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Dave McKay first used computers when punched paper tape was in vogue, and he has been programming ever since. After over 30 years in the IT industry, he is now a full-time technology journalist. During his career, he has worked as a freelance programmer, manager of an international software development team, an IT services project manager, and, most recently, as a Data Protection Officer. His writing has been published by howtogeek.com, cloudsavvyit.com, itenterpriser.com, and opensource.com. Dave is a Linux evangelist and open source advocate. Read more…
Learning Linux can be a frustrating experience where everything little thing feels like a battle. Avoiding these common mistakes will make your introduction and adoption of Linux much easier and less stressful.
Welcome to Linux, Here Be Dragons
Picking the Wrong Distribution
Forgetting This Isn’t Windows
Not Engaging With the Community
Fearing the Terminal
Giving Up Too Soon
Being Afraid of Making Mistakes
Using Linux is much simpler than it used to be, but it can still confound new users. It has long held a reputation as being difficult to set up and work with, but that’s no longer the case. Gone are the days when you had to struggle to tell your newly-booted installation what keyboard layout you had, using your misidentified and incorrectly-mapped keyboard.
Modern installation routines such as Calamares and Ubiquity make installing the common Linux distributions as simple as it can be. A first-time user might be thrown by questions about partitioning and file systems, but accepting the defaults should always yield a working Linux system. Linux is also much better at identifying hardware during the installation. It’s very rare occurrence nowadays that a fresh install doesn’t boot at all. In fact, the pain points I hear about are very rarely related to installing Linux.
The challenge comes when the user tries to use their computer and become productive. How badly that affects them is related to the type of user they are. Some users have simple needs and only want to open a browser, and word process the odd document. They can transition to Linux with no problem.
At the top end there are power users. These are the people who are happy to tinker with PowerShell on Windows, and can usually find their own answers to any issues they run into. They’ll fit right into the Linux world.
Everybody else falls into the middle tier. They’re the users who do more than browse, but they have no interest in learning about computers and operating systems in any great detail. They want to accomplish something, and the computer should facilitate that, and not get in their face. They don’t want to fight the computer to achieve their end results.
If you’re just getting started in Linux yourself, remember that there’s a lot of wisdom in the little phrase look before you leap. Approaching Linux with a particular mindset and some appreciation of what you’re getting into goes a long, long way. If you know about, watch out for, and avoid these common mistakes, your transition to Linux will be an order of magnitude smoother.
Many people suggest Ubuntu or one of Ubuntu’s extended family, such as Linux Mint or Zorin OS as a good distribution for a beginner. They’re considered easy to use, they’re well-supported, and they’re extremely popular.
Personally, I direct first-timers toward Fedora. It’s stable, has great software repositories, and there’s a new release about every six months or so. When you recommend a distribution you’re also volunteering to be tech support. I get bugged a lot less by new Fedora users than by new Ubuntu users.
The desktop environment is important, but that shouldn’t lock you into choosing a particular distribution. I’m not a fan of desktop environments that have been tweaked to resemble Microsoft Windows. The intention might be to ease the transition for new users, but I’ve seen people get tripped up by this. The visual similarity hints toward a Windows-like environment and experience that doesn’t materialize.
If possible, set up VirtualBox and install different distributions as virtual machines, or go and check out the distributions used by people you know. Find a desktop environment that you like. But understand that you’re not locked into it forever. You can always install a different one or hop onto a different distribution further down the line. So pick one that you feel comfortable with, and run with that to get you going.
Every distribution lets you install software through command-line tools and graphical desktop applications. The differentiator is having ready access to a wide range of software. Select a distribution that has well-stocked repositories that are actively managed and curated.
One advantage of using a well-known distribution like Ubuntu or Fedora, is if you need to go to a company website to download the Linux version, it’s a safe bet that there will be a DEB for Ubuntu users to download and an RPM for Fedora users.
Linux requires a different mindset. You’ll find it easier to bed in to Linux if you think in terms of objectives, rather than packages. Instead of saying you need Word or Excel, flip that into you need to do some word processing, or number crunching. How do you do that in Linux?
If you really do need to use Microsoft Office the online versions are practically the same as the desktop versions, at least for the most common use cases. But with the ever-improving compatibility between LibreOffice and the Microsoft file formats, you might find you don’t need them.
Try to find equivalent packages rather than worrying about getting the exact same program you used on Windows. You’ll find there are plenty of alternatives, and they’re free too, so nothing is stopping you from trying as many as it takes for you to find one you like.
There are lots of online resources that you can connect with and learn from. Some of them might be provided by your distribution or by its user base, such as support channels and sites, or knowledge bases such as wikis. There are also distribution-specific and distribution-agnostic Reddits you can join, such as r/linux.
You’ll get the best response from the community members if you do a little work before firing off a question. Read the man pages, do some web searches, try to figure things out for yourself. If you find an answer, kudos to you. If not, go online and ask for help.
Before you post your question make sure you read the rules and guidelines for the community you’re posting into. Adhere to their site etiquette. Explain what your issue is, what you’ve tried, and ask for suggestions for what you should try next. Include the exact commands you’ve tried, and the exact error messages. People won’t be able to help unless you give them enough information to work with.
The easier you make it for people to work with you, the more likely you are to get help. Remember that they’re just regular people like you. They’re not employees, and they’re not duty-bound to engage with someone who rubs them up the wrong way.
The average Windows user rarely has to do anything at a command prompt. On Linux, you’ll find yourself using the terminal window sooner or later. And, probably sooner. At first, typing cryptic instructions into a terminal window seems scary because you don’t know what is going to happen.
You’ll soon pick up the basics though. Unless you want to take it deeper than that, you’ll do just fine with a few common commands at your disposal. If you’re going to copy commands from the internet and type them into your computer, make sure you’re on a reputable website.
Check the date on the article too, and try to stick to recently published or updated content. Over time, command options become deprecated and are replaced by others, and sometimes entire commands are retired in favor of modern replacements.
Yes, there are fewer viruses for Linux than there are for Windows, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore cybersecurity completely. Some of the very first viruses, worms, and rootkits were developed for Unix, and Linux is an open-source clone of Unix.
Because Linux is found everywhere, it is a victim of its own success, and the number of Linux-specific viruses and malware is growing. Remember too, that some cyber threats don’t target operating systems. They run inside browsers, making them operating system agnostic.
Historically, safe browsing habits have been enough to keep you safe. There are anti-virus and anti-malware packages available for Linux, such as Clam AntiVirus. But there is more to securing a Linux computer than using an anti-virus package. Use the firewall, too.
Adopt a healthy degree of caution. Don’t click links in unsolicited emails, nor open unexpected email attachments. Make sure you have good, recent backups. If more than one person uses your computer give each of them their own user account. Don’t share accounts or passwords. And don’t log in as
Apply updates when they’re released. Updates patch security vulnerabilities that could be exploited by cybercriminals. So keep your operating system and applications patched up to date.
RELATED: What Are the Three Pillars of Cybersecurity?
You could devote huge portions of your life to learning about Linux. The good news is you don’t need to know it all. No one knows it all. All you need to know is enough to make using your computer fun and productive.
If you like doing deep dives into new stuff and finding out the how and why of things, you’re going to love Linux. But that’s certainly not required to be a happy Linux user, so don’t be overwhelmed by what might seem to be an intimidating learning curve. The practical learning curve is limited to the amount of stuff you need to know to achieve what you need to get done.
If you’re struggling, search for answers, and ask for help.
You’re going to make mistakes. But every mistake made is a learning experience, and every problem you overcome is something that won’t be an issue next time you encounter it.
Welcome to Linux, dragon-slayer.
RELATED: How to Create a Bootable Linux USB Flash Drive, the Easy Way
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