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You’ve heard about Linux, but it’s only recently that you realized this free and open source operating system is something that you could actually use. It’s not hard to install, it has plenty of great apps, and it extends the life of your computers. These days, Linux even makes for a decent way to play games. You get this. You don’t need to be sold on Linux, you just want someone to hold your hand as you get started.
I hear you, and I’m here to help.
What Is Linux?
If you’re new to Linux, you might make the common assumption that it is an operating system. That’s not exactly true. Linux is actually just the kernel, the core of an operating system. The kernel enables software (what you see on screen) to interact with hardware (what you touch with your hands). Without a kernel, your system can’t operate.
So when you say Linux, you’re most often referring to any of the operating systems that are based on the Linux kernel, such as Ubuntu or Fedora. As a kernel, Linux doesn’t do anything on its own. It needs someone to bundle and distribute it with all the software necessary to provide a complete experience. When this happens, the resulting Linux operating system is known as a distribution (or “distro”).
What Makes Linux Different?
What’s different about the Linux kernel? Like most of the applications that run on top of it, the kernel is actively maintained by the free and open source software (FOSS) community.
Open source software doesn’t cost money, and everyone is free to look at the source code and modify it as they please. This means that skilled developers from around the world contribute their work either for free or via sponsorship from companies like Canonical or Red Hat. But you can improve the software as well.
In contrast, the Windows source code is not available to anyone but Microsoft employees, and it constitutes a felony to decompile or reverse engineer it. You can’t build your own Windows kernel, fix bugs, or distribute an improved version of Windows that you created.
Linux is different, and the GNU General Public License is part of the reason why. This license provides the legal grounds for your rights to the software. Originally written by Richard Stallman, it ensures that even when a work is modified or enhanced, it still remains in the public domain for other people to use and enjoy. It’s the most widely used license in the FOSS community.
The free and open-source nature of license can be a double-edged sword. Without a clear revenue model, development can be inconsistent. Some programs receives regular investment while others lie dormant for years. Yet Linux has now spread to become the backbone of the internet and the most common operating system for supercomputers.
At the end of the day, while using Linux feels very similar to Windows and macOS, there are aspects that you will have to learn for the first time. We’ll encounter more of them as we go along.
Breathing Life Into an Old PC
One common reason people switch to Linux is to continue using a computer that can no longer handle the latest version of Windows or macOS. How good is Linux for this job, and why?
- Linux is efficient: Many Linux distributions come from decades of experience in server rooms. System administrators often appreciate sleek, lean code that gets the job done without wasting processing power. Taking an extra five seconds to power up is something that many sys admins are not ready to put up with. Coming from such a harsh and demanding environment has made Linux distributions the best in their class. Though with software coming from many different sources, it’s not the case that every program will make best use of system resources.
- Linux is customizable: Linux allows its users to tweak every aspect of a machine’s functionality. Some distributions encourage you to select different components and assemble your own system. Most deliver a fully working experience but allow you to swap out or alter the pieces as you wish. Many distros encourage you to make your own adjustments, while tweaking others (such as Elementary OS) can require more specialized knowledge.
- Linux doesn’t require an investment: The overwhelming majority of Linux software is free to download and install. These programs are typically easy enough to use that you don’t need to spend money on training courses or books. All you need to spend to revitalize an old PC with Linux is time.
- Linux is modular and specialized: You can customize a machine that is specifically designed to suit your needs: remote video monitoring, food recipe database, a control panel for an awesome laser projector that changes intensity in sync with the beat of music. You can build whatever you want. A testament to the modular design of Linux is that a variant of Red Hat Linux is used to control the electro-magnets inside the Large Hadron Collider. You may be surprised just how many things your old PC can still do.
Whether you’re installing Linux yourself or buying a computer that comes with it, you need to make a few decisions beforehand. That involves getting to know a few terms you may not have encountered before. Let’s dive in.
Choosing a Distribution
To recap, a distribution is a Linux operating system that ships with all the software needed to provide you with a complete experience. They provide the kernel along with hardware drivers and applications.
Distributions come in all shapes and sizes. Some are aimed at newcomers, while others are geared toward the most diehard of command line junkies. (You’ll also find distributions that make switching from macOS to Linux easier!) Ubuntu, Fedora, and openSUSE are three general-purpose distributions good for people of all skill levels.
There are many other Linux distributions available, and each one is a bit different. Some distributions are fine-tuned to serve a particular niche. This way you can install an operating system that was built for multimedia creation or one that was created for computers with old or underpowered hardware.
On that note, hardware compatibility is perhaps the most important thing to consider when switching to Linux. While most hardware is supported by default in the majority of Linux distributions, less popular or quirky hardware might not work. Most of the times, even if your device isn’t supported by default, you can follow online tutorials that take you through installing an unsupported driver or patching the kernel — but that’s not a task suited for everyone. More on this later.
You can visit Distrowatch to see hundreds of Linux distributions. On the right side you’ll notice there’s a Top 100 list of the most popular distributions. Note, it’s hard to gauge just how many people use Linux. Distrowatch bases rank on the popularity of each distribution’s website. This gives an impression of what people are interested in, but it’s hardly a representation of which distrbutions are the most widely used. Ubuntu, for example, isn’t currently ranked as #1, but it is widely considered the most popular version of desktop Linux.
For a less daunting rundown, check out our list of the best Linux distributions.
Choosing a Desktop Environment
Depending on which distribution you choose, this decision may already be made for you. Most major Linux distros provide a default desktop environment.
But maybe you haven’t made up your mind on a distro yet. In that case, checking out desktop environments first can help you make your decision. Each provides a different experience, and some work better in certain distros over others. Here are a few of the big ones.
GNOME is the default desktop environment in Ubuntu, Fedora, and Debian. While Windows, macOS, and most Linux desktop environments display your open windows on a panel or dock, GNOME does no such thing.
Instead, you switch between open windows by opening the overview screen, a dashboard that also shows your app launcher, virtual desktops, and a search bar that can access files, open software, and issue commands. Though if you want a traditional panel, there are extensions available to make that happen.
The KDE Plasma desktop is the default environment in KDE Neon, Kubuntu, and Chakra. It’s also a popular choice among openSUSE users.
KDE Plasma is perhaps the most configurable interface you can run on a desktop computer. For that reason, it’s a great pick for power users and tinkerers. You can make KDE resemble most other desktop interfaces without having to edit obscure files or tweak any lines of code.
Cinnamon provides a simple experience that feels familiar to many Windows users making the switch to Linux. An app menu sits in the bottom left, system indicators reside in the bottom right, and your open windows appear in between.
If you don’t want to relearn how to use a computer, going with Cinnamon can save you some headache. It is the default desktop environment in Linux Mint.
While Linux is a great way to revive an old PC, not every desktop environment will run on aging hardware. You may find yourself having to use one specifically designed to use fewer system resources.
Xfce is one of the more popular options well-suited for this task. It is the default desktop environment in Xubuntu.
Backing Up Your Data
Before we get to the good stuff, we need to do some preparation work. Although you’re probably no longer using your old PC, you should open it and search for documents, videos, photos, music that you haven’t yet backed up. Be cautious and check twice, because you may erase everything from the hard drive later on.
Backing up is not difficult, but it can be tedious if you have lots of data scattered around. The easiest way to save your files is to plug an external hard drive into a USB port.
For Windows Users:
- Double clicking on the My Computer icon on the Desktop or in the Start menu will reveal a window which contains the file tree of the external hard drive.
- Find and copy the necessary files by selecting them and tapping Ctrl + C, activating the external hard disk file tree by clicking inside the window we opened earlier, and tapping Ctrl + V. Alternatively, you can select the files and drag’n’drop them into the external hard drive window.
You can also back up all of your data to a cloud storage service. This method makes your data accessible on other devices with internet access, but it will likely cost more over time. It also comes with many security and privacy risks. You’re ultimately giving your data to someone else and trusting them to do the right thing.
Checking Your Hardware Specifications
Knowing a little about the hardware inside your computer is important later on if there are compatibility issues. It is important that you write these down now because if something breaks during the installation process or at first boot, you will need to search the web for a driver, kernel patch, or package.
We don’t need to write down all of the hardware specifications because drivers for things such as Ethernet cards are compatible most of the time. Bluetooth chips, card readers, and printers are trickier, but most of them are supported as well by default.
Let’s say you do have a very rare Ethernet card. You can use the System Profiler tool to discover the specifications after we’re done installing the operating system.
If you’re running Windows, msinfo32 is a small program included with Windows 2000, Me, XP and later versions. This program gives you a comprehensive view of all the hardware present in your system. You can find it by opening the Start menu and entering msinfo32 into the search box. On older versions of Windows, you may have to click the Run option in the Start menu and type msinfo32 there.
Okay, you’ve picked a Linux distro, have backed up your files, and you know what hardware makes up your PC. It’s time to get your hands dirty.
There are three primary ways to install most Linux distros on your computer:
- Replace your existing OS with Linux
- Install Linux alongside your existing OS
- Run Linux off a USB stick
Here are detailed instructions on how to install Ubuntu on your existing Windows or macOS machine. Of the three options above, replacing your existing operating system will run the fastest and smoothest on your computer.
Installing Linux without getting rid of your existing operating system is known as dual-booting. Whenever you start your computer, you will have the option to choose with operating system you use. This stops you from having to leave your old OS behind, but there are risks to keep in mind.
Keeping a copy of Linux on a USB stick allows you to boot up your copy of Linux on a friend’s computer, in a lab, or at the library. This method requires the least commitment from you and your computer, since you’re not touching your copy of Windows or macOS.
Using the Linux Desktop
As you know by now, there isn’t any one specific Linux desktop. But if you’re like many, if not most, new Linux users, you’re probably starting with Ubuntu. In that case, when you sign into your new operating system for the first time, you will see a screen that looks like this.
This is the Ubuntu desktop. While Canonical has added a few of its own elements of charm, the interface you see is not exclusive to Ubuntu. It’s GNOME.
For a complete overview of how to navigate this interface and other software, check out our beginner’s guide to Ubuntu.
Finding Additional Software
There comes a time when you need more apps. Where do you get them? You may be accustomed to heading to a big box store and purchasing a program, which you either install with a disc or download from the web. Maybe you get all of your apps by going to individual websites and downloading installers. You may even get all of your software from app stores that sell you content, just like on a phone or tablet.
Programs made for Windows only run on Windows. The same is true of software made for macOS. You’re going to need to find apps intended for Linux.
Most Linux software is now available via app stores filled with free programs. Using them is similar to using an app store on any other platform. Simply find the app you want and hit the install button.
These app stores are the alternative to package managers, the traditional and more complicated way of getting software on Linux. Nowadays, you may never need to use a more advanced tool like Synaptic or Apper, but they do give you more control over what you install.
While downloading installers directly from websites is not the preferred way to get Linux software, there are times when this is the only option. This is how you get Google Chrome, for example. It’s also a common way to install commercial games from online stores such as Humble Bundle and GOG. Just know that you won’t be looking for an EXE. Instead, you’re more likely to find files packaged as DEB, RPM, SH, or one of the many other formats for Linux.
Now that you know how to install apps, which should you grab? For an idea, check out our list of the best programs for Linux.
Updates are a free part of the Linux experience. They keep your system running the latest version of software. You may also receive enhancements to the user interface and patches to components that run in the background.
You can typically install updates via your distro’s app store, the same place you go to download new software. Often it will have its own section, as is the case in Ubuntu.
In Linux, not only do you receive free updates to your apps, but you can upgrade from one version of a distro to the next without paying a dime. This isn’t a limited time offer or a deal subject to special terms or conditions. Upgrades, like updates, are always free.
Downloading Multimedia Codecs
You may never have had to think about codecs before. They enable various multimedia files, such as music and video, to play on your computer. When you buy a PC with Windows or macOS, codecs come as part of the desktop. This typically isn’t the case whenever you install Linux yourself.
This isn’t a fault or flaw in the Linux desktop. Instead, it’s a legal matter. Many codecs remain under copyrights, and desktop makers must pay license fees in order to legally distribute them.
Laws change from country to country. That’s part of the reason why codecs are available as a free download on many Linux distros, such as Ubuntu and Linux Mint. But there’s also a paid version you can download if you want a clear license to play these files.
Finding Additional Drivers
When you replace the operating system a computer came with, things don’t always go smoothly. Sometimes you will need to install additional drivers or codecs to make your experience complete.
If you’re experiencing graphical glitches or can’t view Wi-Fi networks, you may need to install a proprietary driver. This is software that Linux distributions aren’t permitted to preinstall, so you have to do so yourself. How you do this can vary depending on which distro you’re using. If you went with Ubuntu, you can find a section for installing drivers inside the Software & Updates app.
What to Do When You Need Certain Software?
One of the first questions people ask when contemplating a switch to Linux is whether they can run a specific program. When we have only ever used one operating system, we tend to view apps as components any computer should be able to run. But in most cases, an app is actually designed to run on only one operating system. In order to run on a different one, developers have to build a separate version. The Windows version of Steam doesn’t run on macOS, and vice versa. Linux, too, needs its own version.
Since not as many people run Linux on their desktops as Windows or macOS, developers often choose not to make a Linux version of software. Often enough, there’s a free and open source alternative that does the same job. But there are cases when people want to use a program that doesn’t work on Linux and for which an alternative doesn’t exist. While this can be a reason not to switch to Linux, it doesn’t have to be. There may still be ways to make that program work.
You may have heard of emulators, software people use to play console video games on their PCs. These work by running code that is similar enough to imitate (or emulate) the original machines the games were designed for. You can do the same thing with programs meant for personal computers.
The most well-known way to emulate Windows software on Linux is using Wine. While this doesn’t always work, in the best case scenarios, a Windows app will run alongside your regular Linux software without any additional fuss.
Because configuring Wine can be complicated, there are programs that try to do the hard work for you. Two popular examples are PlayOnLinux and Crossover Linux. The latter is a paid app that also exists for Windows and macOS.
Emulation allows you to run an app on an operating system it wasn’t intended for. Virtual machines let you run an entire operating system inside your current one. So when you need to run a particular Windows program, you can fire up your virtual copy of Windows and open the program there.
Unlike emulation, virtual machines are guaranteed to work. The downside is that you have to boot up a separate operating system in its own window, which can be time consuming and awkward. You also need to have a copy of Windows or macOS to run. Getting one can be difficult or expensive depending on your circumstances.
You’re All Set!
At this point, you’ve installed Linux, learned a new interface, and have installed the software you need to hit the ground running. But your journey is just beginning. There is so much to see and do in the world of free and open-source software.
Since everything is free, you can change your distro at any time or swap out your current interface for another. And while you don’t need to open the command line to use Linux, there’s so much more you can do if you’re curious enough to give it a try.
You may not have all the software you’re familiar with, but there are still plenty of apps for managing photos, keeping up with your finances, and getting to work. These days, you can even amass a large library of games.
Are you considering making the switch to Linux? Is that something you did years ago? What advice would you offer others thinking of doing the same? Share your words of encouragement, and things to look out for, in the comments below!