A Windows user’s guide to Linux

Don’t know your DEB from your RPM? We offer a short guide to Linux for the Windows user.

August 26, 2011
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If you pay any attention to IT at all you’ll have heard of Linux. You’ll probably also have heard from the some that Linux is complicated, ugly and incomplete. Which couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, Linux is now a full-fledged member of the operating system club and can do just about anything that any other OS can do and, in many cases, do a lot more than many other OSes can do.

So, if you’ve ever considered giving Linux a try then now is the time. Here are a few tips to get you smoothly onto the Linux road.

Distributions

This is your first step. Linux is not homogeneous like Windows or OS X. Linux comes in a range of different versions, called “distributions”. The majority of the underlying code in each of these distributions is the same with most of the differences being in the interface and some of the management tools. Choosing the right distribution can be tricky, especially as there are literally hundreds of versions of Linux available. Fortunately most of those you can forget about, for now. What you need is an easy to use version of Linux, which leaves you with a short-list of Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSuse, Mandriva and Linux Mint. Picking one of these will make you life easier as they are all easy to install and pretty simple to maintain.

Desktop Environment

Again, unlike Windows or Mac OS X, Linux is not limited to just one desktop interface. There are dozens of different interfaces available, each with their own unique capabilities and drawbacks. Much like choosing a distribution, most of them can be ignored, for now. Whichever distribution you choose to install will include its own default desktop interface. In most cases it will be either KDE or Gnome. In Ubuntu’s case it will be its own Unity. The beauty in this process is that if you don’t like the interface you have then you can easily swap to another one.

LiveCDs

This is worth mentioning because one of the great contributions of Linux to the world is the idea of LiveCDs. Most versions of Linux have a LiveCD available which can be downloaded and used to test the OS before installing. Some even run from a USB drive which makes it even easier. With a LiveCD the entire OS is run from the CD without touching your hard drive and is a great way to test if you like the OS before installing it. In most cases the LiveCD doubles as the installer as well.

RPM, DEB

Linux applications are shipped in various formats. What’s important to remember here is that not all packaged applications will install on every version of Linux. Sounds complicated but it’s not really that difficult, especially as now most Linux versions have their own repositories which contain all the applications in the right format for that distribution. You may occasionally come across applications on the internet that you want to install and then you’ll have to choose the right version to download. Ubuntu, for example, uses .deb files which is among the most popular of the formats. Fedora on the other hand uses RPM. Fortunately all major distributions include an application manager that worries about all of this for you.

Windows applications

Perhaps the biggest challenge when moving to Linux is getting used to living without your Windows applications. Fortunately there are multiple ways around this. The easiest way is to install Linux alongside your Windows installation. This dual-boot approach means you can switch between Windows and Linux when you need to. The downside is that you have to log-off one OS to use the other. The other approach is to install something like VirtualBox which is a fantastic piece of virtualisation software. Using VBox you can install a copy of Windows, or Linux, on top of your main OS. You can then simply open your VBox window when you want to use your second OS without needing to log off the first. The downside is that it’s not entirely painless to get the two working in harmony but it’s also not impossible. The third option is to investigate Wine. Wine is a Windows compatibility layer that makes it possible to run many Windows applications directly on Linux. Not all applications are supported but most major ones are.

Alternatives

Although there are many ways to mimic Windows on Linux it does sort of defeat the point of trying Linux in the first place. Especially as there are many fantastic native Linux applications already available. The Linux Alternative project is just one of many lists of applications for Linux that can be use to replace Windows ones. Applications such as OpenOffice.org, Gimp and Inkscape are not only suitable alternatives to many Windows applications but in some cases are even better that the originals.

With Linux improving at a rapid rate it’s now easier than ever to use, so there is no better time to give Linux a try.

Tags: guide, Headline, Linux, Windows

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