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May 4, 2008 | Tutorials
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Newbie’s Guide

1.0 Why Linux?

2.0 Getting a Computer

2.1 Live CD’s

2.2 Finding an old computer

2.3 Buying a new computer

3.0 Installing the Software

3.1 The Options

3.2 Installing It

4.0 Using Linux

4.1 The Basics

4.1.1 How Open Source works

4.2 GNOME

4.3 KDE

4.4 Other

  1. Why Linux?Many people use Linux, but often for different reasons. One reason people use Linux it that it is extremely secure. Almost no one uses anti-virus software on Linux, because viruses for Linux are just about unheard of. Another reason, and possibly the most obvious, is that it’s free. Think about it: A retail copy of Windows Vista Business costs $250 (OK, only$249.99) from Newegg.com, a popular online store for technology. On the other hand Linux is free. Yet another reason people love Linux is the artwork and desktop effects. Desktop effects are similar to Vista’s Aero, but far cooler. Many distributions (think of them as different OS’s build off the same core technology and sharing code) have a few of these effects built in, but the real cool effects (and some useful too) come from a program called Compiz Fusion, the merger of Beryl and Compiz. This program adds many, many neat and useful effects to the desktop more interesting and productive. When you see these effects (search Google Video or YouTube for “Combiz Fusion”) you will be amazed how much cooler and more useful they are then anything Mac OS X or Vista (much less XP) have. Another feature is multiple desktops. This means that you can have almost as many desktops as you want (without Compiz Fusion, it may be limited to two or four) and have different applications in each. This may sound confusing, but when you start using it you will love it. These are just some of the reasons people use Linux, but this should get you interested enough to discover what things you especially love about Linux.
  2. Getting a ComputerAt this point you may be wondering how you can try it out. There are basically two ways of trying Linux out: running it from a “live” CD or DVD, or actually installing it on a computer. Plus another possibility for Windows users who want to try out Ubuntu.
    1. Live CD’sA live CD or DVD is a disc that you can boot directly off of. This means that you can put the CD or DVD into your drive and reboot your computer into Linux. When you are done just shut it down, take out the CD and when you start it up again and nothing will have changed. Note that Linux will run slowly, some parts of Linux will not work (or at lease
      not well) from a Live CD, and any documents you save will be lost.

      To make a live CD or DVD, first you need to find the .iso file for the Linux distribution that you want to try. A good choice to start out would be Ubuntu. You can download Ubuntu here or buy a CD from Amazon. See our tutorial section for how to make a live cd/dvd. Finding an Old Computer

    2. One of the fun things about Linux is that there are many Linux distributions that run just fine on computers with modest hardware capabilities.  This means that an older computer that has reached the end of its useful life as a Windows machine can find new life as a Linux machine.  Many people have at least one such computer sitting around their house, not being used, and awaiting a trip to the dump or a computer recycling center.  If you have one of these, this is the cheapest and easiest way to get going with Linux.  If you don’t have one, you might see if a friend has one he or she would be happy to
      give you to save himself or herself the trouble of disposing of the computer.  (Be sensitive to the fact that the friend might want to erase his or her files on the old computer before giving it away, even though you will be completely wiping the drive clean when you install Linux.)

      Another approach would be to find out if your local solid waste authority has an procedures for recycling old computers that people bring in for disposal.  Sometimes an old computer can be obtained at the landfill or transfer station for free or a nominal fee.

      Finally, an old computer can also be purchased at a Salvation Army or Goodwill thrift store for a modest cost, sometimes.

    3. Buying a New Computer
      If you want to buy a new computer to put Linux on you have a number of options. There are a number of commercial sellers of Linux systems (for example System 76, Dell and many others) or you can build the computer yourself. This guide will not cover how to do that, but there are many resources on the web to help you.
    4. WubiWubi is a free program that will install Ubuntu on your computer without changing partitions and such. When you boot you can choose between Ubuntu and Windows and you can just uninstall it from windows when you are done. A Cnet video walks you through the steps
  3. Installing the Software
    1. The Options
      More options can be found at places like Distro Watch, but this guide will only cover three.

      Ubuntu – Lots of guides, tons of users

      http://www.ubuntu.com

      Ubuntu is great to start out on because it is very user-friendly and has many, many tutorials and other help avaliable due to it’s huge user base.

      Fedora – Great artwork, lots of help though not quite as much

      http://www.fedoraproject.org

      Fedora has great artwork and lots of users as well as using SELinux, which helps secure your system. If you feel fairly comfortable with Linux this is a great distro, although if you still feel you need a lot of help it might not be quite as appealing. Not that it is hard to get help for Fedora! Not for old computers also, though.

      Damn Small Linux (DSL) – Small, runs on old computers

      http://www.damnsmalllinux.org/

      DSL is great for an old computer, because it is less then 50MB and requiring very low system specs. If you have an old PC that will not run Ubuntu or other distros, try DSL.

    2. Installing It
      To install most Linux distributions you need to burn a live CD (see above) and reboot into it. There is normally an icon on the desktop to install it. From there it will ask a few simple questions and then install it. If you need more help you can search for specific tutorials (I was unable to find a site with normal tutorials for lots of distributions) or you can look at the Linux Install Podcast which helps you install many Linux distributions in an audio format.
  4. Using Linux
    1. The Basics
      Before you start using Linux there are a few things you need to know about how the different distributions (or distros) work. A Linux “distro” (e.x. Ubuntu, Fedora, Redhat) is a variation based on the same underlying technology. Because of this there are many OSs that are all “Linux” and feel very similar, but are somewhat different. Another important difference between distributions is what desktop environment they use. The two most common are GNOME and KDE and because these are the most visible and variable part this guide will cover them separately below.

      1. How Open Source Works
        Another important part of Linux is that almost all of the code is free and open. This means that you can download the code, modify, etc. at no cost. The reason I say almost is because a few Linux distributions package in non-open code such as drivers (pieces of software that make your hardware work). You may already be using open source programs as open source is not specific to Linux. Firefox, for example, is an open source project.

        Another question many people have about open source software (sometimes called OSS) is how it works. How do the developers make money? Why do they do it? Well, the answer is they often don’t make money (although they can sometimes, for example selling support or simply accepting donations), instead they do it because they love
        free and open software and want to contribute back.

    2. GNOME
      Here is Ubuntu’s default desktop and a fairly standard GNOME desktop. Also note the two squares at the bottom right. These let you switch between work spaces. See above. Also access to the trash can is available here too by clicking the trash icon or you can drag files to it to delete them. At the top right from left to right are the network icon, the volume icon, the time and date, and the shutdown/restart/log off button.

      Default Ubuntu desktop

      Here is the applications menu. All of your programs are here ordered by their category. You can drag these applications to the desktop to make a shortcut to them or drag them to any part of either menu to make a shortcut on the menu.

      Applications menu

      At the bottom of the applications menu there is an item “Add/Remove…”. This allows you to add and remove software as the name implies. Just find the application (by category or by searching) and check (to install) or uncheck (to uninstall) the check box and press OK.

      Add/Remove dialog

      Open applications show in a taskbar-like menu at the bottom. To the left is a button to hide/unhide all the windows. Also note that you can see the windows in the workspace switcher.

      GNOME menu

      The places menu provides access to different places on your hard drive. Your home folder is like your My Documents folder.

      Places menu

      The system menu lets you change system settings. This is similar to control panel (Windows) or system preferences (Mac).

      System menu

    3. KDE KDE
      is another common type of desktop environment.  The screenshot below shows the desktop for Fedora with the KDE interface (Fedora is normally a GNOME distro, but is avaliable with KDE too).

      Fedora desktop with KDE

      Fedora presents a very clean and attractive opening screen, with a single shorcut icon for Trash visible in the upper left hand corner of the screen, the name “fedora” in the lower right hand corner, and a horizontal panel across the bottom.

      The horizontal panel at the bottom of the screen is like the Windows Task Bar.  Iinitially, it shows three icons at the left hand side, followed by four boxes labeled “1,” “2,” “3,” and “4,” and at the far right hand side, icons for a Klipboard, for energy saving control settings, and a clock. Any of these icons can be opened (expanded) with a single left click of the
      mouse; other options are typically presented in response to a right click on the icons.

      The first of the icons, at the far left, is the K-menu,  from which you can access programs and system controls.  These are arranged in three overall categories titled: “Most Used Applications,” “All Applications,” and “Actions.”  The majority of the Applications and Actions items are headers for groups of related programs, and the sub-menus associated with each header can be viewed by hovering the mouse over each item in the main list, as illustrated in the screenshot below:

      KDE Menu

      Moving to the right on the bottom panel,  the next icon encountered is for the Home folder.  This is like the My Documents folder in Windows, and it is intended to organize and hold the user’s files.  Initially, the Home folder has sub-folders for the
      desktop itself, as well  as sub-folders for documents, downloads, music, pictures, “public,” templates, and videos.  Double
      clicking will open any of these subfolders, and navigation back out or back up to the top folder can be accomplished with the arrow buttons in the upper left of the open window (see screenshot below).

      KDE Panel

      If these arrow buttons remind you of navigation buttons on web browsers, that is not entirely coincidental because
      the KDE interface contains an application called Konqueror that serves both as your interface for navigating among files on your computer and for navigating among web pages.

      The third icon from the left on the bottom panel provides access to information about Fedora.  Opening this icon provides access to things like a user guide and useful web links to the Fedora community.

      The next four icons labeled 1, 2, 3, and 4 represent virtual desktops that can be in use simultaneously.  As with Windows, a desktop can have two or more programs running simultaneously.  But with multiple virtual desktops, one can have a different set of programs running on each virtual desktop.  For example, Desktop 1 might have a word processor and a spreadsheet running simultaneously, while Desktop 2 might have card game running.  This situation is illustrated in the screenshot below.

      Multiple desktops

      Notice, in the above screenshot, that the Desktop icons for Desktops in use now suggest the visual appearance of each desktop, as an aid in remembering which programs are running where.  Also, the names of all the running programs on all Desktops appear on the bottom panel. Hovering the mouse over each of these names reveals which Desktop the
      program is running on,  and whether there are unsaved changes in the running program.  Programs with unsaved changes  cannot be closed without encountering a “save or discard” dialogue box.

      The clipboard tool, known as Klipper, is an enhanced version of the clipboard in windows.  It is enhanced insofar as it retains multiple items put onto the clipboard (until cleared) and makes it possible to search for items on the clipboard.

      To the right of the clipboard tool, is the energy saving power settings control icon.  This allows you to control power
      management settings for the computer display, as well as some other power control features primarily useful on a battery powered laptop.

      Lastly, in the right corner is the clock, which is pretty self-explanatory.

    1. Other
      There are also other desktop environments, especially found in distros designed to be small, too. Some are similar to GNOME, other resemble Windows more, but all are fairly easy to learn, so it is best to experiment.

FAQ

Q: What if I have a problem and need help?

A: Unlike with Windows and Mac OS X you can’t just call a tech support line … and listen to bad music for an hour before getting hung up on (OK, sometimes somebody actually answers the phone, and maybe even speaks English).  For Linux users, often the best and
fastest way to get help is to on the Internet. You might find a guide that specifically addresses the issue you are dealing with.  Or you might look for a ”forum,” which is a place where you can “post” a question and other people can answer the question. You can continue to talk to those people if they need addition information about the issue or if their proposed solution didn’t work. Most distributions have their own forum or there are general Linux forums, such as LinuxQuestions.org. The Linux community is pretty passionate about Linux, and members of that community are often exceptionally talented individuals (who could make a lot of money working for Microsoft, but choose not to), so the quality of the help you get is often startlingly good.

Another way to get support is to buy it from a commercial company. Canonical, the company affiliated with Ubuntu, offers support over the phone and by email. This type of service is not free though. At time of writing, desktop phone and email support for business hours on weekdays is $250 for one year.

Q: Are their other things I need to know before I start using Linux?

A: For the most part you will discover everything you need to know just by using Linux, but if you do get stuck, go ahead and look for help (see above) or check out one of the tutorials listed on the guides and tutorials page of this website. Here are a few of the tutorials listed there that might help you get started:

Beginner’s Linux Guide/FAQ

Beginner’s Guide to Installing and Using Linux

An Introduction to the Linux Command Line

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