Here are some of the reasons why you might want to try out Linux, the free, alternative computer operating system:
- You’re adventurous and willing to try something new.
- You’re broke and can’t afford to keep up with software prices and subscriptions.
- You have an older PC or laptop you’d like, or need, to use beyond its best-by date.
- You’re going into STEM studies and need a more technical computing environment.
- You’re a rebel who dislikes the near monopoly of Microsoft and Apple.
- You’re a skeptic who wants to see if Linux is as good as its users claim.
- You want to be as cool as your techie roommate.
- _You want to attract love interests_ (Sorry, N/A)
If you find yourself in this list, or have a special need of your own, let’s take a layman’s view of Linux without getting overly technical.
The Linux Operating System
Linux, like MacOS and Windows, is a computer operating system that runs on PC desktops and laptops. Unlike MacOS and Windows, there is no corporation that owns it. It was built by volunteer programmers around the world who not only created the operating system, but also most of the software that it runs.
Linux was borne of many early grassroots computing projects, including those of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) that created what are known as the GNU utilities. A University of Helsinki student, Linus Torvalds (who has long since moved to the United States), created the Linux kernel, the core of the operating system which, when combined with the GNU utilities, created a complete operating system sometimes called GNU/Linux but more frequently is called just Linux.
From the early 1990s when Linux was first introduced, until today, Linux has undergone a tremendous era of growth and improvement in which it has become a modern operating system that measures up well against the ones from Microsoft and Apple.
While Linux is a distant third behind Windows and Mac in terms of general use on personal PCs, in the technical world Linux is frequently the operating system of choice. Linux is also widely used as an Internet server for web services. And if your phone is an Android, you’re already using a modified version of Linux behind the scenes without even knowing it.
What Does Linux Offer?
Because Linux is a community-supported operating system, it’s not monolithic like MacOS or Windows. Because there is so much choice available, different groups of developers have packaged Linux in different ways. These packages are called “distributions” or “distros” and there are many to choose from. They vary from lean, tight distributions that will still work well on old PCs, to slick, larger distros with all of the bells and whistles one expects from a major operating system.
There are several distros that emphasize ease of use and installation. These are ideal for new users. Linux Mint is but one example of a good beginner’s distro with user-friendly software included, such as Firefox, LibreOffice, Thunderbird Mail, and an easy interface that a Mac or Windows user can feel right at home with.
There is another sense of choice that is more philosophical. People often choose Linux because they believe in what its developers are doing. In a departure from corporate greed for profits, Linux is entirely free to download and use.
Nearly every kind of software that most people use on their computers has a counterpart in Linux. Most of this is open-source software created by communities of programmers working with each other. There are browsers, office apps such as word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation software, as well as photo editors, sound editors, video editors, 2D and 3D creation packages, and chat software, not to mention the more technical computer languages that are freely available to users.
Some widely used software such as Firefox and Chrome have Linux versions, and there are native Linux clients for Dropbox, Zoom, and Skype. And if you absolutely must have access to Microsoft Office for collaboration with others, you can use Office for the Web. Similarly, photographers and designers can use the web version of Photoshop, though there are open-source programs such as Gimp (GNU Image Manipulation Program) that are worthy alternatives.
In other words, there is no shortage of native Linux apps to choose from.
One area where Linux falls short, however, is for gaming. Serious gamers are pretty much stuck with Windows, although Linux, like MacOS, offers some quality games of its own, and offers a client for Steam streaming games.
The first principle of computer security is that no operating system is totally secure. This applies to Linux in the same way it applies to MacOS and Windows. The difference is that when exploits are discovered in Linux, they are fixed quickly. Neither Apple nor Microsoft is as quick to deliver fixes. It’s easier to keep a Linux computer up to date with the latest security fixes.
There is a strong sense of community among Linux users. Each Linux distro provides user forums where users can ask and answer questions and pick the brains of more advanced users. This is especially helpful to those who venture forth into using Linux as a home server for sharing a printer or as a backup server for storing personal files.
The satisfaction factor in using Linux can be very high, if you click with it (no pun intended). Openly admitting that Linux is not for everyone, it can be deeply satisfying for those who respond to its charms. That person might be you.
How Do I Get Started?
There are distros that are very beginner friendly, providing easy installation procedures and help in getting oriented to the system. Here is a good overview of some of the best distros for beginners:
If your Windows PC desktop or laptop has sufficient disk space, you can install Linux side-by-side with Windows, booting into either system. If you have an older PC around, you can use one of the lightweight beginner’s distros to bring it back to life.
Modern Linux distributions are easy to install and recognize most hardware components such as built-in wifi adapters, Bluetooth, and ports including USB-A, -B, and -C. It supports HDMI ports and SD card ports as well. Overall, Linux has very good printer support.
You can use Linux without have to type commands into a Linux terminal, though as you grow into Linux, you may discover the power of the command line. Technical users will love the command-line programs and utilities.
For all the reasons mentioned, Linux makes an attractive alternative to Windows and MacOS. It should be mentioned that Macs are inherently Linux-like under the hood and that if you are technically inclined, you can install more up-to-date open-source utilities by installing Homebrew, making the Mac even more Linux like.
Windows users can install Microsoft’s Windows Subsystem for Linux or WSL as it is called. This will install a version of Ubuntu Linux that you can run concurrently with Windows.
Neither of these options, however, is as satisfying as a dedicated Linux system, complete with one of the attractive graphical user interfaces that some users find more logical and easier to use than either MacOS or Windows.
Linux is a viable alternative for both general and technical users. I’m obviously a big fan of Linux myself and recently purchased a Lenovo ThinkBook just to run Linux Mint, my personal favourite distribution.
Should you decide to give Linux a try, chances are that you’ll be well rewarded.
Good luck, and be brave.
Gene Wilburn is a writer, photographer, and retired IT professional. He has been writing about Linux since the 1990s.