If you’ve recently converted to Linux from Windows, or if you’re just giving Linux a shot, there are a few things you need to know right off the bat about how Linux works and where the major differences are when compared to Windows. Some of the fundamental components are different between the two operating systems, and the way things are done can be drastically different; you need to learn these differences to be able to use Linux effectively, and to avoid trying to force Windows metaphors onto a Linux system that doesn’t accept them.
Here is a list of five tips that beginner Linux users should know:
- Drives don’t have letters, they have mountpoints
- There is no registry
- Software comes from the repos, not CDs or websites
- Don’t login as root
- Help is available — and it’s free!
The first thing that usually trips up people who come from Windows to Linux is that filesystems aren’t assigned letters the way they are in Windows. Instead, there is a single root filesystem whose path is “/”. If you must use the Windows analogy to help you conceptualize it, you can think of this as the C:\ drive; it’s the top of the filesystem.
Linux mounts new drives in folders inside the root filesystem. You’ll notice that if you plug in a USB key, it will be mounted to a path like “/media/partition-name”. This makes more sense because in Linux, there is a single filesystem layout, starting at root (“/” or “slash”) and everything is located beneath it; for example, user files go in /home (“slash home”). If you want to keep your user files on a separate disk or partition, you don’t have an E: drive; instead you simply mount your separate disk as /home.
Linux doesn’t use a single database of configuration options, the way Windows does with its registry. Instead, there are many individual configuration files, typically in a simple text format (but increasingly in XML), that can be edited by hand using a text editor if need-be. You’ll find the system-wide configuration files in the /etc directory; your user-specific configuration files will typically be located in hidden directories in your home folder.
This is better than Windows because it means that there is no single point of failure for system configuration. If one configuration file becomes corrupt, only that function breaks and everything else works fine. It also makes it easy to backup configuration files — it’s the same as copying all other files — and to troubleshoot problems: often if you ask for help on the internet, the first thing people will ask for is a copy of your configuration files.
In the Windows world, if you need to find a program to perform a task you’ll typically have to Google for it and install it using its own installer. Or, you can go to the store and browse the CDs in the software aisle. You wind up hoping that it uninstalls correctly later, and that you don’t pick up viruses from some unknown program you found on an obscure website. Popular Linux distributions, by contrast, have done away with this “hunt and peck” style of software installation, and replaced it with the concept of “software repositories.” These are centralized locations where any maintained software package is kept, and it allows you (by way of the operating system) to maintain tighter control over what exactly is present on your system by giving you a single place to manage all the programs on your machine.
When you want to install a program, you simply fire up the add/remove programs utility, search for the program you need, and install it. The package manager will figure out all the requirements and do the work for you — and the same goes for when you want to uninstall the program, too. This keeps your computer clean of unnecessary programs, and helps to make sure you don’t wind up installing some program that is going to steal all your personal data.
It’s common practice for Windows users to login as the system administrator all the time. This is one of the major reasons why Windows computers are so easily infected with viruses and malware; you are always playing God, and any program can do anything it wants. In Linux, the administrator is called “root”, and you should use root access only when you absolutely need it. Modern distributions and interfaces will prompt you for the root password when it’s required, such as when you try to install programs or modify system settings. Aside from this, you should always log in as a regular user. You’ll find that you don’t need to be an administrator user all the time, and that your system survives much longer because of it!
Changing to Linux can be fun and educational — but it can also be frustrating when you find something that doesn’t work quite right, or when you can’t figure out how to do something you need to get done. One of the best parts about switching to Linux is that there are plenty of people who have done it before, and who were once in the same place you are now, and they are more than happy to help you out. Don’t hesistate to ask for help — see my article on eight ways to get help with linux for tips on where to ask and how to get your questions answered.
What were some of the biggest challenges you had when switching to Linux? What are some things you know now that you wish you’d known then? Put your words of wisdom in the comments below!