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How to give Linux a try

October 22nd, 2009 · 1 Comment

Have you ever been tempted by desktop Linux’s security and stability, but you didn’t want to go to all the trouble of installing two operating systems on one PC or the expense of buying a new PC? Then, you’re in luck, because there are many ways to give desktop Linux a try without changing anything permanently or using a spare desktop.

It used to be that if you wanted to try desktop Linux, you had to be a confident power-user and make permanent changes to your PC or have another computer. Those days are long gone. Today, you have four different, easy ways to take Linux for a spin.

1) Hidden Built-in Linux

If you have a new PC, you may already have Linux installed on your computer. Does your PC have an instant-on setting that lets you look at the Web and check e-mail without actually booting up? If it does, congratulations, you already have Linux.

The exact name may vary, and it probably won’t even give a hint that you’re running Linux, but that’s indeed the case. For example, newer computers from ASUS, Lenovo, HP, LG, and Sony all come with DeviceVM’s Splashtop Instant-On Desktop, which is a lightweight desktop Linux.

Splashtop’s not the only Linux already hiding in plain-sight on new Windows PCs. The high-end Dell Latitude Z includes a mini-motherboard just to run its instant-on Linux, a custom version of openSUSE.

2) Presto and Wubi

If your PC doesn’t have one of these, the Linux vendor Xandros offers an interesting alternative, Presto. This is another fast-boot Linux, but you can install it on your existing PC. While this makes your PC a dual-boot system, Windows and Presto, to install it you don’t need to do anything more than you’d need to do to install an ordinary application. Once you’re done, and you reboot, you can choose to hop into Presto. This is also a handy trick for giving older PCs a new lease on life since Presto gives you all the PC operating system basics in a very fast, lightweight package.

Wubi uses the same idea as Presto but takes it in a slightly different direction. Instead of adding a small Linux and automatically making your computer into a dual-boot system, Wubi installs the full Ubuntu 9.04 distribution.

Like Presto, you install Wubi just as if it were another Windows application. It’s a pretty nifty trick and it works well.

While Wubi won’t, for now, run on Windows 7, you can use it on Windows 98 up to Vista. You simply run the installation program, which will take a few minutes, and at the end, you’ll be able to boot into Ubuntu without any fuss or muss.

Well, usually. Wubi is known to have problems with some hardware. For more on how to deal with such problems, see the WubiGuide. Presto, while not as full-featured, gets along better with a broader array of PCs.

3) Live CD, DVDs, and USB Sticks

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 ordinarily 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.

Personally, I recommend Fedora, MEPIS, Mint, openSUSE, or Ubuntu. These are all polished, reliable distributions that will answer the needs of anyone.

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 afterall.

4) Virtualization

Do you ever find yourself just wishing you could just run Linux without leaving Windows at all? In short, just run it like it was an application. Well, thanks to virtualization software you can do just that.

There are many virtualization programs that will let you pull this trick off. They include VMware Workstation, Parallels Desktop 4 for Windows & Linux, and my personal favorite, Sun’s VirtualBox. I like it because it’s free, easy-to-use, and Sun is constantly improving it.

To use VirtualBox, first you need to get a copy of the program from its download site. Once you have VirtualBox in hand, you’ll need to install it just as if it were any other Windows program.

With that done, to install a guest operating system, you press the “New” icon and follow the wizard’s instructions to install the VM (Virtual Machine). After that, you click the Start button to actually install your guest operating system on your new VM.

To make that happen, you need an ISO image file again. One nice VirtualBox feature is that, besides using the usual CD/DVDs or USB flash drives, you can just use the downloaded ISO image files on your PC for the installation ‘media.’

When all is said and done, you end up running a Linux instance — or two or three–at the same time as you’re running Windows. This lets you mix and match operating systems as needed.

Sound like just a silly stunt? Don’t be so sure. As The Washington Post recently reported, the easiest way to avoid Windows malware security woes when doing online banking is to use Linux.

While to be perfectly safe in such a circumstance, it probably would be best to run Linux from a live CD, there’s a lot to be said for simply running Linux in a VM so that you’d never need to leave Windows to safely do online-banking or buy items from Amazon.

So, there you go … several pretty darn easy ways to give Linux a try, and one really good reason why you should at least add Linux to your Windows PC. Now, go out there and get your Linux on. Enjoy!


A version of this story first appeared in ITWorld.

Tags: Desktop · Infrastructure · Linux · Operating System

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