This post covers what you must know before downloading linux distributions.
When it comes to downloading your distro of choice you will be presented with many options.
But do you know what these options mean?
This beginner’s crash-course guide will take you through everything you need to know to help you along with the choices that are needed to make, in order to download a linux operating system.
Here I’ll cover what distro I would and wouldn’t recommend as a beginner and also give my reasons as to why I would select one variation over another.
My aim here is that I won’t have you second guessing about making the correct decision and that the one you have chosen is the right one for you.
Just like with anything new, there’s always a learning curve.
However with Linux distributions, some have a bigger curve than others.
Linux can be installed on anything that an operating system can be installed on, but here we will be going over a DESKTOP install.
With this in mind I’m going to assume something here:
You are planning on installing Linux on an IBM or IBM compatible computer.
By this I mean a laptop or PC. Not a Mac book, not a Macintosh, not a phone or a tablet. Not your raspberry pi, your WIFI router or your neighbors calculator.
1) Redhat Vs Debian Vs OpenSUSE vs Slackware Based
Which ever Linux distribution you choose to use, it will usually only be either Debian based, Redhat based, SUSE based or Slackware based.
There are some exceptions to this rule (as always in linux) as there are others out there such as Gentoo but the former is what we will usually encounter.
As a beginner I would only recommend Debian based distro’s.
This includes Debian (still with me?) Ubuntu and Mint. In fact, Ubuntu derived from Debian, and Mint derived from Ubuntu but I’l try hard not to go down that rabbit hole today.
Just remember they are all based on Debian!
There’s WAY more distros than this and I believe there’s literally hundreds of Linux distros out there and considering that you yourself can make your very own distribution then there’s no surprise there.
Debian based distro’s are generally more user friendly and if you choose to go with Ubuntu or Mint then there’s so much help on the internet with these as they have very large communities, they’re well supported and very popular.
If you would like more information on why there’s so many linux distributions then you can read my post here that will cover this topic in more detail.
2) You Must Know Your System Architecture Before Downloading Linux
There’s a reason why I had mentioned IBM earlier..
When we choose our Linux distribution to download and install, it’s important to know what architecture our hardware (PC/laptop) is.
When it comes to downloading our operating system file we may notice x86.
This is the 32 bit architecture version.
There really shouldn’t be any reason to download this file unless you are planning on running your Linux on a REALLY old computer or a virtual machine that requires a 32bit version.
Older computers used to be 32 bit architecture and so if your PC or laptop looks like it was hand crafted in a plastics factory then I would advise on staying away from this file.
This is probably the most likely version that you will be wanting to download. This is usually expressed as ‘x64’, ‘amd64’ or even ‘x86_64’.
Don’t get “x86_64” confused with ‘x86’ though, as x86 is 32 bit so we need to be on the look out for “64” in the file name!
Modern IBM or IBM compatible computers now use 64 bit and so this is the one to go for as of now.
Just a note here on other architectures.
The following architectures are not relevant to what this article is about and it’s important to know that these are not relevant to us.
Usually any android device or even any mobile phone and tablet will use ARM architecture, so stay away from ARM if you’re following along with me here.
You may also come across ‘PowerPC’ from time-to-time.
DO NOT confuse this with a generic IBM PC.
3) You Must Make A 'Desktop Environment' Decision Before Downloading Linux
Choosing a desktop environment is another option that you may notice when you are about to download your operating system file but not all downloads offer a choice and so you may have to simply accept what environment ships with the distribution.
If you ARE offered a desktop environment to select then this option is for you to decide as its all personal preference.
But you really don’t want to be running a power hungry, graphic intensive desktop environment on an old, out-dated computer that struggles with booting up, let alone run this kind of heavy load as this may cause unwanted side effects such as smashing up your slow and sluggish rig.
For an older, more slower system the you will probably want a light-weight desktop such as Xfce, MATE (pronounced as Mart Ay) or LXDE/LXQT.
These are the only lightweight desktops that I will mention here but remember that there are more out there.
Usually the defacto would be Gnome (pronounce it how you want!) and KDE. My personal preference between these two has always been KDE.
There are more desktop environments out there in the wild and Linux Mint has been sporting the Cinnamon desktop for a while now and this is what I use as of today.
You can always download and install a new desktop environment from the repository if you’re not happy with the one that has been installed with your distribution so don’t think that you need to re-download a new operating system and re-install if that’s the case.
After installing a new desktop environment you would simply logout.
On the login screen you will notice an icon somewhere where you can select which desktop environment you would like to log into.
It’s that simple. As long as the environment is successfully installed then the option to start up in to it will be there.
Some operating systems such as Ubuntu don’t offer a choice of desktop environment when downloading the OS file.
Ubuntu for example ships with the Unity desktop.
If you wanted Ubuntu with the KDE desktop environment then you could always download Kubuntu. As the name suggests, this is Ubuntu with KDE (The K Desktop Environment).
4) You Must Know HOW You Will Download Linux
(Direct Download, Mirror Or Torrent?)
Web browser or bittorrent?
Usually you are also given the choice to either download the file directly through your web browser or you can download via bittorrent.
I would suggest that if you are on a slow internet connection or maybe a wifi connection that sometimes disconnects from the internet at times, then I would go the bittorrent route.
However, I you have never used bittorrent then for this instance I would probably just attempt the download via the browser.
I won’t get into detail here about bittorrent but downloading via bittorrent is relatively easy as all you need to do is install a bittorrent client, then download the tracker file for the linux distribution and open the file with the bittorrent client.
Bittorrent Clients: Ktorrent (Left) & Transmission (Right)
Web browser with a mirror
If you do go down the ‘web browser – direct download’ route then you may need to select a mirror.
The standard practice is to select the closest server to your location as selecting the closest mirror will give you the fastest and most reliable connection and reduces the resource needs on the servers.
5) You Must Know What An ISO File Is Before Downloading Linux
What is an ISO file?
ISO is a French term meaning ‘International Organization for Standardization’ (Not ‘International Standards Organization’ as some may believe) and as you may have guessed, is an international standard.
The term ‘ISO’ is not an actual acronym as you would think though. It is short for the Greek word ‘Isos’ meaning ‘equal’.
You can check out the wiki page here
The CD-ROM has the ISO standard of ISO9660. This is the international standard for the file system we are dealing with here.
Imagine if we could see the data on a disc and took a snapshot of the files that are stored on the CD-ROM.
This would create an image of exactly where each file is stored on the disc. Well this is the ISO file we see when we download linux.
Burning the ISO vs writing to USB drive
Once we have our ISO file of the linux distribution of choice we can now burn this image file to a disc, using a CD/DVD writer.
However, we also have the option to write this ISO image to a USB drive (pen/thumb), we can then boot up from this and into our operating system.
Using the USB write method is much quicker, it is less likely to have any write errors and saves a ton of cash from buying writable discs.
USB Writing Tools
Just a quick note here on USB writing tools.
UNetbootin is a popular tool for Mac/Linux & Windows for writing these images to USB drives but I’ve failed on multiple occasions to create a working bootable image with this tool and I really don’t recommend it.
If you’re using Windows then the last time I checked (which was quite some time ago) then ‘Win32 disc imager’ would be the tool of choice.
I’ve used this multiple times in the past and I never had any problem with it.
In linux, I can only speak for Linux Mint 19 as of right now, but if you right-click on the image file you will be presented with the option to write to USB! Perfect! 🙂
6) You Must Know What A 'Live CD' Is Before Downloading Linux
If you’re looking to just try out linux and you’re not wanting to install anything then this is the option for you.
Before I fully committed to using linux as my full time operating system I was using Live CD’s for quite a while and it really does help you get a feeling for the system without having to commit to anything.
Something to note here is that you probably won’t be able to save any of your own files.
Usually Live-CD’s are what’s known as ‘non-persistent’ and if you are running from a read-only file system such as a CD-ROM then you have no chance in writing files here.
However, if you are booting from a Live-CD on a USB drive then you may have the option to use persistence. This will allow you to write/save your own files.
7) You Must Know About Verifying Disk Images
Although you must know about verifying disk images, this cannot be actually achieved until the file is downloaded.
MD5sum or SHA256sum
It is customary to run your downloaded image through an MD5sum or a SHA256 check.
What this does is it verifies that the file you have downloaded is the file that was created by the linux team and it hasn’t been tampered with in any way.
The above screenshot shows me performing a SHA256 on the downloaded Linux Mint version 19.3 ISO file.
The output shows the results.
On the Linux Mint website I would then navigate to where I will find the SHA256 checksum.
The image above indicates that I need to select “19.3” as this is the version that I had downloaded.
The linux download page should display this long number somewhere.
All you need to do is open your downloaded linux distro file with a MD5/SHA256 generator tool and the results should match the number that is given on the linux download page.
If it does not then under no circumstances should you ever use this disk image! It would appear to have been tampered with.
This post covered everything that a beginner must know before downloading Linux.
Hopefully all this made some sense to you and you should now understand what the file names mean to you as you’re about to download your linux distribution of choice from the vast selections available to us.
I know that it can be very confusing to the beginner to get as far as downloading the operating system as they’ve most likely not done anything like this before. But don’t let this discourage you.
Once you have all this knowledge down, you will be downloading multiple linux distro’s and booting them all up in no time.
Once you have had a good play around with distro hopping (which I spent around 4 years doing) you will eventually settle on something you enjoy and you’re quite happy with.