Whether you want to start a career in IT, whether you hate Microsoft or whether you’re simply curious, it’s never been easier to get started with Linux. This article will show you easy ways to dip your toes into the world of Linux and open-source software.

While Linux on the desktop has never made a dent against Windows and probably never will thanks to the growth of smartphones and tablets (a lot of which actually run Linux), it’s still a viable alternative as well as a lot of fun.

Choosing a Distro

Linux is not a monolithic operating system, as many GNU partisans will point out, insisting that Linux should really be referred to as "GNU/Linux." Nowhere is this more apparent than in the various distributions you can find on the Internet. Some are general-purpose systems, others are geared toward specific uses, such as forensics.

A good choice for beginners is Ubuntu, and not just because it happens to be the most popular desktop distribution. Ubuntu is explicitly designed to hold the hands of new Linux users with its easy hardware detection and emphasis on ease of use. Another good choice is Linux Mint, which is based on Ubuntu but offers out-of-the-box multimedia support and an even more familiar interface in contrast to the controversial Unity interface that Ubuntu uses.

Live Media

One of the easiest ways to get started in Linux, no matter what distro you choose, is through a "live" distro. This means that the OS is run off of a CD or USB stick without being installed on a hard drive.

All you need to do is download the .iso file from the distro’s website and either burn it to a CD or use a tool like UNetbootin to copy it to a spare USB drive. You can then boot into the Linux system to try it out, without having to make the commitment of actually installing it on your system.

Virtualization

Another method you can use is virtualization. You can use VMware or Virtualbox to run Linux inside of Windows in a virtual machine, without having to dual boot your computer. It’s similar to using live media. You just download the .iso file and use that to boot the virtual machine you’ve created. The advantage of doing it this way is that you can actually save files to the virtual machine and get a faster experience than working solely off a CD.

Dual Booting

The next method, and the standard method until desktop virtualization became widely available, was to create a "dual-boot" machine that had both Windows and Linux. It’s the fastest method, but can be difficult for those who don’t have experience installing operating systems. Most modern distros make this fairly easy, letting you repartition the hard drive and install a bootloader that lets you choose either Windows or Linux when you boot your computer. It works best if you install Windows first, then Linux, because the Windows installation process likes to overwrite the Master Boot Record with its own bootloader.

If you’ve got an extra PC lying around, you might also try installing Linux on that. It’s an especially good replacement for Windows XP, as Microsoft finally stopped supporting it in 2014.

Getting Help

It can be challenging learning your way around a new operating system, especially if things aren’t working the way they should. Fortunately, there are several ways to get help. Almost all distributions maintain some kind of online help, including forums and IRC channels.

The first place to start is the documentation. The most famous (or infamous) is the manual pages, or manpages, but these pages are dense and even many computer scientists have trouble understanding them.

It’s no surprise, then, that online support is so popular with the Linux community. All of the major distros maintain support channels, from chat to forums. Users can come together to solve problems. If you’re having a problem, chances are someone else has encountered the same thing and has found a solution, or perhaps you can share a fix to someone else’s issue.

You might want to check out a local user group if you’re looking for more face-to-face interaction. If you live around a major city or a university, you probably have a local user’s group that meets regularly near you.

Canonical, the maker of Ubuntu, also offers paid phone support, but it’s really geared more toward business use rather than personal support.

Conclusion

For whatever reason you want to dip your toes into Linux, it’s easy for you to do so, while still letting you keep one foot in Windows if you need to, from live CDs to dual booting, it's never been easier to try out Linux.