Linux is hot again. In fact, there's never been a better time for Microsoft Windows users to give Linux a whirl.

The OS is more usable than ever, easier to install, and more compatible with PC hardware. It still helps to be somewhat tech-savvy to get the most out of Linux, but that's no longer a major requirement.

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Not long ago, Linux seemed ready to make a serious dent in the supremacy of Windows on the PC desktop. Corporations had begun to adopt it, and consumer versions appeared that removed much of the Unix-based operating system's oft-discussed user-unfriendliness.

Suddenly, installing Linux and getting a PC's hardware to work was no longer solely the province of techies: Pretty well anyone could install it, work with it, and even use it regularly.

That was a few years ago. Since then, Linux's fortunes have waxed and waned — mostly waned — but development of this open-source OS and its open-source applications have continued apace.

This year, something else has happened that always seems to spur interest in alternative OSs: Microsoft released a new OS of its own.

Possibly because upgrading to Vista costs money, or maybe just because getting a new OS reawakens PC users' enjoyment of experimenting with new software, Linux is cool again.

With the tips and resources we give you in this story, you'll be better acquainted with Linux and have the guts to get started. We'll set you up with the right distro for beginners, a slew of apps, and valuable tips to keep you on track.

But that's not all! When you're ready, hop online for step-by-step instructions in our Linux Installation Guide (go.pcmag.com/linuxinstall).

And in our Solutions section, we launch a regular page devoted to Linux. In this issue, we guide you on dual-booting Windows and Linux

Is Linux Really Free?

Yes, it's really free. Or at least it can be.

You can get a fully functioning OS, along with numerous programs, for zero dollars. Just download the software and install it.

Mind you, there are other options as well. Most major suppliers offer one or more versions that you actually pay for, the money going mostly to technical support (see "Six Top Linux Distributions").

The well-known Linux supplier Red Hat has gone as far as anyone toward a complete split between the two distribution types, with its supported versions aimed primarily at corporations and its free version having become the Fedora Core project.

Similarly, Linspire, which costs $49.95 in its fully supported version, also comes in a no-pay version called Freespire. Other distros, such as Slackware, one of the earliest, remain available solely as free versions.

For some users, the possibility of supporting neither Microsoft nor Apple has an appeal all its own. So does being something of a desktop maverick, which Linux users still are, despite the OS's growth.

But you don't have to abandon either of the two main desktop OSs or consider yourself a rebel to find Linux appealing and even addictive.

The joy lies in the options: Unlike Windows, in whose world software titles have been standardized to the point of boredom, Linux offers a huge array of software choices.

In this sense, Linux is reminiscent of the days of DOS, before Microsoft had a stranglehold on office applications and Adobe on graphics applications.

That was a time of choice — some of it good, some of it bad, but still choice — and it's what you get with Linux now, especially if you're just getting started.

Don't like OpenOffice.org's word processor? Grab another one. Don't like the GIMP graphics editor? Download and install something else.

Need something specific that no program seems to accomplish? Put a request on a Linux discussion group and see if anyone takes you up on it. Linux is a proud community of contributors.

For businesses, Linux holds multiple charms as well.

If IT support is already in place, installing free versions of Linux desktops makes good financial sense, especially since Linux is less susceptible than Windows to malicious software and thus requires less attention to such issues (although some attention is still needed).

Even if you want the product support you get with the paid versions, the OS is still cheaper than Windows.

Of particular note for businesses is that Linux server environments are also free, with software such as the Apache Web Server already serving up much of the Internet. Other free server software handles e-mail, FTP, and more.

Choose Your Distro

Properly speaking, the term "Linux" refers to the Linux kernel, the low-level core of an OS responsible for the way in which the system's resources (memory, CPU, devices, and the rest) communicate.

First developed by Linus Torvalds in the early 1990s, the kernel has been developed and maintained by numerous contributors, with Torvalds still overseeing it. When you install Linux, you automatically install the kernel — but you also install much more.

Over the years numerous suppliers have distributed the kernel by packaging it with a huge variety of free programs of all types, distributing the package via download or on CD or DVD. (That's how the term "distro" emerged.)

For this article, we've chosen the popular Ubuntu — the same Ubuntu that now comes installed on some new Dell systems — as a demonstration distro, but several others are easy to recommend.

A typical distro contains the kernel, along with many tools and applications.

For Windows users whose lives have long revolved around a GUI, the most important part of the distro is the inclusion of the X Window System (usually abbreviated to "X"). This allows Linux users to have a GUI environment.

Two primary graphical desktop environments have emerged that make use of X: KDE (the K Desktop Environment) and GNOME (the GNU Network Object Model Environment).

Distros tend to be distinguished in part by whether they use KDE or GNOME as their default environment, but you're not restricted to one or the other.

You can install both (and indeed more than these) on any Linux system, and many applications developed for one environment will run, sometimes with a bit of extra downloading, on the other.

Although you can configure both KDE and GNOME however you wish, the default KDE desktop is more baroque than the default GNOME.

With KDE you have more icons and menus immediately at your disposal, whereas the typical GNOME display opts for a cleaner, less in-your-face appearance.

Some people are solidly in the KDE camp and others in the GNOME camp, but both are fully accepted in the Linux community. In fact, nearly all major distros offer both, either as separate downloads or combined into one package.

For example, Mandriva offers its free beginners' version as a KDE download, but the Powerpack versions it sells have both environments.

Ubuntu downloads in a GNOME version, but you can download Kubuntu instead, which (as the "K" specifies) ships with KDE ready to run.

Windows and Linux: Side by Side

For now, it's important to know only the major decisions that determine the installation.

The first question is whether to run Linux on a PC of its own or to run it alongside (or even within) Windows on your current PC.

The benefit of giving Linux its own PC is that you don't have to worry about dividing up your hard drive before installing: Just assign it the whole hard drive and let it install.

The disadvantage is that if you regularly work with Windows, having a separate Linux machine can prove inconvenient.

We recommend that you run Linux on your PC in conjunction with Windows. You have two ways to do this.

First, you can purchase virtualization software such as VMware Workstation (www.vmware.com, $189 direct). This software enables you to install and run Linux easily within Windows.

Second, you can set up a dual-boot system on your PC so that you can choose, whenever you start your machine, to boot either into Windows or Linux.

This method costs nothing and is convenient because you have everything on one PC. But this approach requires that you change the partitioning on your hard drive, a procedure that carries the risk of destroying data and even making your PC unbootable.

Obviously, that's a scary prospect. But just as obviously, Linux suppliers wouldn't have made any progress whatsoever had blowing away a Windows partition become commonplace. So rest assured that dual-booting can be — and usually is — entirely safe.

Our online Linux Installation Guide (along with our dual-boot Solutions article) covers this method thoroughly, including the possibility of installing a separate hard drive for use exclusively by Linux.

Doing so almost entirely eliminates the partitioning risk and, because of the low price of hard drives, is a remarkably inexpensive option.

Fun with Linux Software

Many Linux distros ship with an abundance of productivity, utility, network and entertainment applications.

But just as Windows users can download and install commercial, shareware, and freeware programs till they run out of hard drive space, Linux users also have access to a world full of programs for installation.

First, each distro ships with software that is not installed by default, and you can browse these applications and install them to your heart's content.

Second, Linux has a system of repositories, locations on the Internet designed to work in conjunction with the operating system to offer an even greater selection of programs.

Examples include SourceForge.net and freshmeat.net, as well as repositories with a more specialized focus. GnomeFiles.org, for instance, caters specifically to those who want software for GNOME environments.

None of this is big news, of course, to anyone who's used PC Magazine's downloads area or any other software portal for Windows.

What makes the Linux system fascinating is that the OS and the repositories work together: You can configure your Add/Remove Software utility in Linux to link to the repositories, categorize the software, and help you locate the kinds of programs you want.

As with Windows, you can configure Linux to give it a highly personal look and feel. In fact, the possibilities are so vast that you can easily find yourself configuring features you didn't even know existed.

But this is true mostly of the Administration tools, and it also applies more to the KDE configuration tools than those in the default GNOME environment, which streamlines Linux to remove much of its complexity.

The standard configuration panels, as you'd expect, allow configuration along the lines of Windows' Control Panel, while the Administration tools resemble the Administrative Tools found in Windows XP Professional and Windows Vista.

Working with Ubuntu

Today's KDE and GNOME environments will present little difficulty to Windows users. You double-click folders to open them; you double-click files to launch them; you right-click anywhere to see available options.

In fact, if any criticism can be made about recent Linux distros, it's that the similarities with Windows and the Mac have diminished some of the fun of learning a new interface. But the productivity gains in having interface similarities are more important.

On installation, Ubuntu presents a clean, nearly blank screen with only three menus and three program icons.

The Applications menu functions like All Programs in Win XP or Vista, except that its cascading menus usefully separate the applications into easily understandable categories: Accessories, Games, Graphics, Internet, Office, Sound and Video and System Tools.

The Places menu gives you access to your folders, network and desktop, as well as recent files that you've worked with and a search tool. The System menu takes you to the configuration and administrative utilities.

The three immediately available program icons that appear are Firefox, Evolution (an excellent e-mail program) and Help.

Ubuntu's Help is similar to the older and more simplified Windows Help system rather than the Help and Support application that are found in Win XP and Vista.

The trick with GNOME is to take what you're given at installation time and customize it to your liking. This is in many ways opposite to a typical KDE setup, which is much more like Windows in offering you an extensive and bewildering array of choices.

One highly useful thing you can do in Linux is to add icon panels (toolbars in Windows parlance) along the top, sides and bottom, placing the icons or information snippets you want in them to keep your computing environment at your fingertips.

Linux installs with a built-in virtual desktop feature called Workspaces. Each Workspace can have its own icons and settings, and you can run programs in one Workspace without involving others.

The idea is to let you set up each Workspace screen as you want and switch back and forth among them. If you have multiple projects under way, each with its own unique documents and programs, the Workspaces feature helps you organize them well.

If you're dual-booting between Windows and Linux, however, there's one area of potential frustration you'll want to get past: sharing Windows and Linux drives and partitions.

Neither OS installs, by default, with sharing in place. The reason is quite simple: The drives have entirely different formats. Linux does, however, provide NTFS drivers, and the Linux-NTFS project (www.linux-ntfs.org) focuses exclusively on making this possible.

Each Linux distro has instructions available for installing and using the project's ntfs-3g driver, but it's not an intuitive process.

Each NTFS drive needs to be mounted — usually manually, although auto-mounting is possible in some Linux distros. And once it's mounted, you need to go into your mnt folder (accessible from the Filesystem icon in Ubuntu's Computer folder) in order to find them.

If you need to access your Linux partitions from within Windows, download and install the Ext2 Installable File System utility from www.fs-driver.org.

[Both Linux and Windows read and write the older FAT-32 format and can "share" files written on a FAT-32 partition.]

Finally, give yourself some time to get comfortable with Linux. Although Linux is easier than ever to work with, it's a different operating system from the one you're accustomed to, and new operating systems always take a while to get to know.

Configure your desktop, set up a few Workspaces, launch the installed programs, download and install some more and turn it into a fully functioning work and play environment.

Only then can you decide whether you prefer your new OS or your old one — or even that you like each of them for different reasons.

Linux Pros

— It's free — and even if you get a paid version with tech support, it's still cheaper than Windows.

— The major distros have a wealth of useful programs, and more await you on the Internet.

— Hackers and virus writers rarely target Linux.

— You'll find lots of willing tech help on the Internet.

— It dual-boots nicely with Windows.

— It boots, loads programs, and performs tasks more quickly than Windows.

— It's continuously updated.

— Its mascot is a penguin. Who doesn't like penguins?

Linux Cons

— Its techie origins still shine through; before you can believe you're doing it, you'll find yourself opening a Linux "terminal" and typing commands.

— It's not a standard in many companies, so if you need to work from home on your own PC, you'll have to make adjustments.

— If you need to work with complex Windows documents, you might find it difficult or impossible because you can't import the documents or there's no Linux application with comparable features.

— Installing new programs and hardware drivers can be significantly more difficult than on Windows.

— Many games won't run on Linux.

Copyright © 2007 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.