So you've installed Linux, gotten all your hardware up and running, and now you're staring at a blank desktop. What next? Here are a few tips (and a few resources) that will help you build up the OS of your dreams.
The first thing you'll probably want to do is install some of your favourite applications. Linux works a bit differently than Windows and OS X when it comes to instaling apps. In Linux, you don't always have to download an installation package from a web site to install an app—very often, they're located in your distribution's repositories. Open up your distribution's package manager (In Ubuntu, you'll find it under System > Administration > Synaptic Package Manager) and search for the package you're looking for—say, vlc. You'll be able to install it right from there without even opening your browser.
You can also do this from the terminal if you know the name of the package. In Ubuntu, the command for installing a package like vlc is:
sudo apt-get install vlc
You can, of course, replace vlc in the command above with whatever package you're installing. You can also install multiple packages at a time to save yourself keystrokes:
sudo apt-get install vlc chromium
The great thing about this setup is that it allows Linux to update the OS and all your apps at once, with its update manager. No longer do you have to update apps individually—everything on your system will update through one channel.
You'll have a lot of apps in your distribution's repositories, though some (like Dropbox) will need to add their own separate repositories. You'll usually find instructions for how to do this on an app's home page. In addition, distributions like Ubuntu and Mint allow you to download .deb packages for apps that aren't in the repositories. These work much like installation packages on Windows: just download them from the web site, double click on them, and they'll install the application and its repository, so it updates with the rest of your system.
If you're looking for good apps to install, our Lifehacker Pack for Linux is a great place to start. Ninite also does bulk Linux installations now, so check out the apps they recommend installing on a new system to get your system up and moving.
Tweak Settings Galore
If you head to you distribution's settings menu, you'll find a lot of stuff in there. Honestly, one of the first things I do (on any system, really, Linux or not) is head into the settings panel and see what I can tweak. You can spend a good amount of time in there customising your system to work like you want it to, so I'd recommend just browsing around there. If you're running Ubuntu, I'd also highly recommend checking out previously mentioned Ubuntu Tweak for even more settings tweaks.
Get comfortable with the Command Line
There comes a time, however, when you'll find a setting or app that you can't just tweak from the GUI. In those cases, you'll have to delve into the Terminal—but fear not! The command line isn't really that scary, and once you get comfortable with it, there really are no limits to how much you can customise your system. I'd recommend checking out our command line primer for beginners to get started. Previously mentioned CLIcompanion is also a handy little tool if you're unfamiliar with the command line. And no joke, I wear this shirt when I know I'm going to have a night of deep Linux command line action.
Of course, the fact of the matter is that you can only learn so much Terminal from beginner's guides. I've found that almost everything I've learned about the command line I learned by doing. Whenever you find something that requires the command line to do, just look up a tutorial on how to do it—you'll probably find that it isn't that hard, and you'll have added a new command or trick or two to your repertoire. The best advice I can give is: don't be afraid!
Of course, there are a few things that you won't learn just by doing, and that's how to move through the Terminal at lightning speed with all its built-in shortcuts. Luckily, we've written a guide on that too. Learn them and use them—you'll save years off your life typing out long commands.
Customise Your Desktop
Lastly, one of the things everyone loves to do on Linux is make their desktop look awesome. Often, this involves installing Compiz, a tool that will let you enable all sorts of cool desktop effects, including the infamous 3D desktop cube. It also has some useful effects, like showing all the windows on your desktop (Exposé style). Check out Ubuntu's guide to setting up Compiz, and if you've already installed Ubuntu Tweak like we recommend above, be sure to check out its Compiz section, since it has some nice settings built-in.
As for the rest of your desktop, there are really a lot of different ways to customise it. I'd recommend checking out sites like GNOME-Look.org (or, if you're using KDE, KDE-Look.org) and search there for inspiration. You'll find cool window decorations, icon sets, wallpapers, and all sorts of other cool stuff. YouTube is also a cool place to search for ideas. And, of course, if you ever get lost, Google is your friend!
That should give you enough to get started customising your installation to fit your tastes. Again, one of the best parts about Linux is that you can make it completely your own—so any time you find yourself saying "man, I wish I could set up my OS to do this", Google it! There's probably a solution out there, and as long as you're ready and willing to try anything, you can make it happen. If there's one thing I can't stress enough, it's don't be afraid of things that sound complicated. You'd be surprised how easy the command line, config files, and even compiling apps from source code can be if you just go for it! Good luck to you all, and be sure to share your experiences, issues, victories, and everything else here in the comments.