Linux, for those who don’t already know, is a free and open source operating system, which you can find in dozens of different versions (known as distributions). The distribution you pick depends very much on your how you plan on using the OS, but for the purpose of this article we are going to assume you are looking for a desktop alternative to Windows. And as a full-featured Windows replacement, no other Linux distribution comes close to Ubuntu, which features a full suite of pre-loaded desktop applications and an easy to use installer. Fresh installs of Ubuntu will contain recent versions of the most popular open source applications including Open Office, Firefox 3, Gimp Image Editor, and several other multimedia tools and games.
The most recent release version of Ubuntu is 8.04.1 LTS (Long Term Support). This distribution is often referred to as “Hardy Heron” and went live in April 2008. It will remain current until the next iteration, billed “Intrepid Ibex”, launches in October. For reference, our previous Ubuntu install guide featured version 7.10, also known as Gusty Gibbon.
Ubuntu contains many unique and innovative qualities designed to make it less intimidating the average Windows user who may be looking for a change. One of these features is called Live CD. Once you have downloaded and burned a copy of the Live CD ISO, you will have the ability to launch a fully functional copy of the Ubuntu to test out driver compatibility and to sample the user interface, all without installing a single file to your PC. This guide will walk you through testing your hardware and installing a dual boot setup all without formatting or repartitioning your hard drive.
1. Use Your ISO Burning Software To Create A Live CD
To begin we must mount our newly acquired ISO file to a bootable CD. You can use either your existing CD burning software, or since we are in an open source frame of mind, a free alternative such as InfraRecorder. Once this is completed the CD should be moved to the bootable optical drive on your PC. We are now ready to restart our machine and begin the trial.
2. Try Ubuntu Without Any Change to Your Computer
As mentioned before, one of Ubuntu’s finest features is the ability to run the OS off the CD before you commit any additional time to an installation. Running the software “live” is made possible without permanent installation by placing all the necessary files into RAM instead of your hard disk. Incompatibilities are rare, but not even Microsoft has the ability to predict every system configuration. The odds are pretty good that if you have problems booting with the “Try Ubuntu” option, you will have problems with a full blown installation as well.
3. Test Your System For Compatibility
If all went well with the Live CD initialization, after a short boot sequence you should find yourself greeted by a fully functional desktop with which to experiment and test your hardware. To get a quick overview of native driver support you can click system, preferences, hardware information. This will give you a list of hardware detected on your PC similar to the Device Manager in Windows.
For a quick and easy way to verify basic compatibility, try using the built in utility located under system, administration, hardware testing. This will walk you step by step through compatibility checks on your video, audio, and input devices. If you manage to pass each stage of the test with without issue, you should have no trouble getting your hardware up and running after a permanent installation. So if you’re now ready to give Ubuntu a home in your system, and have 4GB of disk space to spare on your hard drive, go ahead and restart the computer and boot back into Windows to begin the installation.
4. Install Ubuntu Without Formatting or Repartitioning Your Drives
Your Live CD contains a new feature that can be accessed from the autorun menu in Windows called Wubi (Windows Ubuntu Installer). This interface will allow you to install Linux to any drive on your PC and the option of booting from any OS each time you start your machine. A key advantage here is that since we are installing Ubuntu from within Windows, it can be uninstalled at any time using the Add/Remove Programs utility.
Despite what many people believe, however, this install is not a virtual machine. It works more like a disk image creating a block of data on the drive. This carries a little bit of a performance penalty, but nowhere near what you encounter when you run an OS within an OS. At this point you can simply follow the installer.
1.) Installation Drive – Which hard disk you wish to install to. If you choose the “C” drive, for example, the image will be located under c:\ubuntu 2.) Installation Size – It is important you pick the size that you think will suit you needs. If you only intend to dabble in the OS, 4 to 8GB should be enough. 3.) Username / Password – Make sure you write this down. Once the OS is installed you will need this to log in. 4.) Click “install”. The amount of time required to complete this step depends very much on the speed of your internet connection, since many of the install files are downloaded on the fly. Upon completion, you will be asked to reboot, after which you’ll be greeted with a new boot loader on startup that’ll give you the option to pick Windows or Ubuntu.
5. Update the OS
Just like a clean install of Windows, one of the first things you will want to do with your fresh copy of Linux is check for updates. This can be accomplished by clicking on System, Administration, Update Manager. Available updates should quickly populate your list. After you have reviewed your options, click Install Updates. If you fail to receive any updates, try launching Firefox by click on the icon along the top to verify a working internet connection. You will want to make sure you are connected to the internet through a wired Ethernet connection since wireless networking may require you to hunt down and download additional wifi hardware drivers first.
6. Driver Configuration
If you only plan to use your copy of Linux for basic applications such as email, web browsing, or Open Office, you may not need to worry about additional drivers. Ubuntu comes bundled with many open source-equivalent drivers. But if you plan on running anything that requires 3D acceleration, rock out to an aftermarket sound card, or even enable most wifi devices, a bit of extra configuration might be required.
If Ubuntu didn’t automatically activate your hardware, it doesn’t necessarily imply that the appropriate drivers don’t exist, rather it might just mean it might not open source. The primary vision of the Linux project is an operating system without restrictions. Some companies such as ATI and Nvidia, however, don’t want to open its drivers because doing so could reveal proprietary information to their competitors. To enable accelerated graphics using proprietary drivers you need to access the menu system and click System, Administration, Hardware Drivers to view a list of your options and activate them manually. You can download the latest versions of these drivers using the links listed below, but until you become more familiar with how to work under the Unix terminal it might be best to stick with the built-in generic drivers.
Because we are dealing with an entirely new operating system, most of your Windows applications will be incompatible (ie. you can’t just pop in an install CD and expect it work). While some of your apps can be made to work under Linux using emulation packages such as Wine and Cross Over, the process could end up being more trouble then it is worth. I’ve listed a few of the recommended open source options below.
Hardy Heron comes with Firefox 3 built in, but if you prefer an alternative you can also use the newest version of Opera.
The built in GIMP image editor is powerful enough for most users, but if you find yourself needing more manipulation options you could always try Photogenics.
The built in Movie Player works well for standard media formats, but for extra codec support I suggest trying VLC Player. Additionally, MP3 play back isn’t supported in Linux because it’s actually a proprietary format. If you aren’t prepared to convert your entire music collection to the open source OGG format, some alternatives exist such as Zinf or MJS to play MP3’s natively in Linux.
8. Enjoy Linux!
If you decide Linux isn’t for you, you can always boot back into Windows and navigate over to the Add/Remove Programs Utility to turn back the clock. If you do decide to stick with Ubuntu, you can always try running a dedicated install on another machine or set up a permanent dual-boot the next time you format and repartition your system. To do this, just skip step 4 and double click “install” on the Ubuntu desktop when you boot from your live CD.
Share your Ubuntu experiences in the comments section below!