College students can enhance their computing productivity with the Linux operating system. Linux offers better speed, tighter security and several other advantages over Microsoft Windows and Apple OS-X. Plus, it comes at an unbeatable price: it’s completely free.

No single company owns or sells the Linux OS, which is open source software. Several dozen open source communities maintain their own Linux OS versions, called distributions. You can’t walk into an electronics store and get Linux, but you can download it and install it quickly. Linux runs efficiently on any computer, even older models.

First though, you have to decide which “flavor” of Linux works best for you. These different Linux “distros” have features that cater to user interests and specific work tasks. Linux comes with all the applications you need for school work, time management and personal use.

These programs include games, productivity tools and entertainment apps. All Linux programs are free and available with a single click from the distro’s software center.

Take the First Step

Your first step is easy: download and sample a few distros. Start your search by checking out the distribution web sites. Some distros are better choices for newcomers to Linux while others may be more attractive to experienced users.

The Cinnamon desktop in Linux Mint.

To get started, check out this list of Linux distros, or check out these websites:

There are many more Linux distros. A handy place to check for current Linux releases is Distro Watch.

Take Step Two

Next, it’s time to download. Every Linux developer’s website has its own download page and Linux Oses are packaged in the ISO file format, so you can use the DVD burning software on your Microsoft or Apple computer.

If you do not have one installed, you can go here for a free Windows tool. Click here for simple directions on how to burn a self-booting DVD. Use these directions if you have an Apple computer.

Reboot your computer when the process completes. Your computer will load the Linux Operating System and will not make any changes to your device.

Then, turn off your computer and remove the DVD disc. Your computer will boot into your installed OS. If you liked the experience of that Linux distro, you can install it to your computer’s hard drive. You can install some Linux distros to a USB drive or to a re-writable DVD if you prefer.

Secure Boot Requirement

Linux installs effortlessly on most computers. New computers running Microsoft Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 may block foreign software though, and they might not read the DVD drive to load Linux.

You can work around this security measure by changing the setting in the BIOS that controls the hard drive and reboots the computer. See Microsoft’s directions here, or check the instructions on your computer manufacturer’s website.

If your computer fails to read the DVD drive at boot up, follow those same directions for accessing the BIOS. Then click on the Boot panel and change the setting to select DVD drive as the first read option.

Get Familiar with Your New Roomie

As with any new skill, acclimating to Linux may take time. Read the FAQ and overview pages on the Linux distro maker’s website to learn how different distros work. Check out their features, and read user tech support questions and answers on community forums. This will help you narrow the types of distros under consideration.

Then check out the various desktop options that Linux distros offer. Windows and Mac Oses give you just one desktop design, but Linux lets you choose a desktop design that works for you. Some Linux distros, like Ubuntu and Linux Mint, give you a choice of desktop environments.

Usually, you have to download the live session ISO file for a particular desktop style. Some Linux distros install several versions, and then you can select the one you want when you log into the operating system.

Pick Your Desktop Flavor

Having multiple desktop environments is one of the best features in the Linux OS. Linux is all about choice and custom settings, and the desktop environment sets the entire user interface, which controls how you interact with your computer.

Applications are packaged to run with particular desktops. As you use different desktops, you will discover how different applications perform the same tasks in other distros.

Some Linux distros look like the Mac OS-X.

You can also install one desktop’s application into another environment to align your preferred programs into your favorite distro. The software Package Management tool in each distro automatically handles the applications in your selected distro.

GNOME is one of the original desktop designs. Its most recent redesign in version 3 uses a side panel that hides off the right edge of the screen. MATE is a shell replacement that returns much of the functionality of the classic GNOME version 2. The GNOME shell is the underpinning of several other desktops that mask its appearance.

Unity is a new concept in desktops. It was created by the Ubuntu Linux team to replace GNOME’s revamped design several years ago, and it’s much different than both Windows and Mac OS-X. It has a vertical icon pan on the left edge of the screen and a drop-down Heads Up Display search screen instead of a traditional menu. Almost no other distros use the Unity desktop.

Xfce is a lightweight environment ideal for older computers or users who want a bare-bones desktop interface. It lacks animation and other special effects but it’s very easy to use. LXLE is a similarly fast, lightweight desktop with added functionality.

KDE is one of the most configurable and powerful Linux desktops. It features several special visual effects and many other handy features, although newcomers to Linux often find the KDE desktop confusing.

Cinnamon was developed by the Linux Mint community as an alternative to GNOME 3. The Cinnamon desktop is one of the most popular choices today, as it’s packed with features and is comparatively easy to use.

Check back soon for the follow up to this post, Picking Your Ideal Linux Distro: Part 2, in which we review one distro from each category.