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I just acquired a spare PC with a 40GB hard drive which I'm planning to use for learning how to use Linux on (either Ubuntu or Mandriva). The problem I'm having is related to installation - I'm more familiar with how to reinstall Windows XP, the system drivers, etc. than with Linux.

My questions are:

  • If I use any of the LiveCD's or DVD's available on the Net, do all Linux distros come with its own set of drivers that can match the ones I have on my system? If not, how do I go about looking for them and installing them?
  • What's the best way to learn how to use Linux? Aside from Ubuntu and Mandriva, are there any other distros you would recommend for beginners like me?
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@Isxek: it would help if you gave the specs for the machine (at least in outline). What kind of video are we talking about? For a desktop, that (and sometimes sound) is usually the biggest hurdle. –  Telemachus Jul 16 '09 at 14:33
    
Here are the specs: P4 2.6 GHz CPU, 256MB ATI Radeon AGP video card, with an ASUS P5VDC-MX motherboard with integrated sound/LAN/video, and a CDRW drive. The hard drive is a 40GB PATA one. –  Isxek Jul 16 '09 at 14:46
    
I forgot to mention the RAM - it has 1 GB. :) –  Isxek Jul 16 '09 at 15:25
    
Ubunchu, obviously: doctormo.wordpress.com/2009/04/02/… doctormo.wordpress.com/2009/06/05/ubunchu-chapter-02-is-here <very evil, maniacal even, laugh> –  derobert Jul 16 '09 at 19:27

13 Answers 13

up vote 7 down vote accepted

These days ubuntu is definatly the way to go for starting with linux, it has the best support community for new users, and some of the best hardware support (ubuntu aren't too fussy about including stuff that other distros wouldn't consider free enough)

You don't mention how much ram you have, but the machine doesn't sound that powerful, so I'd consider going with xubuntu - this has all the same stuff as ubuntu, but uses the xfce desktop instead of gnome, which is a little less resource heavy.

The biggest problems with linux hardware support are

  • Wireless (although, this is getting much much better)
  • Very new hardware
  • Good graphics support for new cards (recent nVidia/ATI)

The first two don't apply to you, and the third probably doesn't either. If the ati card you have is as old as the rest of the computer it should work fine with the default free drivers (in fact, it may not even be supported by fglrx)

You say there's an onboard video aswell? If the ati card does actually cause trouble consider just taking it out for the first few weeks till you get a bit more comfortable with the system, and then try working out how to fix it.

As a general rule of thumb, if you get a computer that's a few years old with fairly standard hardware it should "just work" out of the box with any of the major linux distros.

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The onboard video was used before as a "backup" just in case the AGP card runs into trouble. It gets 64MB from the system memory for its own. One question here is: can Ubuntu also handle switching drivers like Windows did if something like this happens? –  Isxek Jul 16 '09 at 15:27
    
Yea, it'll use the right driver for whatever video card you're using. –  theotherreceive Jul 16 '09 at 17:34
    
+1 to everyone who answered, thank you very much. I'm going with Xubuntu for now and see what I can learn from it. –  Isxek Jul 17 '09 at 1:56

I have seen several answers recommending several distros (and yes, they all come with enough drivers nowadays to work on the average computer, whatever that means).

Nobody, however, pointed out one thing: that there is a big difference in learning how to use linux and learning a distro.

In a nutshell: find yourself a problem to solve. Force yourself to use linux only to solve it. Don't rely on google too much, but learn where to "put your hands" to fix it (/etc) and where to look for the information that you need to fix it (log files).

At the core all distros are equal. They have different approaches, tools, colors, philosophy and even price; but the problems they face are very similar.

And don't ask how to learn; just go and get started. More specific needs (and questions!) will come in due time, and that's how you'll learn.

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+1 Thanks for the thoughtful response! –  Isxek Feb 8 '10 at 20:02

Hah! A "which is your favourite flavour of Linux" question!

The first Linux box I administered was one I installed Corel Linux on in 1999: the selling point of Corel Linux to me was that it was at heart a Debian distro (which I liked the sound of, although my previous Linux contact had been with Slackware and Redhat) and with all the fonts you could shake a stick at. I liked that idea, and I liked using it, shame it didn't last long...

Now the main Linux I use is a Debian stable (etch, not yet made the lenny plunge) on the VPS I rent. Utterly unproblematic, no unplanned downtime in 3 years.

Special questions:

  1. Choose the Linux you most like the sound of, if it's at all popular it will have a live CD.
  2. How to learn Linux: Use your linux. Try to solve problems yourself before coming to SU to ask questions. Install stuff from source. Run services of your machine, like fontd and sshd, and use them from other machines. Poke about the \etc, \var, and \usr directory hierarchies and find out what the files inside them are there for. Read lots of man pages. Hack (ba)?sh/awk/sed, and get them to do things for you. The differences between the distros won't really make a lot of difference to you in terms of learning Linux.
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Thanks, Charles, but no. It's not a "which is your favorite flavor of Linux" question - it's more of a "which Linux flavor is the best to learn Linux with" one. :) Still, thanks for the advice. –  Isxek Mar 11 '10 at 17:19

Ubuntu is by far the best choice especially if you are a Windows user.
You can also try the LiveCD before you install, for compatibility with your hardware.

Once you have it installed, these resources will be useful to lookup.

And, if you want to browse through the major distributions,
DistroWatch is a good place.
Of course, Ubuntu tops there.


As a quick alternative to install and for a better experience than a LiveCD,
If your hardware allows you to boot from a USB pendrive and you have one free that is about 2-4 GB capacity,
you could install from the Ubuntu LiveCD directly to your USB pendrive and then boot from it!
Then, use it stand-alone or mount your local drives (through easy GUI),
to your satisfaction before you decide to install it on your system.

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LDP has a lot of outdated guides... ubuntuguide is superb tho –  geocoin Jul 16 '09 at 14:41
    
@geocoin, you are quite right. But, there are good updated ones too. Bash for example, which I consider a strong part of learning linux. I refer to the Advanced Bash-Scripting Guide. –  nik Jul 16 '09 at 15:25

Gentoo will teach you everything you need to know from beginning to end, and is the best way to gain a fundamental understanding of how all the pieces fit together.

It's diving into the deep end though, so a simpler alternative is to follow the advice here and try Ubuntu. Although, I'd recommend setting out with some end goal in mind, such as a MythTV Box, getting a website or maybe game emulator running. That way you have some goalpost to reach for and little milestones/accomplishments to hit along the way.

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Ubuntu 9.04 should allow for the easiest installation. I have tried it on a variety of hardware with little to no problems. It will more than likely install without error and the majority of your hardware will work. Ubuntu has a lot of drivers for most of the major hardware manufacturers at this point. Many of the answers here have links to places where you can find help for those questions/problems.

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Ubuntu Pocket Guide

The Ubuntu Pocket Guide is a free ebook and a great way to familiarize yourself with Ubuntu.

Try Wubi

This may not suit you, but for folks who are nervous about trying Ubunutu Linux, Wubi lets you install it as though it were a Windows program and tell it how much space it's allowed to use. Once it's installed, whenever you boot up, you'll be asked to choose which OS you want to use. If you ever get tired of it, just uninstall it like any Windows program. Very easy.

Note: The space that Wubi uses is not a new partition; I believe Windows just sees it as a very large file.

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People will probably (strongly) disagree, but I think Gentoo is one of the best distributions for learning Linux.

It has a bad reputation for being time consuming and catering to the extreme performance nuts, but as a result of their old "compile it all" attitude, the documentation is far better and more thorough than any other distro I've worked with.

Also, over the past few years they have significantly improved the install process, going from a several day affair using the command line exclusively, to installing from a live cd in just a few hours. While the performance and detail it is known for is still there, it's become much more user-friendly.

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I would say gentoo is great for learning more about linux, but I wouldn't recommend it as a great starting point for most people. –  theotherreceive Jul 16 '09 at 17:33
    
Gentoo is outstanding for learning, but I also wouldn't recommend it for someone brand new to Linux. I might recommend Sabayon instead: it's Gentoo-based but offers a great deal of support for multimedia. –  Telemachus Jul 16 '09 at 19:23
    
Start with the end in mind: if he wants to learn, Gentoo is a fine choice. –  Charles Stewart Feb 8 '10 at 14:08

Ubuntu was specially conceived for this purpose.

Actually it is pretty easy. I tried some other Linux distros before, but all of them at some point required to patch the Kernel ( they gave instructions of course but mmmhh )

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I recommend Ubuntu, I know there are plenty to choose from, but I've only used Ubuntu.

regarding drivers

Linux comes with drivers, and I'm guessing Ubuntu provides firmware in addition to those, and for the most part it shouldn't be missing any, but it can happen. Just try running a live CD and see how it all runs, thats a perfect test run as it will have to load the drivers to run.

To be on the safe side do some research into your hardware. Particularly video and Wireless cards and as some have mentioned now your Sound card. If you do have some hardware that's not out of the box ready for Linux there will be a work around.

Useful resourses

Have fun!

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If it does happen that the drivers are not present, how can I remedy that? –  Isxek Jul 16 '09 at 14:18
    
For ubuntu I know you can look into the Documentation online and ubuntuforums.org, chances are if you see issues you aren't the first and it's already figured out. –  codeLes Jul 16 '09 at 14:30
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The Linux kernel will not support his video (without extra help) if it's a recent Nvidia or ATI card, nor will it necessarily support wireless (without adding firmware). It can be done, but the kernel doesn't do it by itself. –  Telemachus Jul 16 '09 at 14:32
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Ubuntu will recognize this and recommend that he installs the proprietary drivers. If you browse to System->Hardware Drivers it will detect any hardware that requires non-OSS drivers and install them for you. This works great for video cards. –  tj111 Jul 16 '09 at 14:38
    
@Telemachus there you go showing how little I really know... I guess I should revise my answer for accuracy. So is it firmware that comes with Ubuntu that makes Wireless just work now? (with exceptions) –  codeLes Jul 16 '09 at 14:41

I've used many many Linux distributions and I would highly recommend Ubuntu as a great distribution to learn with. There are lots of great resources and 3rd party software (Skype, Picasa) is usually designed to easily work with it.

As for drivers, just run the Live CD and check what works and what doesn't. Usually in Ubuntu you'll find most things just work. You may need to install a different driver for the video (for Nvidia esp.) but there are plenty of resources in the Ubuntu docs.

If there is something serious not working google the device and see if others have found a solution, the Ubuntu user forums is another good resource.

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I think the best option is to install Ubuntu (the most user-friendly distro) and install it on a virtual machine not in a separate computer.

I you install it on another computer is possible that you don't open that computer. If you install it on a virtual machine it can be easier for you to become familiar with it.

To star you can install a CD on the virtual machine or donwload any applicance from internet.

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But using a VM for learning Linux would take up resources on my primary PC, which other family members use. Since I have this spare PC at hand, I'd rather use this and feel safe enough to do anything I want on it. :) –  Isxek Jul 16 '09 at 14:34

Just download an Ubuntu CD and try it (other distros that might be okay include Fedora, Suse, Mandriva, and Linux Mint). (Almost) all Linux drivers come with the kernel. If by default there is no driver for something, you probably won't find it anywhere. Unlike Windows, Linux distributions generally come with drivers for the vast majority of hardware (although Windows may have more drivers available online). Personally, I'd much rather not have to go searching the web for drivers, at the expense of not having drivers for really obscure hardware. I consider this one of the advantages of Linux.

I wouldn't be too worried about drivers. Only really obscure hardware may not work. The only thing that has ever given me any trouble is webcams (which are not terribly important). Most moniters, printers, video cards, mice, keyboards, USB mass storage devices, speakers and microphones, SD card readers, etc. should work without much trouble.

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