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How to get started with Linux: A beginner's guide

Chris Hoffman | May 19, 2015
The world of Linux is ready to welcome you, with a shower of free open-source software you can use on any PC: hundreds of active Linux distributions, and dozens of different desktop environments you could run on them. It's a far cry from the one-size-fits-all, this-is-just-what-comes-with-your-PC vision of Windows.

Once you're ready to take the plunge, installing Linux on your PC is easy — just launch the installer provided in the live Linux environment. You have yet another choice here, though: You could wipe away your existing Windows system (assuming that's your current OS) and replace it with Linux, but installing it in a "dual-boot" configuration, or "alongside Windows," in Ubuntu installer parlance, is the more flexible choice. The installer will resize your Windows partition to make room for Linux, and you can select which operating system you want to use every time you boot your computer.

How to install more software

Software installation on Linux works very differently from software installation on Windows. You don't need to open your web browser and search for applications. Instead, look for the software installer on your system. On Ubuntu, this is the Ubuntu Software Center. On Linux Mint, it's the Software Manager. On Fedora, it's just named Software.

This isn't just a fancy interface for downloading software from the web. Your Linux distribution hosts its own "software repositories," containing software compiled to work with it. This software is tested and provided by the Linux distribution. If security patches are necessary, your Linux distribution will provide them to you in a standard way.

Basically, it's like an app store full of free, open-source software — except Linux distributions were doing "app stores" like this long before Apple popularized the concept.

Some applications — particularly closed-source applications like Google Chrome, Steam, Skype, Minecraft, and others — must be installed from outside your Linux distribution's package manager. You can download these applications from their official websites, just as you would on Windows. Be sure to download the installer package designed for the Linux distribution you're using.

Contrary to widespread belief, you probably don't need to install hardware drivers manually when you install the operating system. Most of the hardware drivers you'll need are built-in on Linux. There are a few closed-source drivers you might want — the Nvidia and AMD drivers for optimal 3D graphics performance, or Wi-Fi drivers to make your Wi-Fi hardware work right.

Ubuntu and Linux Mint will recommend these to you via their hardware driver tools, if necessary. Some Linux distributions may not help you install these at all. For example, Fedora doesn't want to endorse closed-source Linux drivers.

Despite the software installation differences, Linux should feel reasonably familiar for anyone who's used a Windows desktop before. You'll find windows, context menus, control panels, and more. Many of the applications you'll use on Linux are popular programs you may have already used on Windows, from Firefox to VLC and LibreOffice. And now you have the basic knowledge you need to get started using Linux. Happy exploring!


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