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What is Linux ?

Linux is an operating system that includes a graphical user interface and provides the same kinds of services that Windows does. The biggest difference is that Windows is a proprietary operating system that you have to buy and Linux is free. While there are some commercial distributions of Linux that you have to buy, most of the popular distributions of Linux are completely free. It is worth noting here that there isn't just one Linux but more than a hundred different "distributions", all of which are slightly different.

Which Linux to Choose ?

While there are many different Linux distributions to choose from the best idea is to choose the most popular distribution as that one is more likely to get the most attention in terms of bug fixes and should be relatively stable. For more than a year now the most popular Linux distribution has been Ubuntu. Ubuntu is an African word meaning "humanity to all". The second most popular distribution is called "Mint" and is actually derived from Ubuntu.

 I can honestly say that the ability of Ubuntu to recognize and instal different hardware is impressive. I recently installed Ubuntu on a customers PC and was surprised to see that it had automatically set up the drivers for the HP all in one printer/scanner that was attached. I was similarly impressed when I plugged an old Canon scanner that I bought on ebay into my PC and it automatically set up the drivers without any fuss. My Windows XP partition on the same PC would not recognise the scanner until I downloaded the drivers from the Canon web site.

What about software ?

An operating system by itself is not very useful without some software to perform basic tasks on the computer such as word processing, handling emails and browsing web sites. Ubuntu has some free programs to handle these tasks that are included in a standard instal. A program called "Evolution" does a good job of handling email and is similar in functionality to Outlook. Web browsing is handled by firefox which is also available for Windows. There is also a complete office suite called "Open Office". Open Office includes a word processor, spreadsheet and a presentation program that are similar in functionality to Word, Excel and Powerpoint respectively. These programs will edit and save documents created with Microsoft Office. The latest version will even open the new .docx and .xlsx formats introduced with Office 2007. It is worth noting that Office 2007 can be pursuaded to save documents in the old .doc and .xls formats by using the "save as" option when saving.

Open Office also includes a drawing program and an SQL database program. I am fairly certain that the database program "Base" is not compatible with Microsoft Access.

In addition to the programs included in the standard instal there are literally hundreds of other free programs available to download for just about any task you can imagine. Downloading and installing them is easy. You just choose "Add/Remove Programs" from the menu and you are presented with a huge list of prgrams to choose from. You just click on the ones you want and apply the updates (assuming you have internet access). It is that easy.

Linux vs Windows

The big question is whether Linux can act as a replacement for Windows XP or Vista ?. This is a complicated question and really boils down to a "horses for courses" issue. Linux certainly has some favourable points, the most obvious being it is free. What is not so obvious is that a Linux system is far less likely to get damaged by viruses or spyware than a Windows system. This is mostly because Windows executable viruses simply will not run in Linux. There may be some exceptions to this but they are probably not significant.  It is also due to the fact that there are very few viruses written specifically for Linux. Vista is reported to be more secure than XP due to it's User Account Control (UAC) feature. The problem with UAC is that you have to confirm many basic operations by clicking on the Continue or Cancel buttons. This can become very annoying.

On the downside is the fact that many aspects of the Linux desktop will be unfamiliar to new users and it will be harder to find friends or neighbours to help you with Linux than it would be for Windows. Another problem is that some devices simply won't have a Linux driver and therefore cannot be used on Linux. You will need to check carefully before buying any new devices to see if there is a driver for your Linux that supports the device.

It used to be the case that Linux was simply too complicated and different for the average user. There have been numerous improvements to Linux over the years and I think it has reached the stage now where a Linux desktop is no more complicated to use than a Windows desktop, just different.

Fortunately you don't have to choose one system to the exclusion of the other. You can set up what is called a dual boot system. There are several web sites that explain how to do this so I won't go into details here. The short version is that you instal Windows first and then shrink the Windows partition on the hard disk to make room for a Linux partition. When you instal Linux it will instal a boot loader called GRUB so when you boot (turn on) the PC you can choose to boot either Windows or Linux.

A standard instal of Ubuntu includes an NTFS module that allows you to read and change the files on your Windows NTFS partition. Linux will also read the older FAT32 partitions used by Windows 98 and Windows ME. You won't be able to read your Linux partition from Windows unless you download a program that allows you to do this.

For the really adventurous, it is possible to run both Windows and Linux or any other operating system at the same time by setting up a virtual machine in your main operating system and installing the second operating system in the virtual machine. This is fairly complicated and is probably not practical for the average user. You will also need a fast PC with lots ( at least 2GB ) of RAM to run things at a decent speed.

Where to get Linux

Ubuntu can be downloaded for free. Just enter "Ubuntu" into google to find the web site. You will need to download an iso file which is about 700 MB and needs to be burned onto a CD. You can then instal Ubuntu by booting the PC from the CD. Please be carefull and back up your Windows documents first because it is possible to wipe out your Windows partition if you accidently choose the wrong option when choosing the disk partitioning option.