For many years, computer users faced a fairly simple choice in terms of operating systems. While Microsoft’s Windows OS was ubiquitous in corporate and domestic environments, consumers wanting greater creativity and innovation usually looked towards products from Apple. Yet a third option has been bubbling under the surface since the early 1990s when Finnish undergraduate Linus Torvalds lost patience with the UNIX operating system at his university. He was inspired to create an open source operating system called Linux, which has been endlessly refined following its launch in 1994 until it became a genuine competitor to Windows and macOS.
Today, Linux powers every Android smartphone and Raspberry Pi programming tool. It’s used in the Large Hadron Collider, and in every single one of the world’s top 500 supercomputers. As a relatively niche OS, it’s less prone to malware and viruses than Windows, and its immense flexibility and endlessly customisable architecture is hugely appealing to anyone who finds the one-size-fits-all nature of other operating systems inefficient or unsuitable. However, industry newcomers might appreciate a little explanation about how this OS differs from its corporate rivals…
A work in progress
Linux is constantly evolving and developing. Open-source software can be modified by anyone possessing basic programming skills, making it the programming equivalent of a Wikipedia page. Open source also means it’s free to download and use, as are most of the applications and software tools subsequently developed for it. The basic kernel architecture remains unchanged, but everything else is constantly customisable – and often updated on a daily basis.
One drawback of this model involves divergence. A number of competing distributions have evolved following major disagreements or key decisions. Each distro differs slightly, attracting loyal adherents and vocal critics. And while the intentions of each developer were undoubtedly noble, their output collectively muddies the waters for anyone thinking about adopting Linux for a new computer or network.
Of course, you could simply accept someone else’s distro recommendation and buy a Linux PC. Googling those last four words reveals a variety of online retailers marketing off-the-shelf computers, or the option to order a custom-built device. Linux has long been the preserve of enthusiastic self-builders, who think nothing of assembling a computer from component elements before burning a copy of their preferred distro onto the hard drive.
Confusingly, a variety of desktop environments is also available. These shouldn’t be mistaken for distros – instead, they define how a particular OS is displayed on-screen. Market leaders include Gnome 3 and its offshoot MATE. KDE offers a more dynamic but resource-heavy alternative, while Xfce is ideal for computers with limited resources. Variations between desktop environments enable users to choose an interface suitable for their specific requirements, instead of the generic Windows 10 and macOS X frameworks.
It’s even possible to install Linux on a computer already using a rival operating system, creating a dual boot computer capable of running in two very different formats. This can also be achieved on a Chromebook, even though these lightweight laptops already use a modified version of Linux for their web browser-based operating system.
Which distro is best?
Because of the divergence in distros, there isn’t a universal download resource for Linux. Instead, a decision needs to be made regarding which distro to opt for. We’ve listed the key benefits and drawbacks of some of the major platforms below, but bear in mind the fact that personal circumstances may steer you towards a specific choice. For instance, a video editor might appreciate KXStudio’s inclusion of audio-related tools and the availability of specialist apps.
Pros: Speed, intuitive installation process, impressive stability
Cons: Rolling release requires regular manual updates to be downloaded and installed
Pros: Extensive plugin directory, compatible with Ubuntu, easy-to-use interfaces
Cons: Slow on older PCs, Cinnamon desktop environment requires 450MB of memory
Pros: Professional support available, focuses on universal usability, twice-yearly updates
Cons: Hardware recognition sometimes lacking, not as customisable as other distros
Pros: Over 50,000 software programs available, stable and reliable, large online community
Cons: May conflict with certain hardware like WiFi cards
Pros: Innovative platform, offers custom variations for specific environments like gaming
Cons: May run slowly, hardware issues may arise due to unsupported proprietary drivers
Pros: Ten-year security/maintenance updates for each new version, great for big firms, stable
Cons: Increasingly oriented towards servers instead of standalone devices
The installation process
Assuming you’re not buying a ready-made Linux computer, it’s usually necessary to download a disk image of your chosen distro before burning it onto a DVD or USB. The latter might require specialist software such as Rufus or Universal USB Installer, though Fedora has its own Media Writer utility for a more beginner-friendly process. Place the DVD or USB into the destination computer and reboot it, potentially changing the boot order if it loads an existing OS instead of accessing the disk or stick. Installation is generally straightforward but may take a substantial amount of time depending on the chosen distro and the device’s processing power.
Turning on a newly installed Linux machine is reminiscent of booting up a Mac or Windows PC for the first time, with a generic interface displaying key files and folders. However, this is easily modified in Linux, which is capable of far more personalisation than simply changing wallpaper or font size. The entire desktop environment can be replaced or revised, and multiple desktop environments can be installed for a choice on startup in future.
Finally, it’s worth noting that some Linux distros are managed and supported by enthusiasts rather than corporations (CentOS being an obvious exception). Although a lack of customer support centres might initially seem worrying, finding solutions to a problem is often as simple as typing a question into Google and including your chosen distro’s name. Available software is commonly published in a distro-specific repository, tested by the Linux Foundation and ready for download through an interface like Gnome 3’s Software application.