Introduction: What is Linux?

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Lately, I've been digging deep into the wonderful world of Linux, and I figured it would be a good idea to share what I've learned with you folks. I know a lot of you aren't exactly technophiles, and perhaps many of you don't particularly care, but if you ever decide to look into it, perhaps you'll find this guide handy.

I'm going to try to explain things as easily as possible, from the ground up, so perhaps by the end of it all, you'll understand the topics without needing to consult a book. On the converse side, I don't claim to know everything there is to know, so if any of you more knowledgable folks have anything to contribute, please let me know and I'll add it in.

NOTE: I'll be making references to Wikipedia and various other sites for more details. If any of these links go down in the future, let me know and I'll fix them.

So, without further ado, we begin!

What is Linux?
Linux is an operating system based on Unix, a very powerful (and some would consider "perfect") operating system that's been around for quite some time. While Unix is primarily a commercial/corporate operating system, Linux is open source and a bit more friendly to the general user. (At the time of this writing, there are a few open-source versions of Unix, such as Solaris, but they're geared more towards the server industry.)

Linux Mascot

Linux is written with security and stability in mind, so the operating system itself is quite solid. I'd like to say that it's more solid than any Windows operating system, but that would be introducing bias. (Well, since it's really impossible to be completely objective, I'll just say it here. Linux is way more stable, secure, and customizeable than Windows will ever be.) When comparing it to Mac OSX, the base of the OS's is quite similar, as OSX is based on Unix as well. However, OSX is still limited to Macs, while Linux is available for all platforms.
More on Linux

Why should I switch to Linux?
Have you looked at how much Windows costs lately? Windows XP Home is $199.99, and Windows XP Professional (which is preferred because it allows you a lot more control than Home) costs $299.99. Imagine that, $200 just to be able to use your computer! And not only that, it's not even that great an operating system. (Yep, tossing objectivity into the wind here . . .) The same goes for Windows Vista, which is even more expensive than XP, and burdened with even more issues.

Compare that to Linux, which is ABSOLUTELY FREE. Not only that, most distributions (more about distributions later) come with all the software you'll ever need to use. And that software is free too! Almost everything you need to do, from office work (Open Office), image editing (Gimp), sound editing (Audacity), instant messaging (Gaim), and so forth. In fact, there are over 14,000 pieces of software available at your fingertips with many of the Linux distributions.

And if there's some piece of software you absolutely need that runs only on Windows, there are ways to use those in Linux as well. (Wine, virtual machines, etc.)

In short, just about anything you can do on Windows, you can do on Linux.

Why SHOULDN'T I switch to Linux
Linux can't do everything quite perfectly just yet. The most prominent example is gaming. (And that seems to be an important issue.) Most of today's games are Windows only, mainly because they take advantage of DirectX, which is a proprietary API made by Microsoft. While many games can be played through emulators/wrappers such as Wine (World of Warcraft, Starcraft, etc), not all of them work perfectly, and some run slow.

Fortunately, game developers are starting to realize that there's a market for games for Linux. Many developers are starting to use OpenGL as one of the graphics APIs more frequently. Games like Doom 3, Unreal Tournament 2004, America's Army, and so forth have all been released in Linux form. So there definitely is a future in it.

And while we wait, there are plenty of free games that are available for Linux. The Battle for Wesnoth, a popular turn based strategy game, is a prime example.

The Solution
So if you game often, can you still use Linux? Of course you can! One way to set it up is to create a DUAL BOOT system. This means that when you turn your computer on, you have the option of choosing whether to boot to Windows or Linux. Now this may not be a feasable way to manage your main PC. Who wants to boot to Linux to do some document editing, emailing, and general websurfing, then reboot and switch to Windows for some gaming?

But what if you have an older computer you don't use much anymore? One other great thing about Linux is how well it runs on old hardware. Just install Linux on that computer and use it as you will.
For example, I have my high-powered gaming desktop that runs Windows 2000. My old laptop isn't much of a gaming system anymore, so I installed both Linux and Windows on it. Linux to do most of my schoolwork and any other work while I'm on the move (as well as IM most of my friends while I'm busy gaming on the other machine), and a small install of Windows in case I want to do some old-school LAN gaming.

And that about sums up the introduction. Next up:
What's a Linux distribution and why should I care?