Getting Started With Linux: Why Install Linux?

Curious about Linux, but not ready to dive in head first without a little background? We're on it. As part of our our Night School series, we'll be detailing, troubleshooting, and taking a deeper swim into the open-source OS this week. Today, we're offering some encouragement for the hesitant.

Why, in this day of razor-thin and elegant Macs, actually usable Windows 7, and cloud-connected gadgets would anyone bother to carve up their hard drive and install Linux, the geekiest of the major operating systems? Linux will never be everyone's desktop, but here's why it might be just perfect for you, as a workhorse or a hobby.

In a general sense, the core operating system on your computer is becoming more and more abstract, as more services move onto the web, and as your browser and sites' own code are capable of doing much more of the traditional heavy lifting of daily work. So if you use a computer for browsing, email, IM and some light app functions, Linux can work just as well for you as any other system.

There are many reasons folks switch to Linux. Here are some of the strongest cases to consider.

It's Totally Free, for Any System You Have

Let's just come right out and say it—you, or at least a good number of people you know, have installed not-quite-squeaky-clean operating systems on your computers. Maybe it was testing out Boot Camp on a Mac, or upgrading a secondary machine, or just avoiding a sudden $100-plus financial hit. You had to pull a few tricks to get it to work, then forever after had to keep a cautious eye on updates, service packs, and other potential slip-ups. The same dark alley feel often comes with hefty apps like Photoshop or Office.

Linux is free, for one or 8,000 computers, with all future upgrades and potential software included. If you've got hardware you want to use but not the software, Linux is where you can turn to make it usable. Generally, even a newcomer can get Wi-Fi access, a modern browser, and the essential desktop apps running on a system in short order. Beyond those basics, well—that's what this Lifehacker Night School Series will get into!

It Fits on Systems New or Old, Spacious or Small

If you've got an older computer, or maybe a newer netbook or laptop that's not quite running at turbo speed, Linux is where you can get both modern capabilities and swifter operation out of it.

The core of Linux is regularly worked on by efficiency-obsessed engineers who run thousands of expensive servers, and most of the desktop versions meant for personal use run lighter than their Windows and Mac counterparts. Linux can also take up far less space on a hard drive, and may support hardware and peripherals that you can't get working in the Big Two operating systems.

It's a Fine-Tuner's Dream

If you read this blog regularly, there's a good chance you like having your computer desktop Just So. You want pop-up notifications of certain important things. You like certain colours for your windows, taskbars, and buttons. Keyboard shortcuts? Oh, you like your keyboard shortcuts—all except for maybe a few of the defaults, which don't make sense for you.

When you're running Linux, everything can be modified. Right-clicking will get you a lot of places. If you really want to get down deep, you can edit a configuration file for nearly everything in the system. You can give certain apps more prioritised access to the system, and set up automatic tasks like nobody's business. You don't have to get in this deep, and there are many tools to make this tweaking easier, but if you're eager to tweak and customise, Linux is a dry canvas unto your imagination/obsession.

It's the Best Way to Learn Deeper Computer Knowledge

Getting good with a terminal, or command line commands, gives you the means to make your computer do what you actually, really want it to do, without having to click and guess. Linux is a great place to learn terminal commands, along with many other fundamentals of a modern operating system.

Some of that learning may come about because you need to fix something, but it's a rewarding trial by fire. You can learn, for example:

  • How file permissions work
  • How to spot runaway apps with the top command.
  • How USB drives, hard drives, ISOs, and other storage are "mounted" and accessed.
  • What rsync is, and how to use it as your own personal Time Machine backup.
  • What the commands grep, tail, whereis and find do, and how they can make you feel like a Zen master of data.

There Are Some Really Impressive Linux Goodies to Play With

So, there's all that serious data/hardware/knowledge reasoning. But is Linux actually fun to mess around in? For sure.

You can make brilliantly beautiful desktops with real data and productivity at their core, or set the whole earth as your wallpaper. Give yourself a great way to launch and manage apps with Docky or the uber-powerful GNOME-Do.

You can fend off your fears of needing just that one Windows app by running it inside Linux, and learn something about virtualization in the process. Need some productivity tools? Linux has plenty of them.

Got your own reasons you are or aren't giving Linux a go? Sure you do. Tell us why you're booting into Linux, or slightly hestitant, in the comments. Note, however, that if you're stopping by just to, say, sing the praises of certain other systems, or drop snark on the Tux, your comment won't go unnoticed.

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Comments

    I have started using Linux mint, but have no idea how to use terminal. Have been a windows user for many years but have never had to use command prompt. Any info on some basics or even more in depth stuff would be great

      lrn2 google :)

    I'm not a hardcore tech type by any stretch but I built a small, cheap file server for home about five or six years ago and loaded Fedora Core 4 as an OS purely because it was free. I have stuck with linux on the deskop ever since. (Although I moved to Ubuntu last year, because 10.04 LTS was newer and prettier than CentOS and had in-built support for proprietary drivers.)

    I now have two linux PCs at home - a file server/personal web server/mythtv box and a small nettop hooked up to the TV as a media streamer and think it's a great OS to use. It does everything I could ever want it to do with surprisingly little fiddling around and configuring.

    Better still, when it does require fiddling, there's usually info online to help you do it. I can't tell you the number of times I've needed to fiddle on Windows or Mac and have been unable to achieve anything because of non-existent or substandard info online.

    I've tried using Ubuntu (maybe around the time of Hardy Heron) as my regular OS but I gave up after 3 weeks when I found myself continually rebooting into Windows to do things I either couldn't do in Linux or at least couldn't work out how to do.
    Hardware compatibility was a MAJOR issue, but simple things like music management and mounting a USB drive were so much easier!
    I've since tried to install Linux Mint to an old machine and XBMCLive to my HTPC only to find some sort of bug that causes the system to fail to boot on restart.
    In every case, I've ended up going back to Windows.
    I love my OpenSource software. I routinely use 7-zip, GIMP, Audacity, LibreOffice, Thunderbird and Firefox amongst others, but Linux still isn't there.
    Maybe in another 5 years...

    I'm loving Linux at the moment. It's not perfect by any means, but neither is Windows. My laptop is dual-boot Ubuntu 10.04 & XP, and I haven't used XP for anything in the last few months except to keep it up to date with patches.
    At the moment, my desktop PC is suffering from random reboots under XP and by using a LiveCD I was able to backup nearly 200GB of my data to a USB drive without a problem. In addition, I was able to use 2 different Linux-based LiveCD virus scanners (AVG & BitDefender) to verify that the PC itself was clean and that it wasn't malware causing the reboots.
    I haven't had any hardware issues - my printer, internal DVBT-TV card and bluetooth mouse were all recognised and work perfectly.

    Stevo: Most people who think Linux is "still 5 years away" are having hardware problems. Those who don't have hardware problems seem fairly happy.

    Unfortunately it's not really the community's fault -- a lot of hardware manufacturers keep their hardware specs and drivers under wraps, and write third-rate linux drivers. This is changing, however, as linux netbooks and android become more popular.

      Yeah, it's hardware issues that are giving me grief, but I don't have particularly unusual hardware.
      The boxes I've tried Linux on have all been generic white box machines (ie. not HP/Dell's with proprietary hardware). I haven't specifically bought hardware for it's known Linux support, which is perhaps the downfall.
      I've given it a crack, and come away with a close, but not quite there yet, feeling.
      I've tinkered in command line with the help of online guides, but I have a limit before I can't afford to invest/waste time on tinkering.
      I think as hardware support from manufacturers continues to grow, the issues that keep me off Linux will dwindle to the point that tinkering is worth the hassle to me..
      The time will also come, when I have to upgrade my system and at that will be an opportunity to build a system with well supported parts.

    I'm about to embark on a project turning an old laptop into a coffee table arcade machine. It'll run a MAME interface with all the old classics, and i'll also have USB ports (or wireless) to connect a keboard & mouse to browse the internet. Would Linux be a suitable OS to run this, and would it be simple to set up?

      I'd call that about as simple a linux project you could get...

    I used linux for about 3 years after kicking windows eo the curb, but now i have a mac, and i couldn't be happier of course i have virtualbox running so i can get my linux fix once in a while and learning BSD commands, has taken some getting used to, but it is nice being able to have the flexibility of an open source based operating system with the reliability of a main stream proprietary os.

    After installing Windows Vista a few years back I decided to give Ubuntu a try as well as playing around generally with some other distributions (including server’s to see how it all worked).

    As others have found if you run into hardware issues it can be a read dog to get things working and becomes a huge time absorber trying to find information on how to ‘try’ and get things working (allot of trial and error most of the time).

    I ended up buying a new system to play around and purchased components that had Linux drivers and found that I still ran into issues as it was not compatible with ‘x’ or ‘y’or had to install ‘x’ before ‘y would work.... BUT eventually got things up and running and into a nice little GUI interface.

    After using it for around 1-2 weeks I found I had to still have access to my Vista PC so reinstalled it on my older PC and found I was using it allot whilst learning my way round...

    4-5 Weeks into it I found myself doing a few things with the system but still having to rely on my old Vista install for quite a bit of my work/play mainly due to no Linux versions of programs I use and really funny things with Open Office reading MS office files at times and just every day little annoying compatibility issues like this which drove me crazy and eventually a few months later I found I was using Vista mainly again...

    Since Windows 7 was released I’ve never looked back and love the new OS... Vista was a bit of a dog and almost got me switched but I just had too many issues and the amount of time and lack of decent support/material available or knowlegable people to help simply became all too hard...

    I would recommend any one running Windows XP or Vista to move onto Windows 7... Loving this OS now, but as always comes down to what you really want to do, if it’s simply browsing the net a Linux distro might just be what you need as I did not seem to have any issues with that.

      This story is VERY similar to my most successful Linux experience...
      I gave it (Hardy Heron I reckon it was) a good crack, but found myself having to reboot into Windows too often.. Eventually I just gave up booting Linux by default, then I wiped the partition cause I needed the space.

      I run nothing but linux (Currently ubuntu 10.10 but also recently I was running Debian 5) Yes there are sometimes challenges when setting up exotic hardware, but I enjoy how much that teaches me. If you take up this challenge it doesn't take long before what seemed difficult when you first dip into linux (such as manually editing configuration files, or compiling software) becomes second nature. Now when I am forced to use windows for whatever reason, I am often annoyed at the lack of facilitation for reaching into the guts of the OS and fiddling with things. Using windows feels like someone is trying to hold my hand, interfering with what i want to do (MacOS is even worse).

      Basically windows feels easy because it is familiar, once you are familiar with linux it is just as easy, but much more powerful.

      So if you too "pine for the days when men were men and wrote their own device drivers" just go for it.

      http://images.starcraftmazter.net/4chan/tech_games/mac_windows_linux.jpg

    Using Linux is morally good.

    I understand the main focus here is productivity and fun, but I'd just like to also add that a useful open-source product is a gift to all mankind present and future. It's a gift to use, but also to modify and learn from.

    By using Linux, you are helping it to become a standard, you are encouraging the developers, you are enhancing the community, you are encouraging other software and hardware producers to increase support -- and maybe you'll even give some feedback of your own, tweak an app, or eventually help someone newer than yourself.

    Obviously this isn't a good reason to use Linux if it simply isn't right for your needs. But I think the social good is worth weighing in your decision.

    I'm switching to Linux because after being screwed over by Apple and iTunes/iPod Touch and Windows 7 SP1 completely messed up my computer, I'm sick and tired of big corporation garbage. Time to get something where I can set it up exactly how I want, and fix it myself whenever something goes wrong!

    I've been using Linux for about 6 years now. When I need a Windows app I fire up Windows virtually. On a day to day basis though just about all my needs are met by Linux apps. The few remaining hurdles are Netflix (USA), Pro-E or Solidworks, and an application that I use to run a resin rapid prototype machine. For those needs I just fire up a Windows or Mac machine (Netflix).

    I have really enjoyed watching Linux develop over the past six years. Much of the time it is as if the programmers read my mind. This app ought to do X, Y and Z. Within a few months I often see those changes.

    When I started using Openoffice is was unstable and it didn't play well with other office suites. Now I prefer OpenOffice over the store bought stuff b/c it is the store bought stuff that doesn't play well with Openoffice and other office suites.

    At this point I can't imagine being limited to Windows (even 7). 7 is sooo much better than XP security and stability wise but i still prefer XP on my kids' games computer b/c XP doesn't require so much horsepower. I've also cleaned up a few Win7 machines for friends who have already managed to get viruses on their machines. Not a problem with Linux. Viruses was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. My XP was going nuts again six years ago with another virus and I remembered a friend showing me Linux in 1995 or so. It was primitive then but what did it look like several years later. Pretty good was the answer. Good enough that a month or two later I was using Linux all the time except when I wanted to play store bought software. I've never wanted to go back to Windows of any version.

    over the years we've purchased a MacBook too. My wife loves it but I find the OS too limiting for my taste. It is a good OS and stable, virus free, etc. Better than Windows in my opinion but i don't want one for my primary computer.

    Give Mint Linux KDE 10 a try if you have a fairly modern computer. Stable, built on Debian and Ubuntu. Elegant is their word of choice, I'd describe it as well polished.

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