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As the adoption rate of Linux on the desktop grows, so does the number of people who are considering making the switch to Ubuntu. These folks have heard all the good things, but, as per usual, not enough in the reality check department.
This article will offer a reality check, in addition to offering some critical advice to anyone thinking of making the leap over to Linux on the desktop.
Why are you trying Linux?
Whether you decide to try Ubuntu or any other Linux distribution, the one thing to ask yourself is "why?" If you're not able to actually answer this question, stop, and just stick with what you're already using. On the flip side, good answers include: curiosity, to gain new skills, frustration with your current operating system or just trying to get more life out of an old computer.
Once you've settled on your own personal motivation as to why you want to try Linux, don't frustrate yourself by expecting it to be familiar. All too often I see folks trying to find distributions like what they're already used (Windows XP, for example) only to end up being disappointed when, despite its appearance, the distribution is nothing like their previous operating system.
How to select a testing distribution
I think this is going to be different for everyone, but overall most newbies will want a distro that is designed to make things easy. Obviously those who are seeking to "learn" Linux might take a more hands-on approach, however a casual computer user looking to extend the life of his/her computer is going to be best off with a simple-to-use distribution.
From my perspective, I tend to lean with either Ubuntu or Linux Mint when it comes to new users. Any distro that automatically detects proprietary drivers, discovers printers and makes finding commonly used items on the desktop is a winner from where I sit. This isn't to say that there aren't some other great options out there that aren't based on Ubuntu, but for the most part, Ubuntu has the features and the community that is best suited for newcomers.
Choosing the right applications
More often than not, some of the applications you'll be using on the Linux desktop will already be in use on your previous operating system. Common applications that cross over are: Firefox, LibreOffice, Thunderbird and perhaps others as well. For those who are already active users of Open Source applications, making the switch to Linux becomes tremendously easier. Nothing makes a transition to a new OS easier like using familiar software titles vs. starting over from scratch.
For myself personally, I've found there are fourteen specific apps that I use to get work done. Other folks out there may need to expand on that list, as their needs may vary. Still, it's important to remember that for most people, applications break down into the following groups:
Browser: Usually Firefox is the goto solution here, but sometimes alternative browsers are preferred.
Messenger: These days this is less of an issue than it used to be, however Skype continues to be a player in this area – usually due to it's voice/video capabilities.
Office Suite: Without question, LibreOffice is my most commonly used and recommended office suite for Linux users. This isn't to suggest that GNOME's and KDE's office suites are bad somehow, rather I feel strongly that LibreOffice offers a more compatible, mature experience for users of all skill levels.
Now for the hard part – specialty applications. These are not always simple to find. Sometimes you're going to need to do some hunting in order to find what you're looking for. But like most things software-related with Linux, I recommend starting off with the software repositories for your distribution.
A software repository is built in with nearly all Linux distribution. Ubuntu, for example, goes a step further and offers a nice wrapper for their repository called the Ubuntu Software Center. Simply search for the task you're trying to accomplish with software and the provided repository front-end will give you a list of possible programs.
If you're still not finding what you need, the final thing to consider is using Google, but with this warning – be prepared to find compatible packaging to install said software. For example, let's say you needed the latest version of a specific video editor as the version on the repositories was too old for your taste. Ubuntu users might be able to find the latest version on the Web, only to then discover they are asked to either install the deb package or perhaps the Personal Package Archive (PPA) instead.
In both instances, there is a matter of trust here as you don't have any official way of knowing if that software is safe. Since a PPA is a personal archive, you're indicating that you trust the creator of that PPA and the contents of its packages. If you don't, stick to using official distribution specific repositories instead. Better to be safe than sorry.
Is malware a threat?
While it's true that Linux on the desktop doesn't have any immediate malware threats that warrant great concern, it's critical to remember that anything that executes code has the potential for danger. Desktop Linux distributions simply aren't really big malware targets.
One aspect to this you should be aware of is that Windows malware can still affect Windows users. Because of this and the fact that this can be passed along by Linux users through shared network folders, etc, it's advisable to use a tool like ClamAV. Designed to scan for Windows malware on Linux systems, ClamAV should be used if you're concerned about potentially sharing malware with Windows systems.
In truth, the biggest threat to a Linux installation is going to be a hacked Web account or potentially doing something to lose local data on ones hard drive by executing random code. In short, the best things you can do to increase your system's personal security is to be aware of what we're accessing and how we're doing it.
Switching to Ubuntu: Commitment
At the end of the day, making the switch to Linux distributions such as Ubuntu comes down to one thing – commitment. If you need an operating system without being willing to learn along with it, then Linux isn't for you. If, however, you're willing to put on your thinking cap once in awhile, then beginner distros like Ubuntu could be a good match for you.
Lastly, when at all possible, considering buying PCs with Linux preinstalled. Google will yield you a ton of choices and you're assured that you won't run into any compatibility surprises. Be it rare, they do indeed exist and there are forums loaded with examples, usually with oddball chipsets or proprietary drivers for AMD cards.