When you boot your GNU/Linux CD (or a floppy made from the CD), a program called an ``installer'' starts up and asks you a series of questions about your computer. The installation process is divided into several steps, beginning with basic hardware configuration and choice of language, to partitioning the hard drive, to choosing which packages to install, to configuring peripherals (modem and network), and finally video configuration--traditionally the most frustrating step of all, but now fairly painless if your video card is supported.
When partitioning your hard drive, allocate as much space for GNU/Linux as you can, within reason. In the partitioning step, you much choose mount points for all partitions except the swap partition. It is fine to use a single partition for the main installation, but it must have / as its mount point. With swap space, the rule of thumb is to allocate twice your amount of physical RAM or 128 MB, whichever is less. If you have 32 MB of RAM, create a 64 MB swap partition. If you have 80 MB of RAM, create a 128 MB swap partition.
GNU/Linux software is divided into collections of programs called packages, according to the software's purpose. Packages are grouped by the installer into broad general areas like ``Text processing,'' ``Games,'' ``Networking,'' and the like. Some of the choices are less self-explanatory, like ``X windows'' or ``Development.'' You will want X windows (unless you plan to work exclusively with a command line) and at least one desktop environment (see below). If you plan to program (C/C++, Fortran, Perl, Python, and Java just are a few of the languages supported) or install software from the source code, you must install development packages. The choice of packages is potentially delicate, since there are dependencies between packages. The installer will at least warn you if you're attempting to install a package without all the packages upon which it depends. A lot of space can be saved by installing only one desktop manager (because each contains several ``themes'' that contain large graphics files), but then you won't be able to try them all and compare. KDE is probably the easiest choice for a beginner, though many users swear by Gnome, especially since Gnome is written completely in the spirit of free software. One slightly frustrating thing about Mandrake is its redundancy; there are packages for text editing in a terminal (command line), and similar packages for text editing in a desktop environment. There is Netscape Navigator and Netscape Communicator. There are desktop utilities and networking suites for KDE and similar packages for Gnome. Not all of these packages have obvious (in)dependency relationships. There are also more packages than one can imagine, with all manner of programs. (Keep that in mind the next time you hear someone claim, ``There are no applications for Linux.'') The installer will keep the installation size within the specified limits, but seems not to choose intelligently which packages to install. If in doubt, don't despair; there are easy-to-use utilities for installing and removing packages after the main installation is complete. The kpackage utility, which must be run as root, is easy to use. If you have the disk space, install everything, then remove packages you find you don't use. If you try to remove a package and get a dependency message, cancel the uninstall and check the dependent packages to see if you use them. If not, remove them all.