Switching to Linux

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01 .Lining up Linux


Looking to upgrade your PC with a modern, secure operating system? Don’t want to spend a lot of money? Then it could be time to take a good look at Linux

Linux can be useful for:

  • providing features, speed, stability, and security to rival Windows and OS X.
  • the ability to run free software.
  • an environment that looks and feels different to Windows.
  • installing Linux on your existing PC so it's like having a whole new computer!

Why Linux?

Although Linux has a reputation in the non-tech world as the operating system of choice for hardcore geeks, that’s changing. Several flavours of this operating system (OS), particularly the best-known Ubuntu variation, are becoming a viable option for more and more computer users. Many have made the shift to Linux’s user-friendly interface without the technical know-how that it once required. One of Linux’s most compelling features is the price. In line with the open-source philosophy, everything you need to run a basic system can be legally downloaded for free.

Back to basix

In common parlance, Linux is an operating system. More specifically, it’s the core of the OS, or the kernel. Operating systems that use the Linux kernel, such as Ubuntu, Mint and Debian, are called distributions (distros for short – see Distilling the distros). Each distro commonly combines the Linux kernel, inside the OS itself, with installation tools and device drivers, and some include a bunch of ready-to-go programs to cover common activities such as email, word processing, video, audio tools and so on. The inventor of the Linux kernel is Linus Torvalds, who wanted an alternative to having to pay for a UNIX-based operating system. Once he created it for himself, he shared his kernel for free with other clever coders, who built upon it to create their own full operating systems. Everyone likes a bargain, and within a few years there were literally hundreds of distros built on the Linux kernel. There are now about 300 public distributions currently available, varying from user-friendly Windows-like environments to industry-specific tools that are only useful for specialised tasks.

Wine, don't whine!

Can’t install your favourite Windows program on Linux? Don’t whine, download Wine. You can use this open-source compatibility layer to run Windows software on Linux systems, without actually running Windows itself. A Windows program running in Wine is unlikely to run as smoothly as a native Linux alternative, but it can get the job done when there are no other options. Resource-hungry programs, such as rendering software, are less likely to run smoothly on Wine.


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On this page:

  • Community needs
  • Distilling the distros
  • Community needs

    The major distros are backed by massive communities of dedicated Linux users who regularly update and improve the software and services. Ubuntu is particularly noteworthy for being supported by a private company, Canonical, but still retains its community focus. While the Linux kernel must be distributed free, some companies charge for their distro to cover the costs of their unique assembly of user interface, drivers, server support, and bundled programs and installers. However, this usually only applies to enterprise editions for businesses. The hardware requirements of mainstream operating systems can hit you in the hip pocket, sometimes requiring a whole new computer to run the latest version. 

    But some Linux distros are designed to run on older, or lightweight (low-spec), computers for users who don’t want to be forced into an upgrade. This is just one of the benefits of the community-driven nature of Linux, as developers have the freedom to design software that suits the needs of a wide range of users.

    When almost isn’t good enough 

    Switching to Linux may not be practical for everyone. Many find the free Linux-based Libre Office a capable alternative to Microsoft Office, but others find that subtle variations in how programs work can cause problems. The Libre Office spreadsheet program, for example, may cause formatting issues if you open a spreadsheet originally created in Office. If you regularly use software that’s only available on Windows or OS X, you’ll need to stick with those systems.

    Gamers may find Linux a bit disappointing too. Although Steam has officially launched on Linux, the offerings are quite limited. The list of Linux-friendly titles is growing, however, and it may be just a matter of time before Linux versions are released alongside Windows and OS X games. Finally, some hardware vendors appear reluctant to focus on the Linux market, so while your PC hardware and attached devices may function you could find drivers are updated less frequently, if at all. The classic example is Nvidia, one of the three global graphics cards giants, whose support for Linux users was spotty at best until the end of last year. The good news is that if you can’t live without Windows, you can still create a dual-boot system that will let you switch back to Windows when you need to (see Dual booting).

    Distilling the distros

    Picking a suitable distro is your first step. New users should keep an eye out for those that look similar to the familiar Windows or OS X desktop and offer a full point-and-click graphical user interface (GUI). This means you won’t need to learn many, if any, command line instructions. Other points to consider are the size and reputation of the distro’s developer base and the time between updates. A Linux bonus is that you can run most distros from a USB or CD as a live trial before installing them. Below are three of the most popular distributions for new Linux users, and we've also included links to each of their download pages.


    For first-time Linux users, it doesn’t get much better than Ubuntu. The look of the desktop will take some getting used to, but you’re unlikely to run into any major problems, because in Ubuntu, pretty much everything just works. You won’t find many preinstalled programs, and Ubuntu doesn’t come with the codecs you need to watch movies or listen to MP3s, but you can easily download most of these from the Ubuntu Software Centre. This looks and feels like a typical online app store, and lists almost all the programs available for Linux. We tried it out and found it had everything we needed to run a basic set-up downloaded and installed within half an hour. Mac users will feel right at home in Ubuntu, as the interface is almost identical to OS X, but PC users will have to get used to navigating without the start menu. The straightforward installer gives you the option to install the OS alongside Windows – perfect if you aren't ready to fully commit.

    Download Ubuntu


    For the user with basic knowledge of Linux and general computing, Mint is one of the most complete out-of-the-box Linux distros available. It comes pre-installed with most of the software and codecs needed for regular activities, so you’ll be able to watch DVDs, listen to MP3s or check email as soon as it’s up and running. There are two versions of Mint available, with the Cinnamon release being similar to the classic Windows environment. Installing Mint isn’t as straightforward as it is for Ubuntu, and you may find it difficult to get help if you encounter a problem. Mint is a community distro run by volunteers, and the support centre and forums assume the reader knows a thing or two about Linux.

    Download Mint (we recommend the Cinnamon release)


    Mageia prides itself on its simplicity, but also has a notable elegance not offered by other distros. There are two GUIs available, one of which is based in the KDE project, which is known for its intuitiveness. At first look, Mageia feels less alien than Mint and Ubuntu. The trade-off for its simplicity is a lack of advanced options. Those keen to learn the code and theory behind the kernel may find Mageia limiting. While it’s far from being a bare-bones distro, Mageia runs on fairly limited resources, making it suitable for use on an older PC. But the distribution is still quite young, and although there are stable builds available, Mageia is less established than Mint and Ubuntu.

    Download Mageia

    Pick your own

    Don't like these distros? Then head over to DistroWatch, the ultimate Linux database. It lists most, if not all, of the publicly available distributions and where you can download them. Everything from the user-friendly to the ultra-specialised are listed, so we recommend sticking with the major distributions section if you're going to pick your own.

    Ubuntu: the first-time user's friend

    Although there are hundreds of distributions available, we reckon Ubuntu is the best distribution for first-time Linux users, and it's also the easiest to install. Why do we think it's a first-time user's friend? 

    Six reasons to start with Ubuntu

    1. Easy to navigate.

    2. An intuitive desktop environment similar to OS X.

    3. No terminal commands (technical mumbo jumbo) required for installing software.

    4. Support by an actual company, as well as a base of volunteers and enthusiasts - this means users have a much better chance of getting technical support, and more importantly, technical support they can understand.

    5. Ubuntu has very little assumed knowledge. You can dive in without knowing a thing about Linux and be up and running within a day.

    6. Downloadable software that's easy to locate in the Ubuntu software centre (a software shop that automatically lists most known Linux software so you don't have to dig through the net to find it all).

    Here we show you how to install Ubuntu via USB, but you can also install from a DVD. The installation process varies between distros, but YouTube has plenty of step-by-step videos to guide you through installing your distro of choice if you want to try something other than Ubuntu.

    Create a bootable USB stick

    1. Go to ubuntu.com/download/desktop, scroll down and click on Create a bootable USB stick. Next, click Download Pen Drive Linux’s USB Installer and download the installer from the external page. This installer will automatically link you to the latest build of Ubuntu. Alternatively, click here to go directly to the Pen Drive download page.

    2. Run Universal USB Installer and pick the latest desktop release of Ubuntu. i386 is the 32-bit version and amd64 is the 64-bit release. The 64-bit will only work on certain computers, so check your system compatibility before proceeding.

    3. Tick the box adjacent to the dropdown menu that says Download the iso (Optional) and click Yes. This will automatically download the Ubuntu disk image to your allocated download folder.The file is about 800MB.

    4. When the download is complete, click Browse and locate the ISO file on your PC. Insert a 2GB thumb drive, open My Computer and note the drive name (e.g., I:). Go back to the USB Installer and pick that drive from the Step 3 dropdown menu. When you install the ISO it will erase the contents of the drive, so make sure you picked the correct one. If your drive doesn’t appear in the list, tick Show all Drives (note – use with caution).

    5. Click Create to mount Ubuntu on your thumb drive. When it’s complete, eject the drive and label it, so you don’t accidentally overwrite your installer.

    Install Ubuntu

    The safest approach is to install Ubuntu alongside Windows to create a dual-boot system, so you can easily switch between Windows and Linux. The Ubuntu installer will automatically partition your system and create a dedicated zone for Linux. Before you begin, back up your Windows data and create an image of your system to protect your documents in case something goes wrong.

    1. Shut down your system, insert the bootable Ubuntu USB, turn on your computer and open the boot menu. On most computers, the boot menu can be accessed by pressing F12. If this doesn’t work, look towards the bottom of the screen when you boot Windows. You will see a set of instructions, one will read Boot menu ‹F12› or similar. Press the F key that corresponds.

    2. Scroll through the boot menu and select USB-HDD. If this is the bootable drive, your computer will load a purple screen with the word Ubuntu in the centre. If it loads Windows, it means you have selected the wrong drive. Reboot your system, open the boot menu again, and pick different options from the list until Ubuntu loads.

    3. You can browse Ubuntu before you install it by clicking Try Ubuntu, or you can get straight to the installation by clicking Install Ubuntu. On the next screen, make sure all the criteria have a green tick. If not, don’t install. Tick Download updates while installing and Install this third-party software. The third-party software will let you watch MPG movies and listen to MP3 files. Click continue.

    4. Next, select your installation type. Ubuntu should automatically detect if you have Windows installed. Click Install Ubuntu alongside Windows to keep Windows installed, or Replace Windows with Ubuntu to completely erase Windows. Click Continue.

    5. Pick your timezone and keyboard layout and enter your name, username and password. The computer name will default to match your name, but you can change this if you wish. Select Log in automatically if you don’t want Ubuntu to ask for a password each time you boot up, or Require my password to log in if you do. Encrypt my home folder will add an additional layer of protection to your documents. The home folder is where Ubuntu saves your files by default. Encrypting it means you’ll have to enter a password whenever you want to access the contents. Encrypting your home folder is optional.

    06. Finally, pick an image for your account or take one with a webcam. Click Continue to start the installation process. When it’s complete, your computer will load the Ubuntu desktop. 

    Dual booting

    If you installed Ubuntu alongside Windows, your computer will open the purple dual-boot menu when you power it up. Ubuntu should appear at the top of the list, and Windows should appear at the bottom. Memory test and advanced options may also be in the list - these are only used for troubleshooting. Use the arrow keys to select the operating system you want to load and press Enter.

    Now that you've got Ubuntu up and running, take a look around. You'll notice that the GUI is quite different to Windows or OS X. It may seem daunting, but this guide will show you how to install software, along with a few programs that we recommend for standard users.

    The most important thing to remember is that Ubuntu doesn't have a traditional start menu - instead, it has a search function in the top-left corner (default). This is where you go to open folders and run programs. Type the name of the folder or program into the search tool to open it. The list of icons on the left side of the screen is a quick launch station, similar to the dock on OS X. You can add regularly used programs to this list, and any program or folder that is open will appear there.

    Look for a filing cabinet icon in the left hand menu. This contains your system files, and may require a password to access if you encrypted the folder during the installation. Unless you are an expert, don't go poking around in your system files. You can permanently damage the operating system if you accidentally delete a crucial system file. If you're running a dual boot system, note that you can still access and delete your Windows files via Ubuntu.

    Installing programs

    One of the best features of Ubuntu is the pre-loaded software. Most of what you need to run a basic system is already available, although there are a few things missing. You can install most additional software from the Ubuntu Software Center, which will automatically complete most of the terminal commands for you.

    These steps will work with any program in the Software Center, but we're going to use VLC media player for this example. Every computer needs a good media player, and VLC is versatile, easy to use and available for free.

    1. To launch Ubuntu Software Center, go to the menu on the left side of your screen, and click the briefcase with an A printed on it.
    2. Go to the search bar (top right), type VLC and press enter.
    3. Pick VLC Media Player from the list and click More Info to read about it, or Install.
    4. Either a dialogue box or the Terminal will open. Enter your password and press enter to proceed. If the installer accesses the Terminal instead of a dialogue box, you will need to press Y (for yes) then enter after you enter your password.
    5. Software Center will download and install VLC automatically.
    VLC will automatically appear in the left hand column. You can remove it by right-clicking the icon and selecting remove from launcher. Some programs will not automatically appear in Launcher, you can access these with the search tool.

    Recommended programs

    There are hundreds of programs to choose from. We recommend these programs for a basic system with all the necessary tools up and running.

    Internet access
    • Firefox – Comes pre-installed on Ubuntu
    • Chromium – An open source browser based on Google Chrome. Is not affiliated with Google.
    • Opera – Another browser which claims to offer the fastest internet speeds.
    Office work
    • LibreOffice – Comes pre-installed on Ubuntu.
    • OpenOffice – The other major open source office program. You will need to uninstall LibreOffice for this to work.
    • Adobe Reader – PDF reader also available for Windows and OS X.
    • VLC Media Player – An essential, multi-purpose media tool that can play almost any format (except Bluray) including DVD.
    • SMPlayer – Similar to VLC, gaining popularity for its stability and image quality.
    • XBMC – Multi-purpose media centre capable of playing almost any format. Great for watching movies, streaming media, playing music or viewing pictures.
    • Amarok – Popular, versatile music player with great library capabilities that may be able to sync with your iPod. Do some research before installing to make sure that it works with your iPod’s generation and model.
    • Thunderbird – Mozilla's free email client.
    • Evolution – Similar to Microsoft Outlook, not exactly the same.
    • Claws Mail – Lightweight mail client for people who want software that can access emails without all the bells and whistles.
    • Steam – The internet's best one-stop shop for digital distribution. Download, sign up and install for free, and get access to their growing range of Linux friendly software. Look for the Tux icon for Linux friendly games.
    • Ubuntu Software Center – Giant list of free and low-cost downloadable titles for Ubuntu.
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