What is Linux?
Linux is the kernel of an operating system. The core. It is like the engine of a car. Normal people cannot do much with it. Try to drive a motor without wheels - it won't work so well. Therefore many people around the world have started to create collections of software that can run on Linux. This is like the gearbox, wheels, and body of the car. This collection if also called a distribution or "Distro".One of the most well known such "Distro" is Ubuntu. This project has invested heavily into marketing and made Linux well known throughout the world.
The other famous Linux distribution is called Debian. This one is more used to build big trucks, airplains and even air craft carriers - if we want to to stick with the machine analogy. People who operate large data centers and lots of servers typically use Debian. The reason is that Debian is incredibly strict when it comes to security and stability. Debian will take a lot of care to work - at the cost of including the niftiest newest shiny gadget (which is usually also quite useless). The good thing is that Linux is flexible. Distros like Ubuntu early on learned how to do things from Debian and simply extend the stability of Debian with some nice goodies around - and useless things like animated windows and seamless integration of social networks.
The Linux User Land
Software distributions based on the Linux Kernel are also called the "User Land" because this is where the users live and work. Every distro comes with its own selection of software packages for different tasks. Some programs like the Web browser FireFox are available on almost all distros. Others like VLC sometimes have to be installed manually which is usually quite easy but also somewhat different to how Windows software is shipped. It resembles the way that you install Apps on your SmartPhone. You can also install Linux software manually but in general I suggest to stick with what you get from your distro's packaging system. This means that you should choose from the hundreds and thousands of packages that have been specifically built to runwith your version of Linux. By doing that you can ret assured that the software will be maintained and updated so that ever time a patch is made available for your Linux distribution the software will continue to work.
How do I get Linux?
If you want to install Linux on your computer ideally you find someone who can help you with the first steps and will also be around when you get into trouble. If your car stops to work and you don't know how to fix it then you ask somebody to help. In general Linux boxes make little trouble.
After you have decided which Linux you want to run you can download (copy) it to a USB Memory stick and boot your computer from this device. This may need some tweaking of your computer BIOS and if you are already out of your comfort zone now than you should really get someone to help you - or do it for you.
Never change a running system. If you are a Windows user I recommend that you simply stay there untill something breaks or you are totally annoyed by it. Then, if you decide that you want to move over to another Operating System then try Linux. Find the distro that best fits your requirements.
One simple reason to move away from Windows is that your Windows XP died on April 8 2014. May it rest in peace. Microsoft stopped the support. Just a few weeks later Microsoft announced a severe bug (defect) in all the Internet Explorer software it delivered in the past 8 years. Chances are high that your Windows installation is affected. This means that you computer is not secure anymore.
If it is an old computer (maybe 6 years and older) then you have exactly one option if you want to stay with Microsoft: Throw it away and buy a new one. None of the Windows annoyance systems - excuse me: operating systems - will support your old hardware. If you do not want to throw away a perfectly working computer then you should move over to Linux and be surprised how fast, responsive and nice your old box will suddenly be. It will boot four times faster, does not need a virus scanner and is a lot more responsive. Really.
Moving On from XP
After a bit or mourning it is time to move on. Where to - you ask? A Linux powered desktop environment may be the way to go. If you have some understanding of computers and what you need you may want to read this blog: http://mylinuxexplore.blogspot.de/2013/05/ubuntu-1304-vs-kubuntu-1304-vs-xubuntu_16.html If you are a noob ask a good friend. Or read on and learn for yourself.
Deciding which Linux Distribution to Use
If you feel alien to all kinds of computer stuff and don't want to waste our life trying to find out which is the shortest possible way to get back to a running and secure computer then answer these questions for yourself:
- What kind of hardware do I have?
- What do I want to do with my computer?
What Computer do I have?
The easiest way to determine the type of computer you have is to look at its age. If it is 10 years or older then it is a really, really old box. Keep it, the hardware was meant to last.
You will probably not have a lot of RAM and the processor will be pretty basic. In those cases forget about all the fancy stuff (that nobody really needs anyway) and do not install any 3D cube rotating, disappearing, semi-transparent desktop environment. Do not install backgrund daemons that try to help you find your way around your computer (Unity, Zeitgeist, etc.). Do not run Ubunutu. Instead look for low profile options like Lubunut and Xubuntu.
If you have a newer computer (between 1 and 3 years) then Linux will make it fly high. If you have a really new, fancy, shiny, touch screen machine which will also cook some coffe for you - then you may want to stick with whatever was installed on it for some time.
What do I want to do with my Computer?
The most common things that you do on your computer are probably:
- Browser the web (FireFox, Chromium)
- Write a letter, homework, fancy invitation to print out (Abi Word, LibreOffice Writer)
- Do some calculations in a spread sheet (Gnumeric, LibreOffice Calc)
- Listen to music and watch videos (VLC)
Criteria for Exclusion
If you are really stuck on a software which only comes for Windows then you experience Vendor-Lock-In. It is a severe illness and hard to cure. Hard luck - and nothing much you can do about it. The most common dead-lockers in the home office are Photoshop and maybe AutoCAD. If you need those every day to make a living, just forget about moving to Linux. There are people who have managed to run a virtual Windows Operating System on their Linux boxes but believe me, it is not funny.
One other very annoying area are conference call providers like GotoMeeting. They do not support Linux and thus exclude all the creative voices from that land. If you want to have me on a conference call better make sure the software supports Linux. Sometimes I borrow the Notebook of my wife (ahs has an airbook) to attend conference calls but if she is busy hard luck. The good thing is that I can afford to just not attend because usually it is the others who want something from me and not me needing something from them.
Many people discovered that for every Windows based software there are several Open Source alternatives - and many of them are better and more stable. Instead of Photoshop you can move over to Gimp. It is included with most every Linux distro. Nobody needs Microsoft Office. The way better alternatives are AbiWord (replaces MS Word), Gnumeric (replaces MS Excel) and reveal.js (replaces MS Powerpoint). Or you get the whole shebang in one package like http://libreoffice.org. If you are into really nice typesetting then there is no way around TeX or LaTeX which will even give you pecha-style texts.
Interestingly there are quite a number of public government bodies who prescribe the use of MS Word. They invariably get into trouble when they try to impose this on me. It is actually quite fun because in most cases they will eventually have to find an alternative. Because they serve me. Not Microsoft. :-)
What is a Backup?
A backup is a copy of all the data that is dear to you. Whatever computer you use in all cases make sure that you copy your most important data every now and then to a separate hard disk as a backup. By far the biggest amount of data on your computer will be you your photo, video and maybe film collection. Other random stuff like your homework, invitation letter for the next party, condolence letters, etc. will take up extremely little space. The easiset way to back those up separately is to use a USB memory stick or SD-Card. The latter is ideal if you already have a card reader built into your computer. Just stick it in every week or month and copy all your small files over.
Be aware that your backup media can also break. Therfore have two (or more) of them at the ready and use them alternatingly. If your computer stops working does not mean that everything is lost. Most of what was on your computer can still be retrieved.
My Personal Experience
My DELL Precision Workstation desktop computer is 5+ years old and (currently) runs Ubuntu 12.04. It has 8GB RAM with a pretty standard CPU of those years. My Samsung N150 netbook is around 4 years old has 2 GB with a small Arm processorand therefore runs Xubuntu 12.04 which is friendlier to low hardware specs.
The Ubuntu OS releases are from April 2012, so pretty old. But I stick to them because they have long time support (in short LTS). This means that I can run the computer for several years without having to migrate to a new version.
My almost 10 year old (!) Medion computer also runs Xubuntu 12.04. It has 1GB RAM (upgraded from 512 MB) and a really old CPU. But it works like a treat and I still use for backup, as a media server and torrent host.
One of my jobs requires that I frequently edit sound files (Tibetan Buddhist Sutric teachings with translations, to be exact). For this I use Audacity. It splits stereo to mono to be able edit the tracks separately, it can cut, paste, normalize, remove noise and export to mp3 - which is all I need.
Skype. Although not Open Source and now even owned by Microsoft many of my work peers rely on Skype, so that I also have to use it. It works.
I do listen to music every now and then and typically use VLC because it can read almost everything.
VLC is also good to watch movies and amazingly even high resolution works fine on my old boxes.
I am simply not a gamer at all. So no opinion here. But I believe that if you are a gamer you are better served with a dedicated game box.