Windows to desktop Linux in three easy steps

You like the idea of a free, lightweight OS. But isn’t installing and using Linux on a desktop painful? Not if you use this guide

Are you geek enough for Linux? Though it first earned a reputation as a platform for hobbyists and hackers, Linux has come a long way since Linus Torvalds cobbled together the first kernel as a student project. A modern Linux desktop is a sophisticated, user-friendly GUI environment, with features and applications to rival any proprietary OS. In fact, when compared to the mainstream alternatives, there are lots of compelling reasons to give Linux a try:

It's free. Switching to open source software means the end of software license fees, not just for the operating system, but for the major applications that run on it, as well.

It's secure. Linux is largely immune to the viruses, worms, adware, spyware, and Trojan horse programs that plague Windows.

It's compatible. Linux can take advantage of most of the media and file formats you use now, but open source software doesn't tie you to proprietary protocols and file formats. That means no more vendor lock-in.

It's lightweight. Linux offers plenty of cutting-edge capabilities for today's high-powered PCs. It can scale down to suit older hardware, too -- unlike Windows Vista.

It's well supported. Between an active user community and a variety of commercial support offerings, help is available for everyone, from novices to advanced users.

If you're willing to take the plunge, getting started with Linux is a matter of a few easy steps. Once you're done, you should have a fully operational desktop system suitable for learning, experimentation, or even for replacing your current PC for day-to-day computing needs. You can even keep Windows on the same machine, allowing you to switch back and forth between the two operating systems.

1. Get Ubuntu

Linux comes in lots of different flavors, called "distributions." Each is a unique combination of the Linux kernel plus an assortment of open source tools and applications, assembled to meet its maintainer's concept of the ideal OS experience.

Many good Linux distributions are available -- if you have time, you may want to explore your options -- but since we have to choose one, we'll use a popular offering called Ubuntu. Ubuntu provides an attractive, user-friendly desktop environment without a lot of clutter, which makes it a great choice for new Linux users. It's also free, and its user community is large and active, which means it's easy to find help and support.

Like most Linux distributions, obtaining Ubuntu is easy. You simply download the installation media as an ISO disk image file, which you then use to create a bootable CD or DVD. The most obvious way to get an ISO image is to download it directly from one of the many Ubuntu Web servers around the world (the Desktop Edition is the version we'll use here). An alternative way is to use BitTorrent. You can find torrent files for downloading Ubuntu images peer to peer on the Gutsy Gibbon release page.

Of course, either of these options assumes you have access to a broadband Internet connection and a CD/DVD burner. If downloading 650MB or more would be difficult or you don't feel comfortable burning the installation disc yourself, you can also request installation media by mail from Canonical, the company that oversees Ubuntu development. The CD and shipping are both free.

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