A Beginners Guide to Linux

Linux offers a different take on desktop computing than Windows and macOS

The Linux operating system offers a rich mix of features and security that make it a great free and (mostly) open-source alternative to macOS and Microsoft Windows. Because it's different "under the hood," consider some of the big-picture aspects of Linux and how it compares to the other desktop operating systems before you take the plunge.

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

What Is Linux?

Linux powers a variety of computer systems from light bulbs to guns, laptops to large computer centers. Linux powers everything from your phone to your smart refrigerator.

In desktop computing, Linux provides an alternative to commercial operating systems such as Windows and macOS. 

Linux sources from some of the earliest computer operating systems from the 1960s and 1970s, and so it retains its root philosophies of strong user-level security, customization, and system stability.

Why Use Linux Instead of Windows or macOS?

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

Which Linux Distribution Should You Use?

The Linux kernel is like an engine. A distribution is an actual vehicle that houses the engine.

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

So which Linux distribution should you choose? Linux supports several hundred distributions, each optimized for some specific use case:

  • 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.
  • Ubuntu: A modern Linux distribution that 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 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

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.

Ubuntu Live Desktop

Most distributions use a live loader to both test and install the distribution. Ubuntu Linux, a common choice for new Linux hobbyists, offers an excellent live environment.

How to Install Linux

Each Linux distribution relies upon a different installer, which is a program that guides you through configuring Linux. In most cases, you're free to install Linux as the new operating system on a computer or as a separate OS that doesn't overwrite Windows.

Fedora Install - Configuration

What Is a Desktop Environment?

A typical Linux distribution includes several different components.

A display manager logs you in while a window manager governs windows, panel, menus, dash interfaces and core applications. Many of these items are bundled together to make a desktop environment.

XFCE Desktop Ubuntu
XFCE Desktop Ubuntu.

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

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

Cinnamon is a more conventional 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 classic-style desktop environment with many custom features and a core set of applications that are all highly customizable.

Enlightenment, XFCE, LXDE, and MATE are lightweight desktop environments with panels and menus.

Are There Any Decent Office Suites for Linux?

For personal use and for small- to medium-sized businesses, LibreOffice presents a strong alternative to Microsoft Office, for free.

LibreOffice

LibreOffice comes with a word processor with the majority of the features you expect from a word processor. It also features a decent spreadsheet tool that is full-featured and includes 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 good.

How to Install Software Using Linux

Linux does not install software the same way that Windows does. A package manager accesses repositories that archive various software applications that work on a given distribution. The package management tool provides a mechanism to search for software, install software, keep the software up to date, and remove the software.

Synaptic Package Manager

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

Given its long heritage and the diversity of approach of modern desktop environments, a lot of Linux still works from a shell session. In the macOS world, these sessions are called the terminal; in Windows, the Command Prompt.

Open A Terminal

Although the graphical user interface of modern Linux DEs can do just about everything, much online education about Linux relies on the shell because it's not tied to the peculiarities of a given distribution or window manager. People new to Linux can get away with rarely or never working from the shell, but people who grow to love Linux often go to the shell first because of how easy it is to type one command instead of clicking through many different menus.