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Join Date: Jun 2010
Why You SHOULD Try Linux On Your Netbook... - 07-17-2010, 06:06 PM
After having spent a couple of months trying Linux on a netbook, I figured I'd write a little article on why you should try Linux on your netbook and how to go about doing it. I know I could have used an article like this when I got started, so I hope this is useful to you.
First let me give you a brief bit of a run down on Linux. Linux is a project that was started back in the early 90s by a Finnish student named Linus Trovalds. As the story goes, he was learning how to use a student version of Unix, but the way Unix made their student software available for use, meant that students had to go to the library to use the computer they had available. Linus didn't care to make the trip and he didn't like some of the aspects of the software, so he proposed to some schoolmates to write their own version of the software that would not be proprietary and that they could all contribute to. He must have hit a nerve because soon he got replies from fellow students and things snow balled form there. The funny thing is that he never thought the project would really get anywhere beyond an interesting school project.
Fast forward two decades and literally thousands of volunteer developers later and Linux continues to expand. It is now the dominant server software in the world (literally pushing Microsoft aside), It is very quickly becoming the dominant software for smart phones and tablet computers, it is already the main software for ebook readers, it is the software of choice for almost all of the world's super-computers, and it is slowly but steadily making inroads into the pc market.
For years Linux has been more of a developer's hobby, and while powerful from a technical management point of view (which in part accounts for it's popularity in server management), it was always somewhat lacking at a desktop user level. There were many reasons for this and I won't bore you with them. Starting about four to five years ago or so, however, a HUGE push to make Linux not just more user friendly for desktop users, but also making it distributions better integrated and ready to run right out of the box, began. The main driving forces behind this move to make Linux more user friendly for the average desktop user (the Linux Newbie) have been Canonical, the organization behind the development of Linux biggest distribution, Ubuntu, as well as Novell (the developers of OpenSusse) and Red Hat (the developers of Red Hat Linux and Fedora).
Today there are many distributions that are in many ways the equal or superior of other mature operating systems such as Windows 7 or Mac OS. At the same time, Linux still retains it's powerful developer community and is in constant state of development. The real genius of Linux is its approach to the desktop environment.
You see all operating systems consist of a core (kernel) operating system, which is overlayed with a graphical user interface. This GUI is most cases is a modified version of X-windows (this is what Mac, W7 and most Linux distributions use) which includes a windows manager, a desktop manager, a file manager and other components. The combined total gives you the final operating system (Windows, Mac OS or most Linux Distros). Where Microsoft and Apple give you a prepackaged environment that they control and expect you to adapt to, Linux is all about choice and finding a combination that best works for you and your hardware. Think of it like Lego.
Windows and Mac OS are like a toy car that you buy off the shelf and play with. Linux is like the same toy car made out of Lego You can play with it as it comes or you can remove and modify components (or the whole thing) and tailor it to your liking. To illustrate the point, Linux comes with many different choices of window managers, desktop environments, file managers, package managers (packages are what Linux calls programs), etc. The idea is to be able to tailor a distribution to exactly what you need and like. The act of combining the pieces of a distribution to work together is known as compiling.
Early on even getting Linux to work as a desktop distribution required compiling everything from scratch (and from code). Today there are modular graphical tools that allow you to do this, as well as environments specifically designed to allow for this type of assembly. That said, much of the work is already done for you through the release of ready made distributions. Being a developer pastime, many developers and users alike find that existing distributions don't quite meet their needs or demands. As a result they compile their own and release them once they are stable for others to download and use right out of the box. There are literally hundreds of distributions and they target any number of circumstances. You'll find everything from full fledged operating systems with enough bells and whistles to give W7 and Mac OS a run for their money; to minimalist Operating systems that are designed for specific work and can run from a usb and on ram only; to operating systems designed to run on netbooks or other computer types, and everything in between. Most Linux distros (though not all) are derivatives of major stable distributions (such as Ubuntu, Debian, Slackware, Fedora, Mandriva, etc.), which take that distro's kernel and combine different desktop environments and other major components, then try to reconfigure things and add artwork to reflect the developer's intended purpose. Some distributions are very similar in look and feel to the major commercial OSs, while others are very unique (though no less useful or powerful). The biggest thing going for Linux desktop distros is that the overwhelming majority of them are FREE, so sampling any number of them to find one that works for you is easy and fun. It helps that most current Linux distros allow you to download a compressed ISO file that contains the operating system, and install it onto either a Live CD/DVD or a Live USB (not all allow for a Live USB though). You can then run that Live medium on your existing computer and run the new operating system right from the CD/DVD/USB, without having to install anything to your machine or alter your existing system in any way. The same live CD/DVD/USB includes installation Utilities and hard disk partitioning utilities, which allow you to install as you wish and even install more than one operating system on the same computer. For example, I installed Linux Mint 9 on one computer side by side with the already existing installation of Windows XP. When you boot, you simply get a screen that gives you a choice of which operating system you wish to run. Heck if both are installed, you can even run the alternate OS with an emulator from within Linux if you want to. Good stuff.
The biggest plus about Linux Distros (besides being free that is) is that nothing gets released before it has been peer reviewed through beta and alpha stages, so everything, from Operating systems to the thousands of programs available, is stable (unless you intentionally want to test something in beta or alpha stage that is). In other words, you'll be downloading fully developed and stable software. Because of the manner in which software is developed and tested, most of it tends to be free of unnecessary bloat and tends to be incredibly well written and light. As a result your Linux distros can run from a bit over 50MB for the minimalist super light distros, to about 3-4GB for the fully installed full featured distros. Compare that to Mac OS which is about 10-12 GBs in size or windows which is a bit over 20GB. This means that Linux by and large can run very well with all of it's features on older systems with lower specd hardware (and if a particular distro doesn't run as efficiently as you would like, there is always another one that will). Linux is famous for giving old computers a new lease on life or by turning lower specd modern computers (such as netbooks) into full-fledged computers by running modern, powerful and up to date software. Again, VERY NICE!
The manner of development coupled with the structure used to authorize the download and installation of software or modify the system also makes Linux extremely secure from malware (the fact that most malware developers don't tend to target Linux also helps). As a result the bulk of Linux users usually don't run any sort of anti-malware software, and their systems remain light, clean and functional.
Even with a fully developed operating system you are still able to modify it to tastes. For example you can install specific software that you like, or modify the look and feel of your desktop environment with colors, textures, resolution, and even composite behaviors and special effects (this can be really cool if you have hardware that can handle the most intensive effects). Just keep on mind that depending on the distro, you might ave to install (or not) drivers for some hardware or for peripherals. Make sure to keep an Ethernet line available so you can go on-line to download drivers and access each distribution's online forum's for help resolving any issues you might have. As a general rule, the biggest distributions come preloaded with the most stuff needed for everything to work out of the box, and have the biggest communities. Depending on the target audience (developers or end users) different communities' cultures will have different cultures (the end user ones tend to be a lot friendlier, but generally have less technical knowledge).
Now if you've made it this far we can start with recommendations. First determine the type of computer you wish to test on. Personally I recommend testing on a desktop with at least one of the later 32bit Pentium processors, a graphics card (nothing fancy is necessary), and at least 1gb (but preferably 2gb) of RAM. Linux will run on less (sometimes much less), but a set up like this will allow you to test drive a very wide range of distributions. Once you've tested you can then choose what is best for your specific hardware and personal needs.
For a beginner, I strongly recommend starting with a major stable distribution, and preferably with one that works most things out of the box and that shares a certain similarity with Windows (since most people are familiar with windows). At this point in time I would recommend trying out:
PCLinuxOS 2010 : (Built Penguin Tough » PCLinuxOS). I would start by downloading and testing the principal release for this distribution which is the KDE desktop version. This is a great distro which looks a lot like Windows 7 but includes many features borrowed from Mac OS, and includes a beautifully integrated graphical desktop and features. For example, it comes with tons of desktop widgets available, which you only have to grab and drop where you want them to appear on your desktop. As of this writing, PCLOS is only available for 32 bit systems.
For something much more flexible but a bit more similar to Mac OS, I would strongly recommend
Linux Mint 9: (Main Page - Linux Mint). The standard desktop here is the Gnome desktop. It is lighter and far more flexible than KDE and also uses power better, but it doesn't have as much eye candy as KDE. I generally prefer it to other desktop environments and I find that no other distribution has done the Gnome desktop as nicely as LM9 has. LM9 is available for both 32 and 64 bit systems.
Both of these recommended distributions are based on major distributions (PCLOS is based on Mandriva and LM9 is based on Ubuntu). Both are very solid, very friendly for people coming over from commercial operating systems, and easy to use. They also have big and friendly communities and are set up to work most things right out of the box. Personally I find that LM9 works with more stuff out of the box than PCLOS, but don't let that stop you from trying. I recommend starting with either one, or before trying other distros that require a bit more familiarity with Linux peculiarities and/or user input. I'm sure others would recommend other good distros for beginners, such as Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSusse and others, but personally I find that the two above, as of this writing, are the most user friendly for beginners out of the current crop. Don't take it to mean that because they are user friendly that they are any less powerful though.
If either one's desktop environment is too much for your hardware to handle, you can try versions of either one with other, lighter, desktop environments, such as their XFCE or LXDE versions. As a general rule, the lighter the desktop environment is the less graphical configuration or composite effects are available and the less software I preloaded. With few exceptions (mainly Enlightenment), the lighter a desktop environment is the better it runs on lower specd systems such as older computers.
Don't forget that for any operating system, no matter how similar to to a commercial OS it might be, there is a learning curve involved. This is especially true of the software available and how to download it Generally software is downloaded from repositories using a package manager included with your distro. By and large you will not find commercial software in repositories, but will find thousands of free open source equivalents. Most of these are as powerful as the popular commercial ones, but require that you familiarize yourself with them. Take some time to do this and you'll be a really happy Linux user.
IMHO the best place to find out about what distros are out there, read reviews on them, and download the latest ISOs to try them out, is a website called Distrowatch:
DistroWatch.com: Put the fun back into computing. Use Linux, BSD.
once downloaded, you will need a program to make Live CDs, Live DVDs or Live USBs. To make any of the three you will have to copy a live IMAGE of the ISO file you want, not a copy of the file itself.
For live CDs, download and install a windows program called ISO Recorder:
ISO Recorder v 2
select the version that best applies to you (I use V2). Keep in mind that once installed you will not find ISO recorder listed as a program in your start menu. Instead, just right click on the ISO file and select the first choice which should be “Copy Image to CD”. Then just follow the instructions.
For making Live DVDs (for the biggest distros or those that come with additional content and sessions) download and use a windows program called ImgBurn:
The Official ImgBurn Website
this one WILL install as a program you can see in your start menu and will allow you to burn live DVDs. Again you want to burn an IMAGE of the ISO, not a copy of it.
Lastly for making Like USBs you will need a windows program called Unetbootin:
UNetbootin - Homepage and Downloads
Not all distros support Live USBs but I strongly advice people to try this method. Just plug in a blank or reformatted (Fat32) 2-4GB usb thumb drive (I prefer 4gb); start up the program; check the box that says Image; find your ISO file in your hard drive, and hit OK. Unetbootin will then create an image of the ISO together with the files needed to run it in your USB. The next time you need to create a live USB of some other distro, just plug your usb into a running session of windows,, find the usb in your My Computer folder, right click on the USB drive, and select the format option. When the format screen comes up, just make sure that it is set to Fat32 and let her rip. The usb will be reformatted and will come out blank. You can no reload it with another live image of some other distro.
The reason I prefer live USBs is because the loaded OS runs from flash memory as opposed from the spinning optical medium of a live CD or DVD. As a result it is drastically faster and can be experienced pretty much as it would perform when installed in your computer. You will get the same functionality from a live CD, but generally performance will be a bit slower. This is a reflection of the medium the data is being read from and is not a reflection on the distribution's actual performance. If the distribution allows it, consider running it from a live USB. Sometimes you'll find that these just don't work. In my experience, when that happens, making a live CD/DVD usually produces a medium that works. Every now and then you'll get a distro that won't recognize your hardware and refuses to boot. Often this is an issue caused by the display. To get around it, the majority of the time selecting safe mode or Vesa from the boot options, allows you to load the OS and test it. If you experience this, do visit the community for that OS and find out how to alter the resolution settings should you want to install this OS. Make sure to do this before you do any installing.
Lastly downloading ISOs is tedious. ISO files are generally BIG. 400MB to 700MB+ is not uncommon (with most falling in the high 500s to low 600s). Most distros have mirrors that allow for direct download of the ISOs. That said, even with a high speed internet connection, such downloads can take the better part of an hour or more (do not attempt to download an ISO without a fast internet connection). You can either download like this or you can download from a Torrent client. Most big distros offer a torrent option. The benefit of a torrent is that you see from many different sources, so download times are drastically faster (on average half to a third of the time). My favorite windows based torrent client is called µTorrent.
You can download µTorrent for windows here:
µTorrent - a (very) tiny BitTorrent client
Just make sure that it is running (you'll see it in you task bar), and download your ISOs torrent. It will launch µTorrent automatically.
I hope this is helpful and that it allows you to test Linux, and hopefully find a distro that best works for you. I've designed the above instructions to work with windows, since that is what most people have and what they are most familiar with. Many of these programs are also available in Mac or Linux variants or there are alternatives for them in either platform.
As I said, the above is based on my experiences, and I'm sure I'm wrong on several points, so feel free to correct anything that is innaccurate or make recommendations of your own.
Now go download some ISOs, test some distros, and come back and report your experiences.
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