A Beginners Guide to Linux

If you are thinking of using Linux for the first time there are clearly some things you need to know. This guide provides links to essential articles that will help you get started.

Illustration of a person using Linux on a desktop computer
Lifewire / Marina Li

You will learn what Linux is, why you should use it, what Linux distributions are, how to install them, how to use the terminal, how to set up the hardware and many other key skills.

What Is Linux

Fedora Linux
Fedora Linux.

Linux is an operating system used to power a multitude of systems from light bulbs to guns, laptops to large computer centers.

Linux powers everything from your phone to your smart refrigerator.

In desktop computing terms Linux provides an alternative to commercial operating systems such as Windows. 

Why Use Linux Instead of Windows?

The Perfect Linux Desktop
The Perfect Linux Desktop.

There are many reasons why you would use Linux instead of Windows and here are just a few of them.

  • Linux is supported on older computers. While Windows XP will still run on older hardware it is no longer supported, so there are no security updates. There are a number of Linux distributions that are created specifically for older hardware and are maintained and updated regularly.
  • Some Linux distributions and desktop environments are now more familiar to traditional computer users than Windows 8 and Windows 10. If you like the Windows 7 look and feel why not try Linux Mint for instance.
  • The Windows 10 download size is huge. A typical Linux distribution comes in at just over 1 gigabyte although you can get some which are just a few hundred megabytes. Windows requires at least a DVD's worth of bandwidth.
  • Linux ships with free to use software and you can change and use that software as you please. 
  • Linux has always been more secure than Windows and there are very few viruses for Linux, although the internet of things has been targeted lately.
  • Linux performs better than Windows in many ways and you can squeeze more out of the last drop of resources for older and restricted hardware
  • Privacy. Windows regularly phones home with data gathered via Cortana and search in general. While not a new thing and clearly Google does the same thing you can be more assured that Linux isn't doing the same especially if you choose a free community distribution.
  • Reliability. When a program hangs in Linux you can kill it quite easily. When a program hangs in Windows even when you try and run task manager to kill it the offending program doesn't always let go.
  • Updates. Windows is very intrusive with its update policy. How many times have you turned on the computer to print out concert tickets or other important information to see the words installing update 1 of 450?
  • Variety. You can make Linux look, feel and behave exactly as you want it to. With Windows, the computer behaves exactly as Microsoft thinks you want it to.

If you still aren't clear check the guide below which will help you to decide whether Linux is right for you.

Which Linux Distribution Should You Use?

Elementary OS Luna freshly baked
okubax/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The first question would be "What is a Linux distribution?" Quite simply the Linux kernel is like an engine. A distribution is an actual vehicle that houses the engine.

So which Linux distribution should you choose? We recommend clicking the link for full information but in summary:

  • Linux Mint: Requires low computer expertise, easy to install, easy to use and has a familiar-looking desktop for Windows users
  • Debian: For those seeking a truly free Linux distribution with no proprietary drivers, firmware or software then Debian is for you. The grandfather of Linux
  • Ubuntu: A modern Linux distribution which is easy to install and easy to use
  • openSUSE: A stable and powerful Linux distribution. Not as easy to install as Mint and Ubuntu but a very good alternative nonetheless
  • Fedora: The most up to date Linux distribution with all new concepts incorporated at the earliest possible opportunity
  • Mageia: Rose from the ashes of the formerly great Mandriva Linux. Easy to install and easy to use
  • CentOS: As with Fedora, CentOS is based on the commercial Linux distribution, Red Hat Linux. Unlike Fedora, it is built for stability
  • Manjaro: Based on Arch Linux, Manjaro provides a great balance between ease of use and up to date software
  • LXLE: Based on the lightweight Lubuntu distribution this provides a fully-featured Linux distribution for older hardware
  • Arch: A rolling release distribution meaning that you don't have to install new versions of the operating system at any point because it updates itself. More difficult for the new user to get to grips with but very powerful
  • Elementary: Linux for people who like a Mac-style interface

How to Run Linux From a DVD or USB

Ubuntu Live Desktop
Ubuntu Live Desktop.

A live Linux DVD or USB lets you run Linux without installing it to your hard drive. This basically lets you test drive Linux before committing to it and is also good for the occasional user.

Here are a number of links explaining how to make a USB drive for various Linux distributions.

How to Install Linux

Fedora Install - Configuration
Fedora Install - Configuration.

Each Linux distribution is installed using a different installer which is a program that guides you through setting up and installing Linux.

When a user installs Linux they can either install it on its own or they can install it alongside Windows.

Here are some free installation guides:

What Is a Desktop Environment?

XFCE Desktop Ubuntu
XFCE Desktop Ubuntu.

There is a display manager that is used to help you log in, a window manager that is used to manage windows, panel, menus, dash interfaces and core applications. 

Many of these items are bundled together to make what is known as a desktop environment.

Some Linux distributions ship with just one desktop environment (although others are available in the software repositories), while others have different versions of the distribution for a number of different desktop environments.

Common desktop environments include Cinnamon, GNOME, Unity, KDE, Enlightenment, XFCE, LXDE and MATE.

Cinnamon is a more traditional desktop environment that looks much like Windows 7 with a panel at the bottom, a menu, system tray icons, and quick launch icons. 

GNOME and Unity are fairly similar. They are modern desktop environments that use the concept of launcher icons and a dashboard-style display for picking applications. There are also core applications that integrate well with the overall theme of the desktop environment.

KDE is a fairly traditional style desktop environment but it has a huge number of features and a core set of applications that are all highly customizable with lots of settings.

Enlightenment, XFCE, LXDE, and MATE are lightweight desktop environments with panels and menus. They are all highly customizable.

How to Make Linux Look the Way You Want It To

Add A Dock To Openbox
Add A Dock To Openbox.

The great thing about Linux is that you can make it look and feel the way you want it to.

The guides linked below will show you various ways to move things around in various desktop environments and customize the desktop to be the way you want it. 

How to Use the Linux Desktop

KDE Plasma Desktop
KDE Plasma Desktop.

Each Linux desktop environment works slightly differently and so covering all bases is going to take some time.

However here are some good guides for getting you started:

How Can I Connect to the Internet

Connecting To The Internet Using Ubuntu
Connecting To The Internet Using Ubuntu.

While connecting to the internet differs for each desktop environment the principals are the same.

There will be a network icon on a panel somewhere. Click on the icon and you should see a list of wireless networks.

Click on the network and enter the security key. 

The heading for this item links to a guide showing how to do it using Ubuntu Linux. You can also learn how to connect via the command line.

The Best Place for Audio

Quod Libet Audio Player
Quod Libet Audio Player.

Linux is the king when it comes to playing audio files. There are dozens of great audio applications and it is a case of choosing one or more that you like.

The article linked in the header lists some of the best audio tools for Linux including options for playing and ripping online radio stations, music players, and podcast managers.

For​ more details on specific audio players check out these guides:

The Best Place for Email

Evolution Email Client
Evolution Email Client.

It is often said that there is no match for Outlook within Linux. Really?

Assuming you aren't happy using something like GMail's default web interface here are some great email solutions.

The Best Place for Browsing the Web

Best Linux Web Browsers
Best Linux Web Browsers.

Linux has all the best browsers available including Chrome, Chromium, Firefox, and Midori.

It doesn't have Internet Explorer or Edge but hey who needs them. Chrome has everything you could ever need in a browser.

Are There Any Decent Office Suites for Linux?


There is no doubt that Microsoft Office is a premium product and it is a very very good tool and it is hard to replicate and surpass the quality of that particular product.

For personal use and for small to medium-sized businesses you could argue that Google Docs and LibreOffice are good alternatives and at a fraction of the cost.

LibreOffice comes with a word processor with the majority of the features you would expect from a word processor. It also comes with a decent spreadsheet tool which again is fully featured and even including a basic programming engine although it isn't compatible with Excel VBA.

Other tools include the presentation, maths, database and drawing packages which are all very good.

How to Install Software Using Linux

Synaptic Package Manager
Synaptic Package Manager.

Linux users do not install software the same way that Windows users do although the differences are becoming less and less.

Generally, if a Linux user wants to install a package they run a tool known as a package manager.

A package manager accesses repositories that store the packages that can be installed.

The package management tool generally provides a way to search for software, install software, keep the software up to date and remove the software.

As we move into the future, certain Linux distributions are introducing new types of packages that are self-contained much like Android apps.

Each distribution provides its own graphical tool. There are common command-line tools used by many different distributions.

For example, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and Debian all use the apt-get package manager

Fedora and CentOS use the yum package manager.

Arch and Manjaro use Pacman.

The Linux Command Line

Open A Terminal
Open A Terminal.

A lot is made about Linux users having to use the terminal which prevents it becoming popular among the masses. It's a worthless debate.

While it is useful to learn the basic Linux commands (the same could, of course, be said for DOS commands in old versions of Windows) there is no necessity to do so.

The first thing you need to know of course is how to open a terminal and there are of course plenty of ways to do so. 

Why is it called a terminal? A terminal is actually short for terminal emulator and it harks back to the day when people logged on to physical terminals. Now all you need to know is that a terminal is where you enter Linux commands.

Once you have the terminal open you should really learn how to find your way around.

It is also worth learning about permissions. This guide shows how to create a user and add them to a group. Here is another guide that shows you how to add users, administer groups and set permissions.

A command that users commonly learn early on is the sudo command but don't blindly start entering commands using sudo without understanding what it does because it could all end in disaster.

While you are at it, you should also understand about switching users using the su command.

Essentially the sudo command lets you elevate your permissions so that you can run an individual command as another user. By default that other user is the root user.

The su command switches your context so that you are running as a specified user. You can run a series of commands as that user.

This site has dozens of articles showing how to use the command line and it is worth checking back regularly to see what is new. Here are a few examples of some recent additions:


In this guide I have shown you what Linux is, why you would use it, what Linux distributions are and how to choose one, how to try Linux out, how to install it, how to customize Linux, how to navigate Linux, a guide to the best applications, how to install applications and how to use the command line.

This should put you on a good footing for moving forward.