Linux Introduction

If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably at least heard of Linux.  Maybe you have that friend who works in IT who won’t shut up about it.  Or maybe you just live in the world and pay attention to what’s going on. Or maybe, you’re thinking about upgrading to Windows 10, but after looking at it, you’re concerned about security, privacy, safety.  Or maybe you’re just the kind of person who likes to tinker with things and is interested in trying something new.  You may also be completely overwhelmed by the information out there on linux, the distros, the sudo commands, and the general nerd-snobbery of trying to work with it.

This article is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to Linux.  It is a first steps guide.  An introduction without a conclusion.  First, we’ll go over the “idea” of Linux, what it is, and what it isn’t. This will be followed by a short tutorial to get it up and running on your computer in a way that won’t do any damage to your current system so that you can check it out and take the Linux tour.

What is Linux?

You know about the two big commercial desktop operating systems out there: Microsoft Windows and Apple OSX.  If you’re a normal human being in the market for a computer, one of these two operating systems is your most likely target.  But, just like in political elections, there’s not always just two choices.  And unlike political elections, your choice can actually have an effect.  At least on your workflow.

The first thing that you’ll want to understand is the Linux is not actually an operating system at all.  The thing that is actually called Linux is what’s called a kernel.  It was created and initially released into the wild by Linus Torvalds in the early 1990s as that basis for an operating system for personal computers.  What made it different from all of the other operating systems of the day was its open source nature.  Anyone with the desire and knowhow could (and still can) download the actual source code of the kernel, read it, modify it, and use it however they wished.

What happened was an explosion, over the years, of Linux-based operating systems.  A group of programmers would basically take the kernel and, using it as a baseline, build a full operating system around it.  These different “flavors” of Linux are called distributions or distros.  And there are a lot of them.  I mean, check this out. Just unfocus your eyes and scroll through the list.  Unless you’re a real enthusiast, there’s no real reason to try them all out.  And besides, it would take forever. But then, how do you decide?

I’m going to do you a solid.  I’m going to narrow that list down to one.  One Linux distro that has the customizability and the flexibility and the community support to give you the highest likelihood of success. I’m going to recommend Ubuntu.

Ubuntu is supported and developed by a company called Canonical Ltd and primarily derive most of the revenue from selling tech support.  The operating system itself is free, open-source, fantastically stable and secure, and has a huge, helpful community that will readily answer any question that might come up.  It supports almost any hardware you might install it on.

Here’s the thing.  Linux has always been the domain of the geek.  But I put it to you that we live in a world where the geek OS has finally reached a point in its development where the average user can will find it comprehensible and, dare I say it, useful.

Let’s get started.

How to Try out Ubuntu Linux

Assumptions: You have basic computing skills.  You know how to use a mouse, keyboard, and hopefully, a web browser. You know what a file is how to find it once you’ve downloaded it.  Also, you are willing to accept that this is a process which requires that you read carefully and take your time.

Equipment needed:

  • A computer. Either PC or Mac. Ideally it’s newer than, say, 2005 in order to run the newest version (old versions of Ubuntu will run older computers, but they’re harder to set up).
  • A USB thumb drive with a reasonable amount of space. A 4GB stick is enough.  That’s it.  That’s all you need.

What we’re going to do is install a working version of Ubuntu on this USB stick and boot your computer straight from the USB drive without doing anything to your current operating system.  You need not fear that it’s going to mess anything up.  It will make no changes whatsoever to your current OS installation.

Let’s begin.

Step 0 Take the tour of Ubuntu Linux

It’s just a quick way of getting a sense of the feel of Ubuntu without committing to anything.  It’s a browser-based tour of the basic desktop interface and it’ll give you a sense of what you’re getting yourself into.

Step 1 Download Ubuntu flavor of Linux

Download the current LTS (Long-Term Support) version of Ubuntu. At the time of this writing that is version 14.04 Trusty Tahr (they name their versions of cutesy alliterative animal names).  The file you will download is called an “image” file.  It’s not a picture, but rather a snapshot of the current version of Ubuntu.  It should have the .iso file extension.

Step 2 (Windows) Create a Bootable USB Drive

Step 4. Set your BIOS to boot Linux from the USB drive.

  • First, you need to access your system’s BIOS.  On the scary computer stuff scale, this rates about a 5 or 6.  If you take your time, you’ll get through it.
  • Restart your computer.  The first screen that pops up usually has the brand name of your computer or motherboard.  This is your BIOS post screen.  It should say how to get to the BIOS menu.  It will say something like “Press <key> to access configuration” or “Press <key> to enter BIOS” or something in that vein.  Quickly tap that key or keys.  You may have to tap it a few times (no more than four or five).  If you miss it, just restart and try again.
  • If this is your first time in the BIOS of your computer, spend a few minutes familiarizing yourself with it. Usually, there will be instructions on how to navigate the BIOS, often at the bottom of the screen.  Flip back and forth between the menus for a few minutes, but don’t change anything yet.
  • You’re looking for the “Boot” menu.  It will allow you to set the boot priority.  Usually, your computer tries to boot from the main hard drive straight away when you turn it on.  You’re going to bump the USB thumb drive to the top of that list.  Again, just take your time and read the instructions. Once you have accomplished this, save and restart again.

Step 5.  Try Ubuntu.

When your computer boots off the USB stick, you’ll be presented with two options: “Try Ubuntu” or “Install Ubuntu”.  Just click Try Ubuntu and let it finish booting up.  From here, just play around with things.  Some thing will be immediately familiar.  The default web browser is Firefox, for instance.  Check out the Libre Office software on the task bar.  Check out the file manager.  You know.  Just take yourself a tour. The biggest hurdle you’ll run into is the command line, but with guides like The Linux Command Line at Amazon, you should be able to tackle that with no problem!

Happy hacking.