Is Linux hard to learn?

Jay LaCroix

January 30th, 2018

This post is an extract from Linux Mint Essentials by Jay LaCroix.

Quite often, I am asked whether or not Linux is hard to learn. The reputation Linux has of being hard to use and learn most likely stems from the early days when typical distributions actually were quite difficult to use. I remember a time when simply installing a video card driver required manually recompiling the kernel (which took many hours) and enabling support for media such as MP3s required multiple manual commands.

Nowadays, however, how difficult Linux is to learn and use is determined by which distribution you pick. If, for example, you're a beginner and you choose a distribution tailored for advanced users, you are likely to find yourself frustrated very quickly. In fact, there are distros available that make you do everything manually, such as choosing which version of the kernel to run and installing and configuring the desktop environment. This level of customizability is wonderful for advanced users who wish to build their own Linux system from the ground up, though it is more likely that beginners would be put off by it. General purpose distributions such as Mint are actually very easy to learn, and in some cases, some tasks in Mint are even easier to perform than in other operating systems.

The ease of use we enjoy with a number of Linux distributions is due in part to the advancements that Ubuntu has made in usability. Around the time when Windows Vista was released, a renaissance of sorts occurred in the Linux community. At that time, quite a few people were so outraged by Windows Vista that a lot more effort was put into making Ubuntu easier to use. It can be argued that the time period of Vista was the fastest growth in usability that Linux ever saw. Tasks that were once rites of passage (such as installing drivers and media codecs) became trivial. The exciting changes in Ubuntu during that time inspired other distributions to make similar changes. Nowadays, usage of Ubuntu is beginning to decline due to the fact that not everyone is pleased about its new user interface (Unity); however, there is no denying the positive impact it had on Linux usability. Being based on Ubuntu, Mint inherits many of those benefits, but also aims to improve on its proposed weaknesses. Due to its great reception, it eventually went on to surpass Ubuntu itself. Mint currently sits at the very top of the charts on Distrowatch.com, and with a good reason—it's an amazing distribution.

Distributions such as Mint are incredibly user friendly. Even the installation procedure is a cinch, and most can get through it by simply accepting the defaults. Installing new software is also straightforward as everything is included in software repositories and managed through a graphical application. In fact, I recently acquired an HP printer that comes with a CD full of required software for Windows, but when connected to my Mint computer, it just worked. No installation of any software was required. Linux has never been easier!

Why use Linux Mint

When it comes to Linux, there are many distributions available, each vying for your attention. But which Linux distribution should you use? In this post, taken from Linux Mint Essentials, we’ll explore why you should choose Linux Mint rather than larger distributions such as Fedora and Ubuntu. In the first instance, the user-friendly nature of Linux Mint is certainly a good reason to use it. However, there’s much more to it than just that.

Of course, it’s true that Ubuntu is the big player when it comes to Linux distributions - but because Linux Mint is built on Ubuntu it has the power of its foundations. That means by choosing Mint, you’re not compromising on what has become a standard in Linux. So, Linux Mint takes the already solid foundation of Ubuntu, and improves on it by using a different user interface, adding custom tools, and including a number of further tweaks to make its media formats recognized right from the start.

It’s not uncommon for a Linux distribution to be based on other distributions. This is because it's much easier to build a distribution on an already existing foundation, since building your own base is quite time consuming (and expensive). By utilizing the existing foundation of Ubuntu, Mint benefits from the massive software repository that Ubuntu has at its disposal, without having to reinvent the wheel and recreate everything from the ground up. The development time saved by doing this allows the Linux Mint developers to focus on adding exciting features and tweaks to improve its ease of use. Given the fact that Ubuntu is open source, it's perfectly fine to use it as a base for a completely separate distribution. Unlike the proprietary software market, the developers of Mint aren't at risk of being sued for recycling the package base of another distribution. In fact, Ubuntu itself is built on the foundation of another distribution (Debian), and Mint is not the only distribution to use Ubuntu as a base.

As mentioned before, Mint utilizes a different user interface than Ubuntu. Ubuntu ships with the Unity interface, which (so far) has not been highly regarded by the majority of the Linux community. Unity split Ubuntu's user community in half as some people loved the new interface, though others were not so enthused and made their distaste well-known. Rather than adopt Unity during this transition, Mint opted for two primary environments instead, Cinnamon and MATE. Cinnamon is recommended for more modern computers, and MATE is useful for older computers that are lower in processing power and memory. MATE is also useful for those who prefer the older style of Linux environments, as it is a fork of GNOME 2.x.

Many people consider Cinnamon to be the default desktop environment in Linux Mint, but that is open to debate. The Mint developers have yet to declare either of them as the default. Mint actually ships five different versions (also known as spins) of its distribution. Four of them (Cinnamon, MATE, KDE, and Xfce) feature different user interfaces as the main difference, while the fifth is a completely different distribution that is based on Debian instead of Ubuntu. Due to its popularity, Cinnamon is the closest thing to a default in Mint and as such, it is a recommended starting point.