15 Nov 2012 - Münster (by James)

Why you shouldn't be scared of Linux

For some unknown reason, Linux, in some people, instills absolute morbid fear and most people won't even touch it with a barge pole, yet alone even consider installing it on their home computer. Why is this? Maybe because it's got the reputation of being a technical operating system with limited functionality. Oh, how wrong these claims are.

Linux is actually a very adaptable, flexible and powerful operating system – and it doesn't cost you a penny either. Sure, it's not really that popular – in August 2012 (the latest month for which I could find reliable statistics), Linux on the desktop only took a pitiful 5.0% of the total operating system share, but its technology powers much more, for example servers and Unix (which Linux is based on), has also found its way into other products such as OS X and iOS (which are based on BSD which is, in turn, based on Unix).

I think that the fear about Linux is uncalled for and in this piece, I'm going to show you that Linux really isn't that scary at all, and that it can find a home on everyone's computer.

Is Linux actually an operating system?

Yes and no. The Linux aspect refers more to the kernel, or the heart of the operating system, which can freely be used and modified by anyone. Linux usually comes in different forms, known as "distributions", which take the original Linux kernel and modify it to fit their own needs (the Linux kernel is open-source, which we like here at fruux). Desktop-orientated Linux distributions (which we're going to look at in this piece) often include a desktop environment and features vary between all of them.

So, how do you go about choosing a distribution? There are literally hundreds out there (at the last count there were over 600 distributions), all of which are specialised to different needs. And, because Linux is open-source, developers are free to modify the code to suit their own needs. However, many of these are incredibly specialised and, for the beginner Linux user, then there are several which are worth looking at. Let's go through them individually.

1. Ubuntu

Ubuntu is currently the most popular distribution for desktop and laptop computers, and it is a great choice for the starter Linux user as it offers so many features built right in and it's also got the advantage of being incredibly easy to use. It's also relatively easy to install (you can install it on a Windows-based computer using a dedicated installer) and partitioning (more of this below) is also a piece of cake.

Ubuntu also receives regular updates (a new version is released on average every 6 months) and benefits from a highly active developer community, so most bugs are fixed fairly quickly. You've also got a built-in application store (similar to the App Store) with a wide range of applications featured, so once you've got Ubuntu up and running you've got a great choice of applications to choose from – all in one place too. There's also plenty of applications pre-installed to start you off, with some popular ones like Firefox and Thunderbird.

2. Linux Mint

Linux Mint is another popular distribution for beginners and some favour it over Ubuntu, mostly because of the additional features and the pre-installed software that provides a better "out-of-the-box" experience (Mint Linux comes installed with LibreOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird, Xchat, Pidgin, Transmission and GIMP). A distinct advantage of Mint is the implementation of the Wine emulator, which means that it can run a wide range of Microsoft Windows software (including Microsoft Office).

Linux Mint also includes multiple desktop environments (more on this later), whereas with Ubuntu different desktop environments come in different operating system versions (for example, if you want to use KDE, a popular desktop environment that is similar to the Windows look-and-feel, you'll have to install Kubuntu, which is separate to Ubuntu), so you have multiple desktops with different looks and feels all in one neat package (Linux Mint comes with MATE and Cinnamon installed already, both of which are based on GNOME).

3. Fedora

Fedora is a popular distribution which is a spin-off from Red Hat Linux (which was geared more towards business users) and which, like most other Linux distributions such as Ubuntu, benefits from an active release cycle (a new major release comes out every 6 months or so). This distribution comes with a wide range of software installed as default however I feel that Fedora is more geared towards people who have a bit more knowledge of Linux, as it's not as user-friendly as some distributions (although it's still fairly easy to use).

One of Fedora's most important features is security, and although Linux is a pretty secure operating system, people who want piece of mind whilst using their computer may favour Fedora over other distributions. It was also the distribution of choice of Linus Torvalds, who wrote the Linux kernel back in the early 1990's.

4. Mageia

Mageia rose from the ashes of Mandriva when development stopped last year, however has since risen to become a popular distribution choice for home users. There's a lot to like about it too. Not only do they deliver a secure, stable and sustainable operating system, but the Mageia team also have a goal to set up a stable way direct collaborative projects – meaning a much better experience for the individual user.

They have also signed up the help of many careful individuals and several companies worldwide who coproduce the infrastructure, the Mageia distribution itself and all the documentation. The distribution has seen two major releases in the past and by the looks of it benefits from a yearly update cycle (just like Mandriva did).

5. Debian

Debian is one of the granddaddies of all the Linux distributions, simply because it has been around for quite a long time – the first version was released back in 1993, a full 19 years ago. Since then it has seen quite a few changes and if you're looking for a good stable and secure distribution, then Debian is a good one to pick (many other Linux distributions are based on it as well). The downside to this is that like Fedora it does require some pre-knowledge of Linux and isn't as user-friendly as some other distributions featured in this piece.

Debian has won many different awards for being one of the best Linux distributions around however has attracted some criticism due to the length of time between stable releases. The latest is Debian 6, codenamed squeeze, was released back in February of last year (other distributions would already have brought out a new version by now), and that was following a two year gap after the previous stable release, codenamed lenny (yep, they name their releases after characters in Toy Story – the first one was called, unsurprisingly, buzz).

Installing Linux is easy (kind of)

I'll hazard a guess at the fact that most people are probably scared of Linux because of the installation process. Sure, it's a bit more difficult than installing, say, Windows, but Linux has become a lot more orientated towards the home market, and the developers have cottoned onto this and provided much simpler installation processes.

You can run Linux in a number of different ways. The first, which is probably the simplest, is by using a Live CD. Most Linux distributions now let you download a disk image (which you then have to burn to a disk) then stick it in your CD/DVD drive and reboot your computer. You can then try out Ubuntu without having to install anything and if you don't like it, you can simply take the CD out and throw it away. If the distribution you want to install comes with a live CD (most of them do, nowadays), then I'd highly recommend doing this before committing to anything, as you may find that Linux is, simply, not for you.

The second is by using a virtualisation software, such as Parallels Desktop on Mac or VMware Workstation on Windows. Although not officially supported, some users have reported success in running Linux under Boot Camp, however I personally wouldn't recommend it – mostly due to the fact that it's really a shot in the dark.

Virtualisation software allows you to run Linux without fear of damaging your computer and, if you don't like it, you can simply get rid of it by deleting the disk image you've just created. It's also much easier to share files between the two operating systems, as the disks available in your native operating system are often accessible from the virtual operating system. A major disadvantage to this is that you'll have to have a pretty powerful computer to run two operating systems at once – virtualisation software is a major resource hogger and can slow down to your computer to almost unbearable speeds if you haven't got the processor power and RAM to support it. Have a look at the recommended system specifications on your virtualisation software's support page before committing to anything.

The second option is getting Linux to run alongside your existing operating system (usually Windows), and this involves a process called partitioning. You can create two partitions (or sections) on your hard drive, one running Windows and one running Linux. When you boot up the computer, you'll get the option to boot into either Windows or Linux. This has its advantages and disadvantages. You'll probably find that Linux runs quicker, as your computer's resources are only being dedicated to run one operating system, not two, however if you want to revert back to your previous operating system, then it's quite hard to remove the Linux partition permanently. You also won't have access to any of your drives in Windows, prompting you to use a third-party cloud based service (such as Dropbox, which does have a Linux client available for Ubuntu, Fedora and Debian).

Partitioning is really easy and most Linux setup wizards will walk you through the process step-by-step. I would highly recommend using the partitioning utility that is provided in your Linux installer – third-party partitioning software may either damage your computer or the partitions created won't be supported by your Linux distribution.

Ubuntu also handily includes a Windows installer, which makes installing it a lot easier. This works absolutely fine and all you need to do is download the installer, select the installation drive and the desktop environment and the installer will do the rest. What's more is that you can still access all your Windows drives as well, and getting rid of it is simply a matter of going into Programs and Features in the Windows Control Panel and uninstalling it straight from there. You can find full installation instructions for installing Ubuntu alongside Windows by heading over here.

Getting used to Linux

I guess the best way of getting used to Linux is for me to give you a quick guided tour around the operating system. For reference, I am going to use Ubuntu 12.10 (simply because it's the most popular distribution and an excellent one for beginners), which is running virtually under VMware Fusion 5 for Mac (however this factor won't affect the tutorial in any way). Other Linux distributions will be similar in features and functionality, however the look of the operating system will be slightly different.

If you've used OS X before, then Ubuntu shouldn't be too different. Instead of the Dock, you've got your applications running down the left-hand side and to launch one, just click on it. You can rearrange icons by just clicking on them and dragging them around and to remove an icon from the Launcher, simply right click on it and click on Remove from Launcher.

Ubuntu also features an easy way to launch your apps, similar to the Launchpad in OS X. All you have to do is click on the Ubuntu icon in the top-right hand corner and it will launch your Dashboard. You can search through your applications directly using the Search feature, and clicking on the icons on the bottom of your Dash will help you look through your applications, documents, music, pictures and videos a lot easier.

Ubuntu comes pre-loaded with some fairly decent software to get you going, such as Mozilla Firefox and LibreOffice however one of the appealing factors about this particular distribution is the ease of downloading software. Installing software on Linux is a little different to Windows and OS X due to something called package managers. Each Linux distribution has a slightly different way of installing software – Ubuntu, for example, uses the dpkg package system (which is also used by Debian and Linux Mint, for example), however Fedora uses the RPM package manager. Without getting too technical here, each one offers a slightly different way of installing and updating software.

Ubuntu, however, offers one of the nicest way of finding new software, via the so-called Software Center. Think of it as the App Store for Linux. Here, you can browse through new software arranged by category (most are free, but some you'll have to pay for) and install them at a click of a button. This approach, I find, is much more user-friendly than, say, trying to find individual applications scattered around the internet, and also helps you discover new software a lot easier. Of course, not everything is in there (just like the App Store), however you'll find a fairly decent offering and one that will keep you going for a while, at least!

Let's get started, then!

So, what are you waiting for? Linux really is a useful operating system and I hope that this (not so little) guide has helped put to rest the rumours surrounding it. Of course, I'm not expecting it to replace your standard operating system (unless you're already using it, of course!) but it can be really good to have as a backup and since it's not as susceptible to viruses like, say, Windows, it's a great operating system for browsing the web as well.

And if you didn't already know, fruux supports Linux either via Evolution (which often comes pre-installed with many distributions) or via Thunderbird (with the additional Lightning extension installed, which also runs under Linux). You can also run fruux on Linux through any other CardDAV or CalDAV compatible client as well.

Of course, I'm open to any questions, comments or suggestions regarding this (or any other) articles. Just e-mail me: james [at] fruux [dot] com.

About James

Nothing pleases James more than the smell of the countryside and the atmosphere of his university city of Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter.

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