A Basic Guide To The Linux Operating System

The following list highlights things that users need to know before they install Linux.

You will find here the answer to so many questions including what is this Linux stuff anyway, what is the difference between Linux and GNU/Linux, what are Linux distributions and why are there so many of them?

What Is Linux?

What Is Linux
What Is Linux.

Linux, like WIndows is an operating system.

It is more than that though. Linux is the engine used to power desktop operating systems, known as distributions, such as Ubuntu, Red Hat and Debian. 

It is also used to power Android which is used in phones and tablets.

Linux is also used to put the smart into smart technology such as televisions, fridges, heating systems and even lightbulbs.

What is GNU/Linux?

Linux Vs GNU/Linux
Linux Vs GNU/Linux.

Quite often Linux is used as the catch-all term for all the programs and tools used to make desktop Linux what it is.

The GNU project is responsible for a great number of the tools deployed along with the Linux kernel.

In general, when you hear the term GNU/Linux it is synonymous with Linux and sometimes if you just use the term Linux somebody will jump on you and say "you mean GNU/Linux".

I wouldn't worry too much about that, though. People quite often say the word hoover when they mean vacuum cleaner, or Sellotape when they mean sticky tape. 

What Is A Linux Distribution?

Linux Distributions
Linux Distributions.

On its own Linux isn't really all that useful. You need to add other programs and tools to it in order to make it what you want it to be.

For instance, a Linux powered fridge wouldn't work with just Linux itself. Somebody needs to write the programs and device drivers required to control the thermostat, output a display showing the temperature and every other feature which is considered to make the fridge smart.

Linux distributions are at their very core the Linux kernel, with the GNU tools added on top and then a set of other applications which the developers decided to package together to make their distribution.

A desktop Linux distribution is generally built up with some or all of the following tools:

  • The Linux kernel
  • GNU/Tools
  • A display manager
  • A window manager
  • A desktop environment
  • An installer
  • Package managers
  • Desktop software such as office suites, email clients, web browsers, video players, audio players, etc

Why Are There So Many Linux Distributions?

Linux Distributions
Linux Distributions.

This is a good question and one not so easily answered.

Everybody has their own opinion as to what they need an operating system to do and more than that people have different needs.

For example, some people have very powerful computers so they want all the whizzy screen effects whereas others will have an underpowered netbook.

Instantly, from the above example, you can see the need for two Linux distributions. 

Some people want to have all the latest software as soon as it becomes available whilst others want software that is incredibly stable. Multiple distributions exist purely because they offer different levels of stability.

Fedora, for instance, has all the new features but Debian is more stable but with older software.

Linux provides a great deal of choice. There are many different window managers and desktop environments (don't worry we will get to what they are shortly).

Some distributions exist because they implement one desktop environment whilst another might implement a different desktop environment. 

Generally, more and more distributions pop up because the developers have found a niche. 

Much like businesses and pop bands, many Linux distributions don't survive but there are some very large Linux distributions that will be around for the foreseeable future.

Which Linux Distribution Should I Use?


This is probably the questions asked the most on Reddit, Quora, and Yahoo answers and is it definitely the question I get asked the most.

This is also an almost impossible question to answer because as point 4 mentioned everybody has different needs.

I have written a guide showing how to choose a Linux distribution but at the end of the day it is​ a personal choice.

My recommended distributions for new users to Linux include Ubuntu, Linux Mint, PCLinuxOS and Zorin OS.

My advice is to go to Distrowatch, look at the rankings down the right side, read the descriptions of the distributions, try out a few distributions in Virtualbox and make up your own mind as to which suits you best.

Is Linux Truly Free?

Is Linux Free
Is Linux Free.

There are two terms that you will often hear regarding Linux:

  • Free as in beer
  • Free as in speech

What do those terms actually mean?

Free as in beer means does it cost anything financially to use. If you think about it logically beer isn't free. You generally have to pay for beer. So if somebody gives you beer for free you would be surprised.

Hey, guess what? Most Linux distributions are provided for free and are considered therefore to be free as in beer.

There are some Linux distributions which charge money such as Red Hat Linux and ELive but the majority are provided free at the point of use.

The free as in speech term refers to how you use the components that make up Linux such as the tools, the source code, the documentation, the images and everything else.

If you can download, amend and redistribute an element such as the documentation then this is considered to be free as in speech.

Most Linux distributions and most of the tools provided for Linux allow to you download, edit, view and redistribute as you 

Can I Try Linux Without Overwriting WIndows?

Try Linux
Try Linux.

Many of the top Linux distributions provide a live version of the operating system which can be booted straight from a USB drive.

Alternatively, you can try Linux within a virtual machine by using a tool called Virtualbox.

The final solution is to dual boot Windows with Linux.

How Can I Create A Live Linux USB Drive?

Create USB Drive With Etcher
Create USB Drive With Etcher.

There are a number of tools available for Windows which can be used to create a live Linux USB drive including:

  • Win32 Disk Imager
  • Rufus
  • Universal USB Installer
  • UNetbootin

Use Distrowatch to find a distribution and navigate to the project's homepage.

Click the relevant download link to download an ISO image (disk image) of the Linux distribution.

Use one of the tools above to write the ISO image to a USB drive.

There are some guides on this site already to help:

How Easy Is It To Install Linux?

Install Ubuntu
Install Ubuntu.

This question throws back to point 4. Some distributions are easier to install than others.

Generally speaking, Ubuntu-based distributions are very easy to install. Others like openSUSE, Fedora, and Debian are slightly more tricky but still fairly straight forward.

Some distributions provide much more of a challenge such as Gentoo, Arch, and Slackware.

Installing Linux on its own is easier than dual booting but dual booting with Windows isn't that hard to do in most cases.

Here are a few guides to help:

What Is A Desktop Environment?

Desktop Environments
Desktop Environments.

Choosing a Linux distribution is not the only choice that you have to make and indeed choosing the distribution might actually be based on the desktop environment which suits your needs and is implemented the best.

A desktop environment is a collection of graphical tools deployed as one to make a cohesive user experience.

A desktop environment will generally include some or all of the following:

  • window manager
  • panels
  • menus
  • widgets
  • file manager
  • browser
  • office suite
  • text editor
  • terminal
  • display manager

A window manager determines how the windows for each application behave. 

A display manager provides a graphical method for users to login to a distribution.

A panel generally contains a menu, quick launch icons for commonly used applications and a system tray. 

The most popular desktop environments are as follows:

  • Unity
  • KDE
  • Cinnamon
  • MATE
  • Enlightenment
  • Pantheon
  • XFCE
  • LXDE

Your choice of desktop will generally come down to personal preference.

Unity and GNOME are fairly similar with a launcher and dashboard style interface for launching applications.

KDE and Cinnamon are more traditional with panels and menus.

XFCE, LXDE, and MATE are lighter and work better on older hardware.

Pantheon is a clean crisp desktop environment and will appeal to Apple users.

Will My Hardware Work?

Linux Hardware Support
Linux Hardware Support.

A common myth is that hardware such as printers, scanners, and audio devices aren't supported by Linux.

As we move forward through the 21st century, more and more hardware is supported by Linux and quite often it is Windows where you will find yourself hunting for drivers.

There are some devices that just aren't supported.

This site may help you work out whether you have any unsupported devices. 

A good way to test is to create a live version of a distribution and try the hardware out before committing to Linux.

Can I Run Windows software?


There is a tool called WINE which makes it possible to run Windows applications but not everything is supported.

You will generally find an alternative Linux application which provides the same features as the Windows application you are trying to run.

The question should, therefore, be "Do I want to run Windows software?"

If you do want to run Windows software check out this guide:

How Can I Install Software Using Linux?

Synaptic Package Manager
Synaptic Package Manager.

The best way to install software using Linux is to use the package managers incorporated into the system.

Using the package manager (i.e. software center, synaptic, yum extender) you are not only installing the most up to date version of the software but it is also more likely not to contain malware.

Very few software packages are installed by going to the vendor's website and clicking the download button. 

Can I Watch Flash Videos And Play MP3 Audio?


Providing support for proprietary codecs, drivers, fonts and other software isn't always available out of the box within Linux.

Distributions such as Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian and openSUSE require installing extra software and adding extra repositories.

Other distributions such as Linux Mint include everything straight away.

Generally, the installation of proprietary software and drivers is well documented. 

Do I Need To Learn To Use The Terminal?

Screenfetch For Ubuntu
Screenfetch For Ubuntu.

It is not absolutely necessary to learn to use the terminal.

Desktop users who like to check out social media, watch videos, listen to music and use office software may never touch the terminal.

Some distributions make it easier than others to not require command line knowledge.

It is worth learning the basics about the terminal as most support is provided using the command line as this is the common attribute across all distributions.