How Can I Try Out Linux?

You’re nervous.  You’ve been using some other operating system for a while now and are not particularly good with change.  You might be concerned about losing your current operating system.  Maybe linux will be too difficult to learn.  Perhaps you just don’t consider yourself geeky enough.

Let me go over a few ways to try linux; some that are zero-cost to your hardware or software.

WHICH LINUX?

Hoo boy… this is a tough one. There are so many distributions (distros to us geeks).  All have specialties.  Is one better than the other?  Depends on what you call better. They’re all pretty stable.

I have played with quite a few linux distros over the years, starting with Red Hat, waaaaay back at version 5.  I spent a few years with Debian, known for being rock-solid.   I have been using Ubuntu for the past few years.  It just seems to work best for me.

A good place to check out many distributions is Distrowatch.  You can download most distros from there, as well as learning about the different ones.

If you are very light on resources, and I mean very light, you can go with something like Puppy Linux.  It’s very light and easy.  You can also check out one of the netbook linuxes like Easypeasy, the horribly-named Ubuntu variant designed to run on those tiny netbooks.  If you are less concerned about resources, PClinuxOS is a very easy to use distro that looks a bit like Windows out of the box.

Like I said, I use Ubuntu, consequently it’s what I recommend.  Your mileage will vary. For your information, there are a few different varieties of Ubuntu.  Practically speaking there are three: Ubuntu, Kubuntu, and Xubuntu. All three are the same operating system; the only difference is the desktop.  A desktop is the user interface.  Ubuntu comes with the Gnome desktop.  It’s middle of the road, resourcewise.  I don’t like its conventions, number one being that the `start button’ is on the panel at the top of the screen.

Kubuntu is the next Ubuntu.  It’s for the people who like pretty, resource-intensive desktops.   Because of that I don’t like this either.  I use Xubuntu, which makes use of the XFCE desktop.  It uses the least resources of the three and still lets you do what you want.  You aren’t stuck with any particular Ubuntu desktop though – you can install all three if you like and switch between them at bootup.

WHAT’S THE EASIEST WAY TO TRY IT?

At Distrowatch (or Ubuntu), download your choice of linux.  It will come as an .ISO file, which is an image file that your cd burner software knows to burn to a cd (regardless of operating system).  If you don’t have a burner or a friend who will do it for you, you can order a cd at low or no cost.

Most distros cd’s include a live boot option.  This is an incredibly cool way to try linux.  You put it in the cd drive, then boot the computer.  You will have the choice of booting live or installing.  When you boot live you are testing the operating system, just like test-driving a car.  It will discover all of your hardware (hopefully) as well as your internet connection and allow you to do anything you want with it.  When you’re done, you just shut down and remove the cd.  You can then boot back into your original operating system, completely undisturbed and cost-free.

USB

You can also visit Pen Drive Linux, where you can find directions on how to put linux onto even a small usb drive.  You can also find directions on how to make the installation persistent, meaning that any changes you make will be held for the next boot.

VIRTUALIZE

I have had a lot of success with virtualization.  Download VMware’s vmware player.  It will allow you to run any distro you like, as well as different versions of Windows under your current operating system.  It will not eat up all your resources but make sure you have some extra disk space, just in case.  The VMware site also has prebuilt virtual machines, among them different flavors of linux to try out.  It’s all free!

There are several other virtualization systems like MS Virtual PC, Qemu, and Virtual Box but I find VMware to be the most reliable.

DUAL BOOT

If you really want to play with linux seriously you can set up a dual boot.  This is where the computer boots up and gives you the choice of Windows or linux.  The past few Ubuntu discs I have seen allow you to set this up when you select Install.  It will do it for you, even if you don’t know what you’re doing.

There are other ways to accomplish things but the above are the easiest.

HARDWARE

Linux runs on everything, however I’d advise not testing it out on a newer laptop due to driver issues.  There may also be wireless driver issues.  Linux will generally run faster than Windows and will always be more stable.

NOW WHAT?

Once it comes up, poke around.  You’re not going to break it.  The layout should be familiar to you.  It has a main menu which brings up submenus.  All of the programs have the same basic functions you’re used to in Windows.  They all have print and save functions.  In fact, many programs are cross-platform, meaning they run under Windows and linux.  Firefox, Opera, Dropbox, Vlc and Thunderbird are examples of cross-platform applications.

What I did when I was learning was to run linux on one computer and have another one running so I could get to the Net and look up any questions I had.  Of course if the OS is running properly, you can look it up on the first computer.

Linux Tips, Tips for Linux Explorers, Linux Tips and Tricks, Ubuntu Geek, and Ubuntu forums are good places to look for answers.  There are sites for laptops as well as most other specialty installs.  Google is your friend.  Also check for a local Linux User Group (LUG).  They’re extremely helpful to newbies (and oldbies).

There are lots of things to cover and I wanted this to be a guide for beginners trying to get their feet wet.  Feel free to ask questions.

Now go forth and experiment!