Want to give your PC a makeover without spending a cent? Want a modern, secure operating system? Don't want to be wedded to Windows? It could be time to take a look at Linux.

What is Linux?

Linux is an open source operating system (OS) that you can install on your PC for free and it has features, speed, stability and security to rival Windows and OS X. One of its most compelling features, however, is that not only is the OS free, but so are many of the programs you run on it. So, if your old PC won't make the transition to Windows 8 or you simply want to try something different, Linux could be the alternative you're looking for.

You don't have to be a computer scientist either. Linux once had a reputation in the non-tech world as the OS of choice for hard-core geeks, but the latest versions are suitable for almost anyone. You may have heard of Ubuntu; it's probably the best known user-friendly version of Linux around at the moment.

What you need to know about Linux

In layman's lingo, Linux is an operating system, but to be more accurate it's actually the core of the OS – the 'kernel' in geek speak. Operating systems that use the Linux kernel – like Ubuntu, Mint and Debian – are called distributions, or distros, and each distro commonly combines the Linux kernel with installation tools and device drivers for everything you attach to your computer. Some distros even include a bunch of ready-to-go programs to cover common activities like 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 on 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 about 300 public distributions currently available, varying from user-friendly, Windows-like environments to industry-specific tools that are only useful for specialised tasks.

Want the best of both worlds?

People thinking of making the switch to Linux usually want to know if they can still run Windows software. This is possible in some cases, using the open-source compatibility layer called Wine.

Wine essentially lets you run Windows programs within Linux, without having to actually install Windows. It doesn't run all Windows software, and programs running under Wine are 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 like 3D rendering software are less likely to run smoothly on Wine. You can check if your favourite Windows program is Wine-compatible on the Wine HQ database.

You can't always enjoy a free Linux

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.

Breathing new life into old computers

Got an old computer destined for the scrapheap (or preferably, your local council's e-waste recycling depot)? Some Linux distros are designed to run on older or low-spec computers for users who don't want to be forced into an upgrade. An example of this is Puppy Linux, which can give new life to an older PC.

When 'almost' isn't good enough

Switching to Linux may not be practical for everyone even with Wine installed. Many people find the free Linux-based Libre Office a good alternative to Microsoft Office, whereas others find the subtle variations in how programs work can cause problems. For example, particularly complicated Excel spreadsheets may have formatting issues when opened in alternative software. If you regularly use software that's only available on Windows or OS X, you may need to stick with those systems.

Gamers may find Linux a bit disappointing too. The list of Linux-friendly titles is currently limited but it is growing, and it may be just a matter of time before Linux versions are released alongside Windows and OS X games. The digital distribution platform Steam has a Linux version, and the company behind Steam has also launched a line of gaming PCs called Steam Machines with its own Linux OS. This kind of support could encourage developers to create or port Linux versions of their games.

And one further issue is that some hardware vendors aren't that focused on the Linux market, so even though your existing PC hardware and attached devices may function, you could find drivers are updated far less frequently, if at all. A 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 2012. 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).

Which distro should you choose?

Picking a suitable distro is your first step when switching to Linux. 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, the strength and support offered by its community (you may need their help), 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.

There is a full list of distributions at DistroWatch, but here are three of the most popular distros for new Linux users.

Ubuntu

For first-time Linux users, it doesn't get much better than Ubuntu. The look of the desktop might take some getting used to but everything just works, so you probably won't run into any major problems.

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. The centre 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, which we 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 traditional start menu. The straightforward installer gives you the option to install the OS alongside Windows – perfect if you aren't ready to fully commit.

Mint

If you have a basic knowledge of computing you'll find Mint to be one of the most complete out-of-the-box 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 Ubuntu, and you may find it difficult to get help if you encounter a problem. Mint is a community distro run by volunteers, so the support centre and forums assume the reader knows a thing or two about Linux. Nevertheless its ease of use for non-Linux users has improved significantly over the past 12 months.

Mageia

Mageia prides itself on its simplicity, but it's also more elegant than the other distros. 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 can run on fairly limited resources, making it suitable for use on an older PC.

Ready to install Linux?

If you like what you've read here and you're keen to give Linux a go, check out our tutorial on how to install Ubuntu.