An Brief Introduction to Linux

Linux is actually an incomplete description. It is just the kernel, to properly refer to the operating system many would argue it should be called GNU/Linux - but that's really a matter of semantics. No disrespect to the GNU/Linux crowd, but for ease of reference I'm going to simply call it Linux throughout this text. If you have no idea what I'm talking about right now, you can either safely ignore this paragraph, or click here to learn more.

Why Linux?

There are plenty of reasons to start running a Linux distribution on your home PC. The scope of which is way too large to sufficiently cover in this little introductory paragraph. For the sake of completeness I would like to list a few of the reasons that motivated me to get started learning a new operating system.

Virii (the plural form of virus) in Linux are few and far in between if even existent at all. For your purposes as of the time of this writing, you might as well think of Linux as the operating system immune to catching a virus. You don't need a scanner or anything unless you want to scan files you plan to move into a Windows operating system. Why, you might wonder, is that? There is much speculation on that matter, but it's most generally agreed that malware is practically non-problem in Linux for two primary reasons:

  • Linux is not nearly as widespread as Windows for home use. Folks who make malware more often than not want their creations to impact as wide, and unsophisticated an audience as possible. Although this has been changing in recent times, Linux still caters predominately to a niche demographic of experienced computer users. Most people, by the time they're stepping up to Linux, have a pretty good grasp on fundamental computing, this makes them more challenging targets, which are few and far in between. If you're trying to build a botnet, why bother with all the extra work in making your software work for Linux when there are so many sitting ducks out there? It's worth noting that Google's Android is based on Linux, and has become nearly ubiquitous in the smartphone market. Android has been around for quite some time though, and the code still seems to be strong. Windows has the challenge of having to be able to make everything work right out of the box. Linux has come a long ways in working-out-of-the-boxness, but there still may be things one needs to make work after installing. With less priority on user-friendliness, Linux developers are free to focus on patching security holes and making a more stable operating system.
  • Linux is open source. Not everyone agrees with the following statement but the content of this article is largely subjective anyway: Open source software has proven itself repeatedly over the years to be consistently less buggy and of a higher quality caliber. Open source software, in sufficient popularity, benefits from having the eyes of the masses on it. Flaws in logic get pointed out more quickly in general, if someone sees a way to improve the code, they're welcome to go do that if they want.

Immunity from malware isn't the only reason people use Linux though. There are plenty of reasons someone may want a more secure, more stable operating system. Linux is highly customizable, with a little bit of tinkering, one can make it look and act exactly how they want. One might need a good operating system for storing digital crytocurrency. Linux is also free, so someone building a computer on a budget, who doesn't want to pirate their operating system, could turn to this as a solution. A person could write about the reasons for wanting to use Linux all day. This guide makes a good starting resource for somebody wanting to learn more about the “why's” of using Linux. It also provided something of an outline for me to write the preceding couple paragraphs around.1)2)

One of the main reasons I found myself coming back to linux, which I didn't foresee being the case at first, is that when support is needed it is much more readily available than commercially supported software, and is much more helpful. With nobody being paid to produce good content to learn from, the community has taken it upon themselves to make support material, and there's plenty of it out there on this internet.

Making my computer run the way I want it to turned out to be a fun, engaging, community experience. Linux will give you more reasons to look for a solution to problems you didn't even know existed in Windows, a commitment to Linux is a time commitment to learning about computers, yes, but if the many helpful pages written online can't help you solve a given problem then you can bet it won't be long before a forum post will yield ever helpful input.

Linux is an opportunity to learn. If you love to learn and have the extra time to spend, I implore you to give this operating system a chance. It's made for you.

Alright, I'm convinced. Now what?

Picking a distribution

My target audience here are intermediates. People who have well gotten the hang of Windows, sense its flaws, and are ready to give something more challenging a chance. Basically, noobs. We were all there once, but if you're an advanced user, you may be well advised to think more in depth about why you want to use Linux, and what distribution best serves your needs based on the answer to that question.

Once you've decided to take the plunge the first step is to decide which distribution you would like to use. There is oh gosh just a plethora of distributions out there to choose from, and it definitely can be daunting for someone just learning about an alternative to windows. I mean, just look at all the available selections. The reason for all this variety is that Open Source software can be forked. If somebody doesn't like a particular version of a piece of software, they can alter the code to their liking, and make their own. There is nothing stopping them from distributing it.

For the purposes of this writing I'm going to go ahead and recommend the distribution that I've been using since about 2007, Ubuntu. It has several things going for it. It supports the most hardware directly out of the box that I've witnessed (although to be fair, I haven't really tried any others). The reason for this is because in addition to reaping the benefits of being open sourced, Ubuntu is backed financially by a company that is out for profit, Canonical. Even though Ubuntu is free of charge for the home user, businesses, and home users can purchase licensing and support from the company. There is a business model in place here, and it means that developers are getting paid to look at Ubuntu code for their job, in addition to community feedback. This is the thing that has given Ubuntu a leg up and brought Linux as close as it's ever been to being outright mainstream, Android not withstanding.

I've heard a large amount of positive chatter lately about an up and coming alternative to Ubuntu, also based on the same Debian Linux of which Ubuntu is a fork, borrowing some of Ubuntu's features and rivaling it in popularity3). This distribution is called Linux Mint. I've honestly not used it yet. I'm writing about it in spite of not having used it because I want the reader to be aware that Ubuntu is not the only practical choice. Based on everything I've been reading my intuiton tells me that it would be a solid first choice these days for someone new.

So which one should you choose? Well I can whole heartedly say that I love using Ubuntu. It has given me many frustrated hours trying to fix things that ended up being irrelevant in the end. But I always learned a little bit trying to fix these things. Anymore, when I go to install Ubuntu for the first time everything about just works, and I spend more time just customizing it to suit my needs perfectly. I can say from experience that it's a great choice for someone stepping up to the Linux plate for their fthirst time.

Linux Mint is a talented and dedicated community, with funding from a diverse group of smaller backers,4) whereas Ubuntu is maintained by a multi-million5) dollar company. Linux Mint does get to benefit from Ubuntu though, as mostly all Linux distributions get to benefit from each other, so that isn't necessarily to say Mint is worse off than Ubuntu because of this. But this structural difference highlights the philosophical differences between the two distributions. Canonical is more oriented towards fulfilling a certain vision of a Linux desktop suitable for common use, and the Linux Mint team is more oriented towards achieving community goals, and catering to the wants of the the audience it serves. It is a smaller community effort which is more feedback oriented.

As far as software differences go, Mint uses a different GUI. A GUI, which stands for “Graphical User Interface,” is the software you interact with that presents you with pictures, linked to a mouse you can use. Windows is a GUI for things that happen under the hood of your computer. The software that used to handle the stuff happening under the hood used to be called “MS-DOS.” Some of you, if you are a little older, will be able to remember computing in days when pushing your computer's on button would lead you to a black and white blinking command prompt, then you had to run Windows, sold seperately, but executing the “win” command. Linux is actually the things that are happening under the hood, like the DOS to old Windows (I think the newer Windows' have NT under the hood). Your computer runs Linux, then inside Linux is ran a GUI, like Ubuntu's Unity, or the Mint default GUI, Cinnamon.

It's really a matter of preference. When I give specific examples in the articles I write, they will have been tested on whatever distribution of Ubuntu I happen to be running as a matter of convenience. There are enough similarities between Mint and Ubuntu that most of the things I write would apply equally to either distribution if not word for word then with just a little bit of tweaking. I may switch to Mint someday to give it a shot if I ever start having real problems with Ubuntu. It's hard to tell.

There are other distributions that work differently than these two in other ways. One of the main appeals of Debian based distributions for people just starting with Linux is the package management system. Installing new programs in many distributions can be a difficult, frustrating task. A huge part of the reason Ubuntu surged in popularity is most likely because they were the first to refine a package management system that made it much simpler for less advanced students to install just about anything they needed to use as far as software goes. This opened a door for adoption that wasn't previously there, and, indeed; made it possible for me to start playing with this operating system. Both Ubuntu and Mint take advantage of this package management system.

Long Term or Short Term

Here is another point to consider. Mint follows Ubuntu's release cycles. Ubuntu releases a new version every six months, full of cutting edge features. Mint releases their version, based on Ubuntu's release, a month later. People wanting to have the newest features, and people with shorter attention spans would like prefer a short term version, which they'll have to upgrade every six months. The current Ubuntu short term support option is 13.10. The 13 denoting how many years Ubuntu has been released 2x a year, and the 10 denoting the month of the release.

Additionally, Canonical releases Long Term Support (LTS) versions, previously every three years, but now every five years. The current LTS flavor of Ubuntu is 12.04, and this is the system I currently use. It will be supported until April 2017, when a new LTS release supplants it. LTS releases are for people who don't like having to constantly change and adapt to new features, and more likely want to just get their computer working the way they want it to, and keep it that way. They are fully supported and current as far as security and stability patches are concerned, and if you want to use an LTS you can think of it as equal to current short term release in the major, important ways.

Short term releases give you access to all the coolest new features and ways of using your hardware, but the downside is there will be less documentation because each release is so short lived. After being around for years, a long term release has time to get an answer specifically tailored to that release posted on the internet to any question one might be able to imagine.

Anything Else?

Learning a new operating system takes time and patience. I've found it to be rewarding enough to justify that effort.

If you have that thirst for knowledge in you, or just want a stable operating system free from virii bad enough to put a little work into it, then what are you waiting for? Pick a distribution, burn a dvd, and get started.

You can very easily boot your computer from a modern Ubuntu DVD (or CD, but you may have to download a slightly earlier iteration of the current iso, then upgrade). It's called a Live-CD, because, without touching the data on your hard drive or doing anything at all to your current operating system, you can load Ubuntu into memory, click around, and get a feel for how it works. Try before you buy, even though you don't actually pay for anything. So there's no reason not to test the waters out anymore.

From there, you can choose to install it along side your current operating system so that you get a choice when you start your computer, or have it replace your current operating system all together. There are pro's and con's to each approach but that is content for a different article. Or you can shut down your computer, remove the dvd, and wait to try Linux another day. Nothing will have changed on your computer.

The choice is yours.

The is one of the first in a series of articles I am now aspiring to write aimed at beginning to intermediate computer users taking their first steps into the world of Ubuntu Linux and digital cryptocurrencies. I hope these tutorials help someone out there! Input on my writing is always welcome. I am merockstar on both bitcointalk and peercointalk forums.

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