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What should I see when a Linux machine starts up?
First of all, you should see the usual startup messages as the BIOS runs. The Linux boot screen will then be shown which will present a number of options. The default option (usually the top one) will take you directly into the normal startup of the Linux system. Other options will be presented, which in the case of a dual booting setup, will include an option to startup Microsoft Windows, typically the lower option. Other Linux options relate to starting Linux in single user/system rescue mode. Use the Up/Down keys to move the various options, and then the Return key to select. There is a timeout (default setting is usually 5 seconds) after which the system will start without user input.
As Linux continues to load, a LOT of text will scroll up the screen. Under normal circumstances, this need not concern you. It's simply Linux reporting the various operations that are executed during startup. This could be helpful in the unlikely event that something goes wrong. Eventually, and after a short pause, you should see a login screen. After logging in, you will be presented with a full graphical window type desktop ready to go!
Access to application software can be gained via sensibly organised menu systems. In the case of Debian v6 and Ubuntu v10, You will see the Gnome desktop. Access to software and to various management tasks is gained via the "Applications", "Places", and "System" buttons at the top left hand side of the desktop.
Don't bother looking for a "Start" button. There isn't one. To shut down the system use the "System" button, then click on "Shutdown" – much more logical than going via a "Start" button.
Unlike Microsoft Windows, there are a number of desktop managers for use with Linux. The most popular include Gnome and KDE which can provide the latest in desktop decoration, 3D effects, etc, and even the modern 'Tiles'. A moderately powerful computer is needed for best effects, but a moderately fast Pentium processor or better will be fine. Less powerful computers might be better served by simpler desktop managers such as Xfce or Icewm which are usually available via the on-line distro repositories.
Most Linux desktop managers give access to several (typically 4 but can be up to 16) virtual desktops. Users can switch between these at will. Each virtual desktop can display applications independently of the other desktops. This means separate screens can be set out for different jobs which can then be selected as required. No need to “minimise” an application to make more room on screen, although this can be done if wished. As far as I know, Microsoft have nothing to compare with this.