Desktop Linux, The View From 30,000 Feet

From 30,000 feet, you don't see a whole lot of detail, but you can get the "lay of the land", which is what I am aiming for here.  Linux is an operating system, Like Apple OS X or one of the flavors of Windows; and yet, it's not like them in the way it is created and sold (see Open Source). Linux also just celebrated it's 24th "birthday".

It's usually pronounced with the "in" sound as in "sin" - "lin-ucks". Most Linux varieties (called "distributions" or "distros") are available to download, install and use for no money. You can also pay for a distribution with technical support available if you wish. There are several links in this article to help you research further, and a few recommendations at the end.

Linux "Desktop" distributions (suitable for use on desktop or laptop PCs) can come as fairly comprehensive packages, with all the common tools you might expect to be able to edit office documents, view PDFs, movies, YouTube videos, listen to music and so on. Linux distors may also be more specialized, such as distributions for education, or scientific work, computer forensics, or video and audio production for example.

This is one of the features of Linux that I think may scare people off - there appear to be too many choices for us "normal" PC users. Choice is great, it can just be a bit daunting when it runs contrary to the Windows/Apple paradigm (you get Windows or you get OS X, period). Note that while you can install Linux on Apple hardware, this article is assuming most readers would be from Windows users, or those with a Windows-compatible PC or laptop.

You should not expect your Windows software to run on Linux; although there is a good chance that it may, via special software such as "Wine". Wine is a software layer which can fake out your Windows programs to "think" they are being installed on a Windows PC.

There may also be a work-alike equivalent to programs xyz in the Linux world (such as "Libre Office" for "Microsoft Office"). In some cases, there may even be a Linux version of a commercial program or game that you like - just don't count on that quite yet, as Linux is still generally poorly supported by commercial software companies.

One notable area of interest is computer gaming, long a weak point for Linux and even Apple systems. In the last year of so, we have seen the rise of Steam games for Linux systems. These games run in a special kind of emulator to give the desired performance, and there is even a dedicated "Steam OS" just for playing those types of games.

The look and feel of a Linux distribution can be very much like Windows (or OS X for that matter), or it may be considerably different in use - more "Windows 8" than "Windows XP". Again, an embarrassment of choices, but if you have some idea of what you are looking for (e.g. something to replace Windows XP on an older PC) you should be able to focus in on what you need.

One of the aspects of most Linux distros is that they are usually available as a downloadable "Live CD" (or DVD), which allows you to "test drive" the product without actually installing it or changing anything on your PC. Bearing in mind that while the Linux Live CD will respond more slowly because it is running from a CD, it will give a good sense of how it will work with your particular PC or laptop.

The actual installation of the operating system is very straightforward; as easy or easier than Windows (and certainly faster), but again I think this may be a stumbling point for many folks - not too many "normal" PC users have ever installed Windows, never mind any other operating system.

Here are a few additional links to distros I feel are suitable for Windows users moving over to Linux.

Zorin OS 10  (free and paid versions - most home users would go for the "Core" version)

Linux Mint 17 free (Cinammon, Mate and XFCE desktops - the latter will work more smoothly on older PCs)

Xubuntu - free, again should work better on older systems

Why the Penguin icon for Linux?

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