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Flipping the Linux switch: 5 tips every new Linux user should know

Linux is a powerful operating system, but chances are it's a very different operating system than any you've used before. The dizzying number of choices in distributions alone is enough to make your head spin, but it also means there's something out there that really suits your computing style. There are some things in Linux you just have to work out for yourself -- distributions, applications, neato screen savers (hey, we like distractions as much as the next guy).

We're taking a departure from the norm this week and not discussing a specific piece of software. Instead, we've been thinking about what we most wished we'd been told on our first foray into Linux-land. These tips run the gamut from installation planning to how to best ask for help. We chose these tips because they are not distribution-specific, and the majority of new users will at least find a few tips apply to their situation at some point.


1. Experiment with LiveCDs

Reason: LiveCDs are full-bodied, working versions of Linux you can run without touching your hard drive. Many distributions now offer LiveCDs, and we recommend trying a few to really get a feel for the different Linux flavors and desktops. If you've chosen a distribution that doesn't have a LiveCD, we strongly recommend having a live disk of some sort around. If you should be unable to boot your system (yes, even Windows!) you can use your LiveCD to repair damage or retrieve files that you can't live without.

2. Install /home on a separate partition

We have our qualms about mentioning this, due to the involvement of two subjects new users find intimidating anyway: partitioning and installing. But it's probably the single most useful thing to know as a Linux user, and will make management and any subsequent installs of your system a whole lot easier.

Reason: Installing /home (your user folders) on a separate hard drive partition means this: If you want to try another flavor of Linux (or you mess something up beyond belief) you can keep all your /home folders (and their contents) intact.

How to do it: This is most easily set up when first installing Linux (though it can be done after the fact). It's a bit tricky because you'll need to manually partition your disk, either through the system's installer or through a program like fdisk. We recommend using the system's installer should your distribution have one that handles partitioning (Ubuntu, openSuSE and most distros that new users tackle first have built-in system partitioners). Trust us, it's easier that way.

In its simplest form, you'll need three partitions on your disk with the mount points /, /home, and swap. Swap should be the smallest (the usual recommendation for swap is twice the size of your RAM). /home and / can be divided over the remainder of the disk space, and it's okay to make /home larger if you've got ridiculous amounts of drive space.
System Partitioner Kubuntu Linux with example partitions
What happens: Linux puts all your programs, logs, and system-wide settings on the / partition. All of your documents and user-specific settings are saved on the /home partition. If you decide to change distributions, or if something gets irreconcilably borked, you can reinstall Linux by reformatting the / partition and leaving the /home partition unformatted (remember to make the partition the /home mountpoint again, though!). Set yourself up with the same username(s) when configuring the system, and everything from your address book to your photos should be accessible.

3. When in doubt, use the vesa drivers!

Reason: Graphics support is sometimes an issue with Linux. Many distros give you the option to configure your card if it is not immediately recognized by the system. This is where a lot of new users get tripped up. They tend to pick the driver that seems closest to their graphics card model. Sometimes they're lucky, and it works. But if you're a brand new user, your safest bet is to use the vesa driver. You won't get fancy effects, and it'll look ugly, but you will have a graphical interface. You can then search for the correct drivers for your card.

4. Fear not the command line.

Reason: You don't need to be a guru to use the command line. Sometimes the quickest, easiest way of getting to the root of a problem is to whip open a terminal, and type the name of the program you want to run. If it's segfaulting, or can't find a component it needs... the output will tell you. The command line often gives you hooks to dig into a problem, whereas just clicking on the launcher might just get you an endlessly bouncing cursor and nothing to go on. Linux is particularly forthcoming with useful error messages, but you need to know where to look.

5. Ask for help before you get frustrated.

Reason: Frustration makes things worse for everyone. Going into a forum and prefacing your problem with "This sucks, I'm going back to Windows/Mac" (whether you mean it or not) doesn't make people more willing to help.

Best ways to get help: If you've heard it once, you've heard it a gazillion times: Google is your friend. If you have a problem with something on your system, chances are someone else has too. If the solutions you find don't help, by all means post your question to a pertinent forum or mailing list, telling all the details. We mean all the details. Tell the world your hardware, distribution, error messages, show any logs or configuration files you think might be useful, and explain what you've tried to do to solve it. Nothing makes an old Linux user happier than hearing a tech question beginning, "I searched here, here and here, tried this, and this, and I still have a problem."

Making the switch to Linux can be intimidating, but it doesn't have to be. There is a lot of advice out there, some good, some bad, and some that just won't apply to your situation. With these five tips in your arsenal, you're well on your way to a positive Linux experience.

Tags: Linux, linux-switch, new, new user, newbie, NewUser, opensource, operating system, OperatingSystem, osupdates, tips, tricks, user

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