Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ready to Try Linux? Here's What to Do

I've been sharing my blog from time to time with the interested few, but I've mostly found that people are content with (or resigned to) working with Windows and not getting too worked up about things like freedom from EULAs. People don't like change, and I can't criticize, since I'm very much a creature of habit myself. But I spoke with a library colleague this week who has actually found my blog helpful (!), but who is on the fence about committing to Linux and is intimidated by the idea of drive partitioning for dual booting (which I actually haven't done, since I installed Linux onto a separate hard drive than Windows). I'm thinking about getting a new laptop for my looming new job (more later), so when I do, I'll set up a dual boot on a single hard drive and report back.

In the meantime, if you just want to try out Linux, you have a few options that will not ruin your life forever (though you probably want to back up your data - but this is good practice anyway):

Live CDs/DVDs

A live CD (or DVD) allows you to boot up a Linux system without installing anything on your hard drive. The most well-known of these is Knoppix, which is based on Debian and runs a KDE desktop. Running Knoppix was my first Linux experience, and I was impressed by what I saw. Nowdays, though, nearly any of the most popular distributions will have a Live CD option, including Fedora and Ubuntu, both of which use the Gnome desktop, which I prefer. Here are some basic things to know about using Live CDs:
  • You can order these from each individual distribution's web site, or if you have a CD burner, you can download an ISO file and burn it to a CD yourself using a decent CD recorder program (like this one). Please note that the built-in Windows CD burning tool will not do this!
  • You need enough RAM to run a live CD - 512 MB should suffice, 1GB is better, but I've run Knoppix - slowly - on 128 MB
  • Most desktops are not configured to boot from CDs, so you will need to change your BIOS settings to allow this (this page might give you an idea of what to do - poor spelling, good illustrations)
NOTE: While Knoppix (others work this way too) boots up, you might be alarmed by all the text running across the screen, thinking that it's something dangerous and irreversible, but please relax - this is just the Linux kernel at work, detecting your system's hardware configuration and attaching drivers to each device. Ubuntu saves you from this and presents a splash screen not unlike Windows XP.


One of the bragging points about the new Ubuntu distribution (8.04 LTS, also known as "Hardy Heron" or just "Hardy") is that you can install Ubuntu as a program that runs inside Windows. I haven't gotten this to work yet, but since I already run Hardy Heron on three computers, there's no need :-). Wubi (as this program is known) is available on the Hardy Heron Live CD or by direct download. One thing to know about Wubi is that it modifies the way your computer boots so that you can choose to boot into Ubuntu or into your normal operating system (like a dual boot, but easily reversible). If you install Wubi and don't like it, you can uninstall it by going to "Add/Remove Programs" in your Windows control panel.

Damn Small Linux

Another Linux distribution you can install inside Windows is Damn Small Linux (or DSL). DSL works well with older systems with very few resources, and runs very stripped down versions of Firefox and other standard Linux programs. It takes up virtually no hard drive space and no memory on a standard PC. There are others of these "minimal" Linux distributions (including Puppy Linux, which I used to briefly resurrect an old laptop).

Virtual Machines

If you have the hard drive space and memory to spare, a virtual machine might be the way to go. The most popular is VMWare, which is not a free program (though I think you can install a basic version for "educational purposes"), but my program of choice, at least on Ubuntu, is VirtualBox, a version of which is licensed under the GPL (as are all software programs currently dear to me :-)). Windows has some special prerequisite installation programs before it will run VirtualBox, but the program is well-documented.

Virtual Machines have the advantage of allowing you to run different operating systems independently and without affecting your hard drive (aside from taking up space). If you have the resources, try Ubuntu, Fedora, or whatever distributions you like without having to make a big commitment. Another advantage is that you don't have to burn the installation disk to a physical CD. You can point the virtual machine to the CD image, which is actually much faster (and cheaper).

Good luck and have fun!

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