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Before Linux Installation

What distribution should I use, how to obtain it, Linux hardware requirements, how to partition your hard drive, about dual boot, which packages to install, which graphical user interface (GUI) to install (gnome or kde?), and how to login for the very first time.

Which Linux distribution should I use?

Linux distribution is a coherent collection of free software with the Linux kernel (operating system) at its center. To run Linux, you normally need to download (or buy) a Linux distribution on CD/DVD. There are many distributions available, but most are based on the Big Three: Debian, Redhat/Fedora or Slackware.

The differences between the various Linux distributions ("distros") are minor: the installation program, choice of the bundled applications and tools, arrangement of a few things on the hard drive. Regardless of your choice of distro, most of Linux is still at the same, and standard hard drive locations are used for essential items. Whichever distribution you decide to install, you will end up with essentially the same Linux.

For desktop use, a common choice is Mandriva Linux (originally called Mantrake), Fedora (formery known as "Red Hat Linux" "RedHat" or RH), or the increasingly more popular Ubuntu for the following reasons:

  1. They are very popular (both an advantage for a newbie and a testimony to their quality).
  2. They are general-purpose distributions.
  3. They come with relatively easy setup programs.
  4. Mandriva, Fedora and Ubuntu contributions to Linux are "open software" (this means that all the software written by the packaging corporations and included on the distribution CDs is licensed under the General Public License, GPL, so that it can be legally copied, given away, reused, etc.).
  5. Mandriva, Fedora and Ubuntu can be obtained cheaply or free if you don't care for commercial support. This is a consequence of (4).
  6. Mandriva was originally based on RedHat, so the distributions are quite similar. Software packages for RedHat often work on Mandriva (and vice versa) without problems. However, Mandriva is a bit more automatized and makes a somewhat nicer desktop than Fedora. At the same time, Mandriva sometimes is not as rock stable as Fedora.
  7. Ubuntu is a distribution based on Debian, one of the oldest and largest distributions available.

In short, as a newbie, you can safely bet on Mandriva, Fedora, or Ubuntu unless you like something else or have specialized needs, or your environment suggests using something else (e.g., if you have an experienced guru nearby, or a bunch of friends who are using Linux, you may want to use the same distribution - makes getting help a whole lot easier).

The most recent distributions we recommend (May 2007) is Mandriva 2007 Spring, Fedora 7 (the predesessor of Fedora was "RedHat 9.0"), or Ubuntu 7.04. These are all excellent distributions. Be sure to specify the most recent version if ordering your software from a dealer-many dealers like to clear their inventory by sending you an older version (this applies not only to Linux). Generally, development under Linux is fast, and you don't want to waste your time with older distributions. The authors of this guide have no connection to Mandriva, Fedora and Ubuntu (or any other Linux distributor) whatsoever.

Our recommendation for newbies does not mean that other distributions don't offer benefits or unique features which may surpass Mandriva, Fedora or Ubuntu in specific areas. We do believe that we benefited from exposure to a different distribution because it helped us understand Linux better.

Popular Distributions


We tried Debian and we liked it very much. It was probably as easy as Fedora, but Debian seems less common (hence, being newbies, we picked up Mandriva or Fedora). The great benefit of Debian is that it is 100% non-commercial (put together by volunteer hackers, the true Linux way) and it probably most strictly adheres to Linux standards (it probably sets the standards too). Another great benefit is that Debian crams on their numerous distribution CDs thousands of tools and applications-easily much more than any other distribution. All these tools/apps are nicely "packaged" (for ease of installation) and tested for compatibility. This makes Debian distro look monumental, safe, conservative, and always somewhat outdated. So yes, we would not have a problem recommending Debian as a great general-purpose Linux distribution. Debian calls itself "The Universal Operating System" for a good reason. At any time, Debian carries 3 versions. (1) The "stable" version (sometimes called "potato"), and we would not recommend it, unless you are really paranoid on stability and don't mind quite outdated packages. (2) The Debian "testing" version (sometimes called "woody") is probably as stable as the latest RedHat, and more stable than your current Mandriva. It is much more up do date than Debian "stable". Debian Woody is the version we like. (3) If you don't mind occasional trouble, you can also the the third branch called "unstable", which is likely quite up-to-date.


Slackware is a favorite among experienced users who don't like to deal with the ever changing graphical setup programs. Slackware is a very simple distribution without any fancy tools while still being extreamly capable and hence is one of our favourates. It relies on the user to know which setup files to edit for almost all configuration tasks. Therefore, with a bit of effort, a computer-literate administrator can actually understand what is going on in her operating system (this is not something I can always say about Mandriva, or MS Windows for that matter). We would have trouble recommending Slackware for a Linux newbie unless the newbie has command-line experience.


Zenwalk is a minimalistic distribution based on Slackware. The idea behind Zenwalk is to provide a modern environment with all the latest stable software. The distribution is optimized for performance and only has one mainstream application for each task while including a full development/desktop/multimedia environment. I find this distribution easy to use and would recommend this distribution for anyone with an older computer or laptop.


S.u.S.E Linux distribution ( is very popular in Europe. It surely looks German-a solid, general-purpose distro with an easy setup and an excellent reputation. Many users swear by SuSe. We couldn't find cheap Suse CDs though but it appears you can download it (I cannot find a link). Their product includes propriatory additions that will satisfy enterprise-level need to interface some popular propriatory applications (MS Exchange, Cross-over office, etc).


Knoppix Linux ( is another distribution worth consideration. The main point of Knoppix is that it is a "live distro", i.e., it can be booted from a CD, without installation. This is excellent for trying Linux (if you like it, you can also install Knoppix on the hard drive). It is also makes a perfect disaster-recovery tool (distro on a CD is also safe because no malicious program can do anything to your executables, and non-invasive for the local storage as required for post-mortem analyses). Knoppix is also useful if you have to work under Linux on sombody elses computer: you insert Knoppix CD into the CDdrive, and perhaps exteral storage on the usb port (for personal storage), and you are all set to work in your own environment. When done, you take your chips home. You can mount the local computer resources if you have to. Interesting tool.


Gentoo seems to have some strong following. In Gentoo (hearsay, never used it), they have a cool installation/upgrade system which does anything from sources (a local compilation is required). Long compilations can be joy to watch but, well, they can take time. The resulting executables are taylored to your hardware so they are perhaps smaller or faster than those on a more-standard "already cooked" (binary) Linux distribution.

Xandros (formally Corel Linux)

Corel was once working on their own Linux distribution (based on Debian) apparently geared towards a nice and easy platform to run the Corel suite of office applications: WordPerfect wordprocessor, QuattroPro spreadsheet, Corel Presentations, Paradox database, CorelDraw artist package.... Xandros is a company that was founded in May of 2001 and is headquartered in Ottawa, Canada. Xandros acquired Corel Linux along with the development team behind the product from Corel Corporation in August 2001 after Corel decided to leave the Linux distribution market. Apparently, Xandros is configured to look like MS Windows by default. Is that a good thing?


Caldera was once another well-known distribution. It was said to be aiming at corporate users, had a fancy (and pricey) configuration tools, and other corporate goodies. In Aug.2000, Caldera purchased SCO Unix (the original trademarked ancient UNIX) which gave them an even more "corporate" look in my eyes. Caldera did not seem to care too much about home Linux users, so I never considered it for my home use. In early 2003, Caldera (renamed SCO) evidently swiched to different, perhaps more profitable, business model ("fire programmers, hire lawyers"). I will surely stay clear of anything that might bear the name SCO or Caldera on it because I do not like the idea of paying US$1399 for the right to run Linux on a single-processor computer or being sued. Caldera/SCO Linux distro certainly does not have any future.

Comments About Linux Distributions

There are "localized" versions of Linux for specific countries or languages (Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Hungarian, French, ... )-they likely contain (on default) all the hacks and docs (documentation) that the users in these countries want to see. Says Bill Staehle: "You may want to mention the Conectiva Linux distribution, loosely based on RH from Brazil. As such, it is in Portugese, and is also available in Spanish. Try:". I heard several good things about Conectiva, so if Portugese or Spanish was my language, I would probably give it a try.

There are also "special purpose" distributions, e.g. the "real-time" editions of Linux (might be useful if you are in for automation, robotics, fast speed data acquisition, etc.), very small distros (if you like the idea of running Linux from a single floppy which can be useful for system security or recovery), Linux for embedded systems (if you wanted to customize Linux as a small "special purpose" device, which could be good for the next-generation stereo, MP3 player, palm computer, or a fancy cellular phone), parallel computing and clustering systems (might be great if you plan to do your own weather forecasting :-) or at least nuclear explosion simulations :p ), etc. Here the differences will be larger, but these distributions are not meant to be "general purpose". As a newbie, you likely don't want to start with any of these, although you might be tempted to. (They surely show Linux strength and viability-Linux runs on toys, even a wrist watch, as well as computer clusters that make the currently fastest systems in the world.)

The distribution you need is of course specific to the hardware platform you have. This means that for your PC hardware containing an Intel 386 processor, or Intel 486, or Intel Pentium, or Intel 586, or Intel 686, or Cyrix, or K6, AMD, or similar, you need the binary distribution called "Intel" or "386" or x86. [Unless you are prepared to start with your own compilation of the Linux source code, which is not typical for a newbie :-)] . This happens because there are binary distributions for other hardware platforms too: PowerPC, Alpha, Apple, IBM mainframe, "Intel StrongARM", Transmeta, and perhaps a dozen more-you don't want to get those binaries for your PC clone; they surely will not work on a PC machine with an "Intel" or "AMD" processor inside. If you have no-Intel hardware, you may want to search the Internet to find who supports it (chances are Debian does, they seem to support even the most exotic ones. Then, you need to obtain "Debian ARM" or "Debian Motorola 680x0"or "Debian PowerPC" or "Debian SPARC ", ...).

In short, although newbies get confused with the multiple Linux distributions, there are reasons to have different distros. They should be viewed as a Linux strength rather than weakness. Linux is simply filling all application and hardware platform niches. The drawback is that there are some "funny" distribution to avoid if you plan your serious business to depend on Linux.

This guide concentrates on Fedora and Mandriva for the PC (Intel) platform but many of the answers may work fine on other distributions and platforms.

Will my hardware work under Linux?

Not every piece of PC hardware is supported under Linux, but most are, particularly the more standard, older, and popular ones. This applies to SCSI adapters, CDROMs, writable and rewritable CDs (CD-R and CD-RW), video cards, mice, printers, modems, network cards, scanners, Iomega drives, etc.

As Linux support for hardware changes on a daily basis an internet search is the best way to determine the compatibility of your hardware. A good place to start includes:

If a piece of hardware of yours is (apparently) not supported in your current Linux distribution, don't give up. Chances are that: (1) It is supported, but you don't know how to set it up. (Solution: stay around with Linux for a few weeks, don't waste your time, when you get some understanding of how your system works, then you may be able to set it up.) (2) You have to go through a more complex setup to support the hardware (for example some cryptic command or a kernel re-compile, which is not as difficult as it seems). (3) An updated (different?) distribution already supports it "out-of-box". (4) There is already an upgrade somewhere on the Internet, you have to find it, download it, and figure out how to install it. (5) The upgrade will be available next month-Linux development goes really fast!

Getting Linux

If you do have a speedy Internet connection (definitely not a 56k-modem, but perhaps cable modem) a Linux download may be an option to you. In general you can download a specific distribution of Linux from the respective distributions website. Another option is try for ready-to-burn CD/DVD images (the ISO format) of your selected Linux distribution. If you don't have the bandwidth, you can buy ready CDs/DVDs from many websites online (including distrowatch) or borrow a set from friends already using Linux
next up previous contents
Next: Linux Shortcuts and Commands Up: Linux Newbie Administrator Guide Previous: Introduction   Contents