Beginning Linux for Windowsphiles (Part 3 of 3)

In the previous guide I really drilled home the two licensing structures used in the open source community: FSF and OSI.  But we didn’t even touch Linux yet.  So today we’re going to actually get our hands dirty with Linux and ease into the operating system.  This guide is a very superficial introduction to Linux.  I’m walking you through Linux one step at a time because I want to make sure your transition from Windows to Linux is as comfortable as possible.

Today we’re going to quickly look at things:

  • Linux Desktop Managers
  • Getting around the Desktop
  • Using the terminal

Check it out.

Linux is everywhere.

  • It’s in the cloud with Amazon Cloud Computing.
  • It’s in your pocket on your Android phone.
  • It’s on Mars with the NASA Mars Rover.
  • It’s in the data center on your servers.

The ubiquity of Linux cannot be ignored.  And this is the chief reason why you need to learn it.

And learn it you will!

Do you know the other place where you can find Linux?

On your desktop of course!

Linux on your Desktop

There are many faces to the Linux system; these are called Desktop Managers and they function like “skins” or the front-end GUI to the Linux engine. We’re going to drive by the top four:

  • KDE
  • Gnome
  • Unity
  • XFCE

KDE is a big one and is mainly used by the SUSE Linux distro.

KDE has all the familiar desktop elements you love in Windows such as icons, search boxes and widgets.  There’s even a taskbar that runs along the bottom edge of the screen.

Clicking the blue “K” in the bottom left hand corner is roughly tantamount to clicking the Start button in Windows.

Image credit via bloghome on Photobucket

Gnome is another popular desktop environment.  The Fedora Linux distro uses Gnome by default.

Gnome adds a Mac OS X style dock that rides along the left edge of the screen but it’s 100% customizable.  So if you don’t want it there you can right-click to make it disappear.

Gnome in Linux

Ubuntu uses the Unity desktop manager.

The name “ubuntu” is the southern African concept that means “human kindness” and is one of the most popular Linux distros around.  In fact according to statistics site Web Technology services, Ubuntu is the most popular linux distribution among the top 1000 sites.

Image credit YouTubeAnd then there’s Debian and Xubuntu which both use the XFCE desktop manager.

I have a penchant for Xubuntu because it has a conventional layout which kind of reminds me of the Windows desktop.

Image credit softpedia.com

The neat thing about all these linux environments is that you can mix and match almost any desktop manager with any linux distro.

  • So if you want KDE on Xubuntu you can do that.
  • If you want Gnome on SUSE?  You can do that too.

There’s 100% flexibility here.

Let’s quickly focus on Xubuntu here.

Getting Started with Xubunu

To get started, download VirtualBox and the Xubuntu .ISO file.

Xubuntu ISO

Then create a new virtual machine (Ctrl + n), name it Xubuntu and keep all the defaults.

Select the Virtual Machine in the Oracle Virtual Machine manager, click the yellow Settings cog in the navigation bar, choose the Storage tab and browse to the Xubuntu ISO you just downloaded.

Xubuntu in VirtualBox

Now you can start the VM and start exploring Linux.


The best way to learn it is to spend 10 to 15 minutes a day clicking through things.  For example, right click the desktop to see what happens.  Click the “start” button in the upper left corner of the screen and start flipping through your applications.

After a few minutes you’ll begin to get a feel for how it works.

You’re probably going to want to customize your taskbar.  You can add quick launch icons to the taskbar which is similar to Windows shortcuts.

Right click the top panel, mouse over Panel and click Add New Items…

Adding panels

Sift through the list to add the application you want.  I like having the Terminal and CPU graphs always available so let’s add these guys.

Xubuntu add to panel

They application shortcuts will pop into the top right corner of the screen.  But this is a little annoying.  It doesn’t feel like Windows over there so let’s fix that.

Right click the panel app and choose Move.

Right click move

Now drag the application to the left side of the screen between the “start” button and the application button.

Moving applications

This is just a quick way to make it feel you feel more at home in Xubuntu.

Linux File Layout

Alright, so by this point you should Xubuntu running in VirtualBox but you might find the file layout confusing.

For example, what are all those folders about?

Xubuntu File System

There are a bunch and each has a specific function but we’ll focus one of these six for now: /

  • /
    • etc
    • dev
    • var
    • home
    • usr
    • boot

I want you to think about the Linux file system like a tree.

Just as you have a C:\ drive on your PC linux has a / drive.

Yup, that forward slash is the root drive and it represents the hard drive itself.  It’s the top level grandparent that all the other drives live in.

Do you see that folder called Home?

Guess what’s inside there?

You got it!  It’s analogous to your Windows Libraries in Windows 7, 8.0 and 8.1.  You’ll see all your Documents, Downloads, Music, Pictures, Videos, Public files and Templates here.  Think of it like a Windows user profile folder.  Each user gets her own capsule that contains all her settings and files.

In the graphic below you can see we’re looking in

/home/xubuntu/

This means: The root folder “/” has a sub folder named “home” which has a user name “xubuntu’.

Xubuntu Home Folder

So far this isn’t so bad right?

Let’s take a quick glance at the Terminal and then we’ll be done for today.

A quick glance at the Terminal

Xubuntu Terminal

Oh the glorious terminal!  This is the command line interface to your system.  It’s a way to talk to your computer using text. Once you become proficient in the terminal you’ll discover you can do things faster by typing than you can by clicking.  Don’t be daunted by that blinking cursor.  In future tutorials we’re going to vanquish the terminal hehe.

Let me show you your first terminal command you’ll ever learn: it’s a quick way to change your password.

Click the blue Xubuntu icon in the upper left corner of the screen, type terminal and hit enter.

Now type passwd.

The application asks you for your current password so it knows an unauthorized person isn’t trying to change your password and then asks you for your new password.  Fortunately, Linux won’t let you use stupid passwords so you’ll need to use mixed case and numbers.

Changing your password

Incidentally, One thing that’s unique to Linux is that it doesn’t echo dots or stars to hide your keystrokes; instead, it doesn’t display anything when you type your password.  This means that someone looking over your shoulder not only can’t see your password but they can’t count the number of characters either!  Very nice.

So that’s how we can change our password.  It’s a lot faster than click the Xubuntu icon in the upper left corner, typing “users and groups”, selecting the user in the list, picking change password and entering the old and new password.

Users and Groups in Xubuntu

Who wants to take a circuitous path like that when you could just type “passwd” and be done with it?

The command line rules!

The Bottom Line

We barely scratched the surface with what you can do in Linux.  I just wanted to get you comfortable with opening the desktop manager and clicking around.  I wrote this for people who have zero Linux experience and who are curious about it.  Stay tuned though – you know I’ve got more coming.

 

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  • Christopher Reynolds

    Thanks for going over the file structure a bit — that’s something I’ve had a hard time figuring out as I’ve started learning more about Linux!

  • Marian Sloot

    I was wondering which password I should type for my current Unix password? I never set this password. When I type in my Windows password I get the “Authentication token manipulation error”.

    • Brayan Talts

      try ‘root’ or just leave it blank & hit enter

      • Marian Sloot

        thanks Brayan, i tried the second option and it worked!

  • pipster55

    I have dabbled in Linux over the years, programming tivos and such, but starting with a ground-up tutorial…..sweet!

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