Getting started with Linux
There's never been a better time to get into Linux. It's slicker than ever, easier to install than ever and all the big-name distros like Ubuntu have just received updates.
One of the biggest impediments to widespread Linux adoption is that you don't get Linux on a PC from high street stores.
But the advantages it offers over Windows 10 and Mac OS X are well worth this extra step. For starters, Linux is open source, which is to say that you can legally download a copy of Linux and install it on all your computers. It also ships with a ton of software and you can download more with a single click.
Unlike proprietary operating systems, a Linux flavour (or distro) is very malleable. You can swap out default apps or even its entire interface and replace it with something you choose. Choice is another hallmark of Linux with multiple options from simple components to complex suites.
Furthermore, besides being compatible with all your newer hardware, Linux can also turbo-charge hardware that's past its glory days. To top it all, you can do everything you can on a Windows PC. From streaming video to playing the latest games, Linux will work just as well as any other system.
The most commonly known Linux distribution (often abbreviated to distro), Ubuntu pays special attention to desktop usability.
In the 10 years of its existence, Ubuntu has galvanised the development of Linux on the desktop and is the go-to distro for third-party developers and vendors who want to run their wares on Linux.
Red Hat's open source offering to the world, Fedora is known for adapting and offering new technologies and software to its users.
Over the years, the distro has managed to find a clever balance between offering new features and stability to its users, which makes it popular with both new and experienced Linux users.
Although it's just had a handful of releases to date, Mageia has a pedigree in usability that dates back to the 1990s. Mageia is a community project that's supported by a non-profit organisation, which is managed by a board of elected contributors.
The distro is known for its customised user-friendly tools for managing the installation.
How to install Linux
The Linux installation process is involved but it isn't actually that cumbersome. The exact installation steps are slightly different for every distribution, but in general the distro's graphical installer will guide you through the necessary steps pretty easily.
In essence, installing Linux is very similar to installing a piece of software, albeit with a few caveats:
Unlike a piece of software, installing Linux requires you to create a dedicated partition on your hard disk. This isn't an issue if Linux will be the only operating on your computer.
However, if you're installing Linux alongside another OS, such as Windows, you'll have to take steps to preserve the existing data.
Many Linux distros will offer to partition the disk for you automatically, though you can create partitions yourself with ease from within Windows using the Disk Management tool.
The advantage of manually partitioning your disk is that you get to decide how much space to allocate to Linux. When creating partitions remember to create two new partitions. The bigger one with at least 12GB of disk space is for the OS itself, which you'll format as ext4.
You'll also need to create a second partition for what's called swap space. In simple terms, the swap partition extends the amount of physical RAM on your computer. A general rule of thumb for computers with a small amount of RAM (one or two gigabytes) is to create a swap partition that's twice as large as the amount of RAM on your computer.
For computers with more RAM, it's best to create a swap partition that's the same size as the amount of RAM you have.
During the installation process, many distros including Fedora and Ubuntu will give you an option to encrypt the Linux partition.
This option gives you an added layer of security by insulating your data from unauthorised access. To enable this option you will need to supply a passphrase which will then act as the key to unlock the data.
Another important step during installation is setting up a root account. On most distros this step is part of the user creation process where you define the login credentials of your regular user account.
The regular user doesn't have any permissions to modify the system while logging in as root gives you complete control over your system.
One software you should be familiar with when installing Linux is the bootloader. It's a small program that tells the computer where to find the different operating systems on the disk. Most Linux distros use the Grub 2 bootloader.
In general, you shouldn't have to do anything here, even when installing Linux on a Windows 10 computer that uses the UEFI BIOS with Secure Boot enabled.
The latest versions of most mainstream distros, including Ubuntu and Fedora install a UEFI-compatible bootloader that will work correctly out of the box. However, since different vendors implemented UEFI differently, you might not get to the Grub bootloader screen and instead end up booting straight into Windows after installing Linux.
In such a case, you should consider enabling the Legacy BIOS mode wherein the UEFI firmware functions as a standard BIOS. The option to enable Legacy BIOS is under the UEFI settings screen.
Testing before installation
Almost every mainstream distro, including Ubuntu, Fedora and Mageia allow you to boot into a 'live' environment, which lets you experience the distro without disturbing the contents of your hard disk.
You can use the live environment to get familiar with the distro and also verify the compatibility of your hardware with the distro.
Also note that Linux distributions are distributed as ISO images. You can burn them to a CD or DVD, depending on their size, using the option to burn ISO images. You can also transfer ISO images to a USB drive.
There are tools, such as UNetbootin and Yumi that will create bootable USB drives with the ISO of your distro, while Mageia recommends using the Rufus utility.
Make room for Linux: Resize a Windows partition
1. Shrink Windows
Before you can partition your disk you'll need to squeeze your Windows partition to free up some disk space for the new partition. Head to the Disk Management tool, and right-click your main partition that is typically assigned the drive letter C.
Then select the Shrink Volume option from the pop-up menu.
2. Create new partition
The Shrink dialog box shows you the total size of the drive and the maximum amount of shrink space available. You cannot squeeze more space out of a drive than the size shown here.
To create a new partition, specify the size of the partition in the space provided in MB and click Shrink to start the process.
3. Use the partition
After the process is complete, a new partition showing the amount of free, or unallocated, space appears next to the Windows C: drive partition. You can then point your Linux distro's installer to this free space.
Remember to repeat the process and create another partition for the swap space as well.
One of the biggest difference that foxes users coming from proprietary operating systems is the lack of a consistent 'look and feel' to the Linux desktop.
The default desktops on Ubuntu, Fedora and Mageia distros all look and behave differently from each other. We say default because unlike other proprietary operating systems, a Linux distro enables you to swap out the desktop and replace it with an entirely different one to better suit your workflow.
The idea of the desktop as a separate entity from the operating system sounds foreign to users coming from Windows or Mac. But like all things Linux and open source, users are spoilt for choice when it comes to putting a face on top of their Linux distro.
Unity in diversity
The Ubuntu distribution uses its own home-brewed Unity desktop. The most prominent component on the desktop is the vertical Launcher which functions pretty much like a taskbar.
It houses icons for the frequently used apps for quick access that you can modify as per your requirements. Also, some icons have specialised right-click context menus that give you quick access to frequently used features.
The first icon on the Launcher brings up the Dash, which is Ubuntu's take on the traditional menu-based navigation system. It features a search box at the bottom and anything you type here is used to look for matching apps, documents, music, videos, instant messages, contacts and other content.
Furthermore, you can also use the Dash to install and uninstall apps and preview media files. Unity also includes the Heads Up Display (HUD), which is an innovative take on the application menus.
Using HUD helps you avoid the trouble of looking for options embedded deep within nested menus. To access HUD press the Alt key from inside any app and use the Dash-like search box to perform a task.
The default Unity experience is the result of extensive usability research by Canonical. But you'll find some options to tweak the desktop from under the System Settings tool accessible via the gear & spanner icon in the Launcher.
The settings are grouped into three broad categories. The Personal group houses settings for customising the look and feel of the desktop by changing the wallpaper and modifying the behaviour of the launcher.
Pay attention to the Online Accounts settings which you can use to sign into several online services, such as Facebook and Google Docs, and integrate their contents with the desktop apps.
For example, adding your Flickr account will integrate it with the Shotwell photo manager.
Gnome is another popular desktop, and the Gnome 3 desktop contains more or less the same elements as Ubuntu's Unity but presents them in a different way. For starters the desktop is very bare.
Click on the Activities button in the top-left corner to reveal the Overview which is very similar to Unity's Dash. In this view, you also get a Launcher-like Favourites bar for accessing frequently used apps.
In the centre you get a preview of all open windows. To the right is the Workspace Switcher, which always shows the current Workspace and an additional one. If you add windows to the second Workspace, a third will automatically be added.
At the top is a search box that will match any text to apps and documents on the local computer as well as online services.
Gnome includes an Online Accounts app that enables you to sign into online services, such as Google Docs and Flickr. In fact, Fedora will ask you to sign into these online services when you boot into the distro for the first time.
The Gnome desktop also has several custom apps of its own that can fetch information and data from the added online accounts. For example, the Gnome Contacts apps can pull in contacts from various online sources, such as Gmail.
Similarly, Gnome Documents will help you find documents from online repositories such as Google Docs.
New users should also keep an eye out for the desktop's peculiarities. For one, you won't find the Minimise buttons on any of the windows in Gnome. When you want to switch to another app, head to the Activities Overview and launch a new window or select an existing open one.
Another esoteric aspect is the lack of any desktop icons as well as the ability to create any shortcuts or place any folders on the desktop.
However, Gnome's redeeming aspect is its tweakability: you can add new features literally with a single click. Gnome supports a plethora of extensions that you can enable without any installation.
Just head to the Gnome Extensions website, find the plugin you wish to enable and toggle the button to activate it on your desktop. Some of the popular extensions are designed to help ease the transition for users moving to Gnome from proprietary operating systems, such as Windows.
Kick off with KDE
Unlike the other two desktops, the layout and behaviour of the KDE desktop and the placement of its Kickoff app launcher will certainly feel familiar to users from non-Linux operating systems. But KDE is so malleable that many KDE distros look unlike each other.
In many ways, KDE is the quintessential Linux desktop with its flexibility and myriad number of options. There's literally no end to KDE's customisation options.
One of the most useful KDE features is Activities. Using this feature, you can create several context-aware activities, each with its own set of apps and desktop furniture. For example, you can create a Social activity that signs you into all your instant messaging accounts and displays updates and feeds from various social networks.
Many KDE distros ship with just the default activity, called the Desktop Activity. However, you can fetch more activities from the internet and build on them to suit your workflow.
Furthermore, KDE ships with multiple interfaces or Views designed to make the best of the available desktop real estate.
There are different Views for regular screens and netbook though you can use any View on any type of computer. To switch Views, right-click on the desktop and from the context-menu select the Default Desktop Settings option. In the window that opens up, select the View tab and checkout the different views from the Layout pull-down list.
Many KDE distros place the Folder View widget on the desktop which displays the contents of a folder in a neat little box that you can place anywhere on your screen. Then there's the Folder View which lets you place files and folders anywhere on the desktop.
The Search and launch View is designed for devices with a small screen or a touchscreen. Each View has additional configurable elements. In addition to bundling the configuration options along with the individual elements, KDE also houses them all under the System Settings panel, alongside other system-wide configuration options to administer the underlying Linux distro.
It might seem daunting, but you don't need to set up or review each and every option before using the desktop.
Customising KDE is an on-going process and not a one-time affair. The desktop is designed to grow and mutate as per your usage requirements.
In addition to these three chief desktop environments, there are a lot more that you can put atop your distro. There are fully fledged environments, such as Cinnamon, as well as lightweight ones, such as Xfce, LXDE and Mate.
In fact, most mainstream distros, including Ubuntu, Fedora and Mageia are available in multiple editions with a different desktops.
For example, the Ubuntu distro has a number of officially supported spins. There's Kubuntu which dresses Ubuntu with KDE as well as a Gnome spin, a Xfce spin and another that uses the Mate desktop.
The Fedora distro, which was once known as the premier Gnome distro, now also has a wonderful KDE flavour as well.
Similarly, you can also use Mageia with the Gnome desktop as well. In fact, Mageia and Fedora, also have install-only DVD images that give the user the option to install multiple desktops.
How to switch desktop environments
You can also install multiple desktops on top of your distribution, such as the popular Cinnamon desktop. It's available in the official repositories of Fedora and Mageia and you can install it via their respective graphical package managers.
On Ubuntu, it's available via the ppa:gwendal-lebihan-dev/cinnamonstable PPA. Add this PPA to your system and then install the desktop environment from the Software Center.
Once you've installed multiple desktop environments you can easily switch to another one. To do this you just log out of the current desktop environment, and use the login manager and enter your login credentials.
Before logging into the desktop, explore the buttons on the login manager. One of the buttons will reveal a drop-down list of all the installed desktops. Select the desktop environment you want to use and the login manager will log you into that desktop.
This way you can try them out and choose one you like the best. Choice!
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