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Don't Fear the Penguin: A Newbie's Guide to Linux

By Neil Mcallister, PC World
January 22, 2009 12:50 PM ET

PC World - Getting started with Linux can be an intimidating task, particularly for people who have never tried any operating system besides Windows. In truth, however, very little about Linux is actually difficult to use. It's simply a different OS, with its own approach to doing things. Once you learn your way around a Linux desktop, you're likely to find that it's no more challenging to work with than Windows or Mac OS.


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In this guide I'll focus on Ubuntu, the most popular Linux distribution today. But Ubuntu is just one of many different flavors of Linux. Literally hundreds of distributions are out there, appealing to a broad range of users--from teachers and programmers to musicians and hackers. Ubuntu is the most popular distribution because it's easier to install and configure than most others; it even comes in a few different versions, including Edubuntu and Kubuntu. If you happen to be running a different distribution, such as Fedora or OpenSUSE, you'll likely find that much of this guide still pertains to you.

Welcome to Ubuntu

It's little wonder why Ubuntu is one of the leading Linux distributions for desktop PCs; it makes installing Linux simple. ("Ubuntu Linux: The Easy Installation Guide" will walk you through it, step by step.) But once you have Ubuntu installed on your PC, what next?

The short answer is: Whatever you like. Ubuntu may be free, but it's hardly a toy OS. If you can do something with Windows or Mac OS X, you can do the same thing with Ubuntu.

Figuring out how to do what you want isn't always obvious, however, and Ubuntu has its own concepts and quirks that set it apart from other OSs. Experience is usually the best teacher, but if you need a gentle push in the right direction, this guide offers a novice's tour of the Linux desktop--so fire up your Ubuntu system and follow along!

Exploring the Interface

One of the first things you'll notice about your new Ubuntu system is that you need to log in each time you boot, giving the user name and password you specified during installation. If you prefer--and you're not worried about other people accessing your PC when you're not around--you can configure the system to log you in automatically from the Security tab of the Login Window panel of the Administration menu (more on that later). Even if you do that, however, don't forget your password; unlike in Windows, you'll need to enter the password again whenever you install software or perform sensitive administration tasks. (That may seem annoying, but it's an important part of Linux's famously high security.)

Ubuntu's default Gnome GUI desktop borrows many ideas from other operating systems, so it should seem immediately familiar. The alternative Kubuntu version of the OS uses a different desktop environment called KDE. I won't discuss KDE here, but whichever desktop works best for you will largely be a matter of personal preference. Neither Gnome nor KDE should pose much difficulty for an experienced Windows or Mac OS X user. Gnome is slightly more Mac-like, while KDE's interface is more similar to Windows.

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