There are many different ways that you can get your own copy of Linux. It has reached the point where it is readily available in any computer store and many department stores, as well as many online shops, like Amazon.com or places that just provide operating systems.
Many distributions are available directly from the vendor, typically through an FTP server. For example, you get obtain copies of SuSE Linux from ftp://ftp.suse.de. There is typically a pub directory (for public access) and underneath that there may be sub-directories for the various releases, or as in the case of SuSE, you first have the architecture (like i386 or Sparc) and then the specific releases.
In these directories you are likely to find a number of sub-directories, broken down by functionality and then the individual packages. In some cases, you may be find ISO CD images. These can be burned 1:1 onto a CD, from which you can boot. For example, SuSE 10 can be found here.
If you download an ISO CD image, then typically all you need to boot from the CD. If you download individual packages, you will need to create a boot disk. In all likelihood, you will have a boot directory (i.e. ftp://ftp.suse.com/pub/suse/i386/10.0/bootdisks) which contains images of boot disks, module disks, as well as instructions on where to go from here. Look in the dostools directory for a program, probably called rawrite.exe, which can be used from a DOS or Windows system to write the floppy images to a disk, which you can then use it to install. Note also that in most directories, you will find a README file, which gives you more information. There is typically also a text file which describes the contents of each of the module disks. I have never had a need to create more than one module disk, it it is possible
Once you have downloaded the files, the next step to read any available documentation, particularly the README file. The next step is to make floppies using the floppy images, as we discussed above. Also make sure you have made a copy of any necessary module disks. While you creating your floppies, go through the section on preparing for the installation. This gives you some great tips and information about doing the installation.
One of the disks that you just create is a boot disk (hopefully you labeled them all correctly). Insert this disk and power on the machine. If the machine is already running (for example, you used the same machine to create the floppies), then I would suggest that you shutdown the system and turn off the power. Linux is very robust, but during the installation, I like to play it safe and start from a fresh a system as possible (which for me means a cold boot). At this point you will be guided through the installation by being asked a series of questions.
Note that many new commercial distributions have an “automatic” installation mode. This makes a number of decisions on it own about how the system disks should be partition, what software to install. If you are going to use the entire computer from Linux, this is a not a bad option for a beginner.
If you run into problems during the installation, it is unlikely to be a general problem with Linux on your hardware. Rather it is more likely to be a problem with the floppies. One likely cause is bad media, which means you will have to re-create the floppy. Another place problems can occur is during the actual download. This can be caused simply by a poor connection. However, it can also be caused by one of the most common mistakes when transfering files via FTP. That is, transfering binary files as text. When a file is transfered as text, the FTP client may make some changes to the file, to make it a “text” file for the operating system to where the file is copied. Since the system does not know any better, it will also “convert” binary files, if they are transfered as text (or ASCII). Therefore, you need to ensure that you always download these files in binary mode.