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First a very brief history/description of Linux. Linux is a UNIX-like operating system; UNIX is a powerful, stable, secure OS that's been around for over 40 years. The Internet was built on UNIX, and it's been used for mission-critical applications by the government, huge corporations, the space program, etc., for decades. Unlike Windows, UNIX was built from the ground up to be multi-tasking, multi-user, networked, secure, and extremely stable. Blue screen of death? Um, no!
In 1991, a young man named Linus Torvalds started working on an operating system that would be like UNIX, but would have people all over the world contributing to its development--and it would be free. And so Linux was born.
Within a few years various "distros" (distributions from different sources) started appearing; now there are so many, it's impossible, for me at least, to keep track of them all. There is undoubtedly a "flavor" (distro or variation of a distro) out there to suit everyone--if they'd only try them! My favorite is Kubuntu, or Ubuntu with KDE as its desktop environment. Unlike Windows, with Linux it's up to the user to decide what their environment consists of, so you can choose from various desktop environments such as KDE, Gnome, XFCE, IceWM, and more. Since I use KDE, that's what I will focus on, and that's what you'll see in images on this page.
One persistent Linux myth I absolutely MUST dispel is this: "If you're not a geek/guru, you can't use Linux--you have to know how to do things with cryptic commands at a command line!" WRONG. Back in the days before the GUI (graphical user interface) was invented, all operating systems relied on the command line. The biggest difference between UNIX and DOS was that UNIX was powerful and had thousands--really an infinite number--of commands, while DOS did not. With DOS, its library of commands was limited and limiting. (I was doing things with UNIX 25 years ago that Windows STILL can't do today. Seriously.) So, yes, when Linux started it was command line based, just like DOS was--but those days are long gone. Modern Linux is an awe-inspiring sight, and a user needs have no knowledge of using a command line, or even what a command line is!
My mother uses Linux all day, every day--she's glued to her computer now, whereas when she had Windows she rarely ever used it. She has no idea what a "command prompt" is, nor does she need to. Trust me, if SHE can use Linux so easily and effortlessly, ANYONE can.
When I buy a new computer the first thing I do is wipe Windows off its drive and install Linux. I can do a new installation, complete with hundreds of applications ready to go, in 12-15 minutes. Let's see anyone do that with Windows.
Speaking of applications, there are thousands of applications available for Linux--free. Don't be fooled by the cost...er, lack thereof! These programs, including OpenOffice (a full suite of office apps--word processor, spreadsheet, etc.), the GIMP (a graphics app similar to Photoshop), digiKam (an image app for use with digital cameras), and Pidgin (an IM client) are at least as good as--and often better than--their pricey Windows equivalents. Want the latest and greatest version when it's released? Great--just grab it and install it.
And with all that said, let's move on!
The first feature I want to describe is "multiple desktops." In the *nix (UNIX, Linux, and similar OSes) world, we've had multiple desktops for DECADES. Last I heard Microsoft hadn't copied this yet, so Windows users may not be able to visualize what I'm talking about. Basically, picture your desktop. Now picture having 3, 5, 10 or more other monitors hooked up to your computer, but with DIFFERENT desktops on each of them, each desktop configured with different widgets, themes, colors, etc. Okay, now take away the physical monitors, and imagine all those desktops available to you on your one monitor. That's what I'm talking about!
Look at these two screenshots:
These are two different desktops on one computer. They're completely independent of each other--each is configured with its own widgets, its own theme, and so on.
Changing the number of desktops is a cinch:
But, you're asking, how do you get from one desktop to another? Easy! As with all things in *nix, there are a variety of options so you can choose whichever you prefer. If you look closely just to the right of the taskbar clock in the screenshots, you'll see nine little boxes in two columns--each box represents one of the desktops, and clicking on a box takes you to its respective desktop. But my preferred way of navigating is via certain desktop effects, specifically desktop cube and desktop grid.
The desktop cube can be rotated in every imaginable direction by dragging it with your pointer; simply stop on the desktop you want, right click, and you're there. With the desktop grid, just click on the desktop you want to go to.
To activate these desktop effects, again, with Linux you have multiple ways of accomplishing this task. I like using screen edges:
There are eight areas along the edge of the screen that can be configured to perform various actions when your pointer enters them. I have two of mine set up to trigger desktop cube and desktop grid.
You'd think that switching between applications would be pretty boring, right? Wrong! Not on Linux. Here are a few desktop effects you can choose:
This final screenshot shows the effect called taskbar thumbnails, which let you see, in real time, a small version of the application you're hovering over:
Honestly, there are SO MANY desktop effects, so many features, so much versatility and power, that it would take hundreds of screenshots to even attempt to do them justice. Instead, I'm going to wrap this up with the suggestion that you do yourself a favor and try Linux--as soon as possible! Many Linux distros are available as a "live CD" which you can boot from without altering or installing anything on your computer. You can give Linux a test drive, see if you like its look and feel, check that your hardware is correctly recognized and configured, and so on. (Unlike Windows, you won't need installation CDs for your peripherals--Linux will generally see, recognize, and configure your hardware on its own.) If you like it, click the "install" button. If you don't, take out the CD, reboot to Windows and that's that.
Here's a very partial list of some Linux distros you might want to try. Oh, did I mention they're all FREE? And if you ever have questions or need any help, there are forums, newsgroups, IRC channels and more filled with knowledgeable Linux users just waiting to help--for FREE.
PS In case you're wondering, the dogs and cats pictured in the desktop screenshots are, or were, mine. The beautiful black Great Dane, Freddie Mercury, and his sister, Queen, the merle Great Dane, died on October 16 and 17 three years apart. (And, yes, I'm a huge Freddie Mercury and Queen fan!) The gorgeous Maine Coon cat was Wilshire Coronado, my favorite pet of all time (tied with Freddie). The black and white kitten is my baby Joy Noelle, who will be six next month; I adopted her when she was five weeks old. I'm not only a Linux geek and advocate, but also a longtime vegetarian, animal rights activist, and pet rescuer. Oh, don't forget: HAVE YOUR PETS SPAYED OR NEUTERED.