How to get started with Linux: A beginner’s guide

The world of Linux is ready to welcome you, with a shower of free open-source software you can use on any PC: hundreds of active Linux distributions, and dozens of different desktop environments you could run on them. It’s a far cry from the one-size-fits-all, this-is-just-what-comes-with-your-PC vision of Windows.

Everything from software installation to hardware drivers works differently on Linux, though, which can be daunting. Take heart—you don’t even need to install Linux on your PC to get started. Here’s everything you need to know.

Choose and download a Linux distro

The first step is choosing the Linux distribution you’ll want to use.

fedora gnome shell desktop

Fedora Linux with the Gnome Shell desktop.

Unlike Windows 10, there’s no single version of Linux. Linux distributions take the Linux kernel and combine it with other software like the GNU core utilities, graphical server, a desktop environment, web browser, and more. Each distribution unites some combination of these elements into a single operating system you can install.

DistroWatch offers a good, in-depth summary of all the major Linux distributions you might want to try. Ubuntu is a fine place to start for former (or curious) Windows users. Ubuntu strives to eliminate many of Linux’s rougher edges. Many Linux users now prefer Linux Mint, which ships with either the Cinnamon or MATE desktops—both are a bit more traditional than Ubuntu’s Unity desktop.

linux mint 18.2 sonya cinnamon desktop

The Cinnamon desktop environment running on Linux Mint 18.2.

Choosing the single best isn’t your first priority, though. Just choose a fairly popular one like Linux Mint, Ubuntu, Fedora, or openSUSE. Head to the Linux distribution’s website and download the ISO disc image you’ll need. Yes, it’s free.

linux usb installer on windows crop

You can use the Universal USB Installer to easily create a bootable thumb drive using an .ISO image of a Linux distribution.

You can now either burn that ISO image to a DVD or USB. Note that booting from USB 3.0 is faster than booting from DVD these days, and more versatile given that most laptops and many desktops no longer include a DVD drive. 

To burn an image to USB, you’ll need a specialized program. Many Linux distributions recommend using Rufus, UNetbootin, or Universal USB Installer. If you’ll be using Fedora, we think the Fedora Media Writer is by far the easiest way to go.


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