Linux is my sandbox. It is where I go to play. It is also where many people go to be productive. Desktop Linux has many millions of users. You probably have not heard much about it because of the way that it is developed and promoted.
The Linux community is very fragmented which is a plus and a minus. It is a plus because it spawns much innovation and a minus because things get done, or not, in a very different way. Linux is divided into communities and projects and resources are not efficiently used. People go where their interest lies. That makes for happy workers, and some projects get lots of attention and develop quickly while others languish and die on the vine. It is all part of the process.
Linux for the most part does not have a big name behind it. Sure, it has Google, Red Hat, Novell and Canonical, but that is it. None is as big as Apple or Microsoft and more importantly it does not have a history of working closely with OEMs. Linux does not have an advertising budget and it does not come pre-installed which is problematic for many new users. They do not know where to begin. Linux is mostly spread by word of mouth which is why we may come across as evangelists. We know that without our work it would not be known at all.
Linux is divided into three main categories. There are very basic distributions, very easy to use distributions and those that lie somewhere between. You may wonder why anyone would want a basic distribution. Some people like to fix their own car or make a cake from scratch. It is all about choice. Using a basic distribution involves getting closer to understanding what is going on and how it works and many people like that hands on feeling. Others do not want to roll up there sleeves, but like a quick and easy approach. Fortunately there is no shortage of either.
If you like to learn the basics you could choose any of Arch, Gentoo, Slackware, or Linux From Scratch. There are others. If you want an easy to use distribution where you basically never need to type a command then you can opt for Linux Mint, one of the *buntus (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, etc.), PCLinuxOS, Mandriva, SimplyMEPIS, or openSuSE. You are by no means limited to these, but they are the biggies. Distrowatch maintains a top 100 list. In between these options are many fine distributions that are regarded as being harder to use, but still fine. This would include Debian which is the basis for Ubuntu and its derivatives and which will run an just about any architecture and Fedora which is the testing branch of Red Hat. Again there is no shortage of choice.
So, the first question is what kind of user are you and what do you want to do? If you want to learn how Linux works then opt for the first category. if you just want it to work out of the box, then go to the second category and if you want to get things done but still have some control then opt for category three.
Something else to consider is package management. Linux has two main package managers, but here are several others as well. The two main categories for package management are DEB short for Debian and RPM which is short form Red Hat Package Management. Packages are the way applications and libraries are bundled together and installed. The manager tracks the installation process, puts the parts in the right places and makes them available to you by making a menu item (for graphical applications). RPM and DEB are incompatible and different. Each Red Hat-based distribution has a different front end for managing the packages. SuSE uses Yast, Fedora uses Yum, Mandriva uses Urpmi for example. DEB is more unified. They all uses apt and dpkg. There are different package managers, but the commands work the same way whether you use Ubuntu, Debian, or MEPIS.
There are more distributions that use RPM, but DEB is the most common because the biggest distributions like Ubuntu use it. In general, there are many more applications available for Debian based systems. So if your software needs are more modest then RPM is fine, but if you need access to the biggest selection then you will likely be happier with DEB. Unlike Windows, you do not install Linux software by buying it or hunting for it on the internet. Software is stored in secure locations called repositories. Each distribution maintains its own repositories and they are incompatible with each other. In fact, a different version of the same distribution usually cannot manage the packages of a previous or later version. Repositories mean that everything is made to work with that distribution and version, they are checked and are free of viruses and malware, and you can get updates to each package as they become available.
The next thing to consider is support. Linux is developed, maintained and supported by the community. This includes developers and users. There are forums, wikis, online help, FAQs and more. The larger the community the more support there is. Some communities are huge and the amount of information available is also huge. That can be good and bad. The answer to your question is likely to be there, but finding it can be something else of a problem.
Some communities are more helpful and open than others because each community has a history and distinct character. Some distributions that are considered more geeky, may not seem as open because they function at a level that you may not relate to. They may seem to talk over your head and use lots of jargon and even seem elitist. Others may be more welcoming to new users. Some may even surprise you by taking you under their wing and mentoring you. The key to gaining friends in Linux is to embrace the new and get rid of old preconceptions. The worst thing that you can do is assume that the way that you have done things in the past is the best or only way. You are sure to get your chain yanked if you try this.
The thing to do is to join a forum and look around and see how people have responded to questions of people like you. If they seem terse and give solutions that would not be helpful to you then continue your search. To find a forum just type Linux forum in a search engine. Some forums are specific to a distribution or family of distributions and others are more general, like linuxquestions.org. Make a test post and see how welcoming they are. Be prepared to move on.
In general forums are frequented by people who try to be helpful, but not all help is useful to you. Many experienced users are comfortable with typing commands into a terminal and some even pooh pooh the GUI. If you are uncomfortable with the commandline then say so., otherwise you cna expect the to advise you to open a terminal and type commands and remember syntax. Although cut and paste works well enough if the instructions are clear.
The other thing to do is to test a distribution out. Most distributions use Live CDs or DVDs. This means that you can insert them in your DVD drive and boot from the CD or DVD. Nothing is written to your hard drive. You can test them out to see how they work on your equipment. You cannot install applications to a CD since it is read only and it will run slowly. You may be able to install an application to RAM disk, but that depends on your RAM and the distribution. You can do the same thing with a usb stick and it will run a bit faster.
To get Linux you download a compresses image file called an ISO which is available from the distribution or a site such as Distrowatch which specialises in tracking distributions. Once you download the ISO you can burn it to CD or DVD (depending on the size of the ISO) or write it to a usb stick. Follow the instructions here:
Distrowatch for ISOs: http://distrowatch.com/
For a usb stick look here:
I really like Unetbootin for this. It works in Windows or Linux and it can even download the ISO for you.
Another good resource is http://www.pendrivelinux.com/
You can get a free Ubuntu CD: https://shipit.ubuntu.com/
Also works for Kubuntu and one of the other *buntus. For example: https://shipit.kubuntu.org/
Buy a cheap CD for most distributions: http://www.osdisc.com/cgi-bin/view.cgi/index.html
Some distributions sell it pre-installed on a usb stick, but you will have to search around to find it.
Almost all distributions are free of charge. A few are commercial only. Some have both free and commercial versions. All Linux distributions are also free as in free speech if they follow the GPL or one of the other free software licenses. this means that you can fork it and release your own variant, which explains why there are some many distributions to begin with.
How do you know what is available and how popular they are? Check out http://distrowatch.com which is not definitive, but it does keep track of page hits over time. The undisputed king of distributions is Ubuntu which is the flagship of Canonical, the company that backs it. They also make other distros (short for distributions) such as Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Edubuntu and Ubuntu Studio. They have the same basic inner workings, but have a different front end or GUI. Other distributions of note are Fedora, Mint, openSuSE, Debian, PCLinuxOS, and Mandriva.
Some distributions such as the *buntus come with a specific desktop environment while others give you a choice. Fedora comes with both GNOME and KDE for example. Many distributions have both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, but some only come with 32-bit which will run on both chipsets.
The desktop environments are the graphical user interfaces by which you interact with the computer. There are several choices. Some are very full and others spartan with the difference being more features at the cost of lower performance. The two full feature ones are KDE and GNOME. GNOME tends to be more popular by virtue of the fact that it is the interface for Ubuntu which is the most popular distribution. KDE has its share of distributions though and Canonical makes a KDE distro called Kubuntu.
The difference really comes down to personal preference. KDE is older, but has had the most recent face lift with KDE 4. GNOME is undergoing a facelift now and will come out with GNOME 3 next year. KDE is written in Qt and GNOME is written in GTK with a few Mono apps thrown in. Both include a desktop environment and applications covering the gamut that one would expect. KDE apps will work in GNOME and vice versa. Many people choose to run a hybrid system by installing apps for the other desktop environment in preference to the ones that came with it.
KDE is fuller in that it has a bigger stable of applications and it is more configurable. GNOME is more tightly controlled, but knowledgeable users can configure it as much as KDE. Where there is a will, there is a way. KDE has many things built in that you would have to add utilities to GNOME to do. For example, KDE allows for wallpaper rotation, but GNOME requires a third party app to do the same thing. KDE’s built in compositing is more robust than GNOME’s. KDE has more widgets and toys. But some people like it simpler, so it all comes down to what you want.
Some people say KDE resembles Windows more, but that is a superficial comparison. Windows is more locked down like GNOME. KDE uses single click by default and GNOME sues double click like Windows XP. KDE has the panel at the bottom like Windows by default, but it can be moved anywhere. GNOME has two panels with the top one being the main one, more like the Mac.
And all of this comparison will soon be irrelevant because GNOME will release a new and very different interface with GNOME Shell in version 3 (which you can try out now in the repositories of many big distros or will come by default early next year).
I use KDE mostly, but use GNOME on my netbook. Both are from Canonical (Kubuntu and Ubuntu). I also have seven or eight other distros installed on various partitions at any given time. I like Fedora which I always have installed, Aptosid (formerly Sidux), MEPIS, PCLinuxOS, Mandriva, Sabayon, and Arch. I test the most recent versions of most big distros and test Ubuntu from alpha to final release. I like Kubuntu and Ubuntu because it works best for me, which is not to say that it will work best for you. I run lots of applications and like the size of the repositories and I have several years of working with the community. It makes it hard to leave.
If you don’t like either KDE or GNOME there is no shortage of options. XFCE is a relatively full desktop environment that is neither like KDE or GNOME. It offers less, but has somewhat better performance and you can run both KDE and GNOME apps to your heart’s content. If you want even more performance bang, there is Fluxbox, LXDE, Openbox, Enlightenment, Sugar, IceWm and more.
Screenshots of desktop environments: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desktop_environment
Comparison charts of DEs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_X_Window_System_desktop_environments
Comparison charts of Distros: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_Linux_distributions
Linux Timelines: http://futurist.se/gldt/
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