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Don't be afraid - Linux for Newbies

3,112 Expert 2GB
You might have heard about Linux, but you don't know what it is? Or you know a few things about it, but they terrify you? Well, then this article is for you. Don't be afraid - Everyone can use Linux!

Part 1: What is Linux and why should I use it?
Linux is an Operating System (short: OS). OK, so what is an OS? Let me explain:
Nearly everybody knows Windows. But what exactly does it actually do?
Windows is an example for a OS and one of it's main tasks is to enable communication between the computer hardware and software like word processors, games or video editing tools. But you know, Windows isn't the only one! And guess what - you don't even have to pay for all of them!
"Linux" is a very popular example - there are various flavours of Linux (called distributions), but they're all based on the so called Linux Kernel. (More about that later.)

A long time ago, Linuxes were difficult systems. You only had a shell (similar to MS-DOS), installation was hell and don't even think of Multimedia - Linux was for Freaks only and Freaks don't need music and pictures. Or do they?

A lot of that has changed in the last years. This article should clear up some common misconceptions about Linux and maybe even convince some of the Windows users to test a Linux distribution.

Please note that many things are the same or similar in Unix as they are in Linux. This article will therefore only cover Linux, and if you have questions about differences, please ask in the forums.

Why install Linux?
As you will see in this Article, Linux is different to Windows or Mac OS X in many ways. So, what are the advantages of this so unknown system?
Nearly everyone who has ever worked with Windows knows: Windows crashes. Not always, in some cases hardly ever, but ever so often you are confronted problems like the infamous Blue Screen of Death.
Then there's the Virus issue - there are loads of Viruses, Trojans, Worms, etc. that attack Windows. Also, a lot of crackers (note: hackers != crackers) and ScriptKiddies concentrate on Windows. Oh, and of course you have to pay for the Operating System.

As for Mac OS X, it is apparently much more secure than Windows, but it (officially) only works on the hardware that Apple sells and those systems are relatively expensive.

Now, Linux is a different issue. Most Linuxes are free (more about that on the next page) and much more secure than Windows in terms of Viruses & co, Hackers and system stability. Of course, in Windows you can install an Antivirus, a Firewall, Addware removers, etc. - but you don't have to in Linux!
One reason of course is, that Linux is not so widespread, but the much bigger (and often ignored) argument is, that Linux is designed in a way, that allows it to be much more secure. Explaining that is a bit complicated (and there are many so called "facts" that apparently disprove it), so you'll just have to believe me right now. If you want to know more, there's a great article about Linux vs. Windows in terms of security here.

By the way, Linux may not be very widespread in the world of home computers, but in the world of webservers, Linux with Apache is the most popular choice.
Apart from that, Linux is highly configurable, the support is normally great and it's great for developers, as there are loads of Development tools available for nearly every language you can think of. Did I mention that they are mostly free too?

I found a nice article about how Window isn't Linux here. I recommend that you read it!

There's more about these and other issues later in the article, so don't be afraid - you too can use Linux!

Continue with Part 2

Part 2: Common Questions and Answers

Is Linux really free?
Many of you might have seen SuSE Linux CDs on sale in shops. But I said that Linux is free. How can both be true?
Well, first of all:Linux is free. But not all Software that comes with it is free too and neither is the support. While you can buy SuSE Linux in shops, what you are actually paying for is the packaged software and the support for your system. You could, if you chose, download the actual Operating system from the Novell website (Novell being the company making SuSE) for free and completely legally - but it included less software and you couldn't get their support.
Actually, most Linux distributions (a distribution is a certain "version" of Linux - I'll explain further later) are free and so is a lot of software for Linux.

Isn't Linux difficult to install?
I admit, it can be. But only if you choose to make it complicated. Most modern distributions have nice graphical installation routines, that allow you to install your new OS without caring about partitions, devices, DHCP and so on. Examples on how to install some distributions can be found in the "Introduction to..." articles mentioned later in this article.

Will I have to go without Windows™?
Short answer: No!
Long answer: There are various options you have. You can install your Linux instead of Windows, next to Windows or even within Windows. How does that work?
  1. Installing it instead of Windows is easy to understand: Delete Windows, install Linux.
  2. Installing it side by side with Windows is also easy to understand. Maybe you have had two versions of Windows installed at the same time? In that case, you had a small menu while start-up, asking you which Windows you want to boot. This is similar: You will have a boot manager (normally GRUB or LILO) which offers you the choice of loading Windows or Linux - or one of many Windows' or many Linuxes.
    If you want to install Linux and Windows side by side, you may want to check this website which gives you a tutorial on how to do exactly that.
  3. Installing Linux inside Windows might be the most difficult concept to understand, but it gives you most freedom of all. Actually what you do is this: You install a Virtual Machine, which emulates the existence of a further Computer. On this virtual computer, you can install a Linux or Unix or even another Windows or different system.
More about this later.
There's a further option: LiveCDs. A LiveCD (or LiveDVD) is a disc, which you put in your computers drive and tell it to boot from that disc. Then a fully functional System will load from disc, work as long as it's not switched of and when you do restart the computer without that disc, everything will be back to normal.

What about my files from Windows?
Linux is able to read and write to FAT32 and NTFS drives, so any drives you used under Windows can be used under Linux. However, when you reformat a drive, you might want to consider using a different file system.
Instructions on how to access partitions under Linux can be found here.

And how about my Windows Software?
That is difficult to answer. While a lot of Windows software can be run with WINE, CrossOver and Cedega, there is software that you just can't run under Linux (yet). However, you can almost always find a replacement or run it in a virtual machine with Windows. Oh, a note for the gamers: You can run many modern games in Linux too!

Are there good alternatives for my Windows Software?
There is some very good software available for Linux - and most of it is free too! For example, you can get the Firefox Browser to surf the internet, the OpenOffice suite, which can read, edit and create all of the MS Office formats plus many more and you can use The GIMP for editing your photos. But these are just three of many thousands and thousands of programs you can have on your Linux system.

And what about my hardware?
Most Hardware is no problem in Linux, especially old hardware. Some new hardware (graphic cards, printers, TV cards) can be problematic. The reason for this is, that hardware producers often just don't write drivers for Linux but only for Windows and sometimes for Mac OS X. But these won't work under Linux, so some Linux users (who aren't paid for this work!) have to try to implement drivers for their favourite system. This takes time. But the more Linux users exist, the more companies will produce Linux drivers.

Where do I go for help?
As I said earlier, some distributions like SuSE offered versions of their system with support, but you had to pay for it. The much more common approach is this:
There are great on-line communities for the various distributions and within these communities, everyone tries to help everyone else. (Quite similar to this forum here!) Also, you will learn to love search engines like Google, as these can help you find the answer to many problems that could occur.

Will I have to type commands all the time?
For a long time, Linux and Unix were completely command line driven. A lot of people didn't like that, so they started developing graphical interfaces. In 1998 a piece of software was released, that made a big change to the Linux world.
It was called the Kool Desktop Environment, later renamed to K Desktop Environment (KDE). This piece of software "seek[ed] to fill the need for an easy to use desktop [...] similar to [...] MacOS™ or Window95/NT™". And from this point onwards, distributions like SuSE were developed using this new technology. Linuxes became much more user friendly.
Nowadays, there are quite a few Desktop Environments, KDE still being one of the two most popular ones and the other one being GNOME. And in most modern distributions, most tasks can be done within the graphical environment. You should still learn to use the shell, but not immediately.

Back to Part 1 or Continue with Part 3

Part 3: The choice of distribution or Why Linux isn't just Linux

There are loads of distributions around. But which one is the best one for you?
There's no general answer for this question, as it highly depends on you and your computer. Luckily, there are websites around, that will help you choose a distribution.
Here are three: Test 1, Test 2 and Test 3
When you've done one or more of these tests, you'll still have a few distributions to choose from. DistroWatch.com: Put the fun back into computing. Use Linux, BSD. can help you do that, as it has a gigantic database of loads and loads of Linuxes and Unixes, describing all of them. Just choose the various distributions in the "Select Distribution" menu and compare for yourself.

Now, before you go on and install the Linux of your choice, you should know two things:
  1. It will take time to understand things. A Linux System is going to seem weird at first. I guarantee it. But so is everything else you learn about computers, whether it be programming, installing hardware... whatever. Patience is the key.
  2. Hardly anything in the world of computers works right the first time. Computer code, web sites, software... it's all tested hundreds, even thousands of times before it works how the programmer(s) intended it to work. The same goes with learning. As you go through tutorials or follow instructions, be ready to make mistakes, ask questions, and fix the problem. But don't worry - it's the same for everybody.

Back to Part 2 or Continue with Part 4

Part 4: OK, I'll do it - Installing Linux

OK, so you've decided to install a Linux of your choice? As I said earlier, most distributions come with graphical installers nowadays, so installing Linux has become very easy. Yet, there are things you might want to know. So here we go:

How many partitions should I make and how big should they be?
There is no one correct answer to this question, especially as there are a lot of different opinions concerning this matter.
The easiest is to have the installation suggest something, but if you have to make the choices yourself, I'd recommend the following sizes:
  • SWAP: About the same size as your RAM
  • '/': Depending on the size of your hard drive, I'd choose about 10% of your drive, but you'll not need more than 10 - 15 GB in most cases. Of course, you're free to make it bigger.
  • 'home': It is not necessary to have a home partition, but if you have to reinstall your system, it is very useful not have to move your settings and personal files. Most of these are saved in the home directories. Make it the rest of your hard drive.

What's this SWAP partition?
When the computer is doing difficult jobs, it has to move around a lot of data in it's memory. Normally the RAM is used for that, but sometimes that's just not enough (or it's easier with more). For that reason, many operating systems including Linux use some sort of paging - it uses a file or partition as an extension to the RAM. The SWAP partition is exactly that.

Who is this superuser?
Different than many of the older versions of Windows and similar to the newer versions like XP and Vista, Linux is a true multi-user system. Everyone using this computer should have either an own account or use something like a guest account.
However, the normal user isn't able to just install programs or delete important files - that's what the superuser is for. (Similar by the way to the Administrator in Windows systems.)
When Linux is installed, such a superuser called root is created. If you want to run commands as the root user, you will (normally) have to open a terminal window and type su. Then you will be prompted to enter the root password.
In some cases, you never set a root password but instead, sudo is installed. In this case, sudo -i has the same effect, but you will have to enter your own password.
Now you can run commands as a superuser. Don't forget to run exit when you're finished. You should never run commands as a superuser if it's not absolutely necessary.

I forgot to install something while the system setup. Do I have to start again?
No, you don't. Everything (including system languages!) can be installed at a later point. I'll discuss this further later.

Back to Part 3 or Continue with Part 5

Part 5: How to use Linux

So, you've dared it - you installed Linux. Now, as I said earlier, there's still a lot to learn, but most modern distributions make it easy for you to start without too much knowledge. Here are some things that might interest you:

OK, I have Linux installed. Where is "My Computer"?
Linux follows a different idea than Windows in terms of organising files, programs and hardware. Everything (including the contents of the hard drives) is somehow bound into the so called root directory '/'. If you open this position in a file manager (e.g. Konqueror or Nautilus) in Linux you'll see these (or similar) directories:
  • bin This contains executables like ls or cp.
  • boot The boot manager and other boot files are in this directory.
  • dev Device files like /dev/lp0 or /dev/fd0 are in this directory. They will be explained later.
  • etc Global configuration files are saved here, like fstab or X11/xorg.conf
  • home The users each have a directory, which is normally in /home/
  • lib Shared libraries are saved here.
  • lost+found This doesn't actually belong to Linux but to the file system on which the root directory is installed. (Here: ext3)
  • media and mnt are used for mounting drives.
  • opt Data that doesn't belong anywhere else is put in opt.
  • proc This is not really a directory, but a virtual directory. The (virtual) files in here give you information about your system.
  • root This is the home directory of the superuser 'root'
  • sbin Also contains executables like bin, however these are restricted to the superuser.
  • sys Some system files may be saved here
  • tmp Temporary files are often put in this directory. All users may write into here.
  • usr Typically software will be installed into here.
  • var Files, that are changed constantly (e.g. logs) are often saved in here.

What is this terminal?
Remember the "typing commands stuff", I told you, you didn't have to do most of the time? Well, it's true, you don't. However, some things tend to be easier with a terminal window (or, to use the correct name: a terminal emulator).
There are many different terminal emulators for Linux and Unix, some of which are: xterm, GNOME Terminal, Konsole, xfce4-terminal and aterm.
When in your graphical environment, simply press ALT+F2 and enter one of these terminal names - xterm is normally installed, so we can go for that.

This terminal emulator is normally running a program called bash. You can find many tutorials for bash on-line, but for the beginning, I'd suggest to have a look at this collection of commands and to have a closer look at ls, cd, cp, mv and rm. That should get you started.

How can I access my hard drives / old data?
I've written an extensive article about that here. If you have further questions about mounting or anything else Linux-related after reading here, feel free to ask in our Linux forum.

How do I install new programs?
Many distributions nowadays have package systems (in Debian based systems that's apt-get, with SuSE it's Yast, Fedora has Yum...) that make life very easy a lot of the time. But ever so often, you'll find that you can't get a program that way. Instead you'll be able to download a .tar.bz2 or .tar.gz file. To install these, you'll have to do this in a Terminal:
  1. Unpack the download. If it's a .tar.gz (or .tgz sometimes), use
    Expand|Select|Wrap|Line Numbers
    1. tar xzvf download-xyz.tar.gz
    and for .tar.bz2 use
    Expand|Select|Wrap|Line Numbers
    1. tar xjf download-xyz.tar.bz2
  2. Find the name of the newly created directory with
    Expand|Select|Wrap|Line Numbers
    1. ls
    and enter it with
    Expand|Select|Wrap|Line Numbers
    1. cd directoryname
  3. Check, what's in the new directory with
    Expand|Select|Wrap|Line Numbers
    1. ls
    Normally, there should be a configure file and a makefile amongst the new data. Often, there's also a ReadMe or INSTALL file, containing instructions. You can read that with
    Expand|Select|Wrap|Line Numbers
    1. less INSTALL
    (exit with 'q')
  4. If there's a configure file (and no instructions suggesting anything else), the next step is
    Expand|Select|Wrap|Line Numbers
    1. ./configure
    This should make preparations for the installation.
  5. Next step is
    Expand|Select|Wrap|Line Numbers
    1. make
    This will build the software for your system.
  6. Now you may need to become superuser, so type
    Expand|Select|Wrap|Line Numbers
    1. su
    and enter the root password. (If sudo is installed and you know how to use it, you're free to do that too.)
  7. To start the actual installation, we type
    Expand|Select|Wrap|Line Numbers
    1. make install
    It should now show the installation process.
  8. Last, but not least, you can log out the root user with
    Expand|Select|Wrap|Line Numbers
    1. exit
    You should be finished now.
If any errors occurred at some point, search for the error on Google. Quite often, you can find a solution that way.

Back to Part 4 or Continue with Part 6

Part 6: Where can I learn how to use my new system in a more advanced way?

There are many good sources on the internet. We have collected three here, that we can recommend. They are:You can also find other Linux articles here on bytes.com, so why not check them out?

Now, I hope you enjoy your new operating system! Good luck!

Back to Part 5
Nov 29 '08 #1
1 10806
6,050 Expert 4TB
Dugg - please digg this article if you find it useful.
Nov 29 '08 #2

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