Starting with GNU/Linux

GNU/Linux distributions (distros) are made by individuals and groups who start with a particular kernel; one or more GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces) - often choosing one as default; a set of programmes and associated dependencies and a package manager. The package manager makes it easy to track programmes and all the associated files so updates can be installed. It also manages installation of software maintained in various repositories. All these distributions are based on the work of kernel developers and programme developers who place their work into the "Commons" that the GNU/Linux community has created, continues to develop and draws on in an International collaboration which is its hallmark. Debian and Red Hat are the two major distributions: many others are based on these two; Arch, Gentoo and Slackware are other originals. Each developer (group) will base their distribution (distro) on an idea of a specialism (e.g. media production), user friendliness or a style of presentation of GNU/Linux.

A very useful article to read prior to trying a Linux distro looks at the common misunderstandings which might make the experience of using Linux somewhat frustrating for the Windows user.

Before Installing

(1) Which GNU/Linux distribution (distro) will you install? It seems best to see one in action first. Today, the choice is much easier as there are so many designed for easy installation by people new to GNU/Linux. This means you can install and test and if you don't like it, install another one instead. A good way to try is to use a "Live CD" (nowadays mostly live DVDs) which operates from the CD/DVD and RAM but does not load anything into the hard disc. You may even be able to load from a USB memory stick, so long as your BIOS is set up to load from USB. This is a good way to test that it works with all your hardware. If you like it, you can then install it from the desktop - click "install"! But see next decision before you do this!

(2) Dual Booting Are you installing your selected GNU/Linux distribution (distro) on a computer with an existing Operating System such as Windows and want to keep it? If yes, you will be able to do this and "dual boot". This means that when you switch on your machine, you can choose which OS you load from the menu. The default (wait a few seconds and it loads) will be the Linux distro, but this can be changed if desired. You will also be able to read many files and load them into Free software equivalent to their Windows counterparts.

Before you install, you MUST back up your files. The reason for this is that your installation must be on a different part of your hard disc to Windows. They must be completely separate, in a different partition. Backing up all your data, maybe years' worth of work, covers you against any accidental data loss. Today's installers are excellent, but no electronic process is foolproof - a power loss part way through might foul the installation completely - you may even select a menu action that installs over the whole disc.

We recommend also that you prune your Windows setup, uninstall unused programmes and defragment the disc - often this needs more than one go. Your display will show you where files are stored. Ideally you want them towards the beginning of your disc. This will optimise the space you will have for your distro - usually this is 5-10GB, although you may decide to allocate a larger amount to your distro, especially if you want to install lots of extra programs later!

(3) Single boot installation You can of course install on to a computer dedicated to your distro(s) or on to a separate hard disk in your existing computer. Note that GNU/Linux does not need the latest, fastest computers and will run happily on older models which you might have otherwise disposed of - there are a number of distros which will happily run on a machine which previously ran Windows 95 for example.


Your installation is almost entirely automatic. You will be prompted for partitioning. Take extreme care at this stage. If you tell it to use the whole disc, it will erase any Windows install beyond repair. It will recognise your existing setup and recommend the proportion of your disc to reformat ready for your distro. Accept its recommendations. If you are dual booting, do not choose the "use entire disk option". If you do this, it WILL ERASE any Windows install beyond repair. Don't mess with the manual bit unless you feel comfortable doing manual partitioning. If you do, then you might choose to create a root partition (/) a home partition (/home) as well as the swap.

User name and password You will be prompted for a user name and password and depending on the distro, you may be asked to set up a root user - which is similar to the Administrator account in Windows. Your user name can be your own first name. You MUST remember your password. For a home machine, with no sensitive data, this can be simple. However, it is accepted that passwords should be difficult to crack. Use numbers, lower case and CAPITALS to be safe. You will need this password (or the root password if a root account was created) to update your machine and download additional software. When you boot up, you will be prompted for your user name and for your password.

Once up and running, you can add other users who will need to set their own passwords.

Updates Your installation CD or dvd was made up some time before you installed it. GNU/Linux programmes and the kernel are constantly being updated for maximum effectiveness and security. This means you will need to update immediately. Your distro will prompt you and offer you all steps needed. It will also prompt you when further updates are available. (see Package managers)

Package managers The two main ones are "apt" for distributions based on Debian and "rpm" for distributions based on Fedora (Red Hat). Each package manager will have a GUI. These GUIs differ between themselves and between distributions. You should find the menu options straightforward and the initial setup may be automated. You will always work as the "root" user and your password will be needed to do this, even though you used it to log in at start up. This prevents anyone else from making changes that you don't want.

Internet connection Updating is automatic via your internet connection. Best practice is to connect via a router, which has a secure firewall. If you use a wireless connection to it and it works, then this will be fine. If not, it is possible that a wired connection will update the wireless setup - it will certainly assist you in solving this and any other hardware problems as well as provide immediate updates for the kernel, all software and packages.

Potential hardware problems Alas, not all manufacturers provide a Linux driver or the information needed to create a driver. (A driver makes sure your data gets to the hardware in a form which it can use). Todays distros divide into those which support only Linux coded drivers and those which support proprietary drivers supplied in closed format, i.e., in binary code, which is compiled into the kernel. Linux code is open source and can be modified and developed as needed. Binary code cannot and we cannot verify it if problems arise.

Note that CUPS and Gutenprint (the printing systems used) work with a huge range of printers. A full list can be seen in the printer install menu. (In Ubuntu this is in System>Administration>Printing. Click on New Printer and the prompts will allow you to install the necessary drivers). You can install many printers at the same time.

You can check lists of supported hardware (see Appendix 2).

Rescue disc This is less necessary these days since a Live CD can be used to resolve problems should they arise. However, your installation procedure should offer this option should you wish. Professionals often use a live distro like Knoppix, even with Windows, to save data and repair discs.

Available support GNU/Linux is a community effort and there are communities of developers and users around every distribution and software package. All distros and programmes have forums of various kinds. They carry faqs, archives of questions and the answers given and current questions and answers. The first port of call is the distro's own web site. There will be links to others where help can be found or tutorials. Failing that, Google your problem and you will find an answer. There are Linux Users Groups all round the world! Devon and Cornwall GNU/Linux Users group is at to join it. Once joined you can ask any question and you will get a friendly answer.

Appendix 1

The steps of an Ubuntu installation are as follows:

Boot from the install CD into a live session
1. Choose installation language
2. Set location
3. Choose keyboard layout
4. Set partitions
5. Migration information
6. Enter login information
7. Click "Install"

One sets the location during the installation and the time afterward. This will save many people from inadvertently undoing their timezone setting when setting the time.

The distro will, with your authorisation, import from Windows into your new installation all of your desktop background, web browser bookmarks, and your personal folders (e.g., My Documents, etc.). It will do this for as many accounts as you authorise. For each account, you will simply need to enter the login information for that user. The completed form is shown in next url:

The steps were taken from easy ubuntu linux (and the 7.04 release) which gives a thorough account of many things Linux and all things Ubuntu. It still works for the latest release, which is Ubuntu 20.10 though a previous edition, 20.04 will have longer term support.

After installation, Ubuntu (and most other distros) also offers an automatic updating feature. With root's permission (you with password), the system will find, retrieve, install, and configure software updates for you automatically.

working with GNU/Linux

I have a further file giving some tips based on things I needed to do that I needed to research to find the right way to do them. Here is where the huge resources provided by the GNU/Linux community become apparent. Distro web sites, with their wikis and forums, plus magazine and other web sites also with forums, will give the answer to ANY question - most likely already in the archives. Search these first - or just google for the problem you have or some key words specifying what you want to do. It is usually helpful to specify the distro you are using: so e.g. "play dvds in Fedora 11" or "export file in Ubuntu 20.10" or "save youtube video in Open Suse 11".

Appendix 2 Some resources for newcomers to GNU/Linux

Links for beginners

free software not just "open source".

getgnulinux Nice, clear and straightforward - explained simply
linux faq covers many common questions and misunderstandings about GNU/Linux
linux basics tutorials - what it says: an excellent preread (now in arhive) getting started with Linux
compare distros here plus pretty well everything for the beginner. An excellent read if you don't mind it looking like a blog.
Linux for absolute beginners (page is 16 years old)
best linux distributions
linuxlinks good intro: Linux Distribution Guide and much more
linux-tutorial “The place where you learn Linux” step by step from the beginning.
Software: a pretty good list of software alternatives in Linux can be found here.

Distributions sites

official site for ubuntu documentation
psychocats Ubuntu Linux Resources - quite splendid
installing Debian

Linux Mint is a derivative of Ubuntu, and aims to be even easier for the new user, used to Windows. It allows automatic dvd playing, without having to install the decryption codecs

Puppy Linux is a small (100MB) version of Linux, designed to run in RAM so it runs "blindingly fast" on old machines, plays dvds without setting up, and is very fiendly for the new user.

Damn Small Linux is even smaller at 50MB and very verstile (it can even run in a 486 with 16MB RAM!

linux questions is the place for over 200 Linux distribution downloads


Linux Hardware Compatibility HOWTO
Hardware supported in Ubuntu (and many other distros)

GNU/Linux Users Groups

There are Users Groups all around the world. For the UK you can start with UK Linux Users Group.

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