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Linux is different. I don’t blame people who find it confusing, especially those who come from a Windows background. It’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed when making the switch. That’s what happens when you step from one world into another.
But rest assured: that sense of being overwhelmed won’t last long.
Every new Linux user always goes through a similar sequence of questions as they try to wrap their heads around the new environment. Fortunately, the answers to these questions are straightforward and easy to grasp, and once grasped, Linux becomes as intuitive as – or more so than – other operating systems.
Q. What is Linux And Why Should I Use it?
Linux has the kind of wild and bumpy history that comes inherent when a system encourages constant forking, but you don’t need to understand the history of Linux to appreciate the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of this operating system.
Long story short, Linux is an open source operating system with hundreds of different flavors, each one unique in its goals and design. Whereas Windows aims to accommodate the masses and Mac aims to be trendy and experiential, Linux can be molded in every which way.
Summed up in one word, Linux is customizable.
There are so many reasons to use Linux that I can’t fit them all in one paragraph. Of course, there are also reasons not to use Linux. Just know that there are several myths about Linux that keep being circulated but aren’t true anymore. Here’s how to check if Linux is right for you.
Q. Why do I Keep Hearing About “Distros”?
I mentioned that Linux comes in different flavors. These flavors are called distributions – or distros – and they each have their own name. Have you ever heard of Ubuntu, Mint, or Red Hat? Yup, those are all distros.
You can think of them like car models. A fictional automotive company might produce a line of sedans, a line of sportsters, and a line of SUVs. They’re all cars, but each model is designed for a different purpose: some are economical, some are flashy, and some are all about toughing it through harsh terrain.
In the same way, each Linux distro is built with a specific kind of user in mind. Some are graphically impressive while others don’t have any graphics at all. Some are all about speed and performance while others focus on usability and convenience.
With hundreds of distros out there, you can be sure that there’s at least one distro that will work well for you.
Q. Which Linux Distro Should I Choose?
It’s nice that there’s such a wide selection available, but nobody wants to sift through all those distros to find the right one. It takes too much time and, frankly, it’s overwhelming. We can help you with that.
If you’re switching from Windows, you’ll want to start with a distro that’s specifically built to ease the process of learning Linux. Ubuntu is the biggest name in this category, but I personally recommend ElementaryOS. Other choices include Linux Mint, OpenSUSE, and ZorinOS.
If you’re installing on an old machine, a lightweight performance distro like Lubuntu or Puppy Linux might fare best. These aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing, but at least they’re more than just a command line.
If you’re worried about security, you shouldn’t be. Linux is known to be quite secure as long as you practice good security habits. That being said, if you absolutely need every last ounce of safety and privacy, here are some of the most secure Linux distros.
Still confused? That’s okay! Here’s a step-by-step guide to picking the right distro.
Q. Dual Boot or Virtual Machine?
Now that you have a distro in mind, how do you go about giving it a try? Most modern distros offer a Live CD of some kind that you can insert and run in a temporary fashion to get a feel for the environment.
If you want something more committed than that, you can either dual boot or use a virtual machine.
Virtual machines are certainly the easier option. In essence, you install a new operating system within your existing operating system, e.g. you can run Linux in a window within Windows. It’s both convenient and safe, which is why you should always use a virtual machine when testing out new operating systems.
Dual booting takes a bit more work and is slightly riskier, but not by much. With this kind of setup, you can choose whether to boot into Windows or Linux whenever you start your computer. Setting up a dual boot is pretty straightforward these days, so don’t be afraid of it.
If neither of these sound good to you but you still want to try Linux, there are a few other risk-free Linux setups available.
Q. What are GNOME, KDE, and Unity?
Linux is unique in that the actual operating system (kernel) is separate from how it’s actually displayed to the user (desktop environment). GNOME, KDE, and Unity are different ways to “graphicalize” the internal system, and they aren’t the only ones.
In fact, there are so many to choose from that we’ve compiled a list of the top Linux desktop environments to help you choose the one that best fits your needs.
GNOME, KDE, and Unity are certainly the three most popular ones, so newbies should probably stick to those until they’ve earned a reasonable amount of Linux experience.
Q. Where are “My Documents”?
Perhaps the most jarring change between Windows and Linux is the file system. On Windows, you have a local drive (usually the “C:” drive) that contains a handful of directories like Users, Program Files, and Windows. It’s all you know and you’re used to it.
On Linux, everything starts in the root directory (usually called “/”), which is the absolute base directory that contains everything else. From there, you have dozens of branching directories that contain different parts of the system.
As a new user, the most important things you should know are:
- /home is similar to My Documents. This is where you can store user-specific data like downloads, music, projects, etc.
- /usr is where user-specific applications and configuration files are kept. When you install new software, this is likely where it’ll appear.
- /media is where you’ll find mounted removable media, such as USB thumb drives or CD-ROMs.
- /etc is where you can find system-wide configuration files, which you can open up and edit if you want (assuming you have the proper permissions) but you most likely won’t need to.
This is just a brief glimpse. If you want to explore the file system a little further, HowToGeek has a great article that explains the Linux directory structure.
Q. How do I Find And Install Software?
On Windows, installing software isn’t very complicated: you find the relevant websites, download the installation files, and run them. It seems fine because we’ve all grown up on Windows, but Linux proves that there might be a better way.
What if you could access all software installers at a central location? Instead of hunting from website to website, wouldn’t it be nice if you could bring up a “Software Center” window and browse through all the software available for your system?
Most Linux distros have something called a package manager, which fulfills this exact role. The one on your system will depend on the distro – e.g. Ubuntu uses Synaptic Package Manager – but the concept is all the same. Here’s our guide to package management and software repositories.
In fact, it’s such a smart system that Microsoft is adopting it. Yup, Windows is getting a package manager.
Q. Do I Need The Command Line?
The terminal is a common sore spot for people switching over. Do you need to know how to use the command line in order to use Linux? Not at all. Will it come in handy? Absolutely.
Learning even just the basics can ease the learning curve dramatically. Start with our introductory command line guide, then take a look at these essential Linux commands that everyone should know. Lastly, here are some dangerous Linux commands that you should avoid.
Don’t try to memorize it all! It’s better that you don’t, at least for now. Most Linux users continue to reference websites and guides long after they’ve grown comfortable with the operating system.
That being said, I don’t deny that it can be scary. Maybe it feels too technical and out of your depth, but here’s the good news: it’s not as complicated as you think. Take a few minutes to overcome your fear of Linux and you’ll be good to go, I promise.
Q. How do I Play Games on Linux?
This is a common question that should actually be broken into two separate, more specific questions. First, is it plausible to expect to play games natively on Linux? And second, how do I play my Windows games on Linux?
Unfortunately, Linux still lags behind in terms of native gaming. It’s certainly in a better state today than it was years ago, but most developers don’t care enough to port their games to Linux. That being said, most web games will work just fine, plus Steam is now available natively on Linux. (Not all Steam games are compatible, though.)
When that isn’t enough, you can play your Windows games using PlayOnLinux. PlayOnLinux is based on Wine, which is an emulator that makes it possible to install and run Windows programs directly on Linux at the cost of some performance. Not all Windows games are supported, but enough to conclude that PlayOnLinux is both impressive and useful.
Don’t Fret, Linux Takes Time
I’m fully aware that Linux is not the best operating system for everyone. Some people just don’t like it and that’s fine. However, I recommend giving it at least two to three weeks of daily use before deciding whether you like it or not. You may find that it grows on you.
Still confused about something? What are the most common questions you’ve heard from Linux newbies? Share with us below!