All hard disks have to have partitions on to hold any sort of data, different operating system require you to have different partitions. Windows generally uses either a FAT32 partition type or NTFS. If you have a pc with windows on the chances are that you only have 1 partition on. For Linux we're going to have to make some changes to your partition table and introduce 2-3 new partitions.
Don't worry if this all sounds complicated, the newest distributions especially SuSE has tried to make partitions as easy as possible, it comes with a utility built into YaST (SuSEs installation program) which automatically resizes your main fat32 partition to fit Windows and Linux on along with any other small changes which need to be made. If you feel more comfortable controlling how much space exactly to give each operating system I suggest you use a program like Partition Magic rather then Fdisk.
I'm not going to go into great detail on how to use these programs but I will mention what you need to do with these programs. Depending on how big your hard drive is will depend on how much space you want to allocate for Linux. I normally go for around 10gbs as my root partition for Linux as this gives me plenty of space to work with. You can install Linux on a number of different partition types the most common being EXT2/EXT3.
The newer distributions will use EXT3 and the older EXT2. Though the differences between the partitions do not concern us, it does not make a major difference which you choose. Once you have your main Linux root partition you will need a swap partition. It took me a while to get my head round this concept but swap partitions come in very handy and speed up day to day tasks a lot. Swap partitions originally came from the days when ram was very expensive so the idea of using your hard drive to substitute ram came about. Windows uses a similar technique known as virtual memory.
Your swap partition doesn?t need to be over big, a minimum of 128mbs and a maximum of around 500mbs. Generally the less ram you have the bigger the swap partition you need. If you have a large enough hard drive and space isn?t a big issue it doesn't harm having a bigger swap partition but there is no need to over do it. Finally if your hard drive is bigger then 8gbs and the Linux partition isn?t the first on the drive then you may need to make a boot partition if you intend to duel boot with windows. Boot partitions have to be the first partition on the drive as need only be a maximum of 50mbs formatted to EXT2.
This makes it easier for installing any boot managers needed to duel boot the system. Without one you may find when you reboot your pc after installation only windows will boot and the only way you will be able to access Linux is with a boot disk. The exact principles behind how partitions work is not really relevant for using Linux. The general idea is that Windows uses either FAT16, FAT32 or NTFS partitions and Linux uses EXT2, EXT3, REISER and SWAP. All these can easily be created using Partition Magic or Linux Fdisk.
LUGs or Linux User Groups have come to form a vital part of the Linux community. Most areas or county?s will have a user group where anyone can join to give there advice about Linux or to try to get help about different things. User groups and free to join and are run by the LUGMaster, to find out the nearest lug to you visit http://www.lug.org.uk/.
The groups will normally have a meet once a month where sometimes demonstrations can take place or a less formal meet happens. You get to meet a wide range of people from all different ages with very different backgrounds but all with a common interest of learning about Linux. LUGs maybe a more geeky side to Linux however if you do have an interest in Linux join up and you might find people in the same position as you.
The user groups normally have projects that members can join into, our local LUG has been looking at wireless WANs though this is beyond me financially and logically I have learnt a lot about wireless ways and what benefits they can bring. Some LUGs are a lot more active then others, this normally depends on the motivation in the group and the number of members, my local LUG happens to be active thus can be a very useful service when trying to work things out in Linux. The LUGs main ways of communication apart from the meets are over IRC and mailing lists.
The system requirements will mainly depend on what you intend to use your computer for. For instance if your going to be running a full desktop environment then your going to need a more powerful pc then if you were just running the console for some simple services. Generally if your going to be running a full desktop environment with multimedia apps open and internet programs your going to need at least a Pentium 500, with 64mbs of ram. Some people would argue that you could run it on a slower processor but if you want some reasonable speed the more power you can get the better.
Ram wise I wouldn?t use anything less then 64mbs worth and its normally recommended when using a GUI that you have at least 128mbs. We had Redhat 7.2 running on a Duron 800 with 128mbs of ram and even that was slow occasionally. If your going to be running something less advanced with no GUI then you should be fine with a Pentium 166.
The other big consideration you are going to need to take into consideration is hard drive space if you want a full desktop environment and all the programs you need your going to need at least 2-3gbs of free hard drive space just for the programs. You can fit Linux onto around 300mbs of hard drive however this wont be a lot more then a console system. If you install the maximum number of packages on some distributions then you could be looking at 4-6gbs of hard drive space.
This is fine if you have a large hard drive but for people will smaller drives you will either have to watch what you install or invest in a more up to date hard drive. Linux should automatically pick up and configure most PCI cards including sound cards, graphic cards and network adapters. The only problems I had was configuring TV cards, Mandrake configured it automatically for me and it worked first time while SuSE and Redhat left me to configure it for myself. ISA cards may need some configuring however it is possible to get most hardware working in Linux.
By now you should have a good idea to what Linux is and the different Distributions available. However you may still be a stuck as to how to get Linux and where to get it. Here you have a couple of options, you can either buy one of the packages, download it or borrow off someone else. Prices for Linux normally range from about ?30 upwards and you normally get good value for money.
For instance the SuSE 8 package for ?40 gives you 7 CDs, a DVD, 1 boot floppy disk, 1 modules disk, 1 large reference manual, an applications manual, a basics manual and a certain amount of support. Now considering this package gives you all the software you will need to do most things in Linux it is great value for money. If you were in windows and paid for all this software it would come into excess ?1500 and that?s not including the server software.
Your other option when buying Linux is just to buy the copied CDs, quite a few shops do this and even the distributions site will probably have a service where you can just buy the CDs for around ?5-?10 (I know mandrake does). This is sometimes a good option if you want to try the distribution and you don?t have broadband. Your next option is to download the distribution, most offer this feature in something called an ISO image, this is quite handy as you only have to download 1 file per cd then using a cd writer burn the file to the CD.
The first CD is normally bootable so there is no need for annoying boot disks. If you are downloading and installing for a first time I suggest you use Linux-Mandrake as its very simple to use and easy to download. The one disadvantage to downloading is that your going to need at least a broadband connection to download these files as you will be downloading at least 600mbs per cd. A good place to look for ISO images is http://www.linuxiso.org as it has a wide collection of a lot of the distributions latest releases.
Finally if you know a friend who has Linux then most probably you can borrow their copy. This isn?t illegal as it would be if you were using Windows. If this fails see if your area has a local Linux user group and ask if anyone would be willing to do you a copy of the distribution your interested in.
There are many good Linux distributions out there so how can you know which is the best? I have personally pondered over this a lot, trying what I feel to be the 3 main distributions, Redhat, Mandrake and SuSE and I have finally decided that SuSE is the best for me, however you may not agree.
Below is a simple outline of each distribution.
Redhat: This is probably the best-known distribution especially in the US and Europe. You can get Redhat for free online or if you need the support or more advanced features you can purchase it. Depending on the package you buy will depend on the amount of support you use. Redhat is best used on servers especially web servers, it isn?t the easiest distribution and isn't well known for its desktop use however version 8 tries to bring that gap closer with its new GUI.
SuSE: SuSE is aimed more at the desktop market and is by far the easiest to install and configure which is why it is my personal favourite. I would recommend SuSE to any first time users because of its simplicity and easy of use. SuSE also does a power pc version for anyone wanting to install on a Mac. Because of the way SuSE is you cannot download ISO images from the web however you can download the individual files.
Linux-Mandrake: Mandrake is probably the easiest distribution for new users in the way that it is easy to learn. It has little features that add to the usability of the operating system. You can download mandrake from the web but the package is more then good value to buy. Mandrake was the first distribution to offer a games package that includes games like The Sims.
Slackware: Slackware boasts to be the ?original Linux?. It?s not easy to install or configure and is defiantly not for the noobie. Slackware is great if you want to learn the inner workings of Linux especially if you want to become a Linux system administrator. Slackware is probably the ?geekiest? of all the distributions and it will be very hard to get to use, but in the end you will have a more personalised operating system.
Debian Linux:Debian Linux is one of the only fully free Linux distributions; there is no company behind Debian just a lot of dedicated open source programmers. Debian is very good for development purposes and many people use Debian to learn programming. In my view Debian is behind the rest of the distributions however it is still very popular.
There are many other good distributions including Caldera, Gentoo and Turbo Linux however I find it best to stick to the more popular distributions, as you are more likely to be able to find any support needed. I find the hardest thing when it comes to Linux is choosing your distribution, as there is such a large choice and things are constantly being improved from hundreds of different projects through out the world.