Linux: the CHOICE how-to guide.

Free, stable, fast — there's a lot to like about Linux. We take an in-depth look at this powerful, open-source operating system.
 
Learn more
 
 
 
 
 

01 .Use the source

Linux penguin logo with coloured balls

You've heard about Linux. It powers everything from servers to mobile phones, can be found in schools, governments, industry and homes, and a good chunk of the internet’s infrastructure is powered by it. CHOICE Computer’s Editor even runs it at home!

Linux is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, and traditionally the domain of hardcore computer geeks. But that’s changing. The last few years have seen rapid development in the desktop sphere for Linux, so much so that it’s now emerging as a replacement for Windows.

That’s not to say it’s everyone’s cup of tea — Linux isn’t Windows, and works a little differently. Nevertheless, it’s making inroads into mainstream consumer systems, thanks in part to low-cost Linux-based laptops such as the ASUS Eee PC.

If you remember your first few days with Windows, you’ll know that learning a new operating system isn’t something you pick up overnight. Fortunately it’s easy to explore Linux alongside Windows, so you don’t need to give Windows up — unless you want to!

In this report we tell you all about Linux — what it is, the various distributions, where you get it from, and what it's capable of. We also provide a tutorial on how to install Ubuntu Linux alongside Windows, so you can enjoy the best of both worlds.

Reasons to try Linux:

  • Tired of paying for Windows, MS Office, security suites and basic applications.
  • Tired of worrying about viruses and other malware.
  • Want to learn more about Linux.
  • Have old hardware you want to keep using.
  • Want to try something different to Windows for your main desktop operating system.
  • Want to support open source and even contribute to the community yourself.

Reasons not to try:

  • Limited free space on Windows computer.
  • Windows games or desktop publishing are a priority.
  • Need to back-up your data first whenever installing an OS.
  • Learning to use a new operating system.
  • Other people who use the computer may not share your enthusiasm!

Please note: this information was current as of March 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market.

 
 

Sign up to our free
e-Newsletter

Receive FREE email updates of our latest tests, consumer news and CHOICE marketing promotions.

 

Just like Windows or Mac OS X, Linux is an operating system (OS) that manages your computer: from running applications to powering devices like digital cameras, printers, and more.

Unlike Windows, however, Linux is an open source operating system. Rather than just providing programs to run on your computer, open source software also provides you with the rights and means to modify and compile the software yourself, if you have the know-how.

In practice, this means that there’s no single company responsible for Linux. There’s no Apple or Microsoft equivalent. Instead, volunteers and organisations produce and maintain Linux, and release the results to the public.

The fact that Linux is free and open source has other benefits, aside from the advantages of the OS itself. For example, there are many Linux users at every level of expertise from beginner to expert. Support is widely available via a search in Google, or through local Linux User Groups, mailing lists and bulletin boards. And being free, you don’t have to worry about licenses — you can install Linux on as many machines as you like. Given the versatility of its applications, this means you can set up a home or office PC at no cost, save for hardware.

Windows vs Linux

Although Windows and Linux have a lot in common, there are many differences. Linux is cheaper — it can cost as little as the price of a CD, or the download fees your ISP charges. Compare this to $350-450 for Vista Home Basic and Premium respectively.

Additionally, with Windows much of the software available comes at a price too. Almost all software for Linux is open source and, in turn, free. Linux distributions come with all the essentials for a desktop system, from web browser to office suites, at no cost to you.

Under the hood Linux is very efficient and goes further with hardware than Windows does — most versions will run on a PC as low as a 300MHz processor with 128MB RAM, which means you can keep using old hardware that you might otherwise have to scrap.

In terms of ease of use, the interfaces for Windows and Linux are very similar, which makes switching over relatively easy, although there are still some key differences. For example, Linux doesn’t use drive letters — like ‘C:’ that you see under Windows. And with Linux there is more than one desktop interface (called 'desktop environment' in Linux parlance) so you actually have a choice of which one you want to use.

The two most popular desktop interfaces are Gnome and KDE — they look similar but have very different features. This may make it harder to sit down and start working at first, but it’s no more complex than moving between, say, Windows 98 and Windows Vista.

Another advantage of Linux is security. By design, it’s inherently more secure than Windows and, having a smaller market share, it’s also a smaller target for malware and viruses. As a result you don’t actually need a security suite for Linux, although you can install one if you want to.

Sound good so far? Naturally, Linux also has its downsides. Firstly it’s easy to buy a new computer with Windows installed, whereas only a few manufacturers (such as Dell and Pioneer) offer systems with Linux. As a result this means most people end up installing Linux themselves, which — while no more complex than installing Windows — can be a little daunting at first if you’ve never installed an operating system before. Which is why we’ve provided a tutorial to show you how (see How to install Ubuntu).

Using Linux isn’t always straightforward. While it has some excellent methods of obtaining new software (frequently called packages), you may occasionally have to tackle installation procedures which are designed for expert users, and the language used for documentation can be a bit jargon-heavy.

Commercial Windows or Apple software such as Quicken or iTunes won’t work in Linux. There are alternatives but you’ll need to check features carefully to ensure you get what you need. If you depend on specific Windows applications, you may find it hard to switch over. Linux has less to offer anyone who primarily uses their computer for desktop publishing, for example.

Finally, Windows generally supports more hardware than Linux. Most manufacturers produce drivers primarily for Windows, though some larger vendors produce Linux drivers. Although manufacturers — such as Nvidia — produce Linux drivers as a matter of course, the open source community tackles much of the writing of hardware drivers, which can lead to delays in support. Remember, these people are often volunteers, and aren’t paid to write drivers!

That said, Linux is more efficient in its use of hardware and will run happily on older systems where Windows is too slow or even refuses to install, and can thus be a way to put old hardware to good use.

Can Linux run Windows programs?

Programs designed to run on Windows (or a Mac) won't run on Linux, at least not without some coaxing from special software designed to do this. However, more often than not, there are Linux versions or equivalents of the same Windows applications, so you don't need to run Windows programs (or Windows itself) at all.

Which Linux?

Ubuntu forumsLinux is packaged into 'distributions'. A distribution includes the core of the operating system — the Linux kernel and essential tools — plus software that does everything from browsing folders through to playing MP3s, word processing, DVD playback and more. Each distribution includes a different selection of these programs.

You’ll find a lot of applications that are common across distributions, though there will be differences in the interface, ease of use, and the way in which software is updated.

So, if you’ve decided that you want to try Linux, the next obvious question is which distribution to choose. There are quite a few desktop focused distributions. Some of the more popular ones include:

  • Ubuntu
  • Fedora
  • Mandriva
  • PCLinuxOS

Ubuntu is widely considered the most user-friendly Linux distribution, and has a very active and friendly community to help new users.

Popular distributions

The distributions listed here are designed for home users, but we recommend that you try them out using a 'LiveCD' where possible to ensure that a distribution suits you.

A LiveCD is a version of the distribution that can be booted and used directly from a CD, without installing it to your computer. This is a great way to explore Linux and a particular distribution to decide if you like it — just note that it will run slower from a CD than a hard drive.

Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com) is designed for newcomers to Linux, and does a lot of the hard work for you. The team behind Ubuntu adds new software only when it meets certain standards. Which is one of the reasons that Ubuntu is known for its stability and user-friendliness.

Fedora (www.fedoraproject.org) has a respectable heritage in Red Hat, the first Linux distribution tailored for the desktop many years ago. Fedora has fewer snazzy features, less hand-holding and less cutting-edge software updates than some distributions, but a good choice if you’re looking for a stable, reliable desktop.

Mandriva (www.mandriva.com) includes lots of wizards and assistants to help you manage and get to know Linux. Mandriva has forged a path as a popular easy to use desktop that’s become well respected by the Linux community.

Finally PCLinuxOS (www.pclinuxos.com) is an up and coming desktop-focused distribution that is also aimed at beginners and comes highly recommended.

Ubuntu desktop

The freshly installed Ubuntu desktop looks and works much like Windows, and provides many of the same applications.

Getting into Linux

There are several ways of trying out Linux out alongside Windows:

  • LiveCD
    A LiveCD is a CD containing the entire Linux operating system. You simply put the disc into your CD or DVD-ROM drive, then restart your computer to boot it and load the the Linux desktop directly on your machine.
    However, most operating systems aren’t terribly interesting until you actually do something with them so sample the games, connect to the internet and test out your hardware — try playing music or video files, or writing a document and emailing it to a friend. Just note that running everything from a CD like this will be slower than from a hard drive.
  • Virtual Linux
    Software that lets you run a virtual operating system as an application (such as Microsoft’s Virtual PC or VMWare) means you can install Linux and use it on your normal Windows desktop. It’s less immersive than a LiveCD but has the advantage that you can save files for ongoing use. This is particularly useful in that you can use your familiar Windows applications to find help if you get stuck. Note that running a virtualised operating system this way requires a powerful computer, however, and is not recommended for older hardware.
  • Dual boot
    If you feel confident that you’d like to use Linux on a more ongoing basis, you can install it as a 'dual boot' — that way, each time you start your computer, you can opt to run Windows or Linux. While you won’t be able to access your Linux files from Windows, Linux is more friendly and you can copy files to and from your Windows installation while in Linux.

Using Linux

Linux software updates screenIt can take time to learn how to use Linux. At first, it’s likely to feel harder to use than Windows simply because of familiarity with Windows. To see just how easy it is to install and use, we grabbed the latest Ubuntu distribution (Ubuntu 7.10) and installed it on a new machine.

Installing it was simple, the most complex step was making room for it on the hard drive to work side-by-side with Windows (see How to install Ubuntu, for how to do this yourself). The only problems we encountered were the lack of drivers for a Belkin network USB hub we were using, and setting up a Samsung Multifunction printer which did eventually work after a bit of fiddling with the drivers.

Everything else was detected and worked fine, including connecting to the internet. Once installed, Ubuntu first checks for any updates to the operating system, and there were quite a few.

They took a while to download and install, but it’s worth noting the updates weren’t just for Ubuntu Linux itself, but also all the applications that came pre-installed — such as the office suite, web browser, and so on. It’s actually quite handy being able to install the latest updates for the operating system and all your applications in one go.

Ubuntu comes supplied with the OpenOffice suite (which provides a Microsoft Office compatible word processor, spreadsheet and presentation programs), a photo manager and image editor, media players, CD burner, VoIP and emailing programs.

Install multimedia codecs screenshotSome you will already be familiar with from Windows — Mozilla Firefox for example looks and works exactly the same under Linux as under Windows. Someone new to Linux should have no problems getting started, but it will take time to learn the nuances.


There are more applications than those provided with the base installation, and browsing the Add/Remove dialog and the Synaptic Package Manager gave us plenty of choice. There are some 23,000 programs in Ubuntu’s software repositories, covering everything from office programs to DVD playback available from Ubuntu. All are free and can be downloaded and installed at the click of a button. It's straightforward and easy, but some of the packages and descriptions are written in programming jargon and can be hard to understand.

Every time you boot up, Ubuntu can automatically check for and install new updates to the operating system, just like Windows Update.

When the correct codecs can't be found, Ubuntu will prompt to install them directly from the net (see image, right).

Using Ubuntu is very similar to Windows — you have your desktop, folder and file explorer, trash can, and taskbars that show running programs and tray applications. Pretty much everything works as you expect, although when it came to playing some video and audio files the required codecs weren’t installed. Fortunately Ubuntu prompted us for this and installed them.

Overall the experience was positive. When we did encounter something foreign, seaching the Ubuntu forums usually provided an answer, with the community very friendly to new users. While we feel there’s still some room for improvement, as a whole the Linux desktop has come a long way and it’s easily good enough to be an alternative to Windows. If you haven’t so far tried it, give it a go! 

Ubuntu screenshot - 3D software effects 

3D desktop effects are standard with the latest version of Ubuntu.

One of the best things about Linux is that you don’t need to give up Windows to use it. You can install and use both on the same computer in just a few steps.

For this tutorial we’ll use Ubuntu Linux 7.10, because it has one of the largest user installation bases of a Linux desktop OS, and because there’s lots of support available. At the time of writing Ubuntu 7.10 is the latest version.

Getting ready

Before installing Linux, check that your computer can run it. Ubuntu recommends at least a 500MHz system with 8GB of hard disc space, and 192MB of RAM, although we recommend at least 256MB or more. You should also check that all your system hardware is supported. There’s a hardware support information page at wiki.ubuntu.com/HardwareSupport.

Adding an operating system is a major step, so back up your system before you start (see our report on Backup software for our test of backup packages). It’s also worth having your system recovery discs on hand. If you don’t have a recovery CD/DVD for Windows, ask your vendor for one — you are entitled to a recovery disc.

Partitioning

Every operating system has its own way of talking to the hardware on your PC and using the space on your hard drive. To logically divide the space on a drive it can be partitioned, and in turn each partition appears to the operating system (such as Windows) as a unique drive. In order to run Ubuntu and Windows side by side, each needs its own partition on the drive. Windows will already have one at the moment, but to install Ubuntu you’ll need to create a partition for it to live in.

Fortunately, Ubuntu will handle this for you during installation. It’s important to note that while Linux will happily install alongside Windows, the reverse is not true — if you installed Linux first and then Windows, the Windows install would overwrite the Linux one. However when installing Linux after Windows, as we’ll do here, Linux will detect Windows and setup your system to boot one or the other when you turn your machine on.

Sourcing Ubuntu

Most free versions of Linux are available for download as an .iso file. An ISO contains an 'image' of a CD or DVD, including the data and file system information. Linux installs are frequently provided as images so that you can run the operating system directly from disc — this is known as a LiveCD — and so that installation is simple and straightforward.

To use an .iso file, you need to burn it to disc as an image, rather than as a data CD. CD burning software such as Nero Burning Rom can burn images, but there are also free open source image burning programs, such as ISO Recorder (isorecorder.alexfeinman.com) and Infra Recorder (infrarecorder.sourceforge.net).

Alternatively you can purchase pre-made install CDs cheaply from Australian distributors such as Linux System Labs (www.lsl.com.au) and Everything Linux (www.elx.com.au).

How to: burn an Ubuntu CD

If you have a CD burner and an ISP that will allow 700MB downloads, downloading and creating an installation disc yourself is straightforward.

If you’re on dial-up or a 256Kbps broadband connection, it might help to leave it downloading overnight. Just check to make sure you don’t go over your bandwidth cap!

Step 1

Head to www.ubuntu.com/getubuntu and select 'Download Ubuntu'. On the Download Ubuntu tab, choose the most recent desktop version — currently 7.10, also called 'Gutsy Gibbon'.

You’ll also need to identify your computer type. If you know you have a 64-bit computer, select '64bit AMD and Intel computers', but otherwise choose 'Standard personal computer'. Finally, select a location from which to download the file, and click 'Start Download'.

Get Ubuntu page screenshot

Step 2

Once the file is downloaded, burn it to disc as a disc image. We'll use Infrarecorder here. Insert a blank CD into your CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive, then in the Actions menu select Burn Image. Finally browse to locate the file you downloaded.

Infra Recorder screenshot 

Step 3

The .iso file is large, so it may not fit on your CD unless you use overburning. Overburning writes information to the disc right to the edge, using all the space for data rather than writing the files that usually close the CD. In the Advanced tab, tick to enable overburning, and then burn your CD.

Overburning screenshot

How to: install Ubuntu

Installing Ubuntu takes around half an hour to an hour, depending on your system. Once you’ve answered a few questions, you can leave it to complete the process by itself. While it's installing if you want to you can still use the LiveCD desktop, read documention, and browse the web!

Step 1

First, defragment your computer. Defragmenting moves all the data into contiguous sections of the hard drive, which makes it easier to partition the drive between the two operating systems. In XP click Start ➝ My Computer. Right-click on the drive you want to defragment and choose Properties. On the Tools tab, select Defragment now.

In Vista, type 'defragment' into the search box to launch the defragmenter. Note that if this is the first time you have defragmented your hard drive, it may take quite a while. You can speed it up by first deleting any unnecessary files.

Deframentation screenshot

Step 2

Insert the Ubuntu disc you made earlier into your CD-ROM or DVD drive, then restart your computer. After Ubuntu loads, you’ll be presented with a list of options. If you want to ensure nothing goes wrong later, click Check CD for Defects — this takes a few minutes and will restart your system in Windows once completed, so you’ll need to repeat the process of starting from the CD.

Ubuntu Installation page screenshot

Step 3

Ubuntu loads as a LiveCD — this means that it runs as an operating system straight from the CD. You can explore Linux here, including browsing the web, running applications and changing settings, although nothing will be saved. Note that running from the LiveCD is slower than running a fully installed Ubuntu.

If you find, after testing out the LiveCD, that you want to install Ubuntu click the Install icon to start the installation.

Install icon screenshot 

Step 4

There are only a few questions to answer to get Ubuntu set up. Click the Forward button after each question to move to the next. First, select your language, then choose a timezone. On the world map, you can click directly onto the map of Australia to zoom in, and then click on the city that matches your time zone. Next, choose your keyboard layout — for most people this will be US English.

Where are you? screenshot 

Step 5

Partitioning is the trickiest step of the installation. Choose Guided resize and, if necessary, adjust the slider — note the dialog here is a little misleading: the slider will reduce the size of your Windows partition, with remaining space dedicated to a new Ubuntu partition. So move the slider until the remaining space is equal to the amount you want to dedicate to your Ubuntu install. The minimum partition size for Ubuntu is 8GB, but if you plan to use Linux frequently, aim to give it 20GB or more.

If you have multiple hard drives, you can also choose to install Ubuntu on an entire hard drive using the second option. Be warned though ­— using an entire hard drive that isn’t empty will erase all the data on it.

After partitioning is complete, Ubuntu installs automatically, and you can go and grab a coffee or tea while you wait!

Partitioning screenshot

Step 6

After installation you’ll be prompted to restart. When you restart your computer, you’ll see a menu that allows you to select which operating system you want to run — Ubuntu or Windows. Select Ubuntu 7.10 or wait to start Ubuntu automatically. To restart in Windows, shutdown Linux and select Windows on restart.

Select operating system screenshot 

Your say - Choice voice

Make a Comment

Members – Sign in on the top right to contribute to comments