Running Linux on a Windows PC: Your getting started guide

It used to be easy to run Linux on any PC. That changed with Windows 8 and Secure Boot, but it's still doable. Here's how...

So, you're finally considering giving Linux a try. It's about time! And it's really not as scary (or different) as you may think. The myth that you had to be some kind of computer guru to use Linux is utterly untrue. Today's top desktop Linux distributions, such as Mint, openSUSE, and Ubuntu are easier to use than Windows 8.

Indeed, Mint's Cinnamon interface will be a heck of a lot more familiar to XP and Windows 7 users than Windows 8's "Metro" interface. And, while Linux power users may turn up their nose at Ubuntu's Unity desktop, pretty much anyone can sit down and start using Linux with Ubuntu. Don't believe me? Ask my 80+ year-old mother-in-law who uses Ubuntu every day.

That said, while it's easy to use Linux, Windows 8's Secure Boot made it very difficult to boot and install Linux -- or any other operating system for that matter -- on a PC. (Ironically, Secure Boot itself has proven none-too-secure.)

Linux developers have worked out multiple ways to get around the Secure Boot "feature." But since all of those methods, and the distributions that support them, require some jumping through hoops, we'll start with some easier ways to run Linux.

First, and easiest by far, you can simply buy a computer with Linux pre-installed. Except for Chromebooks, which run Chrome OS, a Linux variation that uses Google's Chrome Web browser for its interface, you won't find these at your local Walmart or Best Buy. But you can easily order one on-line from one of several reputable computer vendors that specialize in Linux desktops and laptops. These include:

The major vendors, such as HP, and Lenovo, will also support Linux on the desktop, but most of them make it difficult for an ordinary Joe or Jane to buy a Linux-equipped PC. The one exception is Dell, which still offers a high-end developer laptop, the Sputnik, which comes with Ubuntu.

Unless you're already sold on Linux, or cost isn't a concern, buying a PC with pre-installed Linux probably isn't for you.

In that case, the easiest way to try Linux is to find a pre-Windows 8 PC and use it for your testbed. Once you have one of those in hand you have three main options. These are, in order of ease of installation, WUBI, Live CD/DVD, and Live USB Key.

WUBI

WUBI (Windows-based Ubuntu Installer) is a Windows program that enables you to install Ubuntu Linux 12.04 on any Windows 7 or earlier computer. You simply download WUBI, run it, select a user name and password, ta-da, you have Ubuntu Linux running in Windows as just another application. No fuss, no muss.

WUBI

WUBI is not, I repeat not, compatible with any PCs using Windows 8 or higher or any PC with a Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI). (A quick rule of thumb is that if your PC is of 2012 or newer vintage it probably uses UEFI.)

Live CD/DVD

Almost all Linux distributions offer a live CD or DVD version. You can use these to get a feel for a specific Linux distribution to see if it meets your needs.

The one thing you can't do with these is use them to judge performance. Linux running from a CD or DVD will run more slowly than your PC would ordinarily run it because they can't use your hard drive.

To try this you must download a live CD distribution. You can find a comprehensive list of these distributions on the LiveCD List.

Once you select a distribution and download it, you'll have an ISO file. This is a special file type that you must burn to a CD or DVD. If you try to simply copy it to a blank disk, you'll end up with an unusable disc.

To burn an ISO, you need a CD/DVD-burner program that can handle ISOs. Many programs can do this, but if you don't already one you use, I recommend the freeware program, ImgBurn or PowerISO 5.7, a full-featured commercial program costing $29.95.

Once you have a burning program in hand, you use it to burn the ISO image to your disc. After that's done, use the software to check your newly burned disc for errors. Over the years, I've found that more problems with running Linux from live CDs come from bad media than all other causes combined.

Then place your disc into your PC and reboot. Your machine should then shortly start running Linux. If you like what you see, you can then install it on your PC.

Installing Linux does not mean that you kill off your existing Windows installation. All desktop Linux distributions can live perfectly nicely alongside Windows. If you follow this path, whenever you boot your PC, you'll get a choice of which operating system to use.

If you do install Linux, you'll be asked if you want to allow the installation program to partition your hard drive or do it manually. Since you're just getting to know Linux at this point, go ahead and let the program partition your hard drive for you. The art of setting up a hard disk "just so" comes later.

If Linux doesn't start up, you will almost certainly need to reset your PC's BIOS. To do this, keep a close eye on your computer as it starts up. Your PC will display a brief message about which key to press to enter system setup or to rearrange the computer's boot drive order. By pressing the correct key, you'll end up in a menu interface and you can then tell your system that you want it to boot from your optical drive.

Live USB Stick

Playing with Linux from a USB stick works mostly the same way as it does from a CD or DVD, but with two real advantages.

The first advantage is that Linux will run orders of magnitude faster from a USB stick. The second is that you can also save files and data to the drive. This means that, for all practical purposes, you also get a complete, customized desktop that you can carry with you and use on any up-to-date PC that supports booting from USB drives. Indeed, some people actually keep their Linux desktops on a USB stick, and just run it from any PC at hand.

To try Linux with a USB stick, you first download an ISO. Instead of using a disc-burning program, you must use a specialized program to "burn" the ISO to a USB stick.

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