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Linux For Absolute Beginners: 3 Easy Ways to Test-Drive Linux

Linux is Like Tortilla Chips

  • April 13, 2009
  • By Carla Schroder

The computing marketplace is nearly unique in its lack of customer choice. In most other industries we have many good choices. If you don't like your Ford, you can buy a Toyota, Saab, Chevrolet, Audi, Dodge, or any of several other good brands. If you don't like Pepsi you can try Coke, Shasta, Western Family, RC. Ever notice how particular some people are about pens? There are dozens, if not hundreds of different styles and brands of pens. Milk comes from cows that are all pretty much the same, but you still have a choice of brands. Ever count how many different brands of tortilla chips are on your store's shelves?

And yet with computers our options are deliberately restricted, especially for desktop users. Microsoft wants you to believe that their products are all you should ever have, and their lock on the marketplace is an ongoing disaster of epic proportions. Their incurably defective and impossible-to-secure products are not your fault, though they try very hard to make you believe that when something goes wrong, it is your fault.

Computer Choices

So what else is there? Apple has been around as long as Microsoft, and are known for making elegant, stylish, user-friendly computers and other products. They are also known for commanding premium price tags, though the price differential from a comparable PC running Microsoft Windows and equivalent software isn't very much. But Apple is just as restrictive and customer-hostile as Microsoft; they're just smaller and prettier.

There is a third option, and that is the one that I prefer-- nice friendly, stout Linux desktop systems. Actually there are quite a number of computer operating systems, but Windows, Apple OS X, and Linux are the top three. Later on in this series we'll talk about some of the pros and cons, but since you're here reading this I'm assuming you're ready to give Linux a test drive, and you want to know how to do it without making a mess. Linux is amazingly flexible and friendly, and offers several easy ways to give it try without horking your existing system.

Linux is Like Tortilla Chips

The Linux world is very large, and there are hundreds of different Linux distributions. You can think of these as different brands of Linux, just like there are different brands of tortilla chips. In fact the tortilla chip is a perfect comparison, because the basic chip is always the same: it is made of corn. Every brand has its own variation on this basic chip: more salt, less salt, more grease, less grease, more crispy, less crispy, thicker, thinner, different shapes, white, blue, yellow corn, different flavorings. Underneath all Linuxes are pretty much the same; the differences are things like bundled software, user interfaces, configuration tools, and customized functionality.

It runs on everything from tiny embedded devices like wristwatches, robots, and phones, to giant mainframes and clusters. Linux rules the datacenter. Google and Amazon are giant Linux clusters. Pixar Animation Studio uses a Linux-based render farm. The world's top 500 supercomputers are nearly all Linux machines-- Windows and Mac represent 1.2%; Linux owns 87.8%.

So Linux is very capable and flexible, and it makes a dandy desktop PC. It is powerful, stable, runs fine on modest hardware, and is immune to the mind-boggling tide of Windows malware that is washing over the planet.

The current popular general-use Linux distributions are Ubuntu, Fedora, openSUSE, Linux Mint, Debian, Mandriva, and PCLinuxOS. Distrowatch.com is the motherlode of distribution information.

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