Years ago, when Linux was new, installing and using the alternative OS was best left to propeller-head nerds with oodles of free time. Indeed, just getting Linux up and running on a machine required several hours, just the right mix of supported hardware, and then several more hours. If you were dealing with cutting-edge hardware, it would take a couple days of tinkering to achieve a working install with a graphical interface and a reliable Internet connection.
These days, installing Linux is a piece of cake.
In addition to the traditional distros that install Linux to your hard drive, there are also several specialized distros that run directly from your optical drive, without making any permanent changes to the Windows install already on your PC. Such LiveCD distros make it really easy to give Linux a test spin and experiment without any real danger to you or your computer.
Here's what you'll need:
A blank CD or DVD
A CD or DVD burner
A Broadband connection
An empty hard drive (or one with at least 10GB of free space)
STEP 1: DOWNLOAD THE RIGHT DISTRO
For a great balance of power and ease-of-use, we recommend Ubuntu Linux. Ubuntu is a LiveCD version of Debian, which uses the more streamlined Gnome window manager. Though there are some fundamental differences between it and Windows—some things will naturally be in a different place—Ubuntu should seem familiar enough that it will be easily navigable by anyone who’s used a Windows machine.
To get the latest version of Ubuntu, go to www.ubuntulinux.org/download and select a mirror near you. You’ll have to make a couple of choices before you can download an Ubuntu image. You’ll want either the 64-bit version—if you have an Athlon 64 or Pentium 4 that supports AMD64 extensions—or the Intel x86 version, for all other PC CPUs.
If you have a DVD burner, we recommend you use the combination install/live DVD images, which allow you to test boot the OS, and then actually install a working copy of Ubuntu to your hard drive. If you don’t have a DVD burner, you can alternately download the install CD from your mirror of choice.
Our preferred download method for large files—such as a 2GB Ubuntu DVD image—is BitTorrent. Once you’ve installed BitTorrent, you can download the appropriate DVD image (in .iso format) by clicking its .torrent link. Make sure you save the ISO file someplace where you’ll be able to find it.
Once you’ve downloaded the ISO, you’ll need to burn it to disc using your favorite CD mastering program. With Nero, it’s as easy as double-clicking the ISO image, and clicking “Write to disc” once the app loads.
STEP 2: PREPARE YOUR PC
Now, you should prep your rig for the actual install. We recommend installing Ubuntu on a spare hard drive—it needn’t be a huge-capacity drive; an old 20GB drive will provide more than enough space. Take note of the capacity of your current drive so you won’t accidentally overwrite your current Windows partition and all the data on it. (Ubuntu’s installer won’t overwrite your Windows partition unless you tell it to, but it’s better to be safe than formatted.)
If you boot into Windows after you install your new Linux drive, you can delete the current partitions (go to Control Panel, Administrative Tools, Computer Management, and then select the Disk Management option. Right click the partitions you want to delete, and then select Delete Partition, and go through the dialogs). The Ubuntu installer will install to unpartitioned areas by default.
Now, you’re ready to get started. It’s as simple as ensuring that your mobo is set to boot from the optical drive and dropping the Ubuntu disc into the drive, then restarting your computer. When the PC boots, you’ll be presented with the screen shown on the right. To start the install, just type “install” and press Enter.
STEP 3: START THE INSTALL
Now the Ubuntu installer is going to collect some information about your system—the language you want to use, the type of keyboard you have, and the kind of hardware in your system. You’ll have to answer a few questions, but for the most part, this portion of the install doesn’t require your input. Once the installer collects info about your hardware, and configures the network adapter, you’ll need to assign a hostname. Your hostname can range from your actual name to something clever, like a character from your favorite book or TV show. Once you’ve selected a hostname, you’ll proceed to disk partitioning.
STEP 4: PARTITION YOUR DISK
This is the only truly dangerous part of installing Linux. Should you make a mistake here, you could conceivably erase the contents of your Windows drive, so pay attention and make sure you understand the process before you do anything.
Every partition on every hard drive in a Linux machine is given a unique name. The formula for names works like this: Parallel ATA hard drive names start with “hd”, SCSI, SATA, USB, and FireWire drive names start with “sd”. The next character in each drive’s name is a letter, which tells you which physical drive a partition is on. For example, the first SATA drive in a system will be “sda”, the second will be “sdb”. After the letter will be a number. This number indicates the partition on a particular drive, so “sdb1” is the first partition on the second SATA drive in the system. To get an Ubuntu system working, you shouldn’t need to know any of this, but a little knowledge never hurts.
If you’re going to wipe an old drive and use it for your Linux drive, you can do that by using the “Erase entire disk” option and selecting the appropriate size disk. If you don’t see the proper disk, you can choose to manually select the free space you want to use, then the installer will create a main partition for the OS and your apps, as well as a small swap space that Ubuntu will use as virtual memory. Make the changes to the drive, and you’re ready to proceed to the second stage of the install.
STEP 5: INSTALL AND CONFIGURE
Once the disks are partitioned, you’ve done most of the hard work. The Ubuntu installer will install the grub boot manager, automatically configure it to work with any other OSes you have installed, and restart your computer. When you restart, you’ll need to choose your time zone, and then you’ll create a user account. Enter your full name, your desired username, and a secure password.
This is a good time to talk about Ubuntu’s lack of a traditional Unix-style “root” administrator account.
Instead of having the all-powerful root, Ubuntu gives the account you create during the install permission to use “sudo,” which provides your account with temporary root-like privileges. If you’re following online instructions that require root privs, you can run the commands on your Ubuntu install by prefacing the command with sudo. For example, if you need to edit your fstab file, you’d type sudo nano /etc/fstab instead of nano /etc/fstab.
Once you’ve created your account, the installer will configure apt-get, the package management application that Ubuntu shares with Debian. Ubuntu developers maintain several huge repositories of software that is preconfigured to run perfectly on Ubuntu. If you need to install, say, OpenOffice, apt-get will automatically download it from the Internet, then install it on your system, all you need to know is the name of the appropriate package.
STEP 6: FINAL STAGES
The installer will reboot again and install the actual applications you’ll use on your system—think Firefox and OpenOffice. Your last task is to select the resolutions your desktop will run at. When choosing your resolution, make absolutely certain you don’t select any options your monitor can’t display. If you goof, you won’t be able to boot into the GUI, and you’ll have to either manually tweak the text file that configures your display or reinstall from scratch. You probably don’t want to do either.
You can select as many resolutions as you wish, but Ubuntu will default to the highest resolution when you boot the first time. Once you select your setting, the machine will reboot again, and the install will be done!
STEP 7: WHAT'S NEXT?
You’ve installed Linux! Ubuntu comes with a ton of useful applications, including Firefox, OpenOffice, and Evolution—an Outlook clone. Everything you need to use your computer on the web, for email, or for basic office tasks is available to you out of the box.
There’s still a ton of software out in the world that’s available for you to try out. If you need more software, we recommend using the handy Ubuntu Add Applications program. It’s right there at the bottom of the Applications menu.
If you have problems—and you will—the first place you should turn is Google. There’s a ton of great Linux help info on the net, and Linux weenies are notoriously unhelpful if they don’t think you’ve at least made an effort to find answers for yourself. If you can’t find the answers you need on the net, try posting in the Alt-OS Abode of the Maximum PC forums. Now get out there and enjoy your Ubuntu!