Q. I hear desktop Linux has gotten to look more like Windows, but can you do everything on Linux that you can do on Windows?
A. Linux, the open-source operating system project first developed by Linus Torvalds in 1991, is now used by millions of people on desktop computers, mobile devices and servers; Google’s Android and Chrome OS even have Linux roots. Because the software has been free and open for developers to enhance and improve for years, Linux is now available in many versions (typically called “distributions”) that vary in complexity and user interface.
In terms of being able to do everything a Windows desktop can do, a Linux system is certainly capable of most common tasks, like browsing the web, sending and receiving email, creating documents and spreadsheets, streaming music and editing photos. Many Linux distributions include all the basic programs you need, and you can install others from Linux software repositories online, but make a list of everything you need to do on the computer and make sure you have a Linux solution for it.
Most Linux variations are freely available to download from their developers, but if you are new to the system, a more mainstream distribution like Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Elementary OS or Zorin OS might provide the easiest introduction. In most cases, you download the system files from the site, burn them to a DVD (or copy them to a USB external drive) and install the Linux system on the computer as you would a Windows or Mac operating system.
Perhaps the best way to quickly decide if Linux will work for you is to test-drive the system without installing it on your computer. The Ubuntu site has a tutorial for running Linux directly from a DVD or USB drive. While it may not be considered the sleekest of the Linux distributions, Ubuntu has been around since 2004, has a large library of support documentation and offers new users easy instructions for creating a Linux installation DVD or running Linux from a USB flash drive.
Linux has come a long way, but keep in mind that you may not be able to use Windows-only programs and games (like the Wine software) without assistance or play media files that have copy restrictions. Depending on the distribution you use and where you get it, free technical support might consist simply of online forums and help guides. Some major manufacturers like Dell and Lenovo sell Linux preinstalled on new computers and may provide more customer service, and paid support packages are available.
If you do not buy a computer with Linux already installed, you can install it either as your main operating system or in a separate hard-drive partition so you can switch back and forth with Windows. Installing Linux on an older desktop or laptop you do not use as regularly can also give the hardware a new life and let you experiment with the software. You should find specific installation instructions on the site for the distribution you have chosen. Before you install anything, however, back up your personal files.