Windows to desktop Linux in three easy steps

You like the idea of a free, lightweight OS. But isn’t installing and using Linux on a desktop painful? Not if you use this guide

Are you geek enough for Linux?

Though it first earned a reputation as a platform for hobbyists and hackers, Linux has come a long way since Linus Torvalds cobbled together the first kernel as a student project. A modern Linux desktop is a sophisticated, user-friendly GUI environment, with features and applications to rival any proprietary OS. In fact, when compared to the mainstream alternatives, there are lots of compelling reasons to give Linux a try:

It’s free. Switching to open source software means the end of software license fees, not just for the operating system, but for the major applications that run on it, as well.

It’s secure. Linux is largely immune to the viruses, worms, adware, spyware, and Trojan horse programs that plague Windows.

It’s compatible. Linux can take advantage of most of the media and file formats you use now, but open source software doesn’t tie you to proprietary protocols and file formats. That means no more vendor lock-in.

It’s lightweight. Linux offers plenty of cutting-edge capabilities for today’s high-powered PCs. It can scale down to suit older hardware, too -- unlike Windows Vista.

It’s well supported. Between an active user community and a variety of commercial support offerings, help is available for everyone, from novices to advanced users.

If you’re willing to take the plunge, getting started with Linux is a matter of a few easy steps. Once you’re done, you should have a fully operational desktop system suitable for learning, experimentation, or even for replacing your current PC for day-to-day computing needs. You can even keep Windows on the same machine, allowing you to switch back and forth between the two operating systems.

1. Get Ubuntu

Linux comes in lots of different flavors, called “distributions.” Each is a unique combination of the Linux kernel plus an assortment of open source tools and applications, assembled to meet its maintainer’s concept of the ideal OS experience.

Many good Linux distributions are available -- if you have time, you may want to explore your options -- but since we have to choose one, we’ll use a popular offering called Ubuntu. Ubuntu provides an attractive, user-friendly desktop environment without a lot of clutter, which makes it a great choice for new Linux users. It’s also free, and its user community is large and active, which means it’s easy to find help and support.

Like most Linux distributions, obtaining Ubuntu is easy. You simply download the installation media as an ISO disk image file, which you then use to create a bootable CD or DVD. The most obvious way to get an ISO image is to download it directly from one of the many Ubuntu Web servers around the world (the Desktop Edition is the version we’ll use here). An alternative way is to use BitTorrent. You can find torrent files for downloading Ubuntu images peer to peer on the Gutsy Gibbon release page.

Of course, either of these options assumes you have access to a broadband Internet connection and a CD/DVD burner. If downloading 650MB or more would be difficult or you don’t feel comfortable burning the installation disc yourself, you can also request installation media by mail from Canonical, the company that oversees Ubuntu development. The CD and shipping are both free.

2. Take the test drive

Once you’ve obtained a CD or DVD, installing Ubuntu couldn’t be easier. You don’t need any prior

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knowledge of programming or Unix. The distribution disc includes a point-and-click, graphical installer that takes care of most of the hard work for you. If you’ve ever installed Windows, the process should be very familiar.

Because not all hardware vendors make their specifications available to open source developers, some PCs may contain components that are not well-supported by the Linux kernel. If your video card or your network controller won’t work, you’ll want to know it before you go to the trouble of installing the OS to your hard disk.

Fortunately, Ubuntu makes it easy to check your hardware for compatibility. When you boot from a Windows installation CD, all you get is an installer. Ubuntu’s installation disc, on the other hand, boots Click for larger view. to a full desktop environment, complete with system tools, office applications, and a Web browser. You can take the system for a thorough test drive, then, when you’re satisfied everything is running properly, you need only double-click the installer icon on the desktop.

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Fortunately, Ubuntu makes it easy to check your hardware for compatibility. When you boot from a Windows installation CD, all you get is an installer. Ubuntu’s installation disc, on the other hand, boots Click for larger view. to a full desktop environment, complete with system tools, office applications, and a Web browser. You can take the system for a thorough test drive, then, when you’re satisfied everything is running properly, you need only double-click the installer icon on the desktop.

3. Install and enjoy

The Ubuntu installation process is straightforward and should leave your existing Windows installation undisturbed. It’s not completely without risk, however. Before you proceed, it’s essential that you make backups of any irreplaceable files.

Compared to some Linux distributions, the installer asks very few questions and requires few decisions. You need only select your language and time zone and Click for larger view. provide some basic information for the account you will use to log in to the system. Where to install the OS, however, demands some thought. If you plan to wipe your hard drive clean and start fresh with Linux (erasing Windows in the process), then you have nothing to worry about. Installing to a spare hard drive is another easy option. On the other hand, installing Linux onto the same drive as Windows requires some care.

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Compared to some Linux distributions, the installer asks very few questions and requires few decisions. You need only select your language and time zone and Click for larger view. provide some basic information for the account you will use to log in to the system. Where to install the OS, however, demands some thought. If you plan to wipe your hard drive clean and start fresh with Linux (erasing Windows in the process), then you have nothing to worry about. Installing to a spare hard drive is another easy option. On the other hand, installing Linux onto the same drive as Windows requires some care.

By default, the Ubuntu installer will try to shrink your Windows partition to make room for Linux. Doing so requires sufficient contiguous free space on the drive; if it is very full, resizing the Windows partition may not be possible. Defragmenting your Click for larger view. Windows drive is a good way to free up the maximum amount of free space before you run the installer.

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By default, the Ubuntu installer will try to shrink your Windows partition to make room for Linux. Doing so requires sufficient contiguous free space on the drive; if it is very full, resizing the Windows partition may not be possible. Defragmenting your Click for larger view. Windows drive is a good way to free up the maximum amount of free space before you run the installer.

If all else fails, the installer also offers manual partitioning capabilities, but be careful -- managing the partition table by hand requires significant technical skill. Use caution, also, when resizing partitions loaded with Windows Vista. Anecdotal evidence suggests that modifying Vista partition tables using non-Microsoft tools can render Vista unbootable.

Once the installation is under way, it requires no intervention. The installer will copy the necessary files to your hard drive and then restart your computer to complete the process. When the computer restarts, you should see the Click for larger view. Linux boot menu, called “grub,” which gives you the option to boot either Windows or Ubuntu. Choose Ubuntu, enter your chosen user name and password at the prompt, and you’re ready to begin your adventure in the world of Linux.

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Once the installation is under way, it requires no intervention. The installer will copy the necessary files to your hard drive and then restart your computer to complete the process. When the computer restarts, you should see the Click for larger view. Linux boot menu, called “grub,” which gives you the option to boot either Windows or Ubuntu. Choose Ubuntu, enter your chosen user name and password at the prompt, and you’re ready to begin your adventure in the world of Linux.

Index of "Switching to Linux" stories

Which Linux should I choose?

Linux desktop applications

Getting connected with Ubuntu

Making the most of Linux multimedia

Don't panic! (Seven ways to troubleshoot Ubuntu)

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