Can Linux be used as a normal OS?

Linux is one of those topics that has a tendency to bring to mind images of dark basements and long bearded geeky types (or maybe you don’t even know what the hell it is.  Don’t worry, we’re gonna over it).  The truth is though, that it’s not always the case and we’re gonna cover once and for all if Linux can be used as a normal OS, and by that I mean by normal people for normal everyday tasks.

What we'll cover

Can Linux be used as a normal OS? (Short Answer)

The short answer is, yes, Linux can and often is used as a normal operating system. The flexibility of Linux and the vast software options that are available make Linux an even better choice than the mainstream operating systems in some situations which we’ll talk about later in the article.

What is an Operating System (OS)

As consumers we typically know operating systems as products such as Windows, OSX, or Linux.  In reality however, the job of an OS is actually much smaller than what we expect out of an OS.  Operating systems have grown in time to contain not only the basics, but also a suite of software to work alongside it.

OSX Mojave
Windows 10
Linux running KDE Plasma

Wikipedia defines an operating system like this:

the software that supports a computer's basic functions, such as scheduling tasks, executing applications, and controlling peripherals.

That seems a bit technical and a bit cryptic, well, because like most things on Wikipedia, it is.

Basically what it means is that an operating system’s only actual job is to provide a sort of interface, or bridge, between the actual hardware of the computer (think RAM, hard drives, graphics cards, etc) and other software that needs to run on the computer.

I’m gonna give a quick example of what I mean.  When you open up a text editor, type in some text and hit the save button, the text editor doesn’t actually reach out and write the ones and zeroes to the hard drive.  Instead the operating system provides some internal functions that the software utilizes instead, and the OS handles it in the background.  This allows the OS to keep track of where everything is stored, how much space is available, and who should and shouldn’t have access to the information stored on the drive.

This same basic principle is used across all of the different hardware available on the computer.  Things like how much RAM a given application needs, how much CPU time, CPU core usage, etc are all decided at the operating system level.

What is Linux?

So, now that we’ve learned what an operating system is we’re ready to talk about what Linux is.  If you’re here you probably already know that Linux is an operating system.  But what makes Linux so much different than the mainstream operating systems like Windows or OSX?

The Linux Kernel

Linux is actually just a kernel.  This means that if you we’re to thoretically install Just Linux (It’s barely possible), you wouldn’t be able to get much done.  You wouldn’t even have any sort of interface to work with because all the Kernel actually does is create that bridge that we talked about earlier, but doesn’t actually provide anything that actually uses that bridge the way that other more popular operating systems do.  Can Linux be used as a normal OS by this standard? No, but GNU/Linux certainly can.

GNU/Linux

So what’s the point of Linux if it really doesn’t do anything?  Well Linux as we know it today is actually something called GNU/Linux which is in fact a collection of software running on top of the Linux Kernel that comes bundled and packaged in many different ways which we’ll cover in the next section.

How does Linux work?

I’m not going to go into heavy detail about the technical inner workings of Linux but what I will cover is how is Linux distributed, what are some of the common options, and some common software that people use on their Linux systems.

Distrobutions

Comparing Distros. Can linux be used as a normal OS
Comparing Distros

The first thing we should cover is the idea of a distribution.  A distribution is a particular collection of software and configuration that is put together and maintained by any specific entity.  It isn’t like Windows where Microsoft builds, maintains, and releases everything Windows.  Instead, anyone with the know-how can create their own distribution and share it with anyone that’s interested in it, which means that there a lot of options out there.  Distrowatch.com tracks a couple hundred different Linux distros at any given time.

Okay, so we understand that a distro is basically just the Linux kernel with some other bundled software to make a usable operating system.  But what is it bundled with?  

Window Managers and Desktop Environments

Comparing Linux Desktop Environments. Can linux be used as a normal OS
Comparing Linux Desktop Environments

To make a usable system you need a few things.  Primarily you need something that handles the stuff on the screen.  In the Linux world we call this a Window manager.  The Window manager handles things like the look and feel of the system, it handles the little buttons in the top right (or left) to close and minimize the windows, resizing of windows, etc.

Often times a window manager is bundled in with a desktop environment which is closer to an operating system as we know it than the Linux kernel itself.  A Linux desktop environment is a collection of software (including a window manager) that is all meant to work well together.  IT includes things like a file manager, a text editor, a graphical login system, and any other software that the developers feel people need for basic computer functionality.  Can Linux be used as a normal OS without actually installing a full desktop environment?  Yes, and a lot of people do this, but a desktop environment provides a much smoother and full featured experience more often than not.

Software for Linux

Ubuntu Software Center. Can linux be used as a normal OS
Ubuntu Software Center

Okay, cool.  Now we understand that Linux is a bit different because by default everything doesn’t come bundled together.  But, what about everything that doesn’t come pre-packaged with your operating system.  What about things like an office suite like Microsoft Office, or your favorite web browser like Google Chrome or Firefox?  Well, as you might expect this typically works a little bit differently than other operating systems as well.

In Linux, your software typically comes from something called a repository.  The maintainers and developers behind a distro will actually go out and pre-package common software and make it available to you through the distros repo.  If it isn’t available from the repository it can typically be downloaded from the software’s website in a couple of common formats.

Software that isn’t open source and isn’t freely available can’t legally be pre-packaged into the repositories so it’s often times available for a limited number of distributions and can be downloaded from the software’s website.  Because each distribution is a unique implementation of Linux, the format for the packages is pretty important and depending on the software you plan on using might force you into one distribution or another.

Is Linux right for me?

So now that you have a basic understanding of operating systems, Linux, and what some of the differences are, you might be asking; Is Linux right for me as an operating system?  Well let’s talk about it.

When Linux is a good choice.

Linux comes in a lot of variety and flavors, and because of it’s infinite flexibility it can wear a lot of different hats.

For most normal day to day users a standard Linux distribution like Mint, Manjaro, or MX Linux can make great daily drivers for a typical desktop or Laptop computer.  To people that aren’t all that interested in their computer and mainly just want to do basic things like browse the web, stream movies, check e-mail, etc. Linux will typically be a great choice and will often times outperform Windows or OSX.  The leads to the point that when people ask can Linux be used as a normal OS, I just want to say, “Yeah, and you probably should.”

Another great use-case for Linux is when you are running on older hardware.  Because Linux has some incredibly lightweight desktop environments like XFCE  (which Manjaro and MX both have available) it will often times feel much better than using Windows 10, and will be far more secure than running an out of date version like Windows 7.

Another less functional but more common reason to switch to Linux is that you just want to.  Maybe you’re curious about it, or just want to learn something new.  This is a great reason to switch and if this is on your mind I strongly recommend you give it a shot.  It can be a fun and rewarding experience for the tinkerer and technically minded.

When Linux is a poor choice.

Linux isn’t a perfect solution for everybody, and there are certainly some times when using Linux will be either more difficult, or just outright impossible.

One example of this is for people who play graphics heavy games, or AAA titles that don’t have native Linux support.  This is becoming less and less true year by year, but even now I would say that most gamers would be unhappy with Linux as an OS.

Another time when it might not be possible to use Linux is when you need to use some sort of specific software that isn’t available.  Adobe products is a good example that is often times required for some people, and Adobe doesn’t create their software with compatibility for Linux.

One last thing I will mention that might make or break a person on the fence about using Linux is that support is typically non-existent.  For technically inclined people they may be able to solve some problems by asking questions on distro forums or something of the sort, for normal every-day users there is not Apple Store equivalent for Linux users.  They are typically left to their own devices to solve problems when they do arise.

Transitioning to Linux

So, you’ve decided that Linux might be a good fit for you, and you want to give it a shot.  That’s great!  Let’s talk a bit about what that process might look like from a couple different angles.

Experimenting with Linux

Computing has come a long way in the past decade, and hardware has gotten really powerful.  It’s gotten so powerful in fact, you can run a complete (or many complete) virtual computers on your computer.  This is called virtualization and it will actually allow you to experiment with Linux before you actually commit.  You can use software like Virtualbox to do a test run of Linux without making any destructive changes.

Ubuntu 20.04 running in virtualbox. Can linux be used as a normal OS
Ubuntu 20.04 running in Virtualbox

Dual-booting Linux

Another option, albeit a more difficult one to pull off, is to dual-boot Linux alongside your normal operating system.  This will require that you actually split the computers boot drive to make space for two operating systems, and install a capable boot loader that is configured for the dual boot setup.  

This one is interesting because when you’re thinking can Linux be used as a normal OS, the answer is yes and you don’t even have to make any changes to what you are already using.

When you dual boot, you can actually have two systems installed at one time.  When you boot your computer, before you actually get to the operating system you can choose if you want to boot Linux or Windows.

Wiping out your old OS

The third option to install Linux is to just wipe out your old operating system, and install Linux instead.  I would say that if you are brand new to this sort of thing it certainly makes sense to experiment with Linux in some way first.  That might be by using virtualization software, or maybe you install Linux on an older computer first and try it there instead.

Just know that if you go this route, you will be completely destroying all your data, so make sure you take a backup first!

Installing Linux

Installing Linux is actually usually pretty easy, especially if you’ve ever installed Windows or OSX on a computer manually before.  However, it will often vary from disto to distro so it makes sense to refer to your distros documentation / installation guide, or use an online reference before you start.

Typically an installation will look like this:

  • Download the ISO from your chosen distro’s website
  • Use software like Rufus or Etcher to flash the ISO to a USB flash drive.
  • Insert the flash drive into the computer.
  • Power on the computer, and use the appropriate keystroke to enter the boot menu.
  • Choose the flash drive from the list.
  • Follow the on screen installer to install your OS.

Conclusion

All-in-all can Linux be used as a normal OS? Yes, and it actually makes more sense to than to not in some situations.  It definitely has it’s caveats and can seem a little bit intimidating at first but I promise, if you can learn to use Windows or OSX there is no doubt you can learn to use Linux too.

I’ve been a Linux user for over 10 years, and my distro of choice is Arch Linux, but I do experiment with other distributions quite often either in a virtualized environment or on other hardware.

This blog is brand new, and this is in fact my first ever post.  I would love any feedback you have.  Feel free to drop it in the comments, or let me know over on the Contact page.

Thanks for reading, and happy hacking.

Me
Daniel
I’m a web designer, developer, maker, father, husband, and U.S. Army veteran. I’ve been working professionally in the technology space for over ten years holding positions such as senior systems administrator, senior developer, and security analyst. I founded a company called Mozarks with my brother and have been working freelance ever since.
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