Choice Advice For Linux First Timers

Thinking about taking your first steps into the Linux world? Admittedly, there is a huge learning curve when adjusting to a new operating system, so sit back, and I’ll walk you through a crash-course in Linux 101! The following is the result of my first two years of experience with Linux distilled into a short, to-the-point guide for beginners. Read on, and you’ll be up and running in no time.  

With the wealth of knowledge available, you might find yourself wanting to experiment. That’s okay! Linux is all about choice, so once you’re comfortable with the basics, you can experiment to your heart’s content. On the other hand, you may find that you have no need to go beyond my suggestions, and that is fine too. Either way, you’ll be well on your way to escaping the hold Microsoft and Apple have on us all.

Some Linux distributions are beginner friendly and some are definitely not. Some may seem quite buggy, but can be easily fixed if you know how. Similarly, some software may require more experience, while some has a shorter learning curve. This time-tested advice will help you make your Linux transition a breeze. My journey included testing over forty distributions and a lot of unfamiliar software. Learn from my mistakes and avoid years of stress caused by trial and error.

As a new user I had many questions which I found are quite common. Questions such as which distribution should I use? Which machine should I purchase and should I dual boot? I hope to answer these questions specifically. Other frequent questions from new users usually revolve around boot problems and driver issues which can often be avoided if you follow these guidelines. So let’s get started!

The absolute easiest way to try Linux is to make a live CD or USB drive. A live image is an operating system that can be booted and used without actually installing it onto your machine and has the advantage of letting you experiment without risking your existing install. It is worth noting however, that a live environment will almost never save any changes you make. You will have to learn how to make a live USB but not to worry, it isn’t that hard. A good place to start is here. Most live images have a way to permanently install to your hard drive if you are certain that is what you want.   

A common suggestion for a new user is to use a virtual machine to try Linux. This is a valid option that will let you get your feet wet with little risk to your existing install. Although I recommend that you learn to use virtual machines, at this point it’s just another large learning curve. Additionally, it has been my experience that operating systems installed in virtual machines don’t always act the same as when they are installed on a physical machine utilising the hardware directly. If you want to try a virtual machine, or you have no other option, one of the most popular solutions is VirtualBox.

If you have a spare computer, or your budget allows you to purchase a cheap refurbished laptop, simply create a bootable CD or USB drive from the install image of your choice, and install Linux by itself. This is by far the easiest, least stressful way to transition to Linux. Let me unpack this for you by discussing the pros and cons of a single versus dual boot system. The foremost reason to simply install Linux on a spare machine at the start of your journey is that, if you muck it up you can just wipe it and start again!. Also your existing data is not at risk. If you, like me, have been unfortunate enough to lose a long term system with years of personal files, you will understand my hesitation for recommending a dual boot setup. Many people will advocate dual boot scenarios, and I acknowledge the convenience and validity of doing so, but there are way too many variables for anyone to ensure that you have no risk of losing your existing install. It happened to me, and in hindsight I can say through no fault of my own. In my case the culprit was a buggy installer. I recommend further learning in a controlled manner as your knowledge grows. Educating yourself about partitioning disks, and particularly knowledge about Linux partitions would be helpful before you place your entire digital life at risk by dual booting. Some might disagree, but my experience is that Linux just works best when it is the only operating system on the drive. The choice is yours to make. More information on dual booting Linux here and here

In recent years, computer manufacturers are starting to actively prevent Linux from being installed, so you may not even have the option to dual boot. Disturbingly these companies have so much animosity that they have designed their hardware to refuse a Linux installation even if the drive is completely wiped. With that in mind, be cautious about your choice of machine if you have any intention of using Linux in the future. Traditionally, Linux works best on slightly older machines but this is changing rapidly. The rise of open source development, and the importance it plays in modern technology has accelerated the acceptance of Linux. The top 500 fastest supercomputers in the world utilise the Linux kernel. Almost the entirety of the servers that power the internet run Linux, and anyone with an Android phone is running a Linux powered device.  

If you choose to go the route of acquiring a cheap refurbished laptop for your Linux experiment, I would look no further than a Lenovo X series or Thinkpad. I have a refurbished X240 which has performed admirably. In fact there is a whole subreddit devoted to Linux on Thinkpads, and numerous articles published like this one. Alternately, if you are ready and can afford a new computer I wholeheartedly recommend you talk to System76. Another option that might be of interest is a Linux-ready machine from one of the big manufacturing companies. This may suit your budget but you should do your research as there are concerns with this option. For more country specific vendors try Linux PreLoaded as a starting point.

The most all consuming time-wasting new user question in the Linux universe is, which distribution should I use? If you recall earlier I mentioned testing over 40 distributions. I spent every other weekend for two years playing with a distribution, or variations of them. I now realise that time could have been spent more constructively learning more important things. Definitely more interesting and useful things like Vim, Zsh or container technology.  I don’t want to dissuade you from eventually trying distributions, but I believe it is a colossal waste of time when you’re starting out. After numerous false-starts, catastrophes and half-functional distributions, here are my top two recommendations to get you started (in no particular order). Both have proven to be beginner-friendly, stable, and usable out of the box. They have great installers, which is a massive plus for a beginner, and have good support and great documentation. They are fresh, modern builds incorporating the latest technology and software.

Above is the Fedora Workstation with GNOME desktop. The open windows are Files and Terminal. The theme is "Adwaita" which has a clean, sleek look.

First, I’m going to mention Fedora with the GNOME desktop out of respect. Fedora, then on release 23, is the distro that really got me going, although I have mostly moved on at this point. This is Fedora’s flagship option, and the one they put most of their work into, so it gets a lot of attention. I have had next to no problems with it on any of the machines I have used it on. The GNOME 3 desktop is both minimal and extremely complex. I absolutely love the “Activities Overview” accessed by pressing the super key (Windows key).  It is by far the best desktop navigation method I have used. One helpful hint is to install GNOME Tweaks to help tweak the environment to your liking. You may also be interested in GNOME extensions which have a variety of functionality. Fedora Workstation can be downloaded from here. If you want to try a live USB you can read about it here. I still keep one machine with Fedora just to stay current.  

Pictured below is a browser, Terminal and Files on the first desktop before the super key is pressed. I like the light theme and this wallpaper, but it is highly configurable. Pop!_OS also has a really nice dark theme. Calendar, Notifications and panel menu are found on the top panel.

Below is the "Activities Overview" initiated by pressing the super key.  You have favourites on the left in the dock. All windows on the current desktop are laid out and can be navigated. The search function appears at top middle, and you have access to all your current desktops with open applications on the right. All with the press of one key!

Second, I’m going to mention the distro that I now mainly use and intend to stick with. Pop!_OS by System76 has become an awesome contender very quickly, particularly for what is still considered a relative newcomer on the scene. System76 is actually a hardware distributor that specialises in Linux-based systems. They started out using Ubuntu, but wanted a stable distro that “just worked” and was tailored to their machines. In my opinion Ubuntu has become way too bloated and buggy, so I can understand their choice. I have heard Pop!_OS being described as “Ubuntu done right”. Pop!_OS is the result of a collaboration between some very smart people on the cutting edge of technology. I love the look and feel right out of the box. It is extremely stable, and they even provide a version tailored for NVIDIA devices. Pop!_OS is a Debian based distro with its roots in Ubuntu and Elementary OS. The System76 team has done an excellent job tweaking it to make it as efficient and snappy as possible. Additionally, full-disk encryption is a default, but configurable, feature for those of you who are security conscious. Like Fedora, Pop!_OS uses the GNOME 3 desktop environment out of the box with the addition of some custom keyboard shortcuts. You can download Pop!_OS from here.  If you’re looking to try the live USB try this link.  

If you find yourself needing extra help, Pop!_OS has a fantastic support structure in place with their official live chat on Mattermost, and also a brilliant support community forum here. You will also benefit from reading this.

To summarise my advice on how to facilitate an easy transition to your first Linux operating system, the method that will most likely give you success is to install Linux on a freshly formatted machine. Download Pop!_OS or Fedora and create bootable media by using Etcher. You will have to search your machine’s make and model for instructions to access the boot menu. Not to worry though, as it usually just requires you press one of the function buttons during start-up. Have a username and password ready. If you want to try a live image first, go for it. We discussed the options of virtual machines and dual booting for those of you who can’t access a spare machine.  

Finally, one of the most likely problems that you will face during the install process is a system called Secure Boot. If your computer originally shipped with Windows 10, this is almost always enabled. While Secure Boot is beneficial, it can cause problems for some Linux bootloaders. If you do find it is causing issues, you can disable it through your BIOS. The exact process varies by computer and is beyond the scope of this article, but searching for how to enter the BIOS for your computer online would be a good starting point.

Stay tuned for future talks on how to install software on Pop!_OS, recommended software, and the first steps towards further learning!

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