install a few applications. Provide 8GB or more for the /home directories. A safe choice for formatting these partitions is ext3 or ext4. Don’t go crazy with the size of the /home partition. You’re better off keeping it small, so that you can back it up frequently, in its entirety. Store the documents and data that are most critical to you in your home. With the space you save by restricting /home, create a large partition with a mount point like, say, /mnt/bigshare, for those huge but ephemeral files like videos, CD images, etc.

The rest depends on whether you’re going to run Windows and other operating systems. If you’ll be dual booting with Windows, you should know that Linux can read and write NTFS formatted partitions. Therefore, you don’t absolutely need to create a custom partition for file exchange between the Linux and Windows. However, I’d recommend doing it anyway. Windows may consider the C; partition “dirty” and run CHKDSK when it notices files created or modified by an alien operating system, even though you’ve done no damage. It’s safer to set the “C:” partition as read-only from Linux, and create an additional NTFS partition where you can read and write from either OS.