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Linux vs. Linux: Which Distro Should You Dump Windows For?

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You're ready to be a card-carrying Linux geek, but with several different Linux distributions available, you don't know where to start. Which one offers the best balance of tools, performance, and price? Bryan Hoff takes you through the most popular Linux distros and introduces you to a brave new world without Windows.
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I'll be honest with you; I'm not a full-fledged Linux Geek. I'm one of those poor suckers who cut his teeth on the Windows OS, learning bad habits and working within the limitations of the sandbox set up for me by Microsoft. This is a good thing for you, since I'm better-equipped to tell you how the different Linux distributions compare to Windows, in addition to how they compare to each other. Now granted, most people using Linux today probably started out with Windows or even DOS; however, I still work with Windows in addition to Linux, so I'm specially equipped to help you choose a distribution that's right for you.

I've been working with Linux for a little over a year now, and I haven't switched over entirely as yet (because I still need to use proprietary software like 3ds max and many Adobe and Macromedia products), but if and when I do, I want to be able to choose a distribution that's familiar to me, and that won't leave me longing for Windows or a certain application. I'm going to narrow things down a bit for myself and choose a Linux flavor that offers the best balance of tools, performance, and price. Now you may say, "But I thought Linux was free?" And you'd be right. Linux itself is free, but the manuals, support, boxes, CDs, and extra software aren't necessarily. I'll take these all into consideration as I make my choice of the best Linux desktop replacement for Windows.

Terms and Criteria

First I need to cover a few of the terms people use when referring to certain aspects of Linux, as well as the criteria that each distribution should meet. So what's a distribution anyway? The term distribution, or "distro," refers to the Linux operating system packaged with a selection of free and open source software applications (and ideally an installer). The software is packaged by groups, organizations, and even individuals located all over the world. Technically, the Linux operating system consists of the Linux kernel (or core) and the GNU system. GNU is a recursive acronym, meaning "GNU's not Unix" and is pronounced "Guh-noo." We'll be looking at some of the more popular distributions, some of which are free and others that will cost you money. Most of the pay distributions offer a free version, although they're usually less full-featured and often stripped down. Root, for those of you who aren't familiar with the term, is similar to the administrator in Windows. On many Windows systems users are logged in as the system administrator by default, which can cause security issues since an administrator can do anything he wants on the system, including executing malicious software.

The criteria each distro must meet includes features, affordability, ease-of-use, and support. For example, do you want to be able to do your day-to-day work without opening a terminal? Would you pay for certain features like software that more closely resembles Microsoft Office or even allows you to run Office right within Linux? Which distro has the best paid and community support? And which offers the most choices of optional software to install?

I won't dig too deeply into the intricacies of creating partitions and dual booting between Linux and Windows, except for a couple of things. One is that Ubuntu and Debian don't have graphical installers; they're a little more daunting and tougher to set up as dual boot configurations. The other is the fact that I've found it easier and less scary to create a Linux partition from within Windows using a commercial application such as Partition Magic. Several Linux distributions include partitioning software and can handle the task of partitioning a Windows drive to make room for Linux, but if you choose to go this route (and even if you use Partition Magic), always be sure to back up your data. Speaking of Debian and Ubuntu, I'll be covering those two, along with SuSE, Fedora Core, Mandriva, Linspire, and Xandros as I strive to find the heir-apparent to Windows. Unfortunately I can't cover everyone's favorite distro as there are literally hundreds to choose from.

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