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Part 2: Partition and Installation
In part one of our guide, we walked you through the process of finding a distro that is right for you. By now, you hopefully have become more familiar with the distros that are out there and have at least one that you would like to try. This chapter is going to walk you through downloading and burning a CD image of your chosen distro(s), the traditional way of partitioning and setting up a dual-boot system, and another way to dual-boot without repartitioning. Instead of providing a step-by-step tutorial for a specific installation process, our goal is to educate you on the underlying concepts in a more generalized way that you will be able to apply towards many different Linux distros. You should also read our previous guide to installing Ubuntu for further instructions.
Before you can install and play around with Linux, you have to acquire it first. While some computers come pre-equipped with Linux through the OEM, (certain Dell models and various netbooks, for instance) most of you will have to download it from the internet. The most considerate way to do this is through Bittorrent, since peer-to-peer eliminates the bandwidth strain on servers that conventional downloads create. All you have to do is find a torrent file of the distro you want and start the download. (assuming the torrent is still being seeded) We advise you to follow proper etiquette and seed as much as you download (at least a 1:1 ratio) so other people can benefit from the torrent like you did.
For some of you, Bittorrent is not a good option. Several internet service providers throttle (artificially limit the speed of) all torrent download speeds because they have oversold their lines and there is not enough bandwidth to allow everyone to torrent at full speed. Bittorrent is a huge drain on providers, and they often use piracy as an excuse for throttling.
Fortunately, you can still fall back on old-fashioned FTP. Very few providers limit FTP download speeds, so your download will go as fast as the server on the other side or your own connection will permit. Most Linux distros are mirrored on several servers, so there is a good chance that at least one of them will be fast at any given time. However, if you try to acquire a new version of a distro on the same day it came out, Bittorrent may be a far better option (even if you are being throttled) since all FTP servers are likely to be very slow or even non-responsive as a result. (many people are trying to download at once and the server can only handle a finite load) Bittorrent is not prone to that type of slowdown problem due to its decentralized nature, and your download will actually go faster as more people start seeding.
If you're still stuck on dial-up, downloading Linux may take up to several days. Rather than having to tie up your phone line for that long, you have the option of ordering pre-made Linux installation media from several different suppliers. (distrowatch.com has links to these providers) Most of the media acquired in this way comes on professionally pressed discs and is much more durable than typical burned CD or DVD media. Many of these discs are very reasonably priced.
Some big-box electronics stores also sell boxed copies of various distros in their software section; these discs are also professionally made. Alternatively, many books on specific distros include a disc with the full operating system on it. The downside to this last method is that the included version may be slightly out of date by the time you buy the book.
If you download Linux yourself, you are going to end up with one or more ISO files. An ISO file allows you to replicate a CD or DVD without requiring an existing disc to copy from; it is essentially a container file for everything on the original disc. These days, it is common for distros to come on more than one CD, (although some distros like Ubuntu still manage to fit on only one) so make sure you download the ISO files of all the discs that are required for installation. Alternatively, many distros have a DVD version as well, (larger download size in exchange for the convenience of one disc) so choose which one you want.
If you've never burned an ISO image before, it is rather different than making a normal CD or DVD. Burning the ISO file to a blank disc like you would with any other file will not work. (it would only waste a disc) The object here is to extract the contents of the ISO file to recreate the original disc. Most CD/DVD burning utilities (even low-end ones) have an image burning utility built into them, so look for a “Burn Image” feature or something similar. If your burning software doesn't support this, you can still use isoburn to make your installation media.
Once you have created or otherwise acquired your Linux install discs, you may have an opportunity to test the distro on your system prior to conducting the actual installation. Many modern distros incorporate LiveCD functionality, essentially the ability to run a temporary yet fully functional session of the operating system from the CD or DVD instead of from the hard drive. The LiveCD session will make no permanent changes to your computer. (unless you choose to install)
LiveCD functionality is useful because it gives you a change to experiment with the distro without making any real commitment and lets you determine whether or not it will be a good fit for your system. The LiveCD has most (if not all) the software that will be in the installed system available for use, so it will give you a good idea of what the distro is capable of out of the box. In part one of this series, we mentioned that some distros have better hardware support than others.
Judging by how well the LiveCD works, you will have a fairly good idea of how well your particular hardware configuration is supported. Keep in mind that certain specialized hardware like wireless devices (especially the Broadcom 43xx devices) or graphics cards/chipsets (ATI or Nvidia) may require additional drivers or firmware to work, and the LiveCD may not support them out of the box. The last part of this article will tell you how to deal with this problem should it arise. Fortunately, hardware support on Linux is currently better than it has ever been before, and most of your hardware will work fine.
In any event, you should treat the LiveCD functionality as a test run or a preview of the real thing. Also remember that some distros (like CentOS) do not have LiveCD functionality.