Five things to know when you switch to Linux

[ Sunday, 19 November 2006, ariadacapo ]

If you have just installed GNU/Linux on your computer, and have only ever used Windows before, here are five things you need to know to get going rapidly.

Author: Olivier Cleynen

#1: App-searching is a pleasure, or:
How to install and uninstall programs

On Windows, you were probably used to find a given program on the Internet, download a setup.exe file, and then install the program in something like C:\Program Files.

Things are very different on GNU/Linux.

On most main distributions, finding, downloading, installing and uninstalling applications is done with one single add/remove program.

|| the Ubuntu installation program ||
Pic.1 Software installation in Ubuntu

Within this program, a wealth of useful, free and gratis software has been listed, sorted and described for you. You need only select/deselect the programs you wish to install/uninstall, and apply your changes. The download and set-up will be done automatically.

You do not have to worry about where the program is installed. You do no have to worry about viruses, malware or “demo” programs (the application list has been constructed and checked carefully by your distribution’s programmers).

This aspect of GNU/Linux is probably the most satisfying and enjoyable to newcomers. Don’t be afraid to try new things out and enjoy your time!

Also on a more advanced installation tutorial.

#2: Be wary when going root, or:
The command-line and the root user

Whichever operation you are doing on your GNU/Linux computer, it can be done by typing code.

Therefore, when you ask for advice, advanced users might reply with a series of coded commands for you to type in your computer, rather than long explanations on “where to click”. This method is called the command-line and code is entered through a small program called a terminal. You do not need to know how to type code for a normal use.

|| Terminal Program snapshot ||
Pic.2 System console

On Windows, the main computer user is allowed to run any program and change any system parameter. In the Linux world, however, things are different.

A normal user is allowed to perform normal actions, such as moving/writing files, launch normal applications, etc.

Only the root user, however, is able to modify system configuration, update the system, and install programs. This restriction makes sure that any malicious program inadvertently run by a normal user, because it hasn’t got root privileges, may not cause much harm.

When you attempt to do something only the root user can do, you will be prompted for the root password. Therefore, you should have a password set for the root user, even if it’s very simple: this will prevent yourself from inadvertently damaging your system.

Whenever your computer prompts you for a password, be wary and make sure you know what you are doing.

When using the command-line, getting root user privileges is done by typing sudo before the command (it means: super-user do and you will be prompted for a password). If you are asked to type a command starting with sudo and you are not sure what it means, ask in a forum (we suggest the beginner-friendly

More on the terminal and the root account.

#3: Two (different) sides to a coin, or:

You will quickly come across two frequently used names in the GNU/Linux world: GNOME and KDE.

Windows only has one look and feel, however, the GNU/Linux world has many. In particular, GNOME and KDE are the most popular desktop environments.

Under one desktop environment, you run the same computer, with the same Linux distribution, with the same files, as under another. What you alter is the graphical display: the way windows are managed and things are viewed.

|| a KDE Snapshot ||
Pic.3 Sample KDE desktop

||a GNOME Snapshot||
Pic.4 Sample GNOME desktop

Most programs run equally well under KDE or GNOME. Some more specific applications –generally programs whose name starts with a K or G (such as KOffice or Gedit)– simply look better in their native environment.

You might find that KDE favors graphical artifacts, configuration menus, customization possibilities, to enable impressive desktops. GNOME, on the other hand, might appear more frugal for it favors simpler, cleaner and easier (if maybe less advanced) menus and graphical configuration. In any case, both enable very sleek, attractive and/or productive desktops -only in different ways.

GNU/Linux distributions often come with a default desktop environment (for example, Ubuntu with GNOME, and OpenSUSE with KDE), but you are able (and encouraged) to try a different one. There are also other desktop environments, perhaps most notably the less hardware-intensive Xfce.

More on desktop environments on

#4: You-may you-may-not, or:
File permissions

The file permissions determine who is able to access, move or modify each given file. The GNU/Linux system is very strict with these (there is no way to bypass or ignore them), and treats a folder the exact same way as a file.

||File Permissions Snapshot||
Pic.5 File permissions in UNIX

There are three types of actions on the file: read (self explanatory), write (the ability to change and move the file), and execute. The latter, execute, is a bit peculiar:

  • Setting a file as an executable means the system will try to run it as a program when you open it. This is potentially dangerous and you should never do this if you are unsure;
  • Setting a folder as executable simply means that programs will be able to access its contents (this is a default property). For example, your vacation photos folder will be executable, so that you may browse your photos with your favorite program.

The file owner is the only user who can modify the permissions. He can set different permissions for himself (the “file owner“), defined groups of users (“user groups“), and all other users (“others“).

In practice, all of your files (usually stored in /home/your_user_name/ ) will always have permissions set so that you may access and change them. You won’t be able to access other users’ files at all (they are usually stored in /home/someone_else/ ), and you won’t be able to change system files (files such as the ones in /bin/ or /dev/ ) without the root password.

#5: Five more quick tips, or:
Various additional details

Some miscellaneous points that might be useful:

  • No defragmenting needed

    You may be used to regularly defragment your hard drive under Windows. Under GNU/Linux, however, the file systems in use are extremely resistant to fragmentation so that this is completely unnecessary.

  • Anti-viruses made redundant

    Because GNU/Linux is very secure, running an anti-virus is not necessary either (unless you deal with Windows files under an emulator, or pass them on to Windows users). Be careful when you go root, and keep your system up-to-date with the automatic security updates: you’ll stay safe.

  • Case-sensitive filenames

    Filenames under GNU/Linux are case-sensitive. This means that report.odt, Report.odt, and report.ODT will all be different files that can be in one given folder. This is inherent to the system and you cannot change it.

  • Hidden files start with a dot

    Files and folders whose name starting with a dot (like a .thumbnails folder) are hidden. There are usually many such files and folders in your home directory, containing your settings for the programs you use (do not erase or alter them). You can activate the viewing of the hidden files usually through the “view” menu of your file manager.

  • Accounting for hardware

    There are sometimes different software versions, according to different hardware. “Normal” computers are often named “i386″ or “x86″ computers; But there are sometimes “64-bit” versions for 64-bit-processor computers, and versions for Mac hardware (including the G5, G4, G3 series). Unless you have special hardware, you can simply run the “x86″ (or “i386″) version.


This is by no means a complete tutorial to GNU/Linux, merely a quick list of information to get newcomers going rapidly.

There is a great number of things you can learn to do with GNU/Linux, and the web is full of good places to guide you. You can start with the First steps section right here on, and then head off to the forums where advanced users and beginners are all welcome.

Enjoy the free software world! You’ll never want to go back.

About the Author

Olivier Cleynen

Student in France; Concerned with freedom in computing. I also like photography, reading, listening to music, windsurfing. Still looking for the meaning of life......

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