What Linux Distro Should i Use/Everything else you need to know about linux? Question from a Linux noob but a Pretty knowledgeable computer dood.
May 1, 2008 7:46 PM   Subscribe

What Linux Should I Use?-Also need advice/help setting up drivers/random linux stuff? for my computerI'm a pretty knowledgeable guy about computers. I also want to be able to have vista on my computer, and hopefully keep my laptops extra functionalities such as fingerprint reader.

Not that i had too much against windows vista but the latest service pack seemed to screw things up, so ive been thinking to moving to linux. That and being a freshman in computer engineering i think i should try more diverse operating systems anyway. I would like to use windows vista and linux at the same time, and am wondering what the best option for this would be. Should i make a dual boot windows vista and linux or should i just have ubuntu with a virtual windows running in it? Also what linux distro should i use? I dont want anything that is too simple or too hard... ubuntu seems to be the popular one for everything but honestly i dont know where to get started in linux. I have a sager2090 or a compalifl90 laptop and how would i install drivers for linux since it doesnt list them on the main page? Would i lose functionality for things such as my fingerprint reader?

Tasks i do on my computer:
1. Everything. Burning cds, movies, games, homework, programming (Computer Engineer, so i def need vista as well for windows only things)

Specs of my computer:
1. Pretty good. Should be able to run any Os. Especially after running vista with no slowdowns (Until sp1...).


The problem (or blessing) about linux is there are so many choices it seems when it comes to it. First there is the actual distro you use, and after that there are so many mods, even graphical interfaces you can use. I guess im just really confused about all this maybe my real question is what do you guys use/suggest i use. How can i get windows vista on my laptop as the same time as linux (emulation, or partiion and advantages/disadvantages of each method) and what beginner tips might you give.

If you all have your own linux box set up maybe you could tell me what you have/how you customized it/set it up :D thanks. Convoluted Question...
posted by Javed_Ahamed to Computers & Internet (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The Linux switch, even dual-booting, is still a pretty big decision. Before I really-truly made the switch, I gave it a couple of tries and went back. That was a bad move, in terms of my Linux confidence and the amount of time sunk into half-learning the tricks of the OS, reinstalling everything, etc. My biggest suggestion, therefore, is to try before you "buy."

Linux, thankfully, is AWESOME at letting you give it a spin before you commit to anything. A lot of this happens through what are called "Live CDs" - install media that you can order and/or burn that set up a fully functional version of the very OS you're considering installing when you boot from the CD without actually changing anything about your current configuration. Just about every major Distro has a LiveCd, and you should absolutely absolutely absolutely make use of them.

Even among Ubuntu alone, right now, there are at least 4 or 5 different versions depending on what sort of experience you want. There's plain old Ubuntu, which uses GNOME to interact with the user. There's Kubuntu, which replaces GNOME with KDE for a somewhat more Windows-esque experience, in my opinion. There's Xubuntu, which uses a very lightweight interface called Xfce and runs on older machines that can't keep the other versions running smoothly. There'd Edubuntu, which is tailored for educational venues and incorporates software and settings to that effect. The list goes on, and that's just in the one distro! I personally have used both Kubuntu and GNOME-based Ubuntu and I like them both. It's possible to switch once the OS is already installed, but it can be a bit of a pain, in the same way that it's technically possible to upgrade Win98 directly to XP but sometimes things don't go quite as expected.

Long story short, take a stack of CD-Rs and burn yourself a whole bunch of LiveCDs, then take some time to really mess with all of them. Take notes on what you like, what you don't like, and make a decision from there. I've had a lot of success with Ubuntu starting from a position like yours - lots of overall computer savvy but no prior Linux experience. The community is unparalleled, and large enough that you can guarantee that someone else has run into the same problem you have and almost certainly already found a way to fix it. In some smaller Distros, this isn't the case. I've heard some wonderful things about Sabayon, Mint, and plain old Debian (the Distro on which Ubuntu is based), and I know there are a LOT more out there to choose from beyond that. Like you said, the beauty of Linux is that there are a lot of options, so take advantage of those options for yourself before you pick.

Also, as a note, Linux on a laptop is a somewhat more complicated proposal than desktop Linux, as so much is integrated on a laptop. There are a number of sites out there for various Distros that document varying levels of success in installing and running that Distro on all sorts of laptop models. This is one in particular that served me well when I was laptop shopping with the intent of running Linux. Definitely check your compatibility with various Distros, as some get along vastly better or worse with various manufacturers and hardware.

I apologize for my ridiculous anthology of a post, but apparently I have a lot to say about getting started with Linux. I currently run Ubuntu 8.04 on my laptop, and I'm thinking hard about going dual-boot with my desktop - it's really just gaming that's still holding me back. Feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions.
posted by Rallon at 8:10 PM on May 1, 2008

I am currently dual booting Vista and Ubuntu 8.04. I installed Ubuntu using Wubi which made it incredible easy to set up ( you don't have to set up the different partitions and things like that). As for the drivers it pretty much recognizes everything thats on your computer and installs them it self so you don't have to find them. For me it was easy and Im mainly a visual person (I don't like to have to deal with command line things) and most of the stuff like installing programs is pretty easy. Ive found the forums to be incredibly helpful when I needed them. There is a bit a learning curve but you get used to it. Once you get used to it though theres plenty of customization you can do with emerald (window themes) and compiz (desktop effects) to make it how you like it.
posted by lilkeith07 at 8:12 PM on May 1, 2008

I'll definitely be the first of many to recommend Ubuntu. With the recent release of Hardy Heron, you simply can not go wrong. It has great applications for all the things you mentioned: Burning Cd's, movies, games, etc..

As far as drivers go, well every machine is different. What you can do is burn a live cd and try it out on your system before installing it. It wont make any changes (unless you, you know, click the install icon).

Off the bat I can probably safely say that your fingerprint reader wont work in ubuntu. I mean I don't know your specific model, but fingerprint reader support isn't great. It works on thinkpads though. But this isn't to say that it wont work in vista.

In terms of dual-booting, I'm not one hundred percent which is better (installing ubuntu first then adding vista, or vice versa). Others can talk about this but my guess is that it's better to install ubuntu first? I may be horribly wrong though!

Good luck!!!
posted by saxamo at 8:18 PM on May 1, 2008

Start with Ubuntu. Period. There will be naysayers of course, and there are a few other distros that are perhaps similarly geared towards a relative beginner but none offer the network of support that exists for Ubuntu. Just go to ubuntuforums to see what I mean.

If you have windows installed right now, you can use Wubi to test out Ubuntu without making any real commitments in terms of repartitioning and such. It's a one-click uninstall in Windows, AND you can fiddle with compositing interface stuff (assuming you have the appropriate video card) like Compiz.

If you test it out and like it, just put Ubuntu on a CD and pop it into a Windows computer and boot. Ubuntu will guide you towards a multipartition boot if you like, preserving your Windows.

As far as GUI's, you'll have endless time to tweak to your hearts content and can easily install Kubuntu or Xubuntu on top of Ubuntu (with Gnome) if you like. Gnome is the simple place to start.
posted by drpynchon at 8:22 PM on May 1, 2008

Response by poster: Either way im going to completely wipe my harddrive as i do every year and reinstall windows, or really now thinking the linux and windows. Would you guys consider actually setting like 60-70% linux and the rest windows in partitions or 100% linux and then use virtual windows for when i need it? any good virtual tools for ubuntu?

(on a side note ive heard about this kde vs gnome.... are they just two different graphics types or does the difference go deeper?)
posted by Javed_Ahamed at 8:23 PM on May 1, 2008

I went through this a few years back - I was doing computer support work in a Microsoft-centric environment, and wanted to learn some new skills, and was enticed by Linux. I installed Ubuntu 5.04 on a 2nd computer, and used it more and more until I was confident I could get by with only that computer.

I found Ubuntu a good fit for 2 reasons:
1) It had very good support for newer/oddball hardware
2) It had a large community base, and was still growing

People rag on Ubuntu, but it really is a great place to start; I realize there are other good distros out there, I just had the best luck with Ubuntu. I started with Ubuntu 5.04. After 3 years of using it (and other distros), I consider myself to be fairly well versed in Linux and have been playing the Linux sysadmin role in my current job (along with VMware/Windows).
posted by bxg at 8:27 PM on May 1, 2008

kde and Gnome are different desktop environments. If you do a standard Ubuntu install, you get Gnome to start with. If you install Kubuntu, you get kde. If you install Xubuntu, you get XFCE instead. All three are also available as standard Ubuntu packages, so you can easily install the ones you're missing and switch between them if you want. Also, software designed to run in any of these environments will generally run fine inside any of the others, though its look and feel might be a bit "foreign".

If you're unsure about which Linux to start with, just start with Ubuntu using Wubi, as drpynchon recommends.
posted by flabdablet at 9:07 PM on May 1, 2008

My CS buddies and I like to poke fun at Vista because it's such a resource hog. Are you happy with the speed of your Vista machine? You might want to consider switching back to XP.

I also recommend Ubuntu. I'm actually partial to Xubuntu specifically, because XFCE is so freaking fast.
posted by theiconoclast31 at 9:13 PM on May 1, 2008

The differences between GNOME and KDE are more than skin deep. Each manages the basic interface elements like your desktop, menus, etc. They also come with a suite of applications; GNOME comes with the gedit text editor, while KDE comes with one called kate. You're free to break either of them down and pick and choose which parts you want, but it's best to pick one and prune it to your tastes. Each desktop environment has its own libraries, and if you decide to mix GNOME and KDE applications you'll end up with a huge /lib directory.

I run a stripped-down GNOME; the OS takes up less than 2 Gb on disk.

It's also important that you aren't stuck with one other the other. Ubuntu installs GNOME by default, but it's very easy to add KDE or XFCE, essentially turning your installation into Ubuntu AND Kubuntu AND Xubuntu.
posted by tylermoody at 9:16 PM on May 1, 2008

Don't try to run Vista in VMWare. It's unusable. (at least, that was my experience, but I only had 1 gig of extra RAM to give the virtual machine... ymmv)
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:17 PM on May 1, 2008

I agree that Ubuntu is a great choice. I'm a professional developer who has used Linux for more than 12 years. While I've tried every major distribution at one time or another, I've been using enjoying Ubuntu for the last three.

Many distributions have come along promising ease of use but the few that actually delivered were "dumbed down" and inappropriate for those who were — or wished to become — experienced Linux users. Of course, many other distributions were approachable only by experienced users.

Ubuntu is the first distribution I feel is just as useful for me as it is for my grandmother. And indeed, my very wonderful grandmother just turned 90 this year and is also a happy Ubuntu user!

One other thing. I can understand that coming from Windows where you only have one shell and one window manager, the choices available in Linux can be overwhelming. But trying out all the different options to see which best suits you is really part of the fun.
posted by tomwheeler at 9:30 PM on May 1, 2008

Ubuntu's good, but I'd say check out PCLinuxOS or the distro it's based off of, Mandriva. Both have a specialized control panel (draktools) which pretty much let you do any administrative task which Ubuntu requires a whole bunch of separate programs for, and both have a large and active community.

It only took me about a month to get comfortable with linux, most of the desktop distros have made leaps and bounds in terms of usability and simplicity in the past couple years. There are a few caveats - Flash can be a real pain in the butt, but that's Adobe's fault. Bleeding edge hardware support is spotty, and good video editing software is practically nonexistent, but overall I'd say it suits most people's needs and then some and is free to boot.
posted by spungfoo at 10:16 PM on May 1, 2008

You mentioned that you're overwhelmed by the number of choices when getting into linux. One of the best things you can do before choosing a distro is to learn about the way the distros are related. Take a look at the wikipedia page for each of the distros with colored bubbles in that image, then take half an hour and read some of that distro's site. You should stick with one of the popular distros for your first install, the lesser-known and lesser-used ones can be hard on newcomers.

Don't put too much trust in articles that compare distributions*, do the research yourself and make up your own opinion. Most distro's have live cds now, so you can easily test-drive them and see which ones you like and which ones rub you the wrong way.

*Usually the author is of one of two types: a person who has been with one distro for many years and sees it as superior because they know it so well, or a person who jumps from distro to distro without taking time to learn the-debian-way or the-gentoo-way.

Go to the forums of any distro you're interested in (ubuntu, fedora, gentoo, mandriva, etc.) and search for your laptop hardware. Don't get discouraged when you see a lot of threads where people with your hardware are having problems, what you want to look for are the solutions. Are they simple enough that you can follow the instructions? You don't have to understand every step completely (that will come with experience) but make sure that you could follow along if you had to. When I was choosing a distro, the gentoo documentation for my hardware was scattered over dozens of forums threads and blog posts, but the ubuntu people had made up a page summarizing all the common problems and their solutions.

The communities around some distributions can be pretty caustic to new users. One of the main reasons Ubuntu has become popular is their community. Most people on the forums earnestly want to help you fix your problem and they're very welcoming of newcomers.
posted by tylermoody at 10:19 PM on May 1, 2008

In terms of dual-booting, I'm not one hundred percent which is better (installing ubuntu first then adding vista, or vice versa). Others can talk about this but my guess is that it's better to install ubuntu first? I may be horribly wrong though!

It's far simpler to install windows first. Linux installers are much more tolerant of an existing OS on a system than the Windows installer - which will happily overwrite the MBR and make your linux system quite difficult to boot.

As to the original q: I'll nth ubuntu... but if you've got a biggish hard disk, I'd say chuck a spare partitition in so you can have somewhere to play with other distros and OSs.
posted by pompomtom at 11:41 PM on May 1, 2008

I used to use a subnotebook laptop, with all the weird low power hardware (and correspondingly oddball drivers) that entails

Ubuntu worked out of the box like a champ. It had great support for ACPI, wireless, and whatever peripherals I wanted.

This was the first time in my experience that a Linux distro (and X) just worked on a laptop.
posted by zippy at 11:53 PM on May 1, 2008

If you really want to run Windows and Linux at the same time, I think you're better off running XP and running a virtual machine with your chosen Linux distribution. I tried to go the Vista route but eventually just gave up and switched back to XP.

Get a copy of VMWare Server, it's free.

The other great thing about this is you can test out a bunch of different Linux distributions without even having to reboot. I run Centos5 which is the free version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, although many people I know swear by Debian. If you have two cpus and a decent amount of memory you won't even notice a performance decrease.
posted by bertrandom at 2:04 AM on May 2, 2008

Plenty of good advice above. I'd also recommend Ubuntu.

One thing to know to help you understand the range of distributions is that there are two big underlying distributions in the GNU/Linux world. These are Red Hat and Debian. While a lot of people don't run these distributions directly, most distributions are based on them. This is particularly important in how software is packaged for installation. Red hat uses the rpm format and Debian uses deb packages. Ubuntu is based on Debian.

As you state that you are studying computer engineering I would also mention the Linux from Scratch project. This walks you through building your own distribution from the source code. This can be completely customised to your particular computer and only have exactly the software you want. If you work through this process (will take some time — makes a good side project) you will end up with a very knowledgeable understanding of the operating system as you will have literally built it. Only possible of course because Free Software always gives you the source code.
posted by Sitegeist at 3:10 AM on May 2, 2008

Should i make a dual boot windows vista and linux or should i just have ubuntu with a virtual windows running in it?

I have both going for different tasks. If all I need to do is use Office or check that something compiles or similar not-too-intensive tasks I have a VMware'd XP setup. VMware server or player is a free download. If something works in wine, I use it in wine. If I want to play something intensive that's windows only, I reboot to a small windows partition.

Install windows first, since it's a huge crybaby about how it gets installed.

As far as distro goes, most modern distros should work for you. Ubuntu's good. I like another debian (which is fine itself) variant, mepis. Mepis has had more luck auto-configuring hardware than anything I've tried (inluding Ubuntu Hardy Heron) with some close competition from PCLOS. For example, my monitor/card combo throws ubuntu for a loop. Mepis rescued the configuration in two clicks.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:18 AM on May 2, 2008

Either way im going to completely wipe my harddrive as i do every year and reinstall windows, or really now thinking the linux and windows. Would you guys consider actually setting like 60-70% linux and the rest windows in partitions or 100% linux and then use virtual windows for when i need it? any good virtual tools for ubuntu?

I would definitely keep a Windows partition. I could never get video to run smoothly using VMWare, and I find that video is the main reason that I dual boot (for example, Netflix streaming movies which use Windows Media Player and don't work with wine).

I don't have a very big hard drive on my laptop, so this is how I split it up:
35GB Ubuntu (plus 1GB swap)
14GB Windows

I would also recommend Wubi. I didn't use it on my own computer (have been dual-booting XP and Ubuntu for about 2 years, so I started way before Wubi came out), but using it to install Ubuntu on a friend's computer a couple weeks ago was a breeze.

(happy to see someone from umd on here!)
posted by puffin at 5:25 AM on May 2, 2008

Response by poster: So if I dual boot windows vista and ubuntu (i have a 160 gb harddrive so maybe 50 gigs vista and the rest ubuntu?) ill have to restart my computer everytime i want to use a different os? And using virtual box to have a virtual vista... how bad really is it on performance if i have 2 gigs ram, 2ghz dual core and 8600 nvidia gt card + 1 gig intel robson(even tho that wont work on ubuntu)..... are we talking about i cant watch my divx movies bad or i cant play team fortress 2 bad
posted by Javed_Ahamed at 7:42 AM on May 2, 2008

Go with the dual boot. I find its too easy to use the host OS when I want to do something in the virtual OS and am too lazy to figure out how.

Go with ubuntu. You'll find their forums are pretty good and newbie friendly. The asshole neckbeard ratio is pretty low there.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:49 AM on May 2, 2008

Also virtualized computers dont generally do 3D acceleration, so you wont get some of the newer eye-candy or any 3D games in the virtualized OS.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:51 AM on May 2, 2008

Tasks i do on my computer:
1. Everything

Haha. hahaha.

No you don't.

To answer the question: I'm a Gentoo and KDE guy. I can't deny that Gentoo breaks more than Ubuntu and asks you to learn a lot, but then Gentoo does a lot more than Ubuntu with a lot fewer developers.
posted by azazello at 8:04 AM on May 2, 2008

Response by poster: Hmmmm..... Well guys I have decided to have two partitions on my computer. One windows vista and the other ubuntu...But i can't really find resources on how to get this setup to work:

1. Vista partition
2. Ubuntu Partition
3. some virtualization program in ubuntu to load up the prexisting #1 vista partition so i can use non cpu intensive programs in vista without rebooting. and if i need to do cpu intensive tasks ill just restart and use windows vista straight.
4. I would also like files to be shared between the two operating systems. like .mp3s and .docs etc so i can open them on either. I heard this is possible because ubuntu can read and write to ntfs as well. (what file system do vista and ubuntu usually use?)

Anyone know any good virtualization programs or how how you would go about doing this?

thanks again!
posted by Javed_Ahamed at 12:58 PM on May 2, 2008

Best answer: Sure, virtualbox or VMWare can do that. Here is someone doing that with one of the Hardy Heron betas, should still work.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:00 PM on May 2, 2008

Best answer: I'd recommend putting five partitions on your disk.

/dev/sda1: 50GB, formatted NTFS, Windows C:, Ubuntu /home/windows
/dev/sda2: 12GB, formatted ext3, Ubuntu /home/ubuntu/alt
/dev/sda3: 12GB, formatted ext3, Ubuntu /
/dev/sda5: 2GB, formatted as swap, Ubuntu swap
/dev/sda6: remaining space, formatted ext3, Ubuntu /home

When distribution upgrade time rolls around, you can copy everything from / to /home/ubuntu/alt before you run the upgrade. That way, if the upgrade breaks anything, you can make a couple minor tweaks in /boot/grub/menu.lst to let you boot up from the non-upgraded partition and try again.

By default, the Ubuntu installer will mount your Windows partition under /media, which means it will show up on your desktop. If that's what you want, then leaving it as /media/windows is fine - otherwise tuck it away in /home/windows as I've shown above.

The only trouble you might strike when using your Windows partition to store Ubuntu files is that Ubuntu will not respect Windows's access control, and will allow any Ubuntu user to see and change any NTFS file. Also, any files that Ubuntu creates on an NTFS filesystem are given Full Control for Everyone NTFS permissions. I don't see this changing any time soon, either; the NTFS and POSIX file security models are very different.

If you're running the same Windows installation both natively and inside a VM, you may or may not run into trouble due to Microsoft's overzealous EULA enforcement mechanisms.
posted by flabdablet at 11:10 PM on May 2, 2008

I got a second hard drive for ubuntu as it seemed to make dual boot is a lot simpler and safer
posted by canoehead at 7:18 PM on May 3, 2008

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