Linux First Steps

Just want a working PC running Linux, and couldn't care less about the difference between free software, open source or how GNOME 2.30 compares to KDE 4.4? Start here.

Every now and again someone writes me and asks me "What's the best way for me to get started in Linux?" Over the years, I've answered in several different ways, but here's the summarization of my thoughts.

[ See also: Linux School: Getting started with Linix ]

First, most of the people who write me aren't interested in the fine details of Linux. They are just sick and tired to death of Windows' endless security problems or its costs. Indeed, most of them aren't that interested in learning Linux. They just want a cheap operating system that will let them read e-mail, browse the Web, and run some office applications without worrying about malware.

So, here's what I tell people who just want a good, working PC, and couldn't care less about the specific differences between "free software" and "open source" or how KDE 4.4 compares to GNOME 2.30

If they're not sure they want to make the change to Linux from Windows, and it is a major shift, I recommend that they first try a taste of Linux. There are lots of ways now to sample Linux without committing to it. These include: Using a pre-installed instant-on Linux that may already be on your laptop like Splashtop; adding a Linux distribution like Presto or Wubi to your Windows PC; using a live Linux CD, DVD, or USB-stick to give Linux a test drive; or installing and running Linux in a virtual machine like Oracle's VirtualBox. They're all relatively easy to do, and won't cost you a dime.

If after playing with Linux, they want to really give Linux a try, my usual suggestion is to buy a computer with desktop Linux pre-installed on it. I do this because while installing Linux on a PC, or just trying it out while leaving Windows untouched, has never been easier, you can't beat hitting the on-button for ease-of-use.

At one time, finding a PC with Linux ready to go on it was really hard. Unfortunately, it's still not as easy as driving down to your local Best Buy. While from time-to-time some major retailers have offered Linux-powered laptops and netbooks, none of the big box stores are currently offering Linux.

Fortunately, many computers vendor and retailers will be more than happy to sell you through their Internet stores. The biggest of these is Dell, which currently offers three notebooks and a netbook with Ubuntu Linux. HP, which is showing renewed interest in Linux for its tablets and mobile devices will install RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) on some workstations and Novell's SLED (SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) on some workstations, desktops, and notebooks. Dell is much friendlier to new Linux users than HP is.

Dell was, and remains, desktop Linux's biggest support among the major PC vendors.

Dell was, and remains, desktop Linux's biggest support among the major PC vendors.

You don't need to go to a big vendor though to get a great Linux PC. The two most important of these minor league Linux PC vendors are system76, which specializes in Ubuntu, and ZaReason. ZaReason offers a wider variety of hardware and Linux distribution choices. Besides Ubuntu, they also offer pre-installed Debian, Fedora and Mint. System76, on the other hand, has a bit more experience. You won't go wrong though going with either of these vendors.

Which Linux?

Regardless of whether you buy a Linux-equipped PC or you opt to install it, what you want isn't some 'objective best' desktop Linux for all users. No, what you want is an easy-to-learn and easy-to-use Linux.

From my experience that means there are three good beginner Linuxes. The first, as will come to no surprise to anyone who follows Linux, is Ubuntu. The latest version, 10.04, aka Lucid Lynx, is quite good for any Linux user and it's ideal for beginners. This wildly popular distribution is easy to use and isn't going to overwhelm new users with.

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Mint 9's GNOME interface makes getting to the programs you want a snap

Another of my favorites for new users is the Ubuntu-derived Mint. I like Mint 9, the newest release because it comes with software already installed that can display proprietary multimedia files and streaming video. Out of the box, Mint 9, which is based on Ubuntu 10.04, can play DVDs and some proprietary formats, like Adobe Flash. You can add these features to any Linux distribution, but Mint includes them from the get go.

Finally, I really, really like MEPIS. For new users, I specifically like MEPIS 8.0, which uses the KDE 3.5 desktop. KDE 3.5 isn't the newest KDE take on the desktop, for that look to KDE 4.4, but I like it a lot personally, and what's more important for new users is that it's very easy for Windows users to pick up.

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MEPIS 8's KDE 3.5 style interface will feel quite homey to Windows XP users

Another thing I like about MEPIS is that I can always count on MEPIS to work without a hitch on any PC. I've used it on everything from 386s to brand-new, state-of-the-art PCs, and it always comes through for me. I also like its additional utilities, the MEPIS Assistants. These make completing what can be a complicated job on other Linux distributions, such as networking set-up, and make them simple.

Indeed, even though it's years out of date now, I still recommend Robin "Roblimo" Miller's book: Point and Click Linux. This book includes an ancient version of MEPIS and uses it for examples. I still recommend this book because it walks you through the very basics of using Linux and popular open-source software. You could hand a copy to your grandmother and she'd be able to run the included Linux distribution.

Are these the best Linuxes for everyone? No, it all really depends on what you need from your operating system. But, it you're new to Linux and you're pretty sure you want to switch, any of these distributions will do well for you. Then, if you want to get deeper into Linux you can, or if you just want to use an operating system that can do everything Windows does but is free and far more secure, you can just keep using any of these distributions.

You'll be glad you did.

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