A Basic Guide To The Linux Operating System

Get to know the top open source 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

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. 

Technically speaking "Linux" is actually just a kernel, the core part of a computer operating system. It's the Linux kernel that goes into so many connected devices today.

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.

I have written a more complete guide to "What Is Linux" here.

What is 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. That collection of tools, along with the kernel, make up Linux distributions, like Ubuntu, Fedora, and Debian. When you hear GNU/Linux, it's usually referring to a Linux distribution for desktop computers or servers.

Linux, the kernel alone, is more commonly found either with Android or as the core of a smart device. The operating systems in these devices are decidedly different than GNU/Linux ones and usually don't share compatible applications.

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

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 that 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

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.

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?


Which distribution should I use is probably the most common question asked on Reddit, Quora, and Yahoo answers and is it definitely the question people in the Linux community get asked the most.

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

Here at Lifewire, we have a guide showing how to choose a Linux distribution, but at the end of the day, it is​ a personal choice.

The most recommended distributions for new users to Linux include Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Elementary OS, and Zorin OS.

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?

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 a beer. So if somebody gives you a 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 that 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 Linux components 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.

Here is a good guide on the subject.

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

Can I Try Linux Without Overwriting Windows?

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.

A more permanent solution is to dual boot Windows with Linux alongside each other on the same computer.

How Can I Create A Live Linux USB Drive?

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
  • Etcher

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

Use 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

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 provide more advanced options, should you need them, but are still fairly simple.

Some distributions provide much more of a challenge such as Gentoo, Arch, and Slackware. These are rarely practical, and new Linux users probably won't benefit much from using them.

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

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.

Unlike Windows and Mac OS, Linux has different sets of graphical tools that come together to build a visual interactive desktop, called a desktop environment. These collections of graphical tools are deployed as one to make a cohesive user experience. In short, the desktop environment determines the layout, look, and feel of your computer.

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 log in 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:

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

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

GNOME is one of the most common and intuitively designed, 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

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 on Windows where you will find yourself hunting for drivers.

There are some devices that just aren't supported, and those are usually the absolute newest and most "cutting edge" type of devices.

This site may help you work out whether you have any unsupported devices. You can always do a search for the name of your device along with the "Linux" keyword. The Linux community is also very helpful and knowledgeable, especially when it comes to getting hardware working. Feel free to ask around on forums and sites like Reddit and Stack Overflow.

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 that 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

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

Using the package manager's graphical front end (i.e. software center, synaptic, yum extender) is a simple way to install software directly without using the command line. Generally, you are not only installing the most up to date version of the software but it is also more likely not to contain malware.

You can also install software from the command line, often with a single command. For example, installing Firefox on Ubuntu is as simple as:

sudo apt install firefox

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.

If you're concerned with MP3 and Flash, don't be. MP3 is now open source. It'll work out of the box on nearly all distributions. Flash is deprecated and nearly entirely unnecessary. In fact, Flash is more of a security risk than it'd ever be worth installing.

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

Do I Need To Learn To Use The Terminal?

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.

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