It's been almost a month since I've made a complete transition from Windows to Linux on my main working computer (my notebook to be exact). The longest I have ever gone with Linux installed was a month, mostly due to needing to use software that works properly only on Windows (also those that are not compatible with Wine). However, this time I have decided to find alternatives, even if it takes a while to get it running properly. I decided to write this post to help people choose a distribution that works well out of the box and Linux alternative to common Windows software.
What is Linux?
Contrary to popular belief, Linux is not exactly an operating system (OS). It is the software component that links applications to hardware (or loosely the software/hardware bridge), commonly known as the "kernel". Yes, Windows has a kernel as well, but it is proprietary! Due to the Linux kernel being released under an open source license, people can make changes to it to suit different hardware and environments. As a result, Linux is found in many devices from phones (Android is a Linux based mobile OS) to set top boxes (such as the Dreambox) and of course computers. Thus, you have many, many, many choices when it comes to finding a Linux distribution to install on your computer.
Compared to Windows, Linux results in much cheaper licensing costs (possibly zero). Linux is generally more secure, due to the way it is built and ironically its lack of popularity compared to Windows. It is not immune to security threats though, security also depends on the end user's actions! It is also quite lightweight, most distros on a default installation run satisfactorily on less than 1GB of RAM. You also have distros made for low memory computers, there is a distro for just about any device.
Where do I start?
First you need to choose a distribution. DistroWatch offers quite a long list of distributions and their popularity. From experience on trying to make Windows users switch, I usually recommend Ubuntu or one of its derivatives such as Linux Mint (the one I currently use and strongly recommend). Ubuntu is backed by a company (Canonical), is easy to install and use, comes with most of the drivers (even proprietary ones) and most importantly has a large user community where you can get help from.
Installation should be pretty easy, simplest being burning the ISO to a CD/DVD (on Windows I recommend ImgBurn to burn stuff). Pop it in your computer and you can try out Linux without touching your hard drive. If you want to install, there should be a button that launches the installation wizard. Few clicks (and some typing) later, you'll boot into Linux! If your PC does not have a CD drive, try installing from a USB flash disk (pen drive) with the help from UNetbootin.
My wireless and/or graphics are not working (properly)!
Your hardware most likely comes with proprietary drivers that cannot be installed by default during the installation without you agreeing to some license. On Ubuntu (and its derivatives) look for something called "Additional Drivers" in the programs list.
What is X Windows software equivalent in Linux?
Many software developers have Linux versions of their software. Below is a list for common ones that may not have a Linux version yet or anytime soon.
Photoshop (advanced image editing) > GIMP
Adobe Acrobat Reader (PDF reader) > Foxit Reader
MSN Messenger (instant messaging) > Pidgin (multi network support: AIM, MSN, Yahoo, IRC and more)
Video editing > PiTiVi
Video conversions > WinFF
DVD authoring > DeVeDe
This is not a complete list, but includes software used by common users. Refer to your distribution's manual for installing software, on Ubuntu, look for the Synaptic Package Manager or Ubuntu Software Center. If you really need to run something that works only on Windows, you could try emulating it in Wine. However, Wine alone is quite complicated for a normal user, so you could try using a Wine frontend called PlayOnLinux to make the process a bit easier. There is no guarantee that Wine (or PlayOnLinux) will properly run the application, so keep that in mind!