The Linux operating system offers a rich mix of features and security that make it a great free and (mostly) open-source alternative to macOS and Microsoft Windows. Because it’s different “under the hood,” consider some of the big-picture aspects of Linux and how it compares to the other desktop operating systems before you take the plunge.
Linux powers a variety of computer systems from light bulbs to guns, laptops to large computer centers. Linux powers everything from your phone to your smart refrigerator.
In desktop computing, Linux provides an alternative to commercial operating systems such as Windows and macOS.
Linux sources from some of the earliest computer operating systems from the 1960s and 1970s, and so it retains its root philosophies of strong user-level security, customization, and system stability.
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There are many reasons why you would use Linux instead of Windows or macOS and here are just a few of them:
- Linux is supported on older computers. While Windows XP will still run on older hardware it is no longer supported, so there are no security updates. Several Linux distributions focus on older hardware and are maintained and updated regularly. And Macs? The OS and the hardware are so tightly tied that you cannot run modern macOS on old Mac machines — although you’re free to run Linux on those old Apple computers!
- Some Linux distributions and desktop environments are now more familiar to long-time computer hobbyists than Windows 8 and Windows 10. If you like the Windows 7 look and feel, why not try Linux Mint instead?
- A typical Linux distribution comes in at just over 1 gigabyte although you can get some which are just a few hundred megabytes. Windows and macOS require at least a DVD’s worth of bandwidth.
- Linux has always been more secure than Windows and there are very few viruses for Linux.
- Windows regularly phones home with data gathered through Cortana and search in general. While not a new thing and clearly Google does the same thing, Linux isn’t doing the same — especially if you choose a free community distribution. And Apple’s hardware and software are so intertwined, particularly with the App Store, that Apple knows virtually everything you do.
- You can make Linux look, feel and behave exactly as you want it to. With Windows and macOS, the computer behaves exactly as Microsoft or Apple thinks it should.
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The Linux kernel is like an engine. A distribution is an actual vehicle that houses the engine.
- Linux Mint: Requires low computer expertise, easy to install, easy to use and has a familiar-looking desktop for Windows users.
- Debian: For those seeking a truly free Linux distribution with no proprietary drivers, firmware or software then Debian is for you.
- Ubuntu: A modern Linux distribution that is easy to install and easy to use.
- openSUSE: A stable and powerful Linux distribution. Not as easy to install as Mint and Ubuntu but a very good alternative nonetheless.
- Fedora: The most up-to-date Linux distribution with all new concepts incorporated at the earliest possible opportunity.
- Mageia: Rose from the ashes of the formerly great Mandriva Linux. Easy to install and easy to use.
- CentOS: As with Fedora, CentOS is based on the commercial Linux distribution, Red Hat Linux. Unlike Fedora, it is built for stability.
- Manjaro: Based on Arch Linux, Manjaro provides a great balance between ease of use and up to date software.
- LXLE: Based on the lightweight Lubuntu distribution this provides a fully-featured Linux distribution for older hardware.
- Arch: A rolling release distribution, meaning that you don’t have to install new versions of the operating system at any point because it updates itself. More difficult for the new user to get to grips with but very powerful.
- Elementary: Linux for people who like a Mac-style interface.
A live Linux DVD or USB lets you run Linux without installing it to your hard drive. This basically lets you test drive Linux before committing to it and is also good for the occasional user.
Most distributions use a live loader to both test and install the distribution. Ubuntu Linux, a common choice for new Linux hobbyists, offers an excellent live environment.
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Each Linux distribution relies upon a different installer, which is a program that guides you through configuring Linux. In most cases, you’re free to install Linux as the new operating system on a computer, or as a separate OS that doesn’t overwrite Windows.
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XFCE Desktop Ubuntu.
A display manager logs you in while a window manager governs windows, panel, menus, dash interfaces and core applications. Many of these items are bundled together to make a desktop environment.
Some Linux distributions ship with just one desktop environment (although others are available in the software repositories), while others offer different versions of the distribution fine-tuned for different desktop environments.
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Common desktop environments include Cinnamon, GNOME, Unity, KDE, Enlightenment, XFCE, LXDE and MATE.
Cinnamon is a more conventional desktop environment that looks much like Windows 7, with a panel at the bottom, a menu, system tray icons, and quick launch icons.
GNOME and Unity are fairly similar. They are modern desktop environments that use the concept of launcher icons and a dashboard-style display for picking applications. There are also core applications that integrate well with the overall theme of the desktop environment.
KDE is a fairly classic-style desktop environment with many custom features and a core set of applications that are all highly customizable.
Enlightenment, XFCE, LXDE, and MATE are lightweight desktop environments with panels and menus.
For personal use and for small- to medium-sized businesses, LibreOffice presents a strong alternative to Microsoft Office, for free.
LibreOffice comes with a word processor with the majority of the features you expect from a word processor. It also features a decent spreadsheet tool which again is fully featured and even including a basic programming engine although it isn’t compatible with Excel VBA.
Other tools include the presentation, maths, database and drawing packages which are all very good.
Linux does not install software the same way that Windows does. A package manager accesses repositories that archive various software applications that work on a given distribution. The package management tool provides a mechanism to search for software, install software, keep the software up to date and remove the software.
Each distribution provides its own graphical tool. There are common command-line tools used by many different distributions.
Given its long heritage and the diversity of approach of modern desktop environments, a lot of Linux still works from a shell session. In the macOS world, these sessions are called the terminal; in Windows, the Command Prompt.
Although the graphical user interface of modern Linux DEs can do just about everything, much online education about Linux relies on the shell because it’s not tied to the peculiarities of a given distribution or window manager. People new to Linux can get away with rarely, or never, working from the shell, but people who grow to love Linux often go to the shell first because of how easy it is to type one command instead of clicking through many different menus.