The best three Linux introductions for beginners

A friend of mine, who knows Windows well, recently told me that he was going to give Linux a try. On a recommendation of a friend, he was going to start with Sabayon Linux 4.0. Oh dear. It's not that Sabayon is a bad Linux distribution. It's, in fact, quite a good one. To me though it's a Linux pro's Linux instead of one that's well suited for a newbie.

From where I sit, a new Linux user needs a Linux that's close enough to the desktop they already know -- almost always Windows -- so they can quickly start using it. That way, they can clearly see the benefits of Linux, such as its stability, security, and speed, without being slowed down by the need to learn new ways of doing things.

The easiest way to start is to buy a PC that already has Linux installed on it. That way, all you have to do is turn it on. All the major vendors have at least one Linux PC, laptop, or netbook for sale these days.

My personal favorite is the Dell Mini 9 with Ubuntu Linux 8.04.1. Dell's $299 Ubuntu-powered netbook uses the 1.6GHz Intel Atom 270 Diamondville CPU.

This netbook comes with from 512MBs or 2GB of RAM. For storage, you can choose from 4, 8, or 164GB SSD (solid state drives). The display is 8.9-inches and its graphics are supported by the Diamondville's built-in 945GSE graphics.

Dell's Ubuntu-equipped PCs, including the Mini 9, also comes with a legal commercial DVD player and the ability to play MP3, WMA (Windows Media Audio), and WMV (Windows Media Video). In other words, Dell's Ubuntu computers are Windows-user friendly.

You don't have to buy Dell. There are other Linux netbooks where Windows users will feel somewhat at home. These include the ASUS Eee PC 1000 with Xandros Linux, which looks and feels a lot like Windows XP, and HP's forthcoming 2140 Mini-Note for business users. While the 2140's Linux, Novell SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) 10 SP2 isn't especially Windows user friendly, it is very Windows network friendly. This makes it an interesting choice for businesses considering desktop Linux.

Let's say you don't want to buy a Linux-equipped PC. How can you try Linux with no tears then? In this case, your next choice is to try Linux with a Live Linux CD or USB. These are Linux distributions that will boot and run from either a CD/DVD drive or a USB stick.

Live Linux won't run as fast on your PC as a native installation, but in every other way it will let you know what Linux will be like on your own computer. Most, but not all, distributions now support Live CDs and/or USB sticks. For example, the big three community Linux distributions, Fedora 10, openSUSE 11.1 and Ubuntu 8.10 all support Live CDs.

For a new user, though, I think your best choice would be Linux Mint 6 aka Felicia. Mint, which I'll write about in detail soon, is an Ubuntu-based Linux distribution that includes easy access to proprietary software. It also has an especially easy to use new software installer and updater.

Like Ubuntu with Wubi, Mint comes with a program, mint4win, that lets you set up Linux on your Windows PC pretty much just as if it were a Windows application. Its performance won't be good as if you had set it up in a good virtualization program such as VMware Workstation or Sun's VirtualBox, but it will better than running it from a CD. This gives you a chance to live with Linux with little effort and minimal changes to your Windows PC.

Finally, if you're ready to bite the bullet and install a Linux, besides the other distributions, I've mentioned, I'd like to tip my hat to MEPIS Linux 7. MEPIS is a Debian-based distro that I've been using for years. I agree with its creator, Warren Woodford, when he says, "SimplyMEPIS just works." It does.

You can try it in its Live CD version first, but if you're ready to give Linux a full try, you'll soon find yourself installing it for good. I'm currently using MEPIS 7 as my main desktop Linux on a Dell Inspiron 530s PC. This is powered by a 2.2GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800MHz front side bus, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB SATA drive, and an Integrated Intel 3100 Graphics Media Accelerator. MEPIS isn't just a good beginner Linux; it's a great Linux desktop distribution for any user.

So, there you go. You can buy a ready-to-go Linux system, try a Live Linux distro, or, just bite the bullet and run Mint, MEPIS, or another easy to use Linux. Whichever course you take, I think if you give desktop Linux a fair shot, you'll find yourself using Linux from that time on.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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