I won’t bore you with my personal journey with Linux (it’s pretty much try, give up, try again, give up, try again, distro hop, pick a distro), but based on this comment, I thought it would be worthwhile discussing how best to try Linux out and the reasons you could find it useful to do so and why you may not find it so useful… Call it a belated Christ-/Mithras-/Horus-mas present to the world.
First, the reasons people test out Linux. These are many and varied, but the main ones seem to be: they heard it was cool, it was sold as a major panacea for all computing ills, they are geeks and think it’s de rigeur to do so, it looked good on a friend’s PC, it solves a problem they have, they are sick of lock in and viruses. There are other reasons, but I think these are representative. Here’s the thing: none of these reasons are bad reasons. I have tried various things out over the years for similar reasons - some I have stuck with and some I haven’t. The more rabid Linux evangelists will tell you that you have to try it and that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t. I’m not going to do that. It would be great if the balance were tipped from proprietary OSes to the FOSS way, but I am realistic enough to know that this isn’t going to happen soon. We are making major inroads, particularly on the server front, but by being realistic I have more chance of being persuasive.
If you are planning (however vaguely) to try out Linux I cannot stress this enough: do your research. Look at the more popular distributions and check that your hardware is supported and won’t have any major issues. Google is an excellent resource for this, Linux is an operating system that wouldn’t have come in to being without the internet and problems and fixes are discussed widely all over the place. Head over to Distrowatch and see what people are looking into, hit the various websites that distributions have and see what they look like and make sure that you feel comfortable with the look and feel of the distribution.
An amazingly cool resource that will be of great help is the Live CD. This gives you an entire operating system on either a CD or DVD. Many distros offer this and you can use them to see whether Linux is for you and to test out what a distro will look like and get a great feel for the usage. You can use them for diagnosing and fixing problems or as a handy and portable method for always having Linux on whichever PC you use. They do not make changes to your hard drive and so you don’t have to install anything. For the price of the download and a blank CD or DVD you can save yourself a lot of hassle.
Investigate dual booting. You don’t have to wipe your current OS to test out another system, you can simply give it space on your hard drive and switch between. This will give you the best idea of how it will work with your system and whether it will be for you on a daily basis. Dual booting is pretty simple and straightforward. It will also enable you to research problems on your known working OS if you do hit snags.
Don’t give up on your first failure. I have lost count of the number of times that I have seen posts about how crap Linux is only to find that the poster has used it for a few hours and given up at the first hurdle. Remember that Windows has a major lock in with a number of hardware vendors (and Mac restricts the hardware it will run on) and also software vendors. This means that hardware and software will always work on those systems because the vendors will make it work. Most of the drivers and software on Linux only run because the coders are dedicated and intelligent enough to make it work. (I won’t go into the “Linux is a kernel not an OS” here because it’s irrelevant to the discussion) For a good chunk of it’s life, Linux coders worked for the joy of coding and the fact that it runs so well on such varied hardware is testament to their skill and dedication.
Finally, research, research, research. I’m going to mention this again because it is all important. Think about what you want to run it on - if you have any obscure hardware or important hardware (webcams, scanners, ISP provided modems) look around the web to see if they are supported. If you have a particular piece of software that you absolutely must have running look to see if there’s a Linux version or if there is a different piece of software that will run just as well. Read Linux Is Not Windows - it may be a few years old, but it is still relevant.
None of this is rocket science. It’s been a few years since Linux emerged from the “geeks only” state to an “anyone can get it running state.” You can install Linux in around 20 minutes (from start to finish) and you will have a full desktop and a varied amount of software. There are some 40,000+ software packages available for it from a variety of resources, so it’s likely that you will find the software you need. You don’t have to reboot after each software install or update. There are no real viruses available for it and malware just isn’t there. Out of the box, it is more secure than Windows and will cost you a lot less in monetary terms. You can distribute it freely and legally and this is explicit in the licence. You don’t have to agree to EULAs or other restrictive licences.
So there you are, that’s how to do it. If you want to know how not to do it, just don’t follow my advice. The vast majority of people who fail to install and run Linux (or one of the BSDs or any other alternative OS) do so because they went in with the wrong attitude. Before you can ride a bike or drive a car or do most tasks, there are steps to take before you do it - and computers are no different. There is no magic bullet which will make you an automatic expert, despite the advertising, the only real way to do it is to research and persevere. If you do decide to stick with it there are any number of resources that will assist you, from hard copy books to online forums to blogs like this. If you stick with it you will be part of a community and a movement and will meet many interesting and fun people. My first trip to the US was off the back of Linux - so how’s that, run an OS and travel the world?