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Linux -- Where to get it and which distro to choose

Linux may be downloaded, installed, and used freely. There are no license fees to be paid!

There are hundreds of different distros available, so choosing which one to use can be very confusing.

Unless you are already familiar with Linux and know exactly which distro you wish to use, then it's best to select one of the mainstream distros. One of these should provide you with a stable and reliable system which is well supported in terms of documentation and on-line help.

DO NOT rely on Linux obtained via CDs/DVDs that are distributed with the various computer magazines. These are often very recently released (or even pre-release) distros which in some cases have been not fully debugged. I have had many bad experiences with these disks.

ALWAYS get your Linux installation media directly from the maintainers of your chosen distro. These can usually be obtained via postage as "ready to go" CDs or DVDs, but most folks will prefer to download ISO files that can easily be burned to CD/DVD.

Given a good broadband connection to the Internet, you might find a "netinst" ISO which can provide a minimal installation medium (ie a single CD) that will download the very latest stable/updated versions of software directly from the main on-line software repositories for you distro.

32 bit or 64 bit software?
Linux is available to run on a wide range of computer platforms using different kinds of processor, but most folks will have computers that use Intel (or AMD) processors. The choice then narrows down to 32 bit or 64 bit versions of the software. 32 bit distros will be identified as "i386" or "i686". "i386 refers to the very old and obsolete Intel '386 processor. Most folks will be using at least a Pentium grade processor and so can use either i386 or i686 software.

Perhaps confusingly, 64 bit versions are identified as "amd64". This is because the very first 64 bit processors were made by the AMD company, but the "amd64" software is now run on Intel processors.

32 bit software can be run perfectly well on 64 bit processors, but 64 bit software will not run on 32 bit processors.

The main advantage of a 64 bit operating system is that it can access very large amounts of RAM (computer memory). 32 bit systems cannot access more than approximately 3GB RAM. For many purposes, 3GB of RAM is plenty, but for video processing, etc, 64 bit systems are prefered.

Most 64 bit Linux systems can also run 32 bit software. For example, the Firefox browser (which is 32 bit) runs without problems on my 64 bit Debian Linux/Intel Core 2 Quad based PC.

Which distro to choose?
Choice is a personal matter, so no doubt I shall upset some folks by making specific recommendations.

Some of the most popular distros are recorded at DistroWatch.com along with descriptions of the distros and links to relevant web sites.

I suggest that if you want to have the latest in desktop "wow!" factor and multimedia facilities, then go for Mint or Ubuntu. Fedora and openSUSE are also fairly advanced.

Debian Linux provides one of the most thoroughly tested, stable and respected distros of all and is my choice. Of course, being so thoroughly tested means that it is also rather conservative. Unlike most other distros the Debian organisation do not work to a pre-determined release program. Debian is released only when it is considered to be ready! Pre-release versions are available for downloading, but these are considered to be only for testing purposes.

The Debian software repositories include over 30,000 packages, so after an initial installation, it is possible to add extra software to be able to provide most of the facilities that the more adventurous distros provide.

Mint Linux and Ubuntu Linux are built on Debian Linux.

Links to some of the major Linux web sites:

Mint Linux           Ubuntu Linux           Debian Linux           Fedora Linux           openSUSE Linux          

Note: Mint, Ubuntu, and Debian use the .deb file format
         Fedora and openSUSE use the completely different and incompatible .rpm file format

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24/02/13