Although Windows 7 will still work, as we’ve mentioned in a previous post, since it’s now no longer supported by Microsoft, it will eventually become more of a working threat – open to all manner of vulnerabilities and security holes.
Upgrading to Windows 10 is the obvious option, providing your current Windows 7 PC’s specifications are up to the task. Buying a Mac is another option, but unless you’re specifically looking to go down the macOS road the end result can be quite costly. However, there is a third option in the form of Linux. With this option, you can keep your old Windows 7 PC while still enjoying a vibrant desktop, tons of apps, and a secure, up-to-date system.
Linux is a surprisingly powerful, fast, secure, and capable operating system. It’s used as the OS of choice for the Raspberry Pi, in the form of Raspbian OS, as well as in some of the most unlikely places.
Despite only enjoying 1.96% (according to netmarketshare.com) of the total desktop operating system market, Linux has a dedicated following of enthusiasts, users, and contributors. It was created in 1991 by then University of Helsinki student, Linus Torvalds, who had become frustrated with the limitations and licensing of the popular educational system in use called Minix; a miniature version of the UNIX operating system.
UNIX itself was released in the early ‘70s, as a multi-tasking, modular-designed operating system originally developed for programmers who needed a stable platform to code on. However, it’s performance, power and portability meant that it soon became the system of choice for companies and universities where high-end computing tasks were needed.
Torvalds needed a system that could mirror UNIX’s performance and features, without the licensing cost. Thus was born Linux, a UNIX-like operating system using freely available code from the GNU project. This enabled users around the world to utilise the power of a UNIX-like system, completely free of charge – an ethos that still holds today. Linux is free to download, install and use.
Essentially, Linux is much like any other operating system, such as Windows or macOS. It manages the computer hardware, provides an interface for the user to access that hardware, and provides programs for productivity, communications, gaming, science, education and more. As an operating system, Linux can be broken up into a number of significant elements:
Bootloader – The bootloader is the software that initialises and boots up your computer. It loads up the various modules the OS uses to begin to access the hardware in the system. You can modify a bootloader to load more than one OS installed on the system.
Kernel – The kernel is the core of the system, and the single element that is actually called Linux. The Linux kernel manages the computer processor, memory, storage, and any peripherals you have attached to your computer. It provides the basic services for all other parts of the OS.
Daemons – Daemons are background services that will start as the operating system is booting. These can enable printing, sound, networking and so on. They run unobtrusively rather than under the direct control of the user; often waiting to be activated by an event or condition.
Shell – The Linux shell is a command-line interface environment that a Linux user can use to enter commands to the OS that directly affect it. Within the shell you can add new users, reboot the system, create and delete files and folders, and much more. BASH (Bourne-Again Shell) is the most popular shell used in Linux, although more are available. The shell is also known as the Terminal, and it’s where we’re going to work from through this section of the book.
Graphical Server – This is a module within Linux that provides a graphical output to your monitor. It’s referred to as the X server, or simply just X. X is an application that manages one or more graphical displays, and one or more input devices (keyboard, mouse, etc.) connected to the computer.
Desktop Environment – The Desktop Environment, or DE, is the main Graphical User Interface (GUI) that users interact with. It’s the desktop, that includes Internet browsers, productivity, games and whatever program or app you’re using. There are countless DEs available, Raspbian uses PIXEL.
Programs/Applications – With Linux begin an open source, and free operating system, it also makes use of the tens of thousands of freely available applications too. The likes of LibreOffice, GIMP, and Python are just the tip of the iceberg.
Linux is used throughout the world, in several basic and quite unique uses. While it may look radically different from one environment to the next the actual Linux kernel can be found in modern smart TVs, in-car entertainment systems and GPS, supercomputers, IoT devices, and the Raspberry Pi. It’s used by NASA, both in the command centre and on-board the ISS. Linux servers power the backbone of the Internet, along with most of the websites you visit daily. Android utilises components of the Linux kernel, as do set top boxes, games consoles, and even the likes of fridges, freezers, ovens and washing machines.
Linux isn’t just a free to use operating system. It’s stable, powerful, fast, can easily be customised, and requires very little maintenance. However, it’s more than just on-paper performance stats. Linux means freedom from the walled-garden approach of other operating systems. It’s a lively community of like-minded individuals who want more from their computers without the shackles of price or conformity. Linux means choice.
But there’s more. Linux isn’t just a single operating system, it’s split up into many different versions, featuring different desktops, apps, and themes, known as distributions or distros. Think of each distro as having a certain spin on the same core Linux system. One distro may cater for scientists, coming pre-installed with a variety of scientific tools, apps, programming languages and so on. Another may be focused on gaming, and feature the latest Nvidia and AMD graphics drivers together with Steam pre-installed as well as the hundreds of Linux-specific games. There’s even a set of distros that are so lightweight they can be installed and used on PCs from over 15 years ago. The point is, you can download and use as many different Linux distros as you like until you find the one that will cater for all your needs. Alternatively, you could opt for one of the more popular all-round desktop distros, and freely customise and personalise for you.
Since there are numerous distributions of Linux available, it’s safe to say you have plenty of choice. However, we would recommend you look to these distros to begin with. By exploring each you will come to learn how the OS works, and appreciate how it’s different to Windows. You may take a few months to finally settle on a distro, and you’ll probably find yourself hopping to and from different distros as you experiment more, but having these as your foundation distros makes a lot of sense.
ubuntu.com – One of the most popular distros available is Ubuntu; an ancient African word meaning ‘humanity to others’. Ubuntu’s popularity has fluctuated over its sixteen-year life. At one time, it was easily the most used Linux-based operating system in the world, however, some wrong choices along the way with regards to its presentation, and some unfavourable, and controversial, elements involving privacy sadly saw it topple from the number one spot. But thanks to a new breath of life, the distro is finally back in the top slots, and it’s looking pretty good too.
The latest versions of the OS use the GNOME 3 desktop environment, an impressive environment, although it can be a little confusing for former Windows users and it’s a little heavy on system resources (especially if you’re planning on installing it on an older computer).
Ubuntu, for all its faults, is a good Linux distro to start experimenting with. It’s a clean interface, easy to use and install, and offers the user the complete Linux experience.
linuxmint.com – Sharing the top slot with Ubuntu is Linux Mint. Mint began life back in 2006, as an alternative to the then most popular distro, Ubuntu. Although based on Ubuntu’s Long Term Support build, Linux Mint took a different direction and offered the user a better overall experience.
Linux Mint has three main desktop versions available with each new version of the core OS it releases. This may sound confusing at first, but it’s quite simple. Currently, Linux Mint uses the Cinnamon Desktop Environment as its flagship model, there’s also MATE and Xfce models available too.
Cinnamon is a graphically rich desktop environment, MATE uses less fancy graphics and is more stable on a wider variety of desktop systems, and Xfce is an extremely streamlined desktop environment that’s built for speed and ultimate stability.
Cinnamon is probably the desktop environment we’d recommend you try first. Should your PC feel a little sluggish under Cinnamon, then try MATE or Xfce.
debian.org – Debian is the main artery from which Ubuntu, Linux Mint and many more distros are built on; even the OS for the Raspberry Pi, Raspbian, is a Debian-based system. Therefore it makes sense to include it as one of the main distros of choice for those who are moving on from Windows 7.
Its initial release was in 1993, and is one of the oldest systems based on the Linux kernel. It’s also one of the most popular distros available, and comes with many different desktop environments. Using and getting used to Debian will build a great Linux technical foundation for you, and from there you’ll be able to personalise the OS to better suit your specific needs.
Naturally, these three are only the tip of the iceberg. Dig a little deeper and you’ll come across some incredibly designed and developed distros, as well as a few bizarre and strange ones too. And don’t worry, if Linux isn’t for you, simply buy a copy of Windows 10 to install; you can always still play around with Linux within a virtual machine environment, such as VirtualBox, without it ever affecting your Windows build.