Brief Guide to Starting with Linux

Posted on Wednesday, March 01, 2006 by Miguel Guhlin
Updated: 6/19/2006 for Ubuntu Dapper Drake
In a previous comment, Bud "The Teacher" Hunt (and I feel honored by your presence, Bud, I want you to know...) asks a simple question with a complicated answer -

How do you get started with Linux?
Before I try answering this question, I want you to know that I'm going to err on the side of brevity (ha!). There are tons of resources (look below for a short list of my favorites) out there for folks new to Linux. Some of my favorite resources for newbies (and I'm still one) include...
I also recommend that you make friends with someone who is a Linux nut. Hey, if you want to pay travel and expenses, I'll be happy to visit you! You might also read this account from a person who installed UbuntuLinux on her laptop, Solveig Haugland.
Reflecting on over a year's worth of experimentation, and at the risk of drawing the fire of fellow Linux enthusiasts (you can't fault them for their passion), I'm going to give you the shortlist of distributions (or flavors of Linux). So, 5 easy steps to Linux on YOUR Desktop/Laptop ....what would those steps be? Well, I might take it this way:
1) What type of computer are you going to install on? Typically, Macs are more difficult to install Linux onto and require more tweaking. I have also found that they don't support Flash, although that may have changed. If you are planning to install on a Windows computer, then the world is your oyster.
The type of computer you have plays into the next question. You'll want to get the "right" distribution of Linux. The word "distribution" is referred to popularly as "distro" but is in fact refers to a particularly developed kind of Linux. You can find an extensive list of Linux distros online at
Depending on your computer, Mac or PC, you have to find the Linux distro that will be the friendliest to your equipment. This question--fiercely debated among Linux enthusiasts--has been known to cause wars, so, since I'm a blogger, I welcome all comments <grin>.
2) Which Linux Distribution will you use? While there are a zillion to select from, my top recommended distro to use is Ubuntu or a derivative. Derivatives can include Kubuntu, Edubuntu, or Xubuntu. Both look a little different and if you click the links, you'll see screenshots. The main difference between the three, aside from looks, is that with Kubuntu (and other KDE-based Graphical User Interfaces (GUI)) you get tons of software pre-loaded...while this bewildering array of software is good since you'll every application under the sun, others prefer to take a more minimalist approach. The minimalists--using Ubuntu , Xubuntu, or Edubuntu--use a GNOME graphical user interface (Ubuntu and Edubuntu) or XFCE (Xubuntu), a really slim GUI that works great on older machines. I occasionally boot up to XFCE for fun just to get a different look or better performance, even on newer machines <smile>.
Once you've decided which "look" you like--because you can run software from available GUIs on Ubuntu, Xubuntu or Kubuntu--then you can ask the next question.
BTW, some of my other favorite Linux distros include Kanotix (great " live CD" that you can boot and run from just to "try" a KDE-based GUI with tons of apps...usually works very well with ALL PC machines. You might read this Newsforge Review), and SimplyMepis. To be honest, Ubuntu (or a derivative) is so hardware friendly that you could run their live CD as well.
3) Where can I download my Linux distribution of choice? You can download your Linux distro from any of the web site shown above, however, you may be unfamiliar with how to convert the 600-700 meg ISO file you download to a usable CD. To accomplish that, you will need a free utility like BurnCDCC on Windows or an equivalent on Mac, that takes your ISO file and makes it into a bootable CD-ROM.
4) How do I go about installing it on my Windows Computer? This is where it might get tricky for you. If you have a computer to dedicate--to experiment on--then you really won't have many problems. You just go ahead put the CD in, start your computer off the CD, then press ENTER and answer questions. HOWEVER, if you only have one computer, what you may need to do is divide (a.k.a. partition) your computer's hard drive into several sections to create a dual-boot PC. This is dangerous since you actually have to shrink the space occupied by Windows operating system, all your data files, etc. into a smaller section.
Now, before you get going with partitioning (next step), I would recommend you download another ISO of a special CD. This ISO is known as the System Rescue CD. A brief description:

SystemRescueCd is a linux system on a bootable CD-ROM for repairing your system and your data after a crash. It also aims to provide an easy way to carry out admin tasks on your computer, such as creating and editing the partitions of the hard disk. It contains many of system utilities (parted, partimage, fstools, ...) and basic ones (editors, Midnight Commander, network tools). It aims to be very easy to use: just boot from the CD-ROM, and you can do everything. The kernel of the system supports most important file systems (ext2/ext3, ReiserFS, XFS, JFS, VFAT, NTFS, ISO9660), and network ones (Samba and NFS). SystemRescueCd is based on the Gentoo Live CD.
One of the neat things about the System Rescue CD is that there are Mac and PC versions available. So, when I start out, I have 2 CDs. One is the System Rescue CD, and the other is the UbuntuLinux CD. Detailing what I do with the System Rescue CD is what I try to do below, but actually doing it is another matter. So, I'll have to walk through that with a podcast or something. Fortunately, there's an easy to read manual in Adobe PDF and page 16 discusses partition creation.
Creating a Dual-Boot PC
I would recommend backing up all your data then re-partitioning your computer's hard drive. It's easier than it sounds and if you've backed up your data, you can make mistakes without worry (I did a few times). I usually use a free program called QT_Parted (Linux) to partition the hard drive. Note that you can use a commercial Windows program known as Partition Magic to accomplish the same job.
I divide my hard drive (80 gigs) into several partitions; those include:
a) Windows space (32 gigs): Into this space, I will install the Windows OS and all my programs.
b) Linux space (32 gigs): Into this space, I will install Linux. I don't need 32 gigs for Linux...15 gigs does the job easily, but I like to do most of my sound editing in Linux, so...I have ample space left over.
c) Linux swap space (2 gigs): I forget the percentage for computing the size of a swap drive...basically, it's like virtual memory stored on your drive or a pagefile in Windows. I invite feedback on this if someone knows of a better way to explain it.
d) Data space (10 gigs): This is where I save my work. This allows me to access data (e.g. documents, email, whatever) regardless of what platform (Windows/Linux) I am using at the time. Another plus is that if I have to "wipe" my Windows (e.g. spyware/viruses invade) or Linux (e.g. new version of Linux comes out that I just have to have), I can install without losing my data and be up and going quickly.
Once you're done partitioning your hard drive, restart your computer.
Take out the System Rescue CD and then put in the UbuntuLinux CD.
While going through the installation, you go in and select the Linux space as the place in the installer (don't worry, it shows you a list under Manual guided partitioning during the Ubuntu install).
After that (and I need some screenshots to illustrate that, so I'll work on that), you should have a computer that will boot to both Windows and Linux. When you start up, you just choose which operating system you want to use.
5) What software should I load on my Ubuntu Linux machine? Obviously, key software applications will come preloaded. I like to add a few more.
There is a lot of neato mosquito software on Linux. While I use the command line (hey, that's how I learned...I still remember my first "apt-get install" last year), you can use a graphical program, Synaptic, to load software. You don't have to "download" software from a web site on Linux. It works differently than Windows and Mac. Instead of downloading the software from a web site, you run a built-in program (either apt-get or Synaptic) to select software from a list kept on web servers (known as a repositories).
BEFORE you can start downloading software, you need to make sure you have the right list of repositories. Fortunately, you can now use Automatix, an Ubuntu compatible-script that automates installation of many of the commonly used programs. I prefer it to following the instructions on Ubuntu's wiki and/or EasyUbuntu.
Automatix loads TONS of stuff on your computer and save you the trouble of installing stuff one-by-one. Here's a list. Be aware that it may also break your Ubuntu installation, but I have not personally found it to do so even once!

Software Titles:
List of Favorite Apps : These are easy to install...basically, just type in "sudo apt-get install k3b" or "sudo apt-get install nvu" at the command line. Note that some may already be installed, like OpenOffice 2 and THE GIMP. Please note that Automatix loads in many of my favorite apps. There are only a few that will have to be downloaded and installed.
You will also want to add MP3 support to Audacity, the free sound editor that many (including me) use for podcasts. Although I recommend you use OGG sound file format instead of MP3, there may be a legitimate need to export to MP3. As such, you'll want to follow these instructions:

sudo apt-get install libmp3lame
sudo apt-get install gstreamer0.8-lame lame liblame0

Then, go to Audacity and choose FILE:PREFERENCES:FILE FORMAT. Click on FIND LIBRARY and paste in this item: and then press ENTER. You're set to go! (note that you have to go through a similar process with Windows and Mac, so this isn't anything special to Linux <grin>).
Finally, I like to right-click on applications and add them to the panel. That makes it look like this:
external image ubuntudapper.png

Setting Up an FTP Server for Fast File Transfer

Sometimes, you need to get data off your Linux computer fast (or vice versa). So, you can set up an easy to use FTP server that will use the user/pwd you setup on your computer.

sudo apt-get install pure-ftpd
After it's installed (quick), you can START Pure-FTPd with this command at the terminal (or you can create a shortcut link on your panel):

sudo pure-ftpd &
You can STOP Pure-FTPd with this command at the terminal (or, again, create a shortcut):

sudo killall pure-ftpd
To connect to your FTP server, just run gFTP and point it to localhost. If on a different machine, just find out the IP address of the machine running Pure-FTPd and then type it into the FTP client.

Working with Images and Photos

There are a million ways to work with photos (including my all time favorite cross-platform tool, JAlbum, of course, but here are some recommendations...of course, they appear elsewhere but i'm focusing on Linux specific solutions such as Album:

An HTML photo album generator that supports themes. It takes directories of images and creates all the thumbnails and HTML that you need. It's fast, easy to use, and very powerful.
Download the Debian version online


To install a Debian package (filename extension of *.deb), you can use this command:

dpkg -i softwaretitle.deb


A quick note...sometimes, you encounter RPM installation packages. You can usually convert them to Debian then install them on Ubuntu. Follow these steps to accomplish that ( source entry here):
1) Always try apt-get first if you don't know the name of the package do apt-cache search [-whatever-] and it will find related files.
2) If you package isn't there try rpmseek it's a very useful website that has a lot of programs converted to .rpm or .deb
3) If you have an rpm file install it by doing this

alien -d myfile.rpm
this will then create a softwaretitle.deb file that you can use to install (using dpkg -i softwaretitle.deb)
4) If you have to compile from source (and I hope you don't have to) make sure you have the latest version of gcc, g++ autoconf automake etc and make sure all the dependancies of that package are met this is probably where your errors are coming from. and always always always read the readme.txt files or install.txt they can be very useful.
BTW, often when installing files on Linux, you may have run an installer with an "sh" extension. You can do this with:

sudo sh ./

What do I do if I'm using an OLDER Machine? Use Xubuntu

external image xubuntudapper.png Xubuntu Dapper Drake version

The aim of the Xubuntu community project is to provide a nice Ubuntu desktop experience (even on older hardware) by using Xfce4 as the desktop environment and GTK+ 2 applications wherever possible.
If you're loading UbuntuLinux on an older machine and it's crawling with the Gnome GUI, drop to the command line and type in the following:

sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop
This will get a light-weight Graphical User Interface that is reputed to be much lighter than Gnome/KDE. If you want to do this before you even install (you know it's going to drag in terms of speed), then follow the instructions at this site for installation.

Hope this helps! I'll add more to this entry as time goes by and would love follow-up questions!