SoSLUG Archive

Linux overview

Linux overview for novices

The purpose of this document, is to introduce Linux to novices. Written by a comparative novice, it aims (unlike other similar documents) to see it from a novice perspective. All sorts of fears can be incorrectly assumed, just because you have been used to doing something in Microsoft Windows® (MS-Win) and it is different (note: DIFFERENT NOT DIFFICULT) in Linux.

So I’ll talk a little about the system itself, common differences and finally, a recommended distribution (known as a distro) for novices.

The Linux system.

Linux® is the registered trademark of Linus Torvalds ( ) a Finish software genius and initiator of Linux. Over the years since its inception, Linux has gathered thousands of talented programmers worldwide, that contribute to various parts of the system. As Linux is modular in its structure, almost any computer related software can be built providing you have the knowledge. It can be found in things as diverse as cash registers, mobile phones, embedded machinery controllers, routers, aircraft entertainment systems and all manner of other devices. It is arguably much more secure than some other systems due to its architecture and tends to not suffer from viruses or malware, although nothing can be considered infallible.


The very first thing you MUST understand, is all Linux distros are case sensitive. So even logging on to your favourite distro means you MUST take very careful note of how you constructed your password. Typing Password, is not the same in Linux as password and will result in a log-in being rejected.

When it comes to installation, you need to determine where on your hard drive the Linux distro will reside. This can cause a great deal of confusion and in some cases even cause the abandonment of the whole idea.

In MS-Win, you have been used to hard drives being allocated letters; C: D: etc. Linux uses a different nomenclature. Each hard drive is known as a device and uses a system of letters and numbers to be identified. The older IDE hard drives are identified as a device and hard drive and may be seen as something like this /dev/hda This would be the first hard drive (hard drive a) on your computer. If you had a second hard drive, it would appear as /dev/hdb and so on. If any of these hard drives has more than one partition, a number is added to the system. So for example, if our first hard drive has two partitions, (both primary) they would appear as /dev/hda1 and /dev/hda2 Linux can have up to four Primary partitions on a hard drive, therefore, any logical drives in an extended partition will start their numbering from five. It is not therefore unusual to see on a multi-partition MS-Win system, /dev/hda1 /dev/hda5 /dev/hda6 for example. This would be the first primary partition (/dev/hda1) and two more logical partitions within the extended partition (/dev/hda5 and /dev/hda6).

SATA drives are very similar, but are recognised in Linux as being SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) drives. The h is replaced by a s, so /dev/hda1 becomes /dev/sda1

Floppy drives become /dev/fd0 and if you have two /dev/fd1 (note the 0 and 1 identifiers).

This clearly only scratches the surface of this complex subject, but hopefully offers enough information for you to be able to identify the drive you wish to install Linux on.

It also leads me to another difference in the Linux world. You will notice above, I have used forward slashes (/) throughout. In the main (though not exclusively) / is used in commands.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, give yourself a pat on the back and go an make a cup of tea! Clearly you have enough interest to maybe try out a Linux distro and provided you are willing to keep an open mind, you will discover the power of open source software.

Recommended distro.

Contrary to popular belief, I will introduce you to a way of trying Linux without installing anything on your computer. This method is widely known as a Live Distro runs totally from the CD/DVD. Many of the mainstream Linux vendors now offer this option. It is essential however, that I point out that this method (while great for evaluating a distro) will run a lot slower than a properly installed system. This is due to the requirement for the CD (or DVD) to be accessed for data while the system is being run, and that is a lot slower than an installed system. However, it is a guaranteed safe way to try Linux without leaving a trace on your machine.

With this in mind, I’m going to suggest you try Linux Mint available here:

This is a Live CD that compresses a huge amount of data on to a CD, so even if you don’t have a DVD drive, it’s not a problem. There is also a DVD, which has even more applications, but can only be used if you have a DVD drive. There are also a number of other (I believe) good reasons to suggest this distro. First, like almost all modern Linux distro’s it has a stability that you will have never experienced in MS-Win. It also boasts a terrific hardware recognition library, that recognises all but the most obscure hardware, so installation should be a breeze. This is particularly relevant if you are trying it on a laptop, as it’s wireless recognition is second to none. It is also multi-media friendly straight “out of the box”.

Download the iso and burn it to a blank CD. Your particular burning program will explain how, but you can also find help here: If you know how to carry out a check-sum check, it’s recommended to make sure you don’t have a corrupted download.

In order to run the Live CD, you will need to make sure your computer can start up from a CD drive. This is done by adjusting your computers BIOS to make sure the first boot device is set to CD. Don’t be frightened by this, it’s a simple adjustment that can be done by anyone. If you’re unfamiliar with the procedure, please read the following paragraph, otherwise feel free to skip it.

On initial boot-up, take a careful note of the writing on your screen. Somewhere will be the equivalent of Press Delete to enter setup. It may not be delete, but could be a F key or something else, but whatever it is, keep tapping the key until you enter the BIOS setup screens. Look for something similar to Advanced BIOS Features and select it. (The bottom of the screen will tell you how to navigate around the BIOS, but it’s often the arrows and page up/down keys that make the appropriate adjustments). Select your First boot device to CDROM and then save and exit. If you get scared, Esc will take you out and unless you tell the BIOS to make changes, no changes will be made. Esc also takes you back to the main menu once you have made your adjustments. Don’t be tempted to change anything else in there unless you know exactly what you’re doing.

Now place your live CD in the drive and re-boot the machine. You may have to hit Enter if your particular computer requires it to boot from the CD. Just follow the on screen menus (your mouse should be active) clicking on the appropriate settings. Invariably, the defaults should be OK if you’re unsure.

You will arrive at a desktop, that is fully functional. You can use any of the applications and even connect and surf the Internet.

If you like it, there is an installation option on the desktop, which you will discover, is pretty much self explanatory. Just make sure you backup any important data first. There are many tutorials all over the Internet explaining the installation process. There’s one I wrote here: which although it refers to PCLinuxOS, is practically the same as Linux Mint.

Finally, I should also mention there are thousands more free programs available via the “Synaptic” package manager. if you choose to install the system properly. Almost anything you want to do on a computer, is available in Linux via the click of a button.

Have fun!

Author: Alan Campion - Page reference: 642
Last modified: Alan Campion - 2014-08-14