You should try Linux, even if you aren’t a nerd

You’re statistically unlikely to be a Linux user. According to Google Analytics, only 8.5% of my readers use a device running the operating system (OS), and even that figure is absurdly high. (If you’re one of the 8.5%, let me know in the comments!) The goal of this post, however, is to increase that number. I’m here to tell you why you should try Linux.

What’s Linux, you ask? Well, the answer takes a bit of explaining, so I buried it under some jokes. That’s content strategy, baby. The full answer is under the first subheading. The short answer is that it’s a family of operating systems, like Windows or macOS.

Even if you already know about Linux, my guess is you’ve never installed it, or any other OS. (If you’ve ever built your own computer, you’re the exception.) I would also guess that most people like it that way. They don’t want to spend time setting up a new computer. They bought the thing so they could use it, probably to access via their favourite browser. Or, you know, more likely to watch Netflix.

Admittedly, this blog is written with a nerdy reader in mind, by a nerdy writer. And Linux itself is definitely nerdy. But cool people use computers too, and I think they could get a lot out of the OS.

For one, it’s free, which is always the right price. It’s a great OS if you have security in mind. Depending on what you use your computer for, there might be a version designed specifically for users like you. It can help you breathe new life into an old PC. And hey, if nothing else, setting it up is a unique way to spend an afternoon.

Here’s why I think that, even if you’re not a computer geek, you should try Linux.

First, what is Linux?

As I said above, Linux is a family of operating systems. I like how defines the term OS: it “manages the communication between your software and your hardware”. No matter what device you use, it needs some sort of OS to function. You probably interact with two daily: Windows/macOS and Android/iOS. If you use Android, you’re already interacting with a system that was based on Linux.

What sets Linux apart from its Mac and Windows counterparts is that it is open-source software. You might be familiar with that concept if you use programs like the VLC media player, Libre Office, Audacity, or GIMP. You probably chose that software because it was free. Well, so is Linux.

There’s another key aspect of open-source software: anyone is free to change and redistribute it. And that has happened a lot with Linux.

That’s why I refer to it as a family. Strictly speaking, “Linux” only refers to the “kernel”, or core, of the OS. Developers come along and build on that code, adding other aspects of the experience like the user interface and the file management system. Then more developers come and build on that.

These groups of developers release their work as distributions, or “distros”, and there is an unimaginable amount of them. Fabio Loli has a handy chart that tracks them. It’s a cool graphic to look at and a great historical resource, but it’s probably only going to intimidate you as a newcomer to the OS. Even the creator of Linux, Linus Torvalds, has decried how many distros there are.

The good news is that you don’t need to know about 99% of them. And you’ll only ever need to use the one you pick. More on that in a moment.

Let’s get to why you should try Linux

There are many nerdy reasons to try Linux. That wealth of distros, I think, is one of them. If there is a task you need to do with a computer, even if it’s niche, chances are there is a distro tailored for your needs.

Since you’re not a nerd, you probably don’t need a bespoke computing environment. You just need one that allows you to do the stuff you want to be doing. And Windows or Mac already does that for you, so why switch?

For the average user, I think the OS’s innate security is the most compelling reason. It’s extremely hard for bad actors to infect your Linux machine with a virus.

That’s partly because the Linux userbase is much smaller than that of Windows or Mac. And because of the wealth of distros, not all Linux systems use the same architecture, which means it’s possible the virus won’t even work once the user downloads it. That’s way too much hassle for your run-of-the-mill computer virus maker. They’re probably going to keep targeting Windows instead.

But the way Linux works also boosts your security. Let’s imagine the worst-case scenario has played out. Someone sent you an infected file targeted at your distro, and you fell for it. The file wakes up and begins to do its dirty work. Its first move? It says, “Mother may I?”

A command-line window will pop up asking for your password. That should be a major red flag. Do not give it your password. Delete the file. You’re now safe.

Windows viruses are brutish and rude. Linux viruses are far more polite.

Your risk level won’t be zero, but it’ll be close. Use common sense, only install software from trusted sources, and find some Linux-specific anti-malware tools and you should be fine.

Reviving an old computer is another reason you should try Linux

If you’re still skeptical about the idea of running Linux on your main PC, then why not grab that old piece of junk laptop in your closet and try it on that? Another great reason you should try Linux is to breathe life into an old PC.

If you’re like me, you’re a responsible computer owner. That is, when you get a new one, you don’t just throw the old one in the garbage. You put it in a box and vow, “one day I will recycle this.” Then you find out the electronics recycling facility is out in the middle of nowhere, and so the old machine sits in your closet forever and accompanies you anytime you move.

If one of those machines is still functional, Linux can revive it.

Remember how there are like 28,000 distros? Several of them are “lightweight” or have lightweight versions, meaning they require little space on your hard drive and use relatively few resources. They’re meant to be run on ancient equipment.

Even middleweight or heavyweight distros will be fine to install on somewhat aged machines. I have a 4+ year old laptop that would have been described as “fine” or “decent” when I bought it on clearance way back when. Today, its age shows when I fire up the Windows side of its hard drive. But when I boot up the Linux side (I chose Ubuntu, a middleweight option), it runs like a dream. And that’s on a partition. If I had done a clean install, it would probably run even faster.

You’re not doing anything with that old computer anyway. Bust it out and give it a new lease on life.

Your programs will probably work

One hang-up you might have about trying Linux is compatibility. Will you really be able to do all the things you want to do on some wacky alternative OS?

The answer is probably yes. Unless you’re an Adobe user.

If you use your computer for a specific task, there is probably a Linux distro tailored for your needs. Just google “best Linux distro for [task]” and you’ll see what I mean.

For the sake of this article, I’m assuming you don’t need such a bespoke environment. You probably use your computer to do the following tasks, with the program in brackets:

  • Browse the web (Chrome, Firefox, or Safari)
  • Listen to music (Spotify)
  • Create documents (Word)
  • Occasional gaming (Steam)
  • Video chats (Zoom, Skype, or Teams)

If that sounds like you, good news: everything listed above but Word works on Linux. Steam even has its own distro. If you do have a Windows-exclusive program you’d like to use, there’s a handy piece of software called Wine that lets you run Windows software on non-Windows systems. Mac users may already be familiar with it.

That won’t help you with Word though, nor with Adobe Creative Cloud software. Those programs, unbelievably, in 2021, still rely on the Internet Explorer that’s embedded in Windows during their setup and sign-in processes. I know that sounds ludicrous, but Adobe admits to this in public. Guess no one at Adobe read my article about IE’s downfall.

For Word and the entire Office suite, you can use the in-browser versions if you need to use that program specifically for compatibility reasons. But if you’re just writing things like résumés or blog posts, free software like Libre Office will meet your needs just fine.

I’ll be honest, if no Creative Cloud is a deal-breaker for you, Linux isn’t going to work as your main OS. But if you have a secondary system, I still think it’s worth giving it a try.

Don’t get overwhelmed by choice: consider these options

If you’re still reading, I must have hooked you. Congratulations on joining Team Penguin. Now we have to navigate the sea of 453,000 distros.

How do you know which one to pick? Just find someone you can trust to research for you. Have them list an arbitrary number of options accompanied by short explanations.

It’s okay if you can’t think of anyone who would do that because I went ahead and did it for you. Most sources agree on your top options as a Linux newcomer, so I feel confident in my list.

Here are five beginner-friendly distros to consider.

  • Ubuntu: The big name. You may have heard of it before reading this article. The other four distros listed here are built on it. Its unique user-friendly interface sets it apart stylistically from macOS and Windows.
  • Pop!_OS: The one for gamers. This newer distro has quickly made a name for itself. It ships with support for Nvidia and AMD graphics cards so you don’t have to download drivers. Non-gamers will enjoy its Windows-like auto tiling feature. Its interface is like Ubuntu’s, but apparently a bit sleeker.
  • Mint: The popular one. Ubuntu is the most well-known distro, but Mint is the most popular on desktop. Its interface will be familiar to Windows users. Mint ships will all the drivers you need to get going, so you can just hit the ground running post-install.
  • elementary OS: The user-first distro. Mac users will feel at home with the design and style of elementary OS. This distro is all about user experience, with a focus on Linux newcomers. It comes with custom apps to handle your photos, calendar, music, and videos. It’s available on a pay-what-you-can basis, but you’re free to pay $0.
  • Zorin: The chameleon option. Zorin lets you alter your desktop to feel like Ubuntu, Windows, or macOS, whichever feels best to you. Its pitch is that you don’t have to learn anything to get started with it. It offers a Lite edition tailored to older computers, making it a great choice if you’re looking to get more mileage out of an ancient system.

All those distros have large communities, which helps make them good options for newcomers. You’ll be able to find answers to any question you have, just like you can do now with Windows or Mac. There are lots of how-to guides, helpful articles, FAQs, and support material to help you.

You should try Linux. Like, literally try it before installing

The best thing about those options is that there is no commitment required. Seriously.

All those distros can be booted off a disc or flash drive and run in a sort of trial mode so you can experience the OS without installing it. You can see how 8.5% of readers live without signing up to live that way yourself.

In fact, if you don’t have an old computer lying around and you aren’t comfortable creating a partition or wiping your current system, I recommend you just boot a distro off a USB stick and play around with it.

This might be the most compelling reason why you should try Linux. You can literally just try it. You have embraced the penguin and become the master of your own destiny. And if you don’t enjoy it, you can move on with your life. The penguin won’t mind.

To try it, you only have to do the following:

  1. Download a distro. I link to five above, but if there’s another that has your eye, that’s totally fine.
  2. Install it on a flash drive or CD/DVD. Tools like balenaEtcher and Rufus will help you do this for free. The former is the far easier option (it’s just three steps!), but if you went rogue and chose a distro not listed here, you might need the advanced functionality of Rufus.
  3. Boot up your PC from that flash drive or CD/DVD. You’ll likely have to change the boot order in your PC’s BIOS. That sounds scary, but all you have to do is google “how to change boot order on [insert your PC]” and you’ll find a guide, probably from the company that made the PC.

Don’t get scared by Steps 2 and 3. And don’t forget that there are thousands of step-by-step guides you can follow if you get stuck.

Stop reading and embrace the penguin

All the OSes I link to here are easy to install should you decide you want to do more than try them out. Just be sure to back up any files you have on the computer if you decide to do a clean install. Alternatively, you could partition your hard drive, but I found that to be a bit of a hassle and I wouldn’t recommend it.

Let me know if you do try out a Linux distro! I’d love to hear what you think.

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