November 20, 2009, 8:41 AM — Did you know that you can try desktop Linux with hardly any fuss or muss? In a recent article, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols explains four easy ways you can take Linux for a spin -- without changing anything permananently on your PC.
One way is to try a live CD version:
Perhaps the most common way to give Linux a try is with the use of a live CD. These are versions of distributions that are designed to run from a CD, DVD or USB stick. The first two will run more slowly than your PC would ordinary run any specific distribution because they don't have access to your hard drive. USB sticks, because they can use the empty space on the drive for virtual memory, can run almost as fast as a fully-installed operating system.
No matter which way you try, some things are the same on all three media. First, you need to download a live CD distribution. You can find a comprehensive list of these distributions on the LiveCD List. As you'll see at-a-glance, almost all Linux distributions now have a live version.
Once you select a distribution and download it, you will have an ISO file. This is a special file type that you must burn to a CD, DVD or USB stick. You cannot simply copy it to a blank disk, that won't work.
To burn an ISO, you need a CD-burner program. Many programs can do this, but if you don't already have a favorite, I recommend Active ISO 2.0, a freeware program, or PowerISO 4.5, a more fully-featured shareware program.
Once you have a burning program in hand, use it to burn your ISO image to your disk or stick. After that's done, you should check your new disk for errors. I've found more problems with running Linux from live CDs come from bad media than all other causes combined.
To use your newly created disk or drive, simply place it in your PC and reboot. Your machine should then shortly start running your Linux of choice.
If it doesn't, and your PC just keeps booting right into Windows, you probably need to reset your PC's BIOS. To do this, keep a close eye on your computer as it starts up. Modern PCs will display a brief message about which function key to press to enter system set-up or to re-arrange the computer's boot drive order. After pressing the appropriate key, you'll end up in a character-based menu interface and you can then tell your system that you want it to boot from your optical or USB drive.
If you're using a USB-stick based distribution, or pen-drive, 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 modern PC that supports booting from USB drives.
Of course, that also means you're carrying your information in something small enough that it could fall out of your pocket and never notice that it was gone, so, be careful! You wouldn't want the parking lot attendant to answer your e-mail for you after-all.
For more ways to take Linux for a spin, read How to give Linux a try.
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