Are "GNU/Linux" and "Linux" any different?
You keep referring to one and the other alternatively. What is this all about?
Originally, Linux refers to a core component (called the kernel) that fits within the GNU system. What users run today are, to be precise, "distributions of the GNU/Linux system".
In practice, the word "Linux" caught on much better (unsurprisingly), and today people refer to the whole system as simply "Linux". This causes a great deal of controversy.
Calling the system GNU/Linux is much more meaningful, technically (end-users use a lot of "GNU" and a little of "Linux") but also philosophically: the strength and momentum of the Free Software movement started with and are still carried by the GNU project.
Calling the system Linux is more practical and appealing for computer users that often believe Windows is the only thing on earth.
And what has that software to do with a GNU?
When Richard Stallman started to design GNU, the main system in use was Unix, which is proprietary. Because GNU is similar in function to (and compatible with) Unix, but is free software, he coined the term GNU which stands for GNU's Not Unix. It's a recursive acronym. If you enjoy that kind of humour, check out what GNU Hurd means.
Is Linux a registered trademark?
Yes. You cannot sell any random software under the name of Linux®. The trademark is held by the Linux Mark Institute.
Is GNU/Linux the only free operating system available?
No. GNU/Linux is by far the most widely used free system; however a number of other systems exist.
Is macOS a distribution of GNU/Linux?
Understanding free software
Are "Open Source" and "Free Software" the same thing?
Yes and no. Technically, the great majority of open source programs are free software and vice-versa.
In terms of philosophy, things are quite different. The term "open source" was coined to make "free software" more attractive, its supporters see open source software as a better way to make software.
Supporters of the "free software" term value the freedom, not merely the way software is made, and thus argue that the term "open source" misses the point.
Which term you employ simply depends on your vision of software.
Why are some GNU/Linux distributions sold, not given away?
Some websites actually sell distributions of GNU/Linux. So, why do you write it is "free as speech and available at no charge"?
The concept of free software, refers to freedom, not price. You have the freedom to copy, study, modify, and give free software away.
Most companies developing free software make money by selling services around their software, rather than the software itself. This is sometimes done by selling everything as a package: the customer buys the CD, book, and support contract at once. The software can still guarantee your freedoms.
Why are some GNU/Linux distributions not fully free?
Some GNU/Linux distributions are available at no charge, but include restrictive software. Why is it so?
There are typically three types of policies regarding the inclusion of non-free software:
Some GNU/Linux distributors allow non-free software in order to enable hardware functionality. This happens because some hardware manufacturers such as NVidia do not care about their customers' freedoms, and only release restricting firmware and drivers (some of them don't even release anything, like Broadcom). These are available at no cost (they are freeware) but under restrictive licenses. Distributions such as Ubuntu thus include such components to improve hardware compatibility.
Some GNU/Linux distributors do not compromise on the freedom of software, and make sure their distribution are entirely free. Such is the case of Trisquel, which is a Ubuntu derivative with all restricting components removed.
Some GNU/Linux distributors assemble free and restrictive software without distinction. Such distributors would not like users to think of their freedom, and rather advertise only the technical capabilities of their product. Using such distributions isn't much better than using Windows. We value your freedom and recommend you choose carefully!
Is macOS also a free operating system?
Do all the reasons for avoiding Windows apply to macOS?
It's quite common for Mac users to believe they are exempt from restrictions associated with Windows. Unfortunately such is not the case.
macOS does have some low-level components which are free software; and Apple puts less energy into customer lock-in (with some notable efforts such as BootCamp).
However, the end-user is still fundamentally restricted — because of the proprietary license, he/she cannot use macOS for all purposes, nor copy, study, modify, or redistribute it.
Happily, because these freedoms matter a lot, it's possible to run popular GNU/Linux distributions (such as Ubuntu) on Mac computers.
Aren't GNU/Linux users the ones who make illegal downloads?
Isn't GNU/Linux about cracking, "piracy" and illegal download websites?
No. Wherever you read or heard this, you should update your views. GNU/Linux is completely distinct from such things. Whether you want to do them, or whether you prefer intelligent, legal downloads, GNU/Linux will work just as well as Windows. Unfortunately you can't identify gangsters by the make of their cars; the same thing goes for their operating system.
GNU/Linux was made by people who don't like the thought of all the world's computers running just one company's proprietary products. There is certainly nothing wrong with that!
Read more in the article: How to Misunderstand Free Software.
Is GNU/Linux a form of communism?
"Everything has to be free" and "No one owns anything" sounds somewhat frightening. Are GNU/Linux and its GPL License something for anarchists or communists?
GNU/Linux has nothing to do with a political system and anyone — regardless of their political views — can use it. We have this explained simply in our article How to Misunderstand Free Software.
Does GNU/Linux come pre-installed on computers?
Yes it does. LinuxPreloaded.com has built a website specially for that purpose, listing vendors that sell GNU/Linux desktops and laptops.
Note that buying new hardware is not necessary to use GNU/Linux!
Can I get GNU/Linux in my own language?
Yes. All main distributions, such as the ones we recommend, are all available in the main languages around, and have support for many keyboard types.
Unlike Windows, all languages are included on each installation CD, so there is no need for you to download (or pay for!) another whole version to merely change the language on your computer.
Is it legal to install GNU/Linux on my computer?
There is a shiny Windows sticker on it! Am I allowed to erase Windows or use it together with GNU/Linux?
Yes. It is absolutely, completely legal, provided of course it's your computer!
The sticker on it is purely marketing, it has no legal value. We believe it is one fundamental right to choose which software to run on our own hardware.
Do I have to purchase a new computer to run GNU/Linux?
Not at all. It will run happily on your own computer.
The only thing you might be worried about is using very recent special hardware, such as graphics cards. Otherwise, almost all GNU/Linux distributions can run on normal PCs (often called "i386" or "x86" computers), 64-bit-processor computers and Apple Mac computers. Read how you can try or install GNU/Linux on your computer, be it instead of or together with Windows.
Will Microsoft Office run on GNU/Linux?
No. It is technically possible to adapt Microsoft Office to GNU/Linux, but Microsoft isn't keen on allowing Office users to choose their operating system. There are other issues with MS Office and openness — like Microsoft's fierce opposition to supporting the OpenDocument format.
However, a complete, free, reliable office suite exists: LibreOffice. Or you can choose its close cousin, Apache OpenOffice. They will both happily use all your existing office files in MS-Word, MS-Excel, and MS-PowerPoint format, and are really free (both as in freedom and as in price). And they run on Windows as well as on GNU/Linux.
Can I play my DVDs and MP3s under GNU/Linux?
The simple answer to this question would be "yes", however this is only half the truth.
Quite a few GNU/Linux distributions do not include MP3 playback software due to the patent situation of the MP3 format. These patent issues do not affect the user directly, so most distributions make it fairly easy to install MP3 support over the Internet after the installation, making it possible to legally play MP3 files, for non-commercial use.
DVDs, on the other hand, are a more difficult situation. Most, if not all, DVDs are encrypted using a system called "CSS". There is a widely supported free software, called
libdvdcss, capable of decrypting DVD videos. However, circumventing the restriction on your DVDs is illegal in many parts of the world, including the USA and the European Union.
There is a legal solution to play your DVDs on GNU/Linux where
libdvdcss is illegal. The Fluendo company has developed an (non-free) application for that purpose which can be purchased from their website.
Non-encrypted DVDs, which include most home-made DVDs, play perfectly well with only free software.
Can I play popular 3D games under GNU/Linux?
Yes and no. Some games, for example the Quake series, Rust, Counter-Strike, Tomb Raider, Portal, Left 4 Dead, and many more have GNU/Linux versions. Since the release of the popular Steam platform to the GNU/Linux operating system, the number of GNU/Linux compatible games on Steam has been growing rapidly. Check out the Steam store where you can find a wealth of high quality, GNU/Linux compatible games.
Most popular games, alas, only work on Windows and occasionally on macOS. Some Windows games can be run on GNU/Linux with Wine or its non-free variant CrossOver, which involves some unpleasant effort for the user. For a list of games known to work on Wine, see their games database.
If you have a question that is not covered here, there are many communities to help you. Our "More" section will help you find the right place to ask.