Linux is an umbrella term for a variety of free operating systems that use the Linux "kernel". The "kernel" in basic literal terms, is a program or set of programs which operate the hardware in and connected to your computer. If a program wants to draw a line on the monitor, it is the kernel that knows how to communicate with a monitor. The Windows kernel is ntoskrnl.exe. It is unimportant for an end-user to learn about the kernel, as the kernel works in the background without you needing to be aware of it.
There are many flavours (distributions) of Linux operating systems. Common ones include openSUSE, Ubuntu & Debian. Each one looks and behaves slightly differently and comes with a different set of programs, but for the most part, they're the same.
These operating systems are being updated every day, and major releases happen once or twice a year. Most of the updates are for more hardware support, to add compatibility for new wireless devices & sound cards etc, and to fix up bugs.
Linux does not require a steep learning curve if all you want to do is write documents, print, browse the internet, play videos/DVDs and send emails.
The benefit of using Linux instead of Windows, is that 99% of the software you use and download is completely free, including the operating system itself. It is most commonly used in server environments for hosting websites and linking computers together at universities because of it's very high reliability and security. Don't let this put you off; Linux is very suitable as a desktop operating system to replace Windows, so long as you are not a gamer.
Linux also runs on more hardware than any other operating system. From mobile phones to game consoles. If you do not have a computer but you have a Playstation 3, you can turn your PS3 into a fully functional computer by installing Linux on it.
People with minor eyesight problems will also find Linux easy to use. Magnifying the screen and enabling high contrast mode is as simple as pressing a couple of keys on the keyboard.
Frequently asked questions
Q) What can I do with Linux?
A) You can play/stream video from the internet from sites like YouTube, chat on MSN/Yahoo/AIM, write Office documents, PowerPoint presentations, Excel spreadsheets, print, view PDF documents, listen to music and rip CD's to MP3, catalog your digital photos in a virtual photo album, view digital high-definition TV through a DVB-T stick, play and burn DVDs, etc.. The only real limit in Linux is you are unable to play most games designed for Windows.
Q) Can I use my iPod or other MP3 player?
A) Yes, but "iTunes" is not available for Linux. You instead use a program such as "Amarok" which has similar functionality. In order to use your iPod in Linux, you need to simply copy the audio files to the iPod like you would for a USB Flash Drive, and run a program called "reTune" or "shuffle-db", which tells the iPod where the songs are. Other MP3 players don't require that last step. Some distributions of Linux such as openSUSE have built-in iPod support to simplify this process.
Q) What are the requirements for Linux?
A) Linux runs on a lot of hardware, both old and new. As a rule of thumb, have a least 512MB of RAM, 40GB Hard Drive & 800mhz. It will run on lower specifications, but is not recommended. There are specialised Linux distributions to run on 64MB of RAM and earlier Pentium I/II machines, but the programs you can run on it, are limited to those that will run with a small amount of memory.
Q) Can I run Windows programs?
A) There is a program called "wine" which provdes the ability to run some, but not all Windows programs. The less complicated the program, the more likely you will be able to run it successfully. Do not expect to rely on running any Windows programs.
Q) Can I play Windows games?
A) Some games do work under "wine". There is a commercial version of "wine" called "Cedega" which is specifically designed to run Windows games, however it has been stated that "wine" is now more compatible than "Cedega". Linux is not an operating system suited to gamers. Some Windows games get a Linux version. Notably games from ID Software.
Q) Will my USB Thumb/Pen/Flash Drive work?
A) Yes. They all work.
Q) Can I connect an external Hard Drive to back up my data?
A) Yes, as above, virtually any data storage device connected via USB will work. If you are connecting an external Hard Drive for backup purposes. Many Linux distributions have full read/write compatbility with NTFS filesystems. If you run an older distribution, you may need to format the hard-drive as FAT32. You cannot do this with XP/Vista's standard format tool as it limits FAT32 to 32GB, which is not a FAT32 limitation. XP/Vista will still read FAT32 partitions over 32GB.
Q) Can I use my digital camera?
A) Yes. In some very rare cases, you may be required to purchase a card reader.
Q) Will my printer & scanner work?
A) Epson, HP and Brother are best in terms of Linux support. Other brands may not have any drivers for Linux available. You should check your hardware for compatibility before installing Linux.
Q) How much does Linux cost?
A) It is free, except for handling charges. Charging for it is frowned upon and may break some license agreements.
Q) How hard is it to install Linux?
A) If you have installed Windows from the CDs, then you will be able to install Linux. However, setting up printers & wireless devices may require further help. You may also need help if you want to select between Windows and Linux when you start your computer up. This is known as dual-boot.
Q) Can I try Linux without installing it?
A) Most Linux distributions have what is called a "Live CD/DVD", which can be downloaded and ran prior to install for you to try out and see if you like it, without risk. If no option to download a Live version is available, it is most likely part of the standard installation disc.
Q) Do I need to install Anti-Virus software?
A) Linux is in orders of magnitude more secure than Windows by default, and therefore most people don't run Anti-Virus software in Linux. Viruses/Spyware as you know them on Windows (popups/error messages/website redirection) are virtually non-existant on Linux. The most common form of attack is hacking into the "root" (Administrator) account and accessing your files, though this is very rare and you are not vulnerable if you keep your system up-to-date. These flaws when found are fixed up almost immediately. Anti-Virus software is available should you choose to use it. Grisoft provide a Linux version of AVG Free. Keep in mind that Anti-Virus software on Linux is mostly only going to find Windows viruses that will not affect you on a Linux system.
Q) Will it cook my breakfast?
A) Though you may expect the answer to be no, you can infact buy a USB BBQ Grill and use it to cook your breakfast.. Weirdo.