Four Things a New Linux User Should Know

March 28, 2017 - Linux

When you move from “that other operating system” to Linux, you’re going to find that in most ways you’ll be in familiar territory. However, that’s not always the case. We sometimes do things a little differently around here.


If you’re making the move from Windows or Mac (or even from Android or iOS), welcome to our world.

These days, using Linux for doing everyday computer tasks isn’t that much different than using other operating systems — meaning the learning curve is only slight. In fact, my colleague Phil Shapiro works at a library that uses Linux on the computers its patrons use and says that hardly anyone even notices they’re not using Windows. It’s that easy.

However, there are some things about using Linux that are quite a bit different — and we think better — than with the other brands. Here’s a brief heads up on some things that might be good for you to know before you cross the bridge from you-don’t-realy-own-it Windows to free-open-and-yours Linux.

Distributions: There’s only one Windows, just as there’s only one MacOS. Sure, there are different versions of both — like Windows 7 or Windows 10 — but they’re basically evolutionary markers on the operating system’s development path. Linux, on the other hand, is different. There are literally hundreds of Linux distros from which to choose. And while they’re all the same, insofar as they all have “Linux inside,” each offers the user a different experience. Some are designed for specialized uses, such as for running entertainment centers or for security testing. Some are designed for people with a lot of computer skills and require not only knowledge of the command line, but an understanding of the inner workings of operating systems. Others are uber simple to use — designed not only for new users but for anybody who just wants a computer they can just start-and-use.

If all of your experience using computers has been on Macs or Windows PCs, then you’re probably going to want to start with one in the later category, distros that won’t require you to learn a lot of geek stuff to get going. Even if you’re wanting to eventually learn to become a Linux whiz, start with an easy to use distro to get your feet wet. Remember, even though a distro is easy to use, it’s still full fledged Linux with the same capabilities as a distro designed for hardcore techies. After you figure out what it is you really want in a Linux distribution, then you can move on to something that requires a bit more skill to configure and keep working.

For new users, I would recommend Linux Mint, almost any flavor of Ubuntu, Mageia, SolusOS, or Manjaro.

Desktop environments: Just as there’s only one Windows and MacOS, both of these operating systems basically come with only one desktop environment, or DE. While this isn’t entirely true, there are other desktops that can be installed on both Windows and Mac machines, neither Microsoft nor Apple makes this known, and pretty much discourage their use.

Simply put, your desktop environment is your way of interfacing with the underlying operating system — sort of like the different “skins” you might be used to using with certain applications, such as Winamp. Some, such as KDE or Xfce, work very similar to the classic Windows interface. Others, like DEs derived from the modern GNOME family tree, are designed to take advantage of research conducted on the workflow habits of users. There are desktops that are highly configurable and include a lot of whistles, bells and bling, which generally use a good amount of system resources, and there are desktops purposefully designed to be “lightweight,” which sip rather than gulp processing power.

Although your distro will come with a default desktop, you can take other desktops for a test drive. This will usually require downloading the DE you want to try and installing it on your machine. If you find a desktop that suits you better than your distro’s default, you might want to switch to a distro that offers that particular desktop as its default for better integration. Many distributions offer specific editions that have been optimized for various desktops. For example, I use a version of Linux Mint which incorporates the relatively lightweight Xfce desktop instead of the default edition which uses Cinnamon..

Software: If you’re coming from a Windows or Mac world, most of the software you use was either already installed on your computer when you got it, or you installed it yourself, usually by downloading it from the vendor’s website or from a download site such as ZDNet. Most Linux developers and users consider this to be a dangerous practice for a variety of reasons, and although such downloading from third party sites is sometimes possible with Linux, you’re advised not to do so — at least until you’ve learned your way around Linux enough to understand the possible consequences, which include not only security issues, but breaking your system due to compatibility issues with dependencies.

Your distro will have hundreds if not thousands of applications in its software repositories that have been tweaked to install and run well with your distro, and your distro’s repositories should be seen as your most trusted source of software. Some distros also make available user repositories, and some software distributors will have their own repositories designed to work with your distro’s package management system, although you’ll usually have to add these as a source before you can use them.

Packages from your distro’s repositories can be installed either by using a graphical package manager (names vary, but look under “software” in the menu) or by command line. The package management system varies from distro to distro, but you can find more information either directly from your distro’s website or by searching using your distro’s name and “package manager” as the terms.

Help: No matter what Linux distro you decide to use, when you run across a problem you can’t figure out on your own, help is only a couple of clicks away. The traditional way to get help is to go straight to your distro’s webpage, where you’ll find knowledge bases, FAQs and user forums. However, in recent years, I’ve found it easier to just do a search, including the keywords in the problem along with the name of the distro. Oh, be sure to use “Linux” as a search term, otherwise you’ll end up with a slew of Windows answers.

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