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:
Eight Virtues, which will sell you a variety of Linux distributions
EmperorLinux, which specializes in installing Linux on brand name systems from Dell and Lenovo
Los Alamos Computers, which offers Linux on high-end Lenovo systems
system76, which offers Ubuntu Linux on its own systems
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 (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 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.)
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.
The only real decision you need to make with these is whether to make the USB stick "live" or not. In this context, "live" means that you can not only run Linux from the stick, but you can also save settings, install programs, and keep new files on the USB stick itself.
From here you can try and/or install Linux just as if you were using a DVD. The only difference is you'll tell your PC to boot from a USB stick. (Although some older PCs will refuse to boot from a USB stick.)
When it comes to installing Linux on Windows 8 PCs, your choices are more limited. The only easy way to try out Linux on one of these machines is to use a virtualization program. These enable you to run another operating system on top of your existing operating system (Windows 8 in this case). You can also, if you like, use virtualization software with XP or Windows 7.
Image credit: flickr/Mariusz Chilmon
There are a slew of virtualization programs out there that can do the trick, but my personal favorite is Oracle's VirtualBox.
Once you have a virtualization program installed, you'll need to download an ISO image. You don't need to burn the image to anything. You can just use the downloaded ISO image files on your PC for the installation 'media.'
There's also another option if you use VirtualBox: VirtualBoxes. This is a Web site with a library of ready-to-go VirtualBox compatible virtual machines (VM). While these aren't always the most up-to-date versions, it does have more than two-dozen popular Linux distros for you to choose from.
Unless you enjoy playing with operating systems (Hey, I do!), I advise you to simply follow the usual download the ISO file method.
With VirtualBox running, to install a "guest" operating system, just click the "New" icon and follow the wizard's instructions to install the VM. After that, you click the Start button to actually install your guest operating system on your new VM.
Generally speaking if I'm going to test out a Linux OS with VirtualBox I give it half of the system's memory and use the default hard drive size. There are other options that you can use to make the Linux VM perform better, but this is all you'll need to really play with Linux.
Avoiding Secure Boot on Windows 8 PCs
The other way to run Linux on a Windows 8 system is to try the CD/DVD or USB methods I described above. Yes, I know I said it was hard to try Linux on a Windows 8 PC with Secure Boot and it is. It's not impossible though.
That said, I am not going to recommend that you try to install Linux with Secure Boot active. It can be done, but it's no job for a new user.
Instead, what you'll need to do is once more reboot and try to turn Secure Boot off. All PCs, except for ARM-powered models such as Microsoft's Surface RT and other Windows RT models, will let you turn it off. Microsoft and the OEMs don't make it easy though.
Every motherboard manufacturer has a different way of doing this, and the method even varies from one version of a motherboard to another. If you're very lucky your PC will have come with a motherboard manual. But odds are you won't be that lucky. In that case, when you've rebooted your computer and pressed the right keys to enter the UEFI system setting mode, look for information about the motherboard. Then, if you can identify it, look for a copy of the manual or system settings on the Web.
If that doesn't help, go back to the UEFI system settings and start looking for a menu labeled "Security” or "Security Settings.” Once there look for "Secure boot configuration" and see how you go about disabling it. If it's not there, try under the "Boot" option.
I hate to say it, but it may not be hiding in either location. The OEMs have no rhyme or reason when it comes to their UEFI settings. In that case start looking for terms such as "Secure boot," "UEFI," "Authentication," or "Legacy Boot."
Once you've found it, and set the PC to boot from your optical drive or USB stick, then exit the UEFI setting and make sure to save your settings or you'll need to do it all over again. This done, you'll be able to boot and install Linux just as you would on an older PC.
Is it worth the trouble?
While Microsoft has certainly made installing Linux a lot more annoying than it used to be, I think it is definitely worth the effort. I've found Linux desktops to be far more secure and reliable than their Windows counterparts and I think you will too.