Apart from my weather fascination, I have a keen interest in Linux operating systems and open source software in general. Put briefly, Linux operating systems are an alternative to Windows operating systems like XP, Vista and Windows 7 etc. In the Linux world most operating systems are open source and anyone can download and use them for free. That's right, you can re-install them many times without the need to activate the installion with Microsoft because Linux isn't owned by anyone - its free and available to all. A number of Linux versions in my opinion are in some ways better than Windows; much less chance of virus or malware infections (better for online banking etc), lots of free, very good software, a more secure way of installing software and generally just a better way to do your computing.
Perhaps the best thing about Linux is that you can get involved with helping others. There are numerous avenues to work in; support forums, beta testing new software etc. Millions of people world-wide will benefit from the help that volunteers provide. Its very rewarding.
Some of the best Linux operating systems are Ubuntu (NB: Lubuntu is most stable for me), Linux Mint (based on Ubuntu but a bit fancier) and PC Linux OS but there are plenty of others as well. I have now come to the conclusion that Linux Mint (Standard Gnome desktop version 32bit or even better, Mint LXDE) is the best for beginners. NB: Since the introduction of the Gnome 3 desktop (GUI) I prefer LXDE over Gnome via Lubuntu, Mint LXDE or even Fedora LXDE. Gnome 3 is a backward step in stability, usability and speed, IMO and KDE desktop isn't always stable. Ubuntu uses Unity desktop which is just as bad as Gnome 3, IMO.
Have a look at the Distro Watch link in the menu for more Linux distros and how popular they are in the rankings there. Personally, I have used Ubuntu since mid 2008 for 99% of my computing time and would give it 8.5/10. Its very good but is just a touch more complicated to set up for beginners compared to Linux Mint. NB: Scroll to the bottom of this page if you would prefer to install Ubuntu. Windows still has its place, of course, although I would never do any banking or security related tasks in Windows.
NB: If you don't want to install Linux Mint onto a hard drive as per the instructions below, you can just load up the Linux Mint live CD that you will create and play around with Linux Mint that way. Its slower via the CD but it is still a fully working version of Linux Mint. This way, your computer is not changed in any way but you can still learn all about Linux Mint. Actually, the PCLOS live CD is good too as it also has Adobe Flash installed as default. So even if Linux is not your thing, you could still easily use a live CD to do security related tasks like banking, which is risky in Windows.
Some notes on installing Linux Mint
Please follow these basic instructions at your own risk. There is no guarantee that everything will work out okay for you, especially if you haven't installed operating systems before. Its best to follow this procedure on an old computer you don't need or by using a spare hard drive in your computer or by just booting from the created live CD which wont change your computer in any way.
1: You can dual-boot with Windows and Linux Mint on the same hard drive if you are moderately experienced but typically you need a spare hard-drive or old computer to install Linux on, unless of course you are happy to get rid of Windows on your current PC. If you choose to use your current Windows computer to install Linux Mint, make sure you have backed up your Windows operating system by making an image of it, just in case you want to use it later or you can always just re-install Windows via the install CD but that takes longer. You can make an image of Windows with imaging software like Clonezilla (free) or Acronis True Image or Norton Ghost - both commercial programs.
2: Download the iso file from the Linux Mint link above. You want to download Linux Mint 32 bit, the standard version. Most people would be better off using the 32 bit version of Linux Mint, so if you are not sure, just go with that. Its around a 700MB file, so if you have a slow connection, you can also occasionally get Linux Mint from CD/DVDs that come with computer magazines at the newsagent. The current version of Linux Mint is Isadora (as of September 2010) and its a long term release and is supported with updates until 2013, so its a good download to work with. You can see the downloads page here. Just click on the Isadora link, then click on the Gnome CD (32 bit) download then select one of the download mirrors and save your Linux Mint file to your computer. There may be newer version of Linux Mint since this page was written, so just go with the Gnome CD (32 bit) of any newer version, if you want to.
3: Once you have downloaded the Linux Mint iso file, burn this iso file to a good quality CD. If you are in Windows, use Nero or whatever CD burning software you have to burn an image. When you open your burning software, you need to select the Linux Minto iso file that you downloaded and then select from the menu something like 'burn an image to disk'. You can't just copy this .iso file to a blank CD by dragging and dropping etc, the image must be 'burned' to the CD. Read your software manual for this or Google how to burn an .iso file if you are not sure.
4: Once the .iso file is burned to a CD, you then insert it into your CD bay and reboot your computer which should be set to boot from your CD drive first. If nothing happens when you reboot your computer (ie: your system is not set to boot from CD first) you can also just load the CD from within Windows and it should tell you what to do. Remember, you can just run this CD as a live CD which means you will run Linux Mint off the CD, so your current operating system on your computer wont be touched.
5: If you choose to install to your hard-drive, follow the prompts and Linux Mint should now install if its compatible with your computer, which in most cases it will be. There are exceptions of course and maybe your computer isn't compatible so fingers crossed.
6: Once Linux Mint is installed, you will be asked to reboot your computer and everything should work but of course in some cases that may not happen, that is life with computers...sadly. Its impossible to have every piece of hardware that is compatible.
Tips and Tweaks after installation to your hard-drive
1: The first thing you need to do is update your system. In the menu system on the bottom right, you will see a little shield icon, go to the update manager and install any updates for Linux Mint that are marked 1 to 3 but I'd suggest not installing updates that are marked 4 or 5, at this stage.
2: Once you have installed any updates to Linux Mint, reboot your computer and read the various links on the Welcome to Linux Mint dialogue box on the desktop, there are lots of good links there to help you learn about your new operating system.
3: Install a printer. If you have a Hewlett Packhard Printer you are in luck as many of them are just turn on and auto install printers in Linux Mint. Other brands can be a bit more tricky and cannot be covered in this simple tutorial for now. Just try turning your printer on anyway and see if its recognised automatically, quite a few are. If you are thinking about buying a new printer, head to the HP link above to make sure you purchase one of their thousands of supported printers. Other brands work too but no company supports Linux like HP, to my knowledge. If all else fails, head to the CUPS link in the top menu or if you want to dive straight into configuring your printer via CUPS just enter 'http://localhost:631' without the quotes and then cick on the admin tab. You will be asked for a password and your local password for your Linux system is the right one, I think, as I have never needed this approach with my printers. Follow the instructions to add a printer.
4: Install more applications. In Linux Mint and Linux in general you don't just install programs off the internet or from a CD, this is one of the dangerous things about Windows, its so easy to get viruses or malware that way. For Linux Mint, just go to the Software Manager in the menu and check out the huge amount of programs you can safely install. Some I use are; Gimp (like photoshop), DEVEDE (to make DVD videos), Kino (to prepare videos for YouTube), Ufraw (to work with raw images in Gimp).
5: Learn how to make an image of Linux Mint, once it is installed. That way, you can quickly restore it, if something goes drastically wrong. This can be done for free using Clonezilla. Type clonezilla.org into your browser and read the FAQ on their website. You will need to download a Clonezilla .iso file and burn it to a CD like you did with Linux Mint and then follow the instructions on the website, that you should have downloaded first. I would choose the Alternative Stable version of Clonezilla as it supports newer hardware.
This is just a very basic tutorial on Linux and Linux Mint so please head to the links in the menu at the top of the page to learn more. Linux Mint and other Linux distros are a great way to enjoy a much safer environment for computing. The Whirlpool Forums are also a good place to learn about Linux, just head to the Linux forums there. Below are some instructions for Ubuntu if you installed that instead of Mint.
Tips and Tweaks After Installing Ubuntu
1/ First, update your system via System>Admin>Update Manager. If you have a new release of Ubuntu, there wont be many updates but if the release is some months old, prepare for quite a lot of downloads. If you are with Internode as your internet service provider (and some other providers) you can get downloads that don't count against your usual download limits BUT only do this if you are COMFORTABLE tweaking things, otherwise leave it alone for now. Head to System>Admin>Synaptic Package Manager then head to the menu there and click on Settings>Repositories then select the 'download from' box and change it to Internode and make sure you don't have any other software sources selected there. Then press 'reload' to update the repository you selected.
2/ Open Ubuntu Software Centre via Applications menu and type in Ubuntu Restricted Extras, if indeed you have downloaded the standard 32 bit Ubuntu operating system. This will add Adobe Flash Player and various other codecs etc, that will make YouTube and iView etc, work properly.
3/ Install a printer, see Mint instructions above
4/ Visit the clonezilla.org site and learn how to download and use (via the FAQ etc) the Clonezilla Alternative Stable edition (probably the best for beginners) of Clonezilla and burn the .iso file to a CD. Then boot from this CD and make a backup image of Ubuntu. Have an external hard-drive ready and plug it in when you are asked to, as this is where you will send your image to. Skip this step if you are not bothered about making an image of Ubuntu and head to step 5/. I always make images of my operating systems as its then so easy to re-install in about ten minutes instead of hours, if you encounter problems like a crash during a blackout etc.
5/ Head to this link which was correct at time of writing and learn how to install another couple of things so you can then watch most DVDs on your Ubuntu system. Just remove the last word or two in this address if it has changed and you still should get to the Restricted Formats page. I use VLC Media Player for watching DVDs as its better than the default Ubuntu program install - you can get it via the Ubuntu Software Centre in the menus.
6/ Install more programs, if you want, via Ubuntu Software Centre. Kino is great for YouTube video uploads, then there is DeVeDe for making DVDs, Ufraw for raw photo processing, Gimp for great graphics and photo work and lots more. Visit the Ubuntu Forums link at the top of this page and let people know how your Ubuntu install experience went.
Best of luck!