Lunar’s Linux Guide!

Seems like every week, Microsoft does something so ridiculous that it ends up throwing off a bunch of Windows users. Trouble is, moving away from Windows is not an easy task – take it from someone who stalled for the best part of a decade before finally taking the plunge last year. Here’s my little guide to try and make life a touch easier for those looking to make the switch.

Is Linux Right for You?

My Linux journey started in about 2003, when my dad bought a new computer with a version of SuSE Linux preinstalled. Unfortunately, it wasn’t suitable for our uses at the time (might have something to do with the fact it was an enterprise system… hmm!) and it didn’t take long before he’d replaced it with a Totally Legit copy of Windows XP.

Later on, in around 2010, I decided to try Linux again. I can’t exactly remember why – think my friend at the time had been fooling around with a live version of Ubuntu on the school computers, and it must have piqued my interest. Anyway, it worked so well on my Dell netbook that I ended up using it as my primary operating system, dual-booting it with a not-exactly-fit-for-purpose copy of Windows 7. In contrast to 2003, it worked with basically everything I needed – it even ran Plants vs. Zombies almost flawlessly!

Between then and now, my Linux experience had basically been confined to… well, systems that weren’t my main one. I had my various Raspberry Pis running Raspbian, and later on I got a server and used it primarily for Debian virtual machines. The whole time, I was sitting and hoping that I could switch over to Linux full-time – specifically when everything I needed worked.

And that basically ended up happening! I switched over to Debian Sid in July 2023, and haven’t looked back much since.

…I say that. I have been without my beloved Affinity suite for almost a year now, which is frustrating and sad. But literally everything else, I can do on Linux. It’s great!

I guess the point of that story was to demonstrate that there’s always been a stigma against Linux, for the key reason that you have to run around finding alternatives to everything because nothing that you’re familiar with works. And that’s still true to an extent – I couldn’t run Microsoft Office on my computer, for instance, and I can’t do things like Game Pass even if I wanted to. There is also the matter of Affinity, as well as the likes of Adobe Creative Cloud.

And, of course, the games! That was always the biggest thing! You’ll be glad to know that games are in excellent shape, thanks to Valve’s massive push to get everything working on the Linux-based Steam Deck. And it’s not just Steam games – it’s had further-reaching benefits too, to the extent that The Sims 2 works at least fifteen times better on Debian than it ever did on Windows 10. (You know, that game everyone’s dying to play…)

Recommended Distros

Linux has a bit of an onboarding problem. With Windows, you just… y’know, get Windows. It’s very simple, and most users probably don’t consider whether they need the Home or Pro editions.

With Linux, you first gotta pick a distro. What the balls is that all about? How do you decide? Truth is, I don’t even know and I consider myself pretty experienced. This is where you have to think about what sort of experience you want, because Linux isn’t just Linux. There are so many things to think about that it can get really overwhelming.

Nevertheless, I’m going to attempt to list a few distros that would be appropriate for a beginner.

Linux Mint Debian Edition

A desktop screenshot, showing a menu very similar to the Start Menu from Windows. It has a taskbar, some icons on the taskbar, and a clock on the right-hand side. The wallpaper is black, with the Linux Mint logo in silver in the centre.

If you’ve ever searched for beginner-friendly Linux information, chances are you’ve probably come across Linux Mint at some point. Indeed, the whole point is to be good for first-time users, and it’s built to ease Windows users in with a familiar interface. It comes with a variety of useful software built-in, and it’s meant to Just Work.

Why am I recommending Debian Edition specifically? I’ve got a separate section on this – have a look at ‘Note on Ubuntu’ below. The short version: it’s based on Debian, and is thus free of corporate meddling and bloat.

Bazzite

A desktop screenshot, showing a taskbar with big, colourful icons. They have Brave Browser installed, yuck! Two windows are open - Lutris, a platform for playing all sorts of games, and Steam. Source: https://news.itsfoss.com/content/images/2023/08/Bazzite_9.png

Looking to do some gamz? While games will generally work in most distros, sometimes it can take a bit of tinkering, as I’ve learnt running Debian with an Nvidia graphics card. Hard work. Don’t let that put you off, though, because there are a fair few systems dedicated to making it as easy as possible to run your favourite games.

Bazzite may have a bit of a silly name – yes, it’s named after a real mineral that also has a silly name – but its whole ethos is to be The OS For Gamzing. It’s got all sorts of compatibility tools built in, as well as the correct drivers and software to allow you to get straight into your Sims 2 neighbourhood. (Author’s note: I haven’t actually tried The Sims 2 on Bazzite yet… but it probably works great.)

When you go to download it, it asks you what your favourite “desktop environment” is. If you’re experiencing executive paralysis at this question, have a look at the section below on desktop environments – it should clear everything up. The short version: GNOME is a bit like MacOS, and KDE is a bit like Windows.

Pop!_OS

A desktop screenshot. There is a bar along the top, with a button labeled 'Activities', the time and date, and some system icons. The user has clicked on the date, which shows a calendar on-screen. The wallpaper is a load of blue and yellow chevrons against a dark grey backdrop.

Another one that’s designed for newcomers, but slightly nerdier newcomers, Pop!_OS once again comes with everything you need to get going straight away. It’s not quite like the other two in this list, in that you’ll probably need to do some tinkering with it – but if you like the sound of that, maybe give Pop a go!

One of the interesting things about Pop is that it’s produced by System76, who also make computers with their system pre-installed. So if you’re in the market for a new computer, it might be worth a consideration – then you know it’ll work properly with the hardware, at least.

Other Options

The above three are definitely geared towards newcomers, so that’s where I’d recommend starting. But maybe you want to jump into the deep end? Maybe you’ve been using Linux servers for years, so you know your way around. Maybe you want something with as little bloat as possible. Or maybe you like the idea of having something to tinker with and make all yours. Well, here are a few others you can have a look into, which I’ve used or experienced and can recommend!

  • Debian – my favourite distro. Be warned, it’s well-known for being a bit behind the times in terms of software updates – they tend to go for a tried-and-tested approach. Still, it’s great if you want complete control over what’s going on in your system – with all the caveats that implies.
  • OpenSUSE – based on SuSE, one of the oldest distros in the game, and rock-solid as a result. I’ve linked the Tumbleweed version here, which is a ‘rolling release’ distro – see the ‘How Updates Work’ section below for more info – but there is also a version called Leap which is a bit slower.
  • Fedora Kinoite – a great example of an “immutable” operating system – again, this is discussed below in ‘How Updates Work’. I’m quite fascinated by this style of system, which is part of the reason I decided to use Bazzite on my laptop. Fedora is based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux, so it’s got a bit of big-name assurance. There is also a separate version called Silverblue, which uses the GNOME desktop rather than KDE.

Note on Ubuntu

For a long time, Ubuntu was the go-to Linux distro for general use, and I’d have recommended it easily; but they’ve made some very questionable and very corporate decisions lately, and so I can’t fully recommend it simply because corporate meddling is the very thing we’re trying to get away from here!

I also had Kubuntu on my laptop for a little while, and it was not a good experience. Even something as simple as installing an alternative web browser was a pain in the arse, because Ubuntu insists on using their own special software format that nobody else uses. I ended up switching to Bazzite on my laptop.

Anyway, the default version of Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu. Debian Edition is instead based on Debian (would you believe). As such, it’s free of the sort of pfaff and cruft one would associate with Ubuntu, while still being an excellent choice for beginner users.

Desktop Environments

Having trouble deciding on a desktop environment (also known as a DE)? I get it – there are a lot of ’em to pick from. Usually, a system will just give you one, and you don’t really have a choice in the matter; but it also means you don’t need to think about it. In case you do get asked, though, it’s worth familiarising yourself with the options.

Generally, you’ll get the choice between GNOME and KDE.

GNOME, by default, gives you a dock and a taskbar along the top of the screen, quite similar to what you get when you use MacOS. It also has a full-screen applications menu, an ‘overview’ system similar to MacOS’ Mission Control, and doesn’t offer much in the way of customisation. In fact, when I used it, I got the impression that it was designed to get out of the user’s way as much as possible. It was a pleasure to use. It also has a separate GNOME Extensions system which can give you greater control over how it looks and feels.

KDE, or more accurately Plasma Desktop, is almost the complete opposite approach. You can change and customise everything, even down to the order in which your window controls appear – you know, the Minimise, Maximise, and Close buttons. This is part of the reason I personally prefer KDE; I can make it my own. But I also recognise that can be a bit overwhelming. By default, KDE resembles Windows 7, and it works very well. You don’t need to dive into the many options it has until you’re ready to tinker.

There are also some others that I’m not as familiar with. Xfce is a solid, if somewhat uninspiring, system with robust customisation and a cute mouse mascot; LXDE is designed to be as lightweight as possible; MATE (pronounced mah-tay) resembles older, more flexible GNOME versions; and then there’s Cinnamon and Budgie which I’ve never used.

The best part, though? You don’t have to stick with just one! If you find you fancy a change, you can install a different DE and use it whenever you like.

How Updates Work

Part of the reason why it’s hard for new users to pick a distro is all this talk of rolling releases, numbered versions, immutable, atomic… it’s like being in the 90s and hunting for ‘jargon buster’ books just to understand how to use your new Packard Bell. I’ll try to disseminate some of that as best I can.

  • Rolling Release basically means you install the operating system, and you just update it as you go. This means there aren’t any ‘versions’ as such, and when you install them, they typically download all the latest updates from the internet during the process. If you choose a rolling release distro, it normally means you’ll get all the newest software right away. OpenSUSE Tumbleweed is a rolling release distro (see what they did there?)
  • Point Release is the more traditional method, where when you update your system, it moves onto the next… er, point release. Nice circular reference there, huh. So, if you’re running Fedora 39 and you update, you’ll go onto Fedora 40 – for instance. It means that you’re waiting longer between software updates, but the idea is that your system is a bit more stable and reliable. You don’t have the latest software, but you’ve got a known good version of it. Debian uses a point release system (unless you use the ‘Sid’ version).
  • Immutable distros, also known as atomic distros (there’s probably a more nuanced difference between the terms) are a fascinating new-ish development. The concept behind them is that you don’t ever touch your core system files, and whenever you update your system, you get a snapshot of the previous version that you can easily roll back to. There’s a lot more to it than that, but the goal is to create an unbreakable OS. You know how you can trawl through System32 on Windows and delete all the DLLs? Not so with an immutable distro. I think it’s really cool. Bazzite is an immutable distro… as is Android, which may help to explain the concept a bit better.

Hopefully this cleared things up for you!

I Have an ISO… now what?

Linux distros tend to arrive in a format known as an ISO image – that is, when you download it, you get a file called something like debian-12.5.0-amd64-netinst.iso. The heck do you do with that?

You put it on a flash drive, of course! (Or memory stick. Or pen drive. Or whatever you call it.)

To be a bit more specific, you will need a USB flash drive. Typically I’d say get something 8GB or larger (I’m pretty sure you can’t easily get anything smaller these days…), but if you have something lying around that’s bigger than the ISO image you downloaded, that will do fine.

So, if you downloaded an image and it’s 650MB, then you can safely use a 1GB flash drive. However, they tend to be a little bigger than that, so an 8GB drive will fit most images comfortably.

The other thing you’ll need is a program called Etcher. This will write the image to your USB drive. (I know, how do you write an image, surely you’d draw it… anyway…) Do note that it will delete everything from your flash drive, so make sure you’ve got a copy of whatever’s on there first!

A screenshot of the program Etcher. It shows three icons - one to select an image, one to select a drive, and the final to 'flash' the image onto the drive.

Open Etcher, select the ISO file you downloaded, select your USB flash drive, and then select ‘Flash!’. This will create a bootable USB installation drive.

From there, restart your computer and you should be greeted with the setup screen for whatever distro you’ve picked. If not, you will need to enter your computer’s boot menu. This differs per machine, but normally you would press the ESC or F2 keys during boot. Consult your computer’s manual on this one if you’re not sure.

At this point, I recommend you follow the installation guide for your particular distro – check the documentation, as they will have useful information on what to do next. It’s different for every system, so I can’t really give much guidance here – sorry!

About LunarLoony

IT support technician by day, artist also by day, video game enthusiast by day as well. Not keen on doing things by night... when else am I supposed to sleep? I have been making internet things since about 2005, and advocate for personal websites and blogs and things. I also run Broken Circus, where I make short films about video game history!
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