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Where do I start?

Linux is an operating system i.e. an environment that allows you to interact with your computer. It normally needs to be installed on to your computer's hard drive - if your machine has Microsoft Windows then that was initially installed by your supplier and currently occupies your hard drive. To install and use Linux you can remove Windows, install another hard drive, or try one of the many Live Linux distributions.

Another alternative is to use an older machine to play around with Linux. Warning: Make sure you backup your data before installing Linux.



What is the best Linux distribution?

For a beginner the most important attribute of a Linux distribution is how easy it is to install, configure and maintain. Distributions that come with thousands of individual programs can be bewildering to a newcomer. The download edition of Mandriva comes on a single DVD, and has an extremely polished installation. Mandriva has made many improvements to the desktop. Another excellent distribution designed for beginners is Ubuntu, which is simplicity to install and use.

Although Mandriva and Ubuntu are very easy to set up, an important factor to in deciding what is the best distribution is probably the one being used by some friend, or in widespread use in the area -- advice may be needed. If there is a local UserGroup near you, use what they recommend; their support will be invaluable.

Expert gurus often favor Slackware or Debian -- distributions that rely more on the console rather than graphical user interfaces.

Another view

There is an alternative to installing a Linux distribution to your hard disk. Many Linux distributions that can be run directly from a CD/DVD, these are known as Live CDs. Knoppix is the most famous of these live distributions. Due to on-the-fly decompression, the Knoppix CD can have up to 2 GB (over 8GB on the DVD "Maxi" edition) of executable software installed on it, so there's no shortage of software for you to experiment with. Naturally, there's a performance hit from running the distribution from a CD/DVD, as this can never be as fast as running from a hard disk.

How much does Linux cost?

The price of a Linux distribution depends on a number of factors - is it supplied with commercial software, on media such as DVD and is printed documentation provided? We would recommend that a Linux beginner pays some money to get Linux on a DVD - in the long run the initial expense is easily covered by the time saved learning how to use this operating system.

Generally most Linux distributions can be:

  • Downloaded over the internet for free. They do not come supplied with commercial software;
  • Purchased on a 'free' CD or DVD. These are extremely cheap costing only a couple of dollars and save a long download, although with broadband commonplace this is no longer a huge advantage. Again no commercial software is supplied with the media - although a wealth of software is provided, much of which is of high quality and free. Also PC-style office applications are available for free such as the incredible popular OpenOffice.
  • Provided as a box set with manuals and commercial software bundled in. For many beginners to Linux this is the route to take; with Mandriva and SuSE you receive a quality manual that has specific information about the Linux distribution. Although Linux distributions are in many respects very similiar a generic book cannot be that specific; for example the organisation of the directory structure, kernel, software, and configuration can vary between Linux distributions.

Is my hardware compatible?

This can often be a hurdle for the newbie to Linux. Linux currently supports less hardware than Windows. With most new purchases of accessories drivers for the Windows based operating systems are included, yet still Linux drivers are normally not provided. This situation is changing though with more support from major developers.

It's important to check to see if your hardware is supported by visiting Linux Hardware Compatibility HOWTO This document describes in great detail what hardware is supported under Linux.

How do I download Linux?

For the Linux beginner on a dialup connection we definitely recommend obtaining Linux on CD/DVD rather than downloading it over the net as it will take forever to download. However if you have a fast net connection you can download Linux from:

Mandriva - www.mandrivalinux.com/en/ftp.php3
Ubuntu - www.ubuntulinux.org/download/
Debian - www.debian.org/distrib/ftplist
Fedora - fedora.redhat.com/download/mirrors.html
SuSE - www.novell.com/products/linuxprofessional/downloads/

Where can I buy Linux?

In the US there are a number of Linux distributors that offer extremely cheap DVDs containing one or more of the popular Linux distributions. Two popular companies that specialise in these cheap DVDs are cheapbytes.com and linuxcentral.com. The DVDs do not contain any of the extra commercial software that is bundled with some of the full price Linux distributions. One disadvantage of buying these extremely cheap DVDs is that there is no hard copy documentation provided. Although there is extensive documentation provided in HTML, PostScript and text formats, a beginner to Linux definitely benefits from having a printed manual. For this reason we recommend that a Linux newcomer purchase a 'full price' version; the extra cost is easily offset by the time saved in becoming acquainted with the operating system. The companies mentioned also supply the box sets at reduced prices. Both Mandriva and SuSE can be supplied with an excellent book if you are prepared to pay for the full priced versions.

For people living in the UK we recommend purchasing a Linux distribution from the Linux Emporium. They offer a wide range of distributions and commercial software at good prices.

A good book for Linux?

Amazon.com lists hundreds of books specifically written for the Linux operating system. With such a bewildering selection available, the first thing a Linux newbie, who does not already have a manual, should consider is to buy a book that covers a recent Linux distribution. Many Linux books refer to distributions that are one or two versions behind the most currently available; little use to a beginner that likes to try the latest Linux software.

A great book for the Linux newbie is "Running Linux" (now in it's 4th edition) which covers everything you need to understand, install, and start using the Linux operating system. It includes a comprehensive installation tutorial and complete information on system maintenance. We also like O'Reilly's popular Linux in a Nutshell, a complete reference covering the core commands available on Linux distributions and documents a wide range of software.

There are a number of great electronic books which are free. They are included in most Linux distributions and include the "Linux Installation and Getting Started", "The Network Administrators' Guide" and "Linux System Administrators' Guide". They contain a wealth of information which provide a good substitute for the printed copy. Supplemented by the HOWTOs, FAQs mini-HOWTOs a beginner can learn much without expensive books.

Do expect to want to buy some generic Unix book further on. The new editions usually cover Linux as well as other variants, and Linux is not that much different once it is installed and the system administration tools have become familiar. The books specifically on Linux are usually aimed at newbies and the quality is not always very high.

I have a question about Linux -- where can I ask it?

There are a number of public 'forums' where beginners can ask Linux questions and draw upon the wealth of experience that exists. Firstly, there are USENET newsgroups where Linux newbies can seek help depending on what their problem is:

comp.os.linux.admin for installing and administering Linux systems
comp.os.linux.help for questions and advice about Linux
comp.os.linux.x for installing and configuring the X server
comp.os.linux.misc is a good place to post questions that aren't covered by the other Linux newsgroups.

LinuxLinks Forums also hosts linux forums, one especially dedicated for Beginners.

What do I do now?

There are no age barriers, no price controls, and no proprietary knowledge. The limitations are your own.




Last Updated Saturday, June 21 2008 @ 04:53 PM EDT


We have written a range of guides highlighting excellent free books for popular programming languages. Check out the following guides: C, C++, C#, Java, JavaScript, CoffeeScript, HTML, Python, Ruby, Perl, Haskell, PHP, Lisp, R, Prolog, Scala, Scheme, Forth, SQL, Node.js (new), Fortran (new), Erlang (new), Pascal (new), and Ada (new).

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