An Introduction to Linux Operating Systems
Linux is a family of free and open source computer operating systems. They are most commonly used as workstations by programmers, to run website servers, or in 'embedded electronics' (basically anything from internet routers to robots). But they can also be used by regular computer users on a laptop or desktop machine, and are even available for mobile phones and tablets.
Although learning to use Linux may take a little time, as it is a bit different from popular operating systems like Windows, Mac OS-X and Android, there are several big advantages to making the switch to Linux.
The biggest advantage is the fact that it is free. The operating system is actually a significant part of the cost of buying a computer, so if you are looking for a cheap machine then Linux is definitely worth taking a look at. Although many big technology retailers do not stock computers with Linux operating systems installed it is not difficult to buy them over the internet or from the kind of local independent retailer which offers computer repairs and also sells machines (just ask them if you don't see anything on display, and they will probably make you a custom machine for a very low price). You can also install it on a computer which you already own (its great if you have an old machine with an outdated OS), and you can even use it on your current computer whilst still keeping your regular operating system! (see below for details of how to do this).
Because of the free and open source ethos of this operating system you will also find that there is a wide variety of software available for free, meaning that not only do you pay less for your initial purchase but you can also get lots of free software tools to do everything that you want or need.
Security is another major benefit of Linux operating systems. The way that they are built means that they are much more secure - much harder to hack into. The fact that this is a less popular operating system also means that there are fewer hackers working on malicious software to break into it. These are the same reasons why Apple is more secure and less prone to viruses and hacker attacks than Windows - but they go double for Linux. This means that there are very few recorded examples of Linux viruses, and none which have ever survived 'in the wild' (rather than in proof of concept demonstrations). Because of this, many users don't even feel the need to bother getting separate anti-virus software (meaning more savings as well as increased peace of mind for you!).
Linux is also a very flexible operating system, which is available in many different flavours for different types of user, and which can be customized much more than any of its more popular rivals. The different flavours which are available are called 'distributions'. Because it has been released under a permissive open source license, a wide range of independent developers are able to create their own versions of Linux to 'distribute'. Linux itself is actually based on another open source operating system called Unix - the same code base that the Apple Mac OS is built on.
And finally, if you have ever considered learning how to write code then Linux will definitely make your life a lot easier. It comes with a wide range of different languages already installed, and there are many more free open source programming tools available for this OS than there are for Windows or Mac - and many of those which are also available on other operating systems are better and easier to install and use on Linux.
You can even get a cheap micro-controller like the Raspberry Pi which runs a Linux operating system and learn about programming, electronics and even robotics, or get something like a Kano kit which aims to teach kids computer science with a simple kit to make and program your own mini-computer!
Linux Distribution List
There are so many different distributions out there that there is no way I can provide any kind of comprehensive list. Also, although I have included most of the more popular distributions, this is not meant to be a 'top list'. Instead I have tried to include a good range of different OS to be relevant to the widest possible range of different types of user and different use cases. I've excluded any distribution designed for web hosting servers or IT professionals, as I think its unlikely anyone wanting these would need to read an article like this to choose the right OS for their purposes. For each one I have included a brief description and a link for you to explore further if it takes your fancy.
Each of the main 'flavours' of Linux have themselves been modified by other developers and distributed as new operating systems. Where this is the case I have given the main distribution its own sub-heading, followed by a list of its children.
Debian is by far the most popular family of Linux distributions. The main Debian OS is very stable and user-friendly, making it a good choice for beginners who want to get their teeth stuck into learning the system without having to worry about annoying bugs and glitches. In addition to reliability, the developers behind Debian have focussed on making their OS work with a broad range of different hardware, and on ensuring that a wide range of free software is available for their users. You can get the main distribution of Debian here.
Mint: A relatively new player on the block, Mint has quickly grown into one of the most popular Linux operating systems. it is actually available in two editions - one based on Debian and the other on Ubuntu (see below), but I will only include it once in this list. It aims to do more 'out of the box' than the main Debian package, with a more customized, user-friendly and polished desktop experience. It is particular good for the multimedia codecs which it includes. Mint is a good choice for regular users (non-programmers) and is one of the more beginner friendly distributions.
TAILS: 'The Amnesic Incognito Live System', or TAILS for short, is a privacy oriented version of Debian which forces all connections to go through the TOR browser, making users completely anonymous (to learn more about TOR check out my hub on the exploring the DarkNet). If you are bothered by the degree to which the NSA and other 'big brother' organisations are spying on everyone, or you find the amount of that data multinational corporations collect about you a bit creepy and disturbing, then this may well be the perfect OS for you.
64 Studio: Designed for multimedia creatives, DJs and serious media fans this OS has a wide variety of tools for music and video editing or production available for free and already integrated into the system.
Ubuntu is actually built on top of Debian, meaning that they share many features and most Debian software packages will work on Ubuntu. It has many of its own distributions, however, so I've included it as a sub;heading. Ubuntu focusses on ease of use and the development of convenient user friendly features. It also aims to increase the range of available software by relaxing Debian's strict quality control review process, meaning that there is more cutting edge software available, and new software is often available on Ubuntu before Debian. Ubuntu is available for desktop computers, laptops, tablets and phones. You can find out more about the main Ubuntu distribution here.
Mythbuntu: By packaging together the Ubuntu operating system with the MythTV free and open source home theatre solution, Mythbuntu is able to offer an easy to install and highly customizable operating system for users to create their own media server, home theatre PC or set top box.
Lubuntu: Focussing on speed and efficiency this OS offers excellent energy efficiency and is able to work well even on cheap, less powerful machines.
Kubuntu: Apparently the 'friendliest' Linux system, Kubuntu aims to create a more familiar and user-friendly graphical user interface. It is marketed as an 'open source alternative to Windows', and Windows users will probably find this to be the most familiar of all the Linux distributions and one of the easiest to learn.
Edubuntu: This system is aimed at those involved in primary and secondary school educations, and makes a wide range of educational tools available for free to its users.
The Gentoo distribution aims to create a highly optimized system which is both very customizable and also high performance. The main distro is aimed at more confident users, but some of its variants are more user friendly. You can find the Gentoo website here.
Chromium OS: An open source operating system with a similar look and feel to Google's chrome web browser. This is primarily a web based operating system aimed at people who spend most of their computer time on the internet and don't need to a lot of software installed on the machine itself. Another lightweight version is Cr OS, which is excellent for less powerful netbook machines. Either of these is good for beginners and less confident users.
Gentoox: Fancy hacking your Xbox? Gentoox is Gentoo based operating system designed to be installed on Xbox games consoles.
Fedora has a strong focus on free software, whilst also making the latest cutting edge technologies available to its users. You can learn more about the Fedora Project here.
Qubes: A desktop OS designed for the security conscious.
Kororaa: A more beginner friendly version of Fedora.
Test Drive Linux by Booting from a Memory Stick
If you are thinking about giving Linux a try but don't want to take the risk of installing it one your computer, or buying a new machine with it already installed, when you don't know if you'll like it or be able to use it well, then have no fear! You can boot Linux from a CD or USB memory stick without installing it on your machine. This is perfect for taking it for a 'test drive' to see if you like it before making a more permanent commitment, and is also used by some people to have a portable operating system which they can use on any computer. This is called a 'live cd' or 'live stick' boot, and will leave no trace of the operating system or anything you have done while using it on the computer you boot onto. You can easily buy a CD or memory stick with the OS already on it, but that wouldn't really be in keeping with the free spirit of Linux so I would recommend downloading the necessary software and making your own - its not difficult. See how to create a bootable USB for Ubuntu, for example.
Did you know you can also run multiple operating systems on a single machine? This allows you to have Linux to play with, learn, explore, and take advantage of the multitude of free software packages, whilst still being able to use your old familiar programs and apps.
A Beginner's Guide to Using Ubuntu
Linux Command Line
Although many of the more beginner friendly versions of Linux have well developed graphical user interfaces which make using them much more like using one of the more popular operating systems, the real power of this software comes when you learn to use the command line. This means controlling your computer by writing text commands to get directly to what you want and make the machine do exactly what you tell it to, rather than navigating through menus and file explorers and using pre-defined functions.
Using this makes Linux more difficult to learn than other operating systems, but also much more flexible and powerful. Basically this is a form of computer programming, but rather than writing a whole piece of software you are usually just writing short and simple commands composed of just a few words. Taking the time to the command line is an excellent introduction to more advanced programming, and can turn anyone into a power user capable of getting much more out of a machine than you would with Windows or a Mac.