A Beginner's Guide to Linux

What's Linux?

Linux is an operating system. An operating system is special software that allows you to use your computer; it does a lot of different things, but you can think of it as the part of your computer that lets you talk to the hardware. Operating systems do things like give memory to programs, start and stop applications, and keep track of your files. They're very important!

Other operating systems include Windows and MacOS, but there are many other options out there. Linux is one of those options.

Why would I want to switch to Linux?

  • Performance: Linux usually has a very light footprint, so your computer might run better or faster than it did on Windows (if your computer came with MacOS, then you'll probably get the best performance with MacOS; Apple's engineered their hardware and software to work well together).
    • If you want a very silly performance metric, I have a spare laptop (2016?) that I used to play Minecraft on. On Windows, I had to set the view distance to 8 for it to run semi-smoothly. On Linux, I could set it to 12 without any stuttering.
  • Privacy: Unlike Windows and MacOS, Linux doesn't track your computer usage or send your data to a corporation if you don't go out of your way to tell it to.
    • Programs are their own problem- if privacy is a concern, make sure to check on what your applications are sending off. Linux can't save you from Chrome's snooping.
  • Customizability: If you don't like something about your computer and it runs Linux, then you can probably change it to something you do like. You have a lot of control over how a Linux computer looks and behaves.
    • These are all Linux desktops:
A desktop with the taskbar at the top. A desktop with a sidebar and widgets. A notebook-themed desktop with a very small bar at the bottom.
  • Community: Most Linux distributions have excellent community support. If you run into a problem, then someone will know how to fix it.
  • Hardware Support: Linux runs beautifully on older devices that can't keep up with other operating systems. I've revived a lot of blue-screening Windows laptops by switching them to Linux, and they run like new!
  • Opportunities to learn: You don't always have to get into the guts of things to use a Linux computer, but you can poke around easily if you want to learn more about how your computer works.
  • Development: Linux is fantastic for programmers. Development environments are very easy to set up.
  • Updates: Linux updates everything on the computer at the same time (both the operating system and your programs), and it's done without interrupting whatever you're working on. No more waiting for Windows updates! You get full control over when to update as well.

Why wouldn't I want to switch to Linux?

  • You like Windows/MacOS/etc.: If you like your current operating system, then there's no reason to switch. Use what works best for you.
  • Learning curve: While many Linux distributions are beginner-friendly, there's still an adjustment period when switching to Linux. It may take you a few weeks to feel completely comfortable.
  • Windows-Only Applications: A lot of programs aren't developed for Linux computers. There are ways to use many Windows-only programs, but it can take a little effort to get some of them working as intended. If you're unwilling to try alternatives, then Linux may not be what you're looking for (but keep an eye on ReactOS).

How do I make the switch?

The Most Important Thing

Linux is not Windows. Linux is Linux.

Sometimes Linux looks very similar to Windows. You can still browse the web, write documents, play games, and do most or all of what you're used to doing with your computer. Odds are that you can even use some of the same programs. Because some things are similar, it's easy to get stuck thinking Linux works exactly like Windows. It probably won't make your computer explode if you do treat Linux like Windows, but you'll miss out on things that Linux does better.

Important Differences

There's more than one Linux

With Windows, there's only one Windows. There is no one Linux. Instead, there are a lot of different distributions of Linux (distros for short). Distributions are pretty similar under the hood, but they usually come with different software installed and have different ways of handling updates.

It can be a little hard to choose a distribution when you're just starting out. It's a good idea to look for distributions that claim to be beginner-friendly. As of this writing, Linux Mint and Pop!_OS are both great choices for new Linux users. Linux Mint in particular caters directly to beginners, making it a lot easier to start using it.

Don't install programs with your web browser

On Windows, you usually go to a website and download a file to install programs. On Linux, you use something called a package manager. A package manager is a special program whose job is to install and update all of your programs for you. They're a lot safer than downloading things from websites because they only download from safe places!

A lot of distributions will have a special place you can go to install and update programs. It might be called Discovery, Synaptic, Store, or something similar. These places are graphical front-ends for your package manager, and they make it very easy to manage all your programs. You can search for, install, update, and remove programs using these front-ends.

Some distributions don't have a graphical front-end. That's okay! These distributions expect you to talk directly to the package manager (more on that in a bit). They're also usually geared towards experienced Linux users, so don't worry too much about this if you're going to use a beginner-friendly distribution.

More about updates

The nice thing about package managers is that they handle updates for you.


Filesystem differences (forward slash!)

Hidden files

Linux doesn't eat your RAM (but it sometimes looks like it)

Linux asks you to learn

There are a lot of little differences between Linux and Windows. For example, if you're coming from Windows, then you may never have used a command line. The command line is a text interface for your computer- it lets you do things by typing words. It's that black screen with white text on it that you may have seen in movies.

Some distributions of Linux require you to use the command line to manage your computer (for example, to talk to the package manager). Other distributions don't need you to use the command line, but you'll often wind up using it anyway. A lot of things can be done faster, better, or more reliably using the command line. If you ever run into a problem with your computer, the solution will probably ask you to use the command line because it will work regardless of which distribution you're on. Most Linux users eventually learn the basics of using the command line at some point. This can seem a little scary at first, but it's not as hard as it looks! With a little practice, using the command line can be just as easy as using your mouse.

Linux might ask you to learn a lot of new things like this. If you pick a beginner-friendly distribution, then you won't have to learn as much, but you'll still have to adjust to Linux being Linux. Expect to spend some time learning your way around. It'll be worth your time- aside from making you better at using your computer, learning more about Linux opens up all kinds of fun tricks.

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