Thinking about switching to Linux? 10 things you need to know

Why is now the perfect time to migrate to Linux? There's the security and support, all the choices - and great apps! Plus, it's just so easy.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
Reviewed by Alyson Windsor
Workspaces overview on the Pop!_OS Linux desktop

The Workspaces overview on the Pop!_OS Linux desktop gives you a good idea of how fantastic the Linux workflow can be.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

Linux is an operating system that allows you to interact with the applications you need to use daily. In that respect, it's no different than MacOS or Windows. Although Linux might not be on the mind of every consumer who uses a PC, it's certainly growing in popularity.

The reason for this growth has to do with several factors, including how deeply embedded Linux is within enterprise businesses, how the web browser has become the primary tool for most users, the incredible evolution of Linux on the desktop, the cost-effectiveness of Linux (it's completely free), the heightened level of security, and how the open-source OS can save you from having to throw out that aging computer

Also: 5 ways to save your Windows 10 PC in 2025 - and most are free

Add to those factors how user-friendly Linux has become and it's a perfect time for regular folks to adopt Linux.

When I first started using Linux (back in 1997), it was a challenge -- not only to install but to use. It seemed everything I needed to do required that I read a long manifesto as to why something had to be done a certain way, while at the same time offering a staggering number of alternative ways to achieve the same thing. It was both confusing and freeing. Thrown into that mix head-first, I learned fast. After about six months of using Linux as my only OS, I pretty much had it down.

But six months is a long time to take just so you can use an operating system on a computer.

Things have changed dramatically. The Linux of yesterday would be barely recognizable compared to its modern equivalent. Today, Linux is as user-friendly as any operating system on the market. If you're considering migrating from either Windows or macOS to Linux, here are some things you need to know.

1. It's easier than you think

The Linux desktop is much easier than you think. Ten years ago, I couldn't make this claim, but developers and designers of most distributions have gone out of their way to ensure the desktop operating system is as user-friendly as any OS on the market. During those early years of using Linux, the command line was an absolute necessity, and the GUIs weren't always intuitive or stable. Today? Not so much. In fact, Linux has become so easy and user-friendly that you can go your entire career on the desktop and never touch the terminal window.

Also: The best Linux distros for beginners: You can do this!

That's right, Linux of today is all about the graphical user interface (GUI) -- and the GUIs are not only well designed but as easy to install, stable, and user-friendly as any on the market. If you can use MacOS or Windows, you can use Linux. It doesn't matter how skilled you are with a computer, Linux is a viable option. I'd go so far as to say that the fewer computer skills you have, the better off you are with Linux. Why? Linux is far less "breakable" than Windows. You really need to know what you're doing to break a Linux system. 

2. Linux is not just a kernel

One quick way to start an argument within the Linux community is to say Linux isn't just a kernel. Similarly, a quick way to confuse a new user is to tell them that Linux is only the kernel.

Also: Sparky Linux is a blazing-fast distro that can keep your older machines running for years 

Let me clear this up for you. Every version of the Linux operating system uses the Linux kernel. But as a new user, you don't care about that. Even talking about the Linux kernel is a way to confuse and turn off new users. All operating systems have a kernel, but you don't ever hear Windows or MacOS users talk about which kernel they use. 

In simplest terms, without the kernel, you wouldn't have an operating system. So if anyone tries to confuse the issue, understand that Linux is both an operating system and a kernel and they are inextricably bound.

3. Distributions are simply different 'brands' of Linux

When you first dive into the Linux waters, you'll find a vast array of "brands" you can use. There's Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Pop!_OS, Fedora, Cutefish OS, Arch Linux, Feren OS, openSUSE, Mageia, Bohdi Linux, Deepin, Sabayon Linux, Peppermint Linux, MX Linux, EndeavorOS, Manjaro, Garuda, Debian, Zorin, elementary OS, PCLinuxOS…the list goes on and on. In fact, there are hundreds of Linux distributions -- aka "distros."

What's important to understand is that each distribution is like a brand. Think about Linux distributions as shoes. If you're looking for new running shoes, you might consider Brooks, Hoka, Nike, Alta, Saucony, New Balance, or Adidas. They're all running shoes, they just offer different variations on the theme. Each shoe might have different features, different heel-to-toe drops, different weights, different purposes, and different looks. However, in the end, they are all running shoes. 

Also: Why I use the Linux tree command daily - and what it can do for you

Linux distributions can be viewed in the same way: Each offers different features, different GUI tools, different purposes, and different looks…but they are all operating systems. The important thing (similar to your choice of footwear) is to find the distribution that fits -- i.e., best matches your needs and wants.

4. There are so many choices

One thing has always been true of Linux: There are a vast number of choices -- not only in distributions, but in desktops and installable software. To help narrow down your choice of distributions, first determine which desktop you prefer. There's GNOME, Plasma, Cinnamon, Mate, Enlightenment, Xfce, LXQt, Budgie, Pantheon, LXDE, Trinity Desktop, Sugar, and more. 

Also: How to replace Windows with Linux Mint on your PC

That level of choice trickles down to nearly every aspect of the operating system. You have multiple web browsers, email clients, office suites, and image editors…you name it and there's a choice. The good thing is that most of those choices are really good options. However, at first blush, all of those choices might be daunting.

Here's the best approach for new users trying to decide which path to take:

  1. Decide which desktop you like.
  2. Narrow down the distributions that use your desktop of choice.
  3. Weed out the distributions that don't include a simple-to-use app store.
  4. Weed out Arch-based distributions (for new users only).
  5. Install and enjoy.

5. You'll find help everywhere

As with most anything these days, help is just a Google search away. You'll find plenty of sites (such as ZDNET) dedicated to helping people with Linux. When you run into a problem (or something isn't quite as clear as you think it should be) just run a quick search and you'll find tons of solutions.

Also: Why don't more people use desktop Linux? I have a theory you might not like

And while we're on the subject of finding help, note this: With Linux, there isn't always one right answer. You might find numerous solutions for just about every task you need to complete. The important thing is to find the solution that best suits your skills and your needs.

6. Not all hardware will work (but most will)

I'll say this (and I stand by it): Ubuntu Linux probably has the best hardware detection and support of any operating system on the market. But that doesn't mean it works with everything. 

Also: How to install Ubuntu Linux (It's easy!)

Certain peripherals you own could have trouble working with Linux. Two of the more problematic pieces of hardware are scanners and wireless chips. When I find a piece of hardware that isn't supported, here's one thing I've often done: I try a different Linux distribution. For example, you might have a laptop and Ubuntu Linux can't detect the built-in wireless chipset. Consider giving Fedora Linux a try -- and it'll work. (Fedora often ships with a newer kernel than Ubuntu Linux, and therefore supports more modern hardware.)

Keep in mind that most Linux distributions are offered as Live images, which means you can test-drive them without making any changes to your hard drive. This is a great way to tell if a distribution will support all the hardware you need to use.

7. You won't want for apps

You'll likely find all of the applications you need available for installation. You'll find plenty of web browsers, media players, office suites, image editors, email clients, and much more. It isn't like the early days of Linux, when most of the applications were geared toward scientists, students, and developers. Today's Linux has games and all of the tools you're likely to ever need.

Also: How to resize your images quickly and easily

That doesn't mean it has everything. For example, there is no version of Adobe Photoshop. There is GIMP (which is just as powerful as Photoshop) but for those of you accustomed to Adobe's de facto standard, you're out of luck. 

The worst-case scenario is you have to learn a new piece of software to meet your graphic needs. At the same time, you might have to turn to proprietary software. For open-source purists, that's a no-go. But for those who just need to get things done, you'll find a mixture of open-source and proprietary software will give you everything you need to be productive and entertained.

8. You'll use your password more often

Speaking of installing software, on Windows, you can do so without having to type your user password. On Linux, that doesn't fly. In fact, any time you try and do something that requires heightened permissions, you'll be prompted to type your user (sudo) password

Also: The best password managers right now

This is part of the reason why Linux is so often considered more secure than Windows. And even though it might be an annoyance at first, you'll get used to it and eventually be thankful for the heightened security.

Speaking of security...

9. Linux is more secure but…

For decades, I've preached about how much more secure Linux is than Windows, and I still firmly believe that today. That doesn't mean, however, that Linux is 100% secure. The truth is, any time you have a computer connected to a network, it's vulnerable and it doesn't matter what operating system you use.

To that end, it's crucial that you keep your operating system (and the installed applications) up to date. Fortunately, most Linux operating systems make this very easy. And only a few of them (such as Fedora) require a reboot to run the upgrade. During most Linux updates/upgrades, you can use the OS as normal and the only time you're required to reboot is when the kernel is upgraded.

Also: The best VPN services: Expert tested and reviewed

This isn't a lesson that's any different than Windows. The only shift is that if you believe Linux is, by default, far more secure than Windows, you might be less likely to apply upgrades as they arrive. As with any OS, if you want to keep Linux secure, run those upgrades.

10. Linux evolves faster than the competition

You're probably used to the slow trickle of updates and improvements found in the likes of Windows or MacOS. On Linux, you can count on that process being considerably faster. This is especially important with updates. When a vulnerability is found in an application that affects Linux, it is fixed far faster than it would be on competing platforms. 

The reason for this is that most Linux software is created and maintained by developers who don't have to answer to boards or committees or have a painfully slow bug resolution process. It might be announced that a vulnerability has been discovered in an application and the fix is officially released the next day. I've seen that very thing happen more times than I can count. 

Also: 8 things you can do with Linux that you can't do with MacOS or Windows

But it's not just about vulnerabilities. Developers add new features to software all the time and even listen to users. You could contact a developer of an open-source application with an idea and find it implemented in the next update.

Linux is always evolving and it does so much faster than other operating systems.


Although this isn't an exhaustive list of things you should know before migrating to Linux, I hope it eases some of your concerns and leaves you better prepared for what's in store. If you're tired of the headaches associated with Windows, and Apple products are too expensive, Linux is a great choice.

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