The Beginner’s Guide to Using a Linux Distro

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You’ve all heard how great Linux is, but when you try using it, you feel lost. “Linux is for techies,” you think. Not at all – long gone are the days when performing simple tasks under Linux was comparable to rocket science for the ordinary user. Now Linux is as user-friendly and intuitive as any other end-user operating system.

Your switch to Linux might be hard but it could be totally pain-free, too. To some degree this depends on whether you are a beginner to Linux only or to computing in general. If you are a beginner to computing in general, your advantage is that you start with a clean plate but quite naturally the learning curve will be steeper, so don’t get desperate. To help you with your Linux journey, here are some tips for you if you are a beginner or trying to assist a beginner.

Who wouldn’t hate to spend hours installing and fine-tuning a new OS just to see it’s not what was expected? Fortunately, with Linux you don’t have to do this. Before you install a Linux distro on a hard drive, run it a couple of times from a USB just to see if it’s okay for you. If it is, you might consider keeping it. If it isn’t – just move to the next distro. Here’s how you can easily create a bootable USB disk in Windows.

One of the really important decisions you have to make is which Linux distribution to use. Unlike Mac and Windows, there are dozens of (beginner-friendly) distros to choose from. For instance, if you come from the world of Windows, here are some of the best Linux distros for Windows users. My advice is to go with an Ubuntu-based distro, such as Linux Mint, Ubuntu itself, or Lubuntu, but there are many others to choose from.
Ubuntu-based distros are good because they are more or less not as complicated as more advanced Linux distros, yet they come with good amounts of useful software, and there is even more software to install additionally, if you need it. Also, they are popular, so support is easier to get.

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Each Linux distribution comes with software applications such as a Web browser, music/video player, etc., and sometimes these applications are all you need. However, more likely than not, you will need apps that are not included in the distro. Don’t worry, as you can install them later.

Before you go on an install spree, decide which software packages you need. Most of the Windows apps are available for Linux or have a Linux counterpart – e.g. Microsoft Office and LibreOffice, Adobe Photoshop and GIMP, etc. If you don’t know the names of all the apps you need (and if you are using an Ubuntu distro), just open Synaptic (the older but better, in my opinion, installer for Ubuntu and Debian distros in general) or the Software Center/Package manager and search.

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If your are not good with English, the language barrier is quite an issue. In this case you’d better look for Linux software in your language. Many Linux distros come in multiple (human) languages, and many popular apps have translations in various languages. Don’t expect you will find all applications in all languages, though.

I think one of the most frustrating things a beginner faces when trying to use Linux is the command line. For somebody who grew up with point-and-click computers, messing with the terminal (similar to Command Prompt in Windows) must be an overkill. Yes, the terminal is very powerful, and you can achieve things there you can’t achieve with the mouse, but for maybe 99.9% of the tasks you will be performing, you don’t even have to know the terminal exists.

I am a very experienced Linux user – in fact I was considering getting a certificate for a Linux admin, but somehow I failed to see its practical value in my particular case, and I don’t use the terminal too often. For those tasks there is a mouse equivalent; the terminal is simply not efficient for me – by the time I type a command (not to mention frequently look up its options and/or misspell it a few times), I will have performed the same operation with the mouse a hundred times.

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When you are a beginner, it’s only natural to have many questions. If you have somebody to answer them in person, you are lucky, but in most cases you need to find answers elsewhere. The best place to ask a question is Linux forums, such as LinuxQuestions.org, Linux Forums, or Ubuntu Forums. Alternatively, you can check if there are local forums in your language for your distro and ask your questions there.

Just to warn you, when you ask an easy question, you might get some rude responses from more experienced users, which isn’t nice. This is why, before you ask a question in a forum, you’d better search with Google first. Chances are somebody else has already had the same problem and has found the solution.

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Once you get to know it, Linux is a great operating system for any purpose. If the start is rough, don’t let this discourage you. And remember, no matter how much you know about Linux (or anything in life, for that matter) there is much more you don’t know, so don’t try to learn everything about Linux – this is simply impossible.

Image credit: Luigi + Linux

20 comments

  1. “Your switch to Linux might be hard but it could be totally pain-free”
    To a great degree, it depends on your how you approach the switch. The very first thing that you must realize and accept is that Linux IS NOT Windows and was never designed to be.. You WILL NOT be able to use Windows programs under Linux. You WILL NOT be able to do things ‘the Windows way.’ There WILL be a learning curve. There always is when going from one OS to another. You have to unlearn old ‘Windows’ habits and new ‘Linux’ habits.

    “My advice is to go with an Ubuntu-based distro”
    The problem with Ubuntu-based distros is that every package installed by default uses system files as dependencies and cannot be uninstalled without disabling the system. Once the system is installed and the default language has been chosen, why do we have to keep a language pack for every human language? Once all the hardware has been recognized by the system, why do we need to keep drivers for every for every printer and video card ever made? These unneeded files can take up to 700 meg of space.

    “more likely than not, you will need apps that are not included in the distro”
    More likely than not, an average user will not need to install any additional software. Unlike an install of Windows O/S, a Linux install results in a turn key system which includes the most popular applications.

    “just open Synaptic ”
    One of the best, if not THE best, package/software managers in Linux. May not have the eye candy of some other package managers but what it lacks in glitz, it more than makes up with features and capabilities.

    • Great remarks and tips, I like this one really a lot: ” You have to unlearn old ‘Windows’ habits and new ‘Linux’ habits.”

      Just curious, if you don’t think Ubuntu is good for a beginner, which distro do you recommend?

      Sure, a user could never have to install anything additional – it depends on which distro he or she has picked. In any case, if there is a need to install something, it will be a bunch of apps only, not everything, as in Windows. If you need to install more than the pre-installed apps, then you should probably consider getting another distro where all these apps are there by default.

      • ” ” You have to unlearn old ‘Windows’ habits and new ‘Linux’ habits.””
        Finger check. That should be “…..and LEARN new Linux habits.’

        “if you don’t think Ubuntu is good for a beginner, which distro do you recommend?”
        I did not say that Ubuntu is not good for a beginner. It is, IF used as installed by default. The first mainframe I worked on had 131 KILOBYTES of RAM and 29 MEG hard drives so it offends my sensibilities when I am stuck with 500-700 meg of unwanted software. My attitude may seem outdated with the availability of today’s multi-terabyte HDs but old habits die hard.

        IMO, to people who have never had a computer, it does not matter whether they have to learn Windows or some popular version of Linux. The learning curve is pretty much the same. When I say ‘popular’ I am excluding the DIY distros such as Arch, Gentoo, Linux from Scratch, etc.

        For those switching from Windows to Linux, because of the basic differences between the O/Ss, most of the popular distros present pretty much the same learning curve. Zorin or Mint or ElementaryOS may offer a more familiar GUI interface but underneath Linux is still Linux.

        Currently I am using PCLinuxOS which I would recommend highly to beginner Linux users. The install process is as easy as Ubuntu’s. It is a rolling release which means that it does not have to be re-installed every X months because updates are applied as soon as they are released. The PCLinuxOS community is as extensive as Ubuntu’s. They even have their own online monthly magazine.

        I also like antiX. It is simple and very configurable, especially it’s Core version. A beginner would not go wrong by installing the Full version of antiX.

        “If you need to install more than the pre-installed apps, then you should probably consider getting another distro where all these apps are there by default.”
        Following that logic, everyone should install either PCLinuxOS Full Monty or Ubuntu Ultimate. Then they will have not only the proverbial kitchen sink but also the bathroom sink and the bathtub. :-)

    • “You WILL NOT be able to use Windows programs under Linux.”
      This is not true. With wine or even virtual box you can use windows applications. Of course, you will not need to run windows applications in Linux because every windows application has its Linux-counterpart.
      “You WILL NOT be able to do things ‘the Windows way.’ ”
      This depends on the applications – the operating system has nothing to do with it. For example Chrome and firefox work in exactly the same way under Linux and windows.
      “There WILL be a learning curve.”
      When you switch from windows xp to windows 7 or 10, there is a learning curve.

      • “With wine or even virtual box”
        This article is about beginner Linux users. Chances are that beginner Linux users will not know how to set up WINE or Virtual Box. Besides, not all Windows programs run well under WINE. Some don’t even run at all.

        “You WILL NOT be able to do things ‘the Windows way.’ ”
        The O/S has everything to do with it. The file systems are different. ( NTFS vs. ext2, 3, 4, ReiserFS, btrfs, etc) The folder organization and naming conventions are different. The partitioning is different. (Drive C: and/or D: vs. .sda1, sdb2, etc) That is quite a lot of difference for someone switching from Windows to Linux to get used to.

        “When you switch from windows xp to windows 7 or 10, there is a learning curve.”
        At least the basics remained the same. Going from Windows to Linux takes a little more than learning how to use the Metro desktop.

        • 1. Some windows programs do not run at all, even if you just upgrade windows.
          2. Most computer users do not care about file system differences. They just want to have their work done.
          3. For the average user switching from windows xp with office 97 to windows 7 with office 2003 is not easier than switching from windows xp to linux mint with libre office.

          • I assume that you are basing your opinions of personal experience.

            “1. Some windows programs do not run at all, even if you just upgrade windows.”
            ??????????????????

            “1. Some windows programs do not run at all, even if you just upgrade windows.”
            Once the O/S is installed they don’t. But we’re talking about Linux beginners, especially those switching from Windows. If they want their apps to run, they better care about which file system they are running under. Apps designed with NTFS in mind will not run on a ext4 system.

            “3. For the average user switching from windows xp with office 97 to windows 7 with office 2003 is not easier than switching from windows xp to linux mint with libre office.”
            Are generalizing based on your experience?
            If You had said Win 9x with Office 97 to Win 8.x or Win 10 with the latest version of Office, I would agree with you. but XP to Win 7 is a breeze for most people. Yes, I am speaking from personal experience. Having worked in User Support for close to ten years, I’ve seen literally hundreds of users make the transition with no or only minimal problems. OTOH, switching from Windows to Linux takes major re-training, not because Linux is so much harder but because Windows users find it hard to give up their Windows habits.

  2. I think I would have presented the command-line somewhat differently. On this site – and many others – the most common approach to installing the most interesting, useful software is often the command-line. The writer almost always provides the command to type into the command-line.
    Now, I’m lazy. Yeah, I could make the effort of typing in the command and that would be a good thing, but for those who are sloppy typists/keyboarders or can’t be bothered, there’s always:
    high-light command, right-click, select ‘Copy’,
    in Terminal: right-click, select ‘Paste’, hit Enter.
    Way faster (and more accurate if you’re a bad keyboarder) and Terminal loses its mystique.

    I recently got a Mac (I write scripts for Blender and so need to have access to the main OSes). There’s a bit of a transition coming from Windows, significantly less coming from Linux, but it’s still there. As one commenter said: Linux is not Windows… that’s why we use it. Expect some change.

    • My observations are that the command-line is one of the scariest things to a newbie and probably a big turn-off. All I am saying is you can live without it and still use Linux to the fullest.

      • What is a turnoff is that authors of articles about Linux seem to be speaking with forked tongues. On the one hand, they insist that one does not need to know command line, but on the other, the only articles we see are the ones about using the command line to perform various tasks.

        When I asked on another site why the articles about command line, the response was that the authors are trying to broaden the users’ knowledge. Unfortunately, that scares off many of those who would like to try Linux and perpetuates the myth that one HAS TO know command line to use Linux. It would be nice if readers saw some articles on how to use GUI tools that are available with most distributions.

        You are the first writer that says command line is unnecessary for the use and enjoyment of Linux and sticks to that.

        • In my limited experience it is not the terminal that turns people off of Linux. What turns people off of Linux is 95% unwillingness to change habits or try something different, then lack of familiar or essential software, lack of drivers and fear (maybe irrational, but who knows…) of a possibility one could fry expensive hardware when attempting to install perhaps unsupported OS. Of course, YMMV.

          On the other hand pointing out that a nice piece of software, capable of performing many important tasks is installed by default and is common to all Linux distros is not such a bad thing. I will admit I was somewhat attracted to terminals possibilities when I considered switching to Linux many years ago (and I am not a techy). So I did switch and I ended up using terminal a lot. Still in the last five or so years it has been clearly stated that one DOESN’T NEED to use terminal, CLI or type commands in order to use user-friendly Linux distros.

      • With Linux Mint KDE or Cinnamon (a user-friendly version of ubuntu) you will never have to use the black-box (command-line). Guaranteed!

    • @Robyn, in Linux copy/paste can be done by high-lighting (command, something, anything,…) and then just middle-clicking in the place you want to paste it.

  3. The biggest problem I have with Linux is printing. For so many printers, there are no drivers that actually work. The manufacturers refuse to write the drivers; so the only drivers available are third party drivers that sometimes work and sometimes don’t.

  4. I have off and on attempted to install various Linux versions over the past 20 years. Only this year was I able to get certain necessary programs to work, and I have done it successfully on Ubuntu and Debian. It would previously usually result in some error that when searched it is just brick wall. Now I have had some issues with installing the current Linux distros, but every site where there is help shows the help by using the Terminal. I grew up on DOS so the Terminal is certainly not intimidating. However, there are differences that could turn even the above-average user away. Since the versions are so different and do not install all the same software, it is more difficult to find and configure the programs and settings, but the Terminal commands are all the same and actually respond with helpful comments if something does not work, such as informing me i need another package installed whereas otherwise it would just be an error and I would be left confounded on how to fix. I have gotten Wine to run a few basic Windows apps, yet to try Virtualbox. The only problem with a full-scale conversion is that even in a virtual enviroment, some programs will work exclusively in Windows and cause problems in virtual environments. Just glad I’m finally able to get all this going before Windows Spy 10 becomes the only Windows alternative.

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