Free Linux Distributions
Free / open source distributions of the Linux operating system
Free Linux Distributions / Operating Systems
The well-known open source Linux operating system is available in many packages, known as distributions. These distributions include not only the core of the OS, the Linux kernel, but a host of other utilities, software applications and desktop environment that make the entire platform useful. Most, if not all, of the distributions can be used as a desktop environment as well as a server.
Installation of Linux has come a long way from the early 1990s, when I installed my first Linux system from a set of boot/root floppies (don't ask). Nowadays, all you have to do is to download the ISO of the distribution, burn it to a CD or DVD, reboot the computer with the new CD, and follow the instructions. The Linux installers usually have their own ability to install beside an existing operating system like Windows (if you wish), or alternatively, replace the system entirely.
If you want to dual-boot two operating systems, like Windows and Linux, you can either rely on the Linux installers to manage the partitions, or, as some hard-core computer enthusiasts prefer, use your own partition managers to shrink your existing operating system's partition to make space for Linux. My recommendation is that you also back up or image your system before you do any major overhaul so that if you don't like what you get, you can always go back to your original working system.
If you only want to try the operating system, and don't want to repartition your hard disk yet, you may also want to check the Free Linux LiveCD Distributions - Live Linux on a CD or DVD which allow you to boot Linux directly from a CD/DVD and use it immediately without installing. Alternatively, you can also install Linux into a PC emulator or virtual machine. Be aware that these solutions tend to make Linux run slower than usual. Don't worry, it won't be like that when you install Linux for real on your computer.
Explanation of some terms: unlike Windows and Mac OS X, where the operating system and its user interface (the desktop that you see when you start the machine) are inextricably intertwined, Linux comes with a variety of user interfaces to choose from. Two of the most famous ones are KDE and GNOME. Both are free. Some prefer KDE, others GNOME. Most of the major distributions have both GNOME and KDE versions, allowing you to pick one. Choose whichever you like. Before you ask: if you can't decide, and want to know what I normally choose - I normally install KDE, probably because it works the way I expect things to. But you can't go too far wrong, whichever you pick.
Free Linux Distros
OpenSUSE, formerly SUSE, is a well known Linux distribution from Novell, with a good support for a variety of hardware. You can download either the DVD or CD versions of Linux, GNOME or KDE versions, 32-bit, 64-bit or Power-PC versions, etc. Like all Linux distributions, it comes with a huge assortment of software, including office suites, multimedia players, image editors, C/C++ compiler, programming tools, text editors, etc. It's too long to list.
Fedora, which began its life as a Red Hat product, is a free Linux distribution offering versions for Intel processors (both 32-bit and 64-bit) as well as PPC. You will need a DVD writer to burn the ISO since it is only distributed as a DVD. Both GNOME and KDE desktops are provided on the same distributin and you can switch between them. Fedora, by policy, tends to have less built-in support for multimedia types (like MP3) and file systems (like NTFS), although you can always download the necessary support files (free) from third-party sites.
Debian is probably the mother of a large number of distributions, or in lingo of the Linux aficionados, the upstream distribution on which many distributions (like the Ubuntu family) base their distro. It is very well regarded, but has a reputation of being very slow to update its software to the latest version in its stable release.
- CentOS - The Community ENTerprise Operating System
CentOS is an "enterprise-class" Linux distribution. It is derived from the enterprise offerings of the commercial Red Hat distribution. Basically, since the latter is open source (and uses other open source packages), CentOS uses the same open source packages, removes the branding and artwork, and re-releases it for free. The distribution is suitable for both server and desktop deployments. It is used by many web hosts, and is usually offered as one of the operating system choices in dedicated servers and virtual private servers (VPS).
Slackware was one of the earliest Linux distributions around. It can run on a wide variety of hardware, including the old 486 machines right up to the modern machines.
The Ubuntu distribution, from Canonical, was at one time one of the most popular Linux distributions. It comes in a single CD and is thus faster to download than some of the other distributions (which come in a DVD-sized package). A consequence of this is that you don't get many different applications that can do the same job that some of the other distributions provide (which may or many not be a good thing, depending on your circumstances). It uses its own desktop, called "Unity". WARNING: if you search for your own files on your computer using the default search facility on this distribution, it will automatically submit your search query to Canonical's servers which will return some shopping links in the results as well.
- Kubuntu and Xubuntu
Both Kubuntu and Xubuntu are Linux distributions that are derived in some part from Ubuntu, except that Kubuntu uses the KDE desktop and Xubuntu the Xfce desktop instead of the default Unity desktop of Ubuntu. Both these distributions are put together by volunteers (and not Canonical), or in computer lingo, they are "community developed".
Edubuntu comes from the Ubuntu/Kubuntu family of Linux distributions. It is a distro specifically designed for "young human beings". It is intended for educational use, and at this time of writing, aimed at classroom use. The distribution includes many school related applications such as fun educational software like the KDE Edutainment Suite, Gcompris (a collection of kindergarten activity programs), Tux4Kids (painting, maths and typing), Schooltool calendar, OpenOffice (office suite with wordprocessor, spreadsheet, presentation), etc. Like Ubuntu and Kubuntu, you can either download it or order it. Both the Enterprise release and the normal releases are free. (The Enterprise version will be supported for a longer period, but the normal version has the latest versions of software.)
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