If you like Firefox, you're going to love linux

FireFox isn't linux, but it's probably the first open source / free software many people used knowingly. Painless, maybe even better than what you had before. We'll develop this point a bit later.
Same with linux. Photobucket
Linux gives you the freedom to do what you want with your computers, free of MS viruses, free of "Genuine Advantage" propaganda, free of costly upgrades, free of Blue Screen of Death. Click the thumbnail at right to see a typical malware site do its best to infect a linux box.
Firefox was the proof-of-concept that free, open-source software can be useful and easy for the interested consumer.

Why linux rather than Windows

  1. Linux is free as in free beer (no cost to you) and free as in speech (it is provided with source code and an open license).
  2. Linux is not Windows, and encourages you to make copies for your friends. Install it on as many boxes as you like. No stupid, broken, and frustrating activation schemes.
  3. Linux is not bloated like windows. Even with "heavy" distros like Ubuntu the installation size is much smaller than Windows. Some of the micro-linuxes (10MB) are hundreds of times smaller than Windows. This means it can run faster on the the same hardware, and work much better on older hardware.
  4. Linux is in constant and rapid development. You can keep tabs on latest news at Distrowatch.
  5. Linux is easy to test-drive from LiveUSB or LiveCD without any commitment or effect on your system in any way.
  6. If you are a programmer, development tools that would cost $100s or $1000s are free on linux.

linux on the desktop

Most people will use linux on the desktop (instead of on a laptop or server) because more people own desktop PCs. Linux with Firefox and OpenOffice installed will probably take care of 90% of what Normals do on a PC. There are 1000s of free apps a click away for the other stuff. Here is a list of some alternatives to $$$ software.

One benefit of installing linux on the desktop is you typically have a lot of diskspace to work with. If you want to, for example, install both Gnome and KDE you can choose to do it. Do things like that and your linux installation might bloat up to, say, 1/3rd the size of Windows 7. Gettin' heavy!

linux on the laptop / netbook

The more tidy linux distributions (puppy, slitaz, DSL-N, etc) are perfect for light-duty netbooks and notebooks. You can ready how I've got mine set up.

some representative distros

Most folks will be fine starting with Ubuntu, but I built a page about the various noteworthy flavors of linux. Go find one that sounds interesting and LiveUSB boot it.

A few terms you may find along your linux travels

Note: all these Linux terms have equivalents in the Windows worlds, but since Windows is locked-down and non-free the terms don't have much practical meaning. In Linux we have many choices and free access to change/swap the moving parts so the terms become more useful.

Linux - Technically, GNU/Linux. Linux proper just means the kernel.
kernel If operating systems were cars, the kernel would be the engine.
GNU utilities The tools and utilities built around the kernel to make it a useful. To continue the car metaphor, this is the body/chassis.
distro / distribution a particular linux "flavor". Since linux is re-distributable and hackable, there are many variants.
box - a particular machine. "That box in the corner", or "my Debian box".
.iso - a cd/dvd image.
source / source code - the actual programming code used to make the software. "Use the source, Luke!"
window manager - If you are running a GUI (pretty pictures with a mouse) this is the part of the operating system you see; what it looks like when it boots up before you start running programs. In our car metaphor, the window manager (by itself or bundled in a desktop environment (below) is the cockpit, the part of the car you sit in and touch: steering wheel, pedals, seats, windshield, radio, etc. (there is more and less to it than that but this is a useful simplification that will get you going). You can have many different WM or just the one you like. Insanely customizable with things like virtual desktops, custom menus, layouts, backgrounds, whatever. Be aware there is a continuum and generally pretty/fancy is on one end and efficient/fast is on the other.
Famous WM include Window Maker, blackbox-openbox-fluxbox, IceWM, etc.

The 'box'-named WMs above are clean to the point of being completely blank at first glance. This can be disorienting for new users but power users seem to like them.
Please read the entry on Desktop Environments below.
desktop environment - One of the historical strengths (or limitations, depending on your outlook) of a WM is its agnosticism about what programs look like. A WM doesn't care. This gives the opportunity for more of the program's personality to shine through but may result in a visual mishmash of styles on the desktop. Desktop Environments address that issue by providing a consistent appearance (at the cost of bloat and perhaps performance). Basically a DE is a window manager (usually their own) bundled with useful applications, and a 'toolkit' that helps developers write similar-looking and -behaving applications for that environment.
The best known heavyweight DE are Gnome and KDE. There are also lighter weight DE like xcfe and lxde. New linux users coming from a Windoze background are usually comfortable in Gnome.
package - how software is bundled up; .deb, .yum, etc. The windows package is .cab (cabinet).
package manager - software used to manage those software bundles/installations. The windows package manager is, I think, the MSI Microsoft Software Installer.

My current setup

Here are my main boxes and the choices I made on them:

$Id: linux.orb,v 1.26 2014/01/16 23:25:08 mouse Exp $

/ GnuPG public key

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