What You Need To Switch To Linux

Everything you need to have on hand before you make the move to Linux

The word Linux

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The Linux family of operating systems—vanguards, mostly, of free and open-source software—offers a more refined computing experience now than ever before. Linux systems perform well on a variety of hardware configurations, and they even work great alongside Microsoft Windows. Try a Live USB version of Linux to see whether it's worth making the switch, in whole or in part.

Why Linux?

Linux desktop

Modern Linux distributions (a distribution is a customized variant of Linux, optimized for some specific purpose) are stable, polished, and user-friendly. The reputation of Linux as being the preserve of bearded nerds has long since passed. Linux is now a mainstream operating system, in use across millions of homes and even in many businesses and governments. For example, the city of Largo, Florida runs on Linux—as does the entire U.S. Navy submarine fleet!

Linux offers several significant benefits:

  • Free Software Base: Tens of thousands of robust programs, most free and open-source, make finding the right tool for any job fairly easy. In fact, many popular commercial applications for Windows and Mac offer parallel open-source equivalents—like LibreOffice for Microsoft Office or GIMP for Adobe Photoshop.
  • Customized Environments: Linux runs on more hardware than Windows or Mac, and the open-source nature of Linux means you're free to tailor the operating system to meet very specific use cases, in a manner you cannot do with a closed-source Windows or macOS installation.
  • Detailed Configurations: In Linux, everything can be tweaked to some degree, including the graphical desktop environment.
  • Secure and Robust: Linux springs from Unix. It's a fast, secure, multi-user operating system that's highly resistant to penetration and malware.

Why Not Linux?

htop on lin

Linux isn't ideal for all people and all use cases, however. Consider the following reasons why Linux may not work for you:

  • Limited Software: The premium paid software that people crave, like the Adobe Creative Cloud suite, don't run on Linux. Although those Adobe programs each prompted an open-source alternative, the alternative apps usually aren't as polished or feature-rich.
  • Use of Shell Prompts: The most direct way of doing a lot of things in Linux is through a shell prompt. If you're not comfortable with a command-line interface, you may find using Linux to be a bit tougher.
  • Need for Computing Acumen: Linux doesn't protect you like Windows or macOS does, from making bad choices about the administration of the operating system. It's not hard to cause trouble, and it often takes a bit of computing knowledge to set that trouble aright.
  • No One Right Way: With Linux, there's often a dozen equivalent ways to perform a single action. Although this flexibility is helpful for some people, for people who need a single, standard set of instructions, this flexibility sometimes proves difficult to manage.

Hardware Requirements for Linux

Pile of old technology
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Linux tends to be more forgiving on older hardware. Whereas Windows 10 supports a limited set of Intel- and AMD-based processors, Linux can run on very old hardware that no longer meets the minimum recommended specs for Windows 10—and it runs like butter, in many cases.

Different Linux distributions require different relative balances of computing power. A light-footprint distribution performs well even on hardware that's more than a decade old. Instead of throwing away a still-working but ancient computer, put Linux on it instead and eke a few more years of useful life out of it.

Try Before You Buy: Live Linux Environments

You don't need to upset your current computer to give Linux a spin. Most distributions support a live USB environment. Download the installer, put it on a dedicated USB drive, then reboot your computer. Linux loads without changing anything on your computer, so there's no risk to you to play around with a live environment.

For a sample taste of Linux, try Linux Mint—a popular mid-weight distribution that's beginner-friendly.

Picking a Linux Distribution

Linux distributions fine-tune generic Linux into a format that's optimized for a specific set of use cases. As of late 2019, the Linux ecosystem includes several hundred different varieties, but only a handful are commonly used for beginners. Explore the options before you pick a live USB environment, to ensure that you're sampling a distribution likely to meet your needs.

Using Linux as a Primary or Secondary System

Some people are drawn to the strengths of Linux but cannot separate themselves from a particular program that runs only on Windows 10 or macOS. All of these primary operating systems are flexible enough to support a mix of configurations.

Linux Only

Wipe your hard drive and use Linux as your daily-driver operating system. If you need to use a Windows-based program, check whether it's compatible with WINE, a Windows emulator. WINE works with many older Windows-based programs, although it's not ideal for cutting-edge software.

Linux in a Virtual Machine

Use a tool like VirtualBox or Hyper-V or Bootcamp to run Linux in a virtual machine inside of your existing Windows 10 or macOS computer. This approach offers the benefit of not upsetting your existing system, while affording you easy access to Linux in a virtual environment.

Linux in a Dual-Boot System

Some people install two or more operating systems on their hard drive, picking one when the computer boots. It's relatively straightforward to "shrink" your Windows or macOS system to free up space to install Linux, too. That way, when you need Windows or Mac, you've got them—but when you want Linux, that option remains available, too, and without the constraints of a virtual environment.