Do you like the Cub Linux operating system?

8 tips for Linux beginners - before you start the installation

The wide range of Linux distributions to choose from can be confusing. They are also often available with multiple desktop environments. But these are just the surfaces.

Anyone looking for a Linux distribution based on the interface will quickly run into problems during installation. Or get annoyed again and again - for example because he never has the latest version of his favorite application on his computer.

In this post we ask you eight questions that you should answer before installing in order to avoid technical problems and possibly a new installation.

Desktop environment is not the first choice

The desktop environment determines what you see on the screen. Is there a panel or a dock? Does it let the background shine through? Does the window manager position the button for closing on the top left or right? What can be seen on the desktop? Your files? The time of day? The CPU usage?

Too many questions at once? The good news: You don't have to commit yourself. You can adapt a desktop environment at any time and even completely replace it - without having to change the distro.

Colleague J├╝rgen Vielmeier has already presented two Linux distributions with their standard interfaces: Deepin Linux and Voyager OS.

The common desktop environments that we believe are interesting for beginners:

The desktop environments not only determine the appearance, but also include a number of preinstalled applications. But you are not committed to that either. You can always uninstall them and add new ones as you wish.

Strictly speaking, Linux is just the technical substructure. The individual distributions differ in the composition of the kernel and the most important system programs. With the choice of the distribution you are setting the course that you can no longer easily change afterwards. Often not even at all. Then only a new installation will help.

Tip 1

Most Linux distributions are offered in combination with several desktop environments. First choose the distribution that meets your needs, and then choose the desktop environment that you like best.

Weighing security against being up to date

Windows updates usually appear on a fixed day for all devices. This is already different with Android. Every smartphone manufacturer updates the mobile operating system according to their own schedule.

This is also not the same for Linux. When a new version of the kernel or an app is available, each distribution decides how quickly the update gets to the user's computer. The providers choose between security and timeliness. Both are not possible together.

The publishers of a Linux distribution first test whether this update can lead to problems. If this happens quickly, you have a fairly up-to-date system. From time to time, however, they also overlook inconsistencies in the system. If stability is important to you, you should choose a distribution whose publisher will only offer an update if they have tested it extensively beforehand.

Incidentally, this does not only apply to the individual applications, but also to the distributions themselves. In the case of a rolling release, the publishers import the updates continuously. Most distributions, however, offer a major upgrade once or twice a year. Some even release a version with Long Term Support (LTS) every few years. It is then supplied with updates over several years without the need for an upgrade or reinstallation.

Debian is generally considered to be very stable. Ubuntu offers a good compromise between being up-to-date and security. Linux Mint, which is based on Ubuntu, also benefits from this. Arch Linux is very popular as a rolling release, but I would not recommend it to beginners - but Manjaro, which is based on Arch, but is very user-friendly. Other popular Linux distributions are Fedora, Zorin OS, OpenSuse, Deepin, and Elementary.

Tip 2

With the choice of Linux distribution you determine how updates get to your computer - quickly or extensively tested. With that you decide whether you want more topicality or more security. Remember that as a Linux beginner you can quickly be overwhelmed with error messages.

Linux for old computers, Linux for new computers

Before you decide on a distribution, you should clarify a few technical questions. It used to be said that Linux also runs on old computers. That only applies to a limited extent.

Now you have to decide: only 32-bit versions run on old computers. Many new distributions are only available in the 64-bit version. So not every distribution is suitable for every computer.

If you want to install Linux on a current computer, there is one more point to consider. On new hardware you will find a UEFI instead of a BIOS by default. Then Secure Boot is usually activated - especially if Windows was previously on the computer.

This is not a problem for Linux distributions based on Debian or Ubuntu. However, if you want to install Arch-based systems like Manjaro, you have to disable Secure Boot. This does not make your system unsafe - even if the name suggests it.

Tip 3

If you have a fairly old computer, look for a particularly slim Linux distribution that is still available in a 32-bit version. If you have a fairly new computer, consider whether you are ready to turn off Secure Boot.

Dual boot with Windows or Linux alone?

If there should be as few problems as possible during the installation, choose the standard installation. Linux then formats your hard drive and partitions it so that each area has enough space. (A partition divides your hard drive or SSD into several areas. The boot manager is in one, the operating system on another, and your data on another.) There are then no extra requests.

In this case, a pre-installed Windows will also be deleted. However, if you cannot do without it because you need special programs, you can install Linux parallel to Windows. When you switch on the computer, a selection of the installed systems appears, between which you can choose.

This is done by the boot manager on the boot partition. Or maybe not. Since both operating systems have access to it, it can happen that a necessary setting is overwritten. The help forums are full of them. In addition, you have to deviate from the standard way during the installation and you may be confronted with unexpected questions again.

I therefore advise against Linux beginners. This is too much new territory for the first big step. Rather install Linux on a test computer and dare to set up a dual-boot system if you feel safe enough.

Personally, I've banned Windows entirely from the laptop. For emergencies I still have an old clamshell computer on which Windows 10 is waiting for the next update. I will then probably have to wait hours before I can use it again after switching it on.

Tip 4

A dual boot system with Linux and Windows on the computer is useful. But the installation can lead to problems. These can also occur at a later date. Decide beforehand whether you want to take this risk.

Surprise! Unexpected questions during installation

The installer will ask you a few questions that you should be clear about beforehand. At such points I have already started researching wildly - or canceled the installation.

Does your computer have an Nvidia graphics card? Then you need a special driver. Research beforehand how you have to proceed and have these instructions at hand. Laptops where the Intel or AMD processor has its own graphics unit are not affected. So with most notebooks there shouldn't be any problems.

The installation program will ask you for the file system: ext2, ext3, ext4 or others. Just follow the default or choose ext4. You won't notice the difference.

Finally, you have to decide whether you want to encrypt the hard drive completely. I did not do that. Later in the installation process I was asked if I would like to encrypt the home directory in which my personal data is located. That was the right choice for me.

Tip 5

Regardless of the distribution, questions arise during the installation that might surprise you. Instead of canceling the installation, consider beforehand whether your graphics card needs a driver, which file system you are using and whether you want to encrypt your data or your system.

Keep data separate from the operating system

Even if the installation of Linux succeeds without problems, new problems can arise during operation - due to a failed update, for example. A new installation can then be a quick and easy solution. Maybe you just want to try a different Linux distribution.

This reinstallation will be easier if you keep your personal data separate from the operating system and applications right from the start.

Your data are always in the directory / home. If you put this on its own partition during the first installation, you can install Linux again and again on the partition provided for it without your data being overwritten. Then you include the home directory. You already have access to your data again.

That seems to contradict what I wrote above: When partitioning, follow the installation suggestion. But this mainly affects all other partitions. The installation program will later explicitly ask you elsewhere whether you / home want to put it on its own partition.

After a new installation you still have to install the apps you want and configure them. But if you are really forced to take this radical step, you will have it done in less than 30 minutes.

Tip 6

When installing, put your personal data on a separate partition. It makes a new installation easier for you.

Where do you get your apps from

When the operating system is installed, you still have to add applications. The distribution offers you access to many programs via an app store called a software manager. But you can also integrate alternative repositories, i.e. additional sources.

This is helpful if you want to install an application that a distribution does not offer. Or if you want a more recent version (see tip 2 above). The integration of external repositories can also lead to problems.

In Linux, an application is not a self-contained program code. Rather, it accesses existing packages that are also used by other applications. To avoid conflicts, the distributions test the compatibility. The system cannot do this for external repositories that you integrate.

But there is a new approach: Snaps and Flatpaks are two ways of installing programs that do not have these dependencies on existing packages, but rather bring everything they need with them. This prevents problems, but inflates the system a little and also slows it down a little. Whether these points really matter is a matter of controversy. Flatpaks and snaps are certainly a good choice for beginners.

Tip 7

You can install, try out and uninstall applications - but this also wrecks your system. It is better to try everything out beforehand on a test computer and keep your productive system as constant as possible.

Alternative: hardware with pre-installed Linux

Is the hurdle still too high? Or are you simply lacking time and inclination? You can also buy hardware that has Linux pre-installed.

Dell and Lenovo offer laptops with Ubuntu, Lenovo also with Fedora. These are actually offers for companies, i.e. high-quality devices. Ubuntu and Fedora are easy to use.

There are also offers from Linux enthusiasts like Tuxedo, who deliver good, but not the best, hardware with a Linux distribution. Tuxedo has tailored them to this hardware down to the last detail. You may also pay less here.

Speaking of hardware. If you still want to try it yourself: Lenovo Thinkpads of the X or T series are a good choice - for example the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon, which I was able to test some time ago. You get a lot of support from the Linux community. Not only are there fewer problems. If you look for a solution on the internet, you will find it easier. What you have to look out for when buying a notebook, I wrote in another post.

Tip 8

If you don't feel comfortable installing it, buy a computer with pre-installed Linux. You can then familiarize yourself with the operating system and perhaps later dare to reinstall another distribution.

Conclusion

In my experience, many Linux installations lead to an abortion or to a later reinstallation because the right questions were not asked at the beginning.

We do not provide installation instructions here. There are enough of them on the internet. In addition, we cannot do this for all distributions and all hardware. But the eight questions we asked above are relevant for everyone who wants to install Linux - especially if you have little experience with it.

When you have decided on a distribution, download it as a live version onto a USB stick. Then you can try out this Linux version on a Windows computer. From there you also start the installation.

You should have another computer within reach so that you can look for help on the Internet. Typing the full text of the error message into a search engine is the best way to go. This can also be a tablet or a smartphone.

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Disclaimer: I am not a Linux professional. I had Linux on my computers for a few years. After that I used Windows 8 and Windows 10 for a few years because I bought a notebook with the Samsung Ativ Book 9 that could be bricked by a Linux installation. I just lacked the courage.

Linux Mint Cinnamon has recently been running on my current Lenovo Thinkpakd T495s. It's a safe choice to get started. I'm also currently learning a lot about Linux again and plan to switch to Manjaro soon as the next step.

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