Very few people pick Linux as their first operating system. Most people are indoctrinated with one version of Windows or another. Some people pick an Apple computer, but I’m not concerned about them. They’ll never use Linux. Some people pick Chromebooks and I’m not concerned about them either.
As a Windows user, you may or may not be familiar with Linux. The easiest way to get started is to get another computer and install one of the hundreds of Linux distributions on it. You can get laptop computers with four gigabytes of memory for under $200 at various places in the United States. Amazon.com and Walmart.com are good sources to buy them online. Shipping can cost you nothing at all.
Working with Windows on one computer and Linux on another is a great way to learn about their differences. You should pick a Linux distribution that has a familiar desktop environment until you can become comfortable with one that doesn’t. I use the Cinnamon (default) edition of Linux Mint. It’s based on Debian and Ubuntu, so it’s supported by multiple online communities.
Another way to get started is to add Linux to your existing Windows computer. We call it “dual booting”, with Windows as the first operating system and Linux as the second (it’s what I’m doing with the laptop computer I’m using right now). You’ll have to shrink your Windows partition (the largest one) enough to accommodate Linux on a new partition. I’ve used the MiniTool Partition Wizard in the past without encountering any problems.
Yet another way to get started is to install a virtual machine manager such as Oracle VirtualBox or VMware Workstation Player on your Windows machine. It’s not going to work well on a computer with four gigabytes of memory or less, but it’s okay for testing and becoming familiar with desktop environments. I use VirtualBox but I use it on Linux to run Windows instead of the other way around.
Windows 10 supports the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL). I don’t recommend it for beginners. It’s best to use a true Linux installation, regardless of how you access it.
Before you attempt to change anything on your computer, you have to be sure you don’t have anything on the internal drive you can’t afford to lose. External hard drives are inexpensive these days, so you can copy or move all your data files to one before you begin. Backup anything you can’t replace.
The most common mistake when starting an endeavor such as this is thinking you won’t make mistakes along the way. From personal experience I can tell you how wrong you are when you think that way. Yes, I’ve lost a lot of data over the years. Not recently, however, because I started following my own advice.
Most Linux distributions can be run “live” from USB flash drives. The flash drives are relatively inexpensive for the smaller sizes. Anything more than eight gigabytes should work for any that can run this way. I don’t think you can even buy single flash drives of only eight gigabytes anymore.
Image Attribution: firstname.lastname@example.org Larry Ewing and The GIMP / CC0
Edited and updated. Originally published at one of my other websites in February 2020.