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A Quick Guide to the Linux Operating System


We all get frustrated with Windows or macOS sometimes. But as these operating systems dominate the computing world, do you really have another option?

Yes! You can use Linux instead. It’s free, open-source, customizable, and secure. It has several advantages over Windows and macOS, but it also has a bit of a learning curve for new users.

If you’re intrigued by Linux and think it might be the new operating system for you, dive into this quick guide to the Linux operating system to learn more.

What is Linux?

Linux is an open-source operating system that was first released in 1991. You may have never heard of it, but Linux powers a lot of things. It’s the operating system behind Android, smart refrigerators and cars, Roku devices, and it runs all the world’s top 500 supercomputers. Linux is everywhere, but it only became a popular option for desktop computing in the last several years.

How does Linux work?

Like all operating systems, Linux allows your computer’s hardware to communicate with the software, so you can actually use your software. It’s easier to think of Linux in layers.

At the core layer, you have the hardware such as your CPU and RAM. You cannot interact directly with your hardware, so you need a kernel to reach it. Linux is the kernel. As the end-user, you and your applications still can’t communicate with the kernel, so you need the shell to perform commands.

Technically, Linux is a kernel and not an operating system. You can’t use it on a desktop computer or laptop without something known as a distribution, also called a distro. Since Linux was released, many popular distributions have been developed such as Ubuntu, Fedora, and Arch. The most popular distributions are the basis for hundreds of other Linux operating systems. For example, many Linux distros are based on Ubuntu. Linux is also more secure than other operating systems. There’s no need for antivirus software and being open-source, anyone can regularly look for bugs or back doors.

One last thing to know about Linux is that for desktop computing, the Linux kernel is often used in combination with the GNU project.  It is responsible for many of the tools you use with a modern Linux distribution. You may hear it referred to as GNU/Linux for this reason. The Linux that’s used in Android smartphones and other devices is based on the kernel alone and doesn’t rely on GNU.

Why Linux?

Linux is an alternative to Windows or macOS that interests many users, especially those in IT. Unlike Windows or macOS, Linux is free and open-source. You can download any Linux distro on as many devices as you like whenever you want. Because thousands of developers have worked on Linux operating systems for personal computing, there are distributions for every type of user. When you get more advanced with Linux, there are also more customization options than with Windows or macOS.

Choosing a Linux distribution

Before you start using Linux, you have to choose a distro. If you’re comfortable with Windows or macOS, there are distros that resemble these operating systems, making the transition easier for you. Distros are developed for an array of users, some aimed at beginners, some at gamers, some built for more customization, and some developed for security.

If you’re just getting started, some great beginning Linux distros are:

  • Ubuntu: one of the most popular Linux distros overall
  • Linux Mint: user-friendly for previous Windows users
  • Zorin OS: comes with a Windows-7-like start menu
  • Elementary: for previous macOS users
  • Pop!_OS: great beginner distro for gaming
  • Fedora: most frequently updated distro
  • CentOS: distro built for stability
  • Arch: a popular alternative to Ubuntu, with rolling release

Installing Linux

One of the most appealing features about Linux is that you don’t have to install it on your machine to use it. You can save it to a USB key or external hard drive and run it from there. This is a great way to test out a distro before committing to using it. Installing a Linux distro to your hard drive is more convenient than running it from an external source, however. This lets it save your settings even after your reboot.

If you have a PC and don’t want to overwrite Windows, you can also run Linux on a virtual machine. VirtualBox is an easy virtual machine to set up, but adding a virtual machine to your computer can slow down your PC’s performance if you don’t have a CPU with virtualization support built-in.

For installation on your hard drive, many distros come with an installer that lets you either choose Linux as the new operating system or as a separate OS so you don’t overwrite Windows.

Navigating the Linux desktop environment

When you boot up a new Linux distro, you’ll have a desktop environment. The desktop varies by distro — most have applications already installed but it depends on the target user. Spend a few minutes clicking through the desktop elements, which should include an app menu, a taskbar, and a notification area.

Some distros come with only one desktop but others let you choose. You can always download another desktop that’s more to your liking in the software repositories. A few of the most common desktop environments on Linux are:

  • Cinnamon
  • Unity
  • KDE
  • Enlightenment

Installing new software on Linux

You don’t install software on Linux the same way as on Windows. Each distro will have a software installer called a package manager, which accesses repositories of software applications that are compliant with your specific distro. On Ubuntu and Fedora, the GNOME desktop has a software store called “Software.”

The package manager allows you to search for, install, or remove software. It also keeps it up to date. It functions like an app store, except all the software and apps are free and open-source. Popular distributions will walk you through the installation of a new app, but the best way to interact with Linux is by using the command line.

The Linux shell

In Windows, the command line is called the Command Prompt and in macOS it’s the terminal. In Linux, it’s the shell or command line. The shell lets you enter commands and do anything you want to do with your Linux distro. Using commands is not something Windows or macOS users are probably familiar with. Learning to use the Linux shell will be more convenient for you in the long run. Most help articles about Linux online use the shell because it’s a common denominator across all distros.

Ready to use Linux?

This quick guide can only cover so much, and there’s a lot more to discover and learn about Linux if you’re a new user. It can feel intimidating, but the Linux community is huge. You can usually find answers to questions you have with little hassle. If you’re ready for a free, open-source, and more secure alternative to Windows and macOS, then you just might be ready to try Linux.

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