How Do I Switch to Linux?

For years, the idea of running Linux has been associated with the typing of confusing commands into terminal programs and a fairly steep learning curve that a lot of users avoided just by sticking with Windows. In the last few years, however, Linux has come a long way with many different versions (also called distributions) for users to choose from, some of which look and act very much like the previous versions of Windows that users long for after sampling Windows 8.

Linux Mint running within an Oracle VirtualBox machine

If you don’t have a spare machine to dedicate to Linux. virtualization software such as Oracle VirtualBox is a great way to experiment with Linux. This screenshot shows Linux Mint running within a virtual session.

Still, the idea of switching to an entirely new operating system can be a little scary and there are some consequences to consider before doing so. It’s best to try it out on a spare machine if you have one or on a virtual machine with Oracle VirtualBox as I demonstrated in a previous post. Even if your existing machine is a few years old, chances are you can install VirtualBox and easily create some virtual Linux machines to play around with. Always remember to backup whatever files you have on the machine before doing any installation.

The first question to answer when it comes to changing over is “Why?”. Most people are pretty comfortable with the idea of buying a new Windows computer, even if the interface has changed radically in the last couple of years. The Windows name and the level of support available provides a lot of security so why should you explore Linux?

If you’re still running Windows XP on an older computer, you’ve probably seen a notice appear on your screen announcing the end of support for that version of Windows. This means there will be no more security updates from Microsoft as new vulnerabilities are identified and that means that Windows XP could be a target for hackers and malware. Upgrading very likely means buying a new machine since most XP or even Windows 7 machines will not run Windows 8 / 8.1. That investment will cost at least a few hundred dollars which might be an expense you’d prefer to avoid as long as possible. That brings us to a couple of Linux’s immediate benefits:

  • Linux can run on older machines. While Microsoft claims that Windows 8.1 can run with 1 GB of RAM, most new computers come with at least 4 GB for a reason and many, many times more hard disk space than the 16 to 20 GB of storage in Windows’ official system requirements. Windows 8 / 8.1 also requires security features within the computer’s processor that aren’t present in many machines that are even a few years old and simply will not run without them. Linux Mint, however, can run with as little as 512 MB of RAM (1 GB is recommended for comfortable use) and 5 GB of drive space with 20 GB recommended. I am currently running it very successfully on an old Dell laptop from 2006 with 2 GB of RAM and 40 GB of drive space. There are versions of Linux for both 32- and 64-bit processors.
  • Linux is free. Distributed under the GNU General Public License, Linux distributions are free to download and use. You won’t get hassled with license keys or activation schemes even if you install it on multiple machines. You also don’t get stuck paying for major updates released every couple of years that might or might not provide enough real benefit to be worth it. Larger distributions such as Ubuntu, make their money by selling technical support and other services.
  • Linux doesn’t have the security issues that Windows does. This is partly because it also doesn’t have the market share or the big corporation behind it and therefore isn’t targeted by hackers the way Windows is.

So, Linux is definitely an option for extending the life of that old Windows PC and perhaps saving some money. It’s also worth checking out just to see what you’ve been missing and if you might actually prefer it to Windows 7 or 8. It’s not a perfect solution for everyone, however, and there are reasons why it’s good to test it out before transferring everything over to it.

Linux is not Windows. While there are Linux distributions that look and act a lot like Windows, at its heart, it is a completely different operating system with a different way of managing the file system and other aspects of the machine’s performance. Adding new software to a Linux system is not just a matter of going to your store, buying the CD or DVD and installing it. While there are ways to run Windows software under Linux, not everything is guaranteed to run. New hardware needs drivers and you need to ask if there are drivers that will accommodate that new printer or scanner before committing to it. You’ll also find a lot of other small changes from what you’re used to that you can’t anticipate until you try it out.

What Type of Linux to Use

Another mixed blessing of Linux is that there is not just one single supported version of the OS. Linux is an Open Source operating system, meaning that the source code is out there for independent programmers to contribute to. New versions of the system can be spun-off or forked and released to the public, sometimes just with a different user interface on the same basic operating system. This means that you’re more likely to find the version of Linux that appeals to you but it also means there’s less standardization and, in addition to the other factors involved in changing over, you’ll want to consider the amount of support that’s available for whatever version you choose as well as how long it’s been around. There are a couple popular versions that I can suggest starting out with.

Ubuntu (http://www.ubuntu.com/) – Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distributions with an estimated 20 million users around the world. It’s based on the earlier Debian Linux which is also still very popular. Ubuntu has a simplified user interface which is less like Windows than other distributions but is still designed to be intuitive for the average user. It comes with some standard software packages pre-installed including LibreOffice (comparable to Microsoft Office), the Firefox web browser and Thunderbird for e-mail. Ubuntu is also available for other devices including phones and tablets and is designed to be a very secure system with applications receiving low privileges to prevent them from corrupting the system.

Ubuntu desktop

Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distributions and includes pre-installed software for document creation, e-mail and web browsing. This image shows the Ubuntu desktop with the file manager open.

Linux Mint (http://www.linuxmint.com) – This version of Linux is, in turn, based on Ubuntu / Debian and has a much more Windows-like interface. Its focus is on user comfort and ease-of-use. It also features full multimedia support as part of the standard installation, even including some proprietary (although still free) software for MP3 and DVD playback that other versions of Linux, out of principle, do not include.

Linux Mint running in a virtual machine and displaying the optional Welcome screen on startup.

Linux Mint running in a virtual machine and displaying the optional Welcome screen on startup.

Linux Mint might be easier for the average beginner to use because of the Windows-like interface and menus but the choice between Mint and Ubuntu is the kind of question that can fuel many online discussions and even rivalries. So far, in my own experiments, I’ve been using Mint and enjoying it. Check out this LifeHacker.com article for a more detailed comparison between Linux Mint and Ubuntu,

Installation

Installation of a Linux distribution is fairly simple whether you’re installing it on a virtual machine or your old desktop. Distributions can generally be downloaded from one of the official sites in ISO format. These are files that contain an image of a CD or DVD and they can be used to create an installation disk or they can be read directly depending on the software you’re using. If you double-click on an ISO file in Windows 7 and have a CD or DVD writer installed on your system, you might get the screen below.

ISO files can be used to create installation discs or read directly to install software.

ISO files can be used to create installation disks or read directly to install software.

Once you create the disk, you simply need to boot the computer from it and the installation will take over, guiding you through the process with the necessary prompts. Again, be sure to backup any files necessary because they installation might wipe out any data you have on the computer.

Some of the Linux distributions allow you to run the operating system from the disk or ISO file before you actually install it on your computer. This can give you a chance to evaluate the system before installation although it will probably run a bit slower. Other distributions are designed to be installed on USB flash drives so that you can boot to them from whatever computer you’re using at the time.

A downloaded ISO file can be mounted on the CD / DVD drive of a new virtual machine in order to run the Linux installation.

A downloaded ISO file can be mounted on the CD / DVD drive of a new virtual machine in order to run the Linux installation. (Click for larger image.)

If you’re installing Linux on a virtual machine through VirtualBox or another virtualization program, the ISO file can be treated just like a CD / DVD by selecting it through the machine’s settings. When the new virtual machine boots for the first time, it will boot from the ISO file and load the installation.

Having installed both Ubuntu and Linux Mint, I can say their installation routines are are as straightforward as any Windows installation. The routines guide the user through each step and there are no arcane commands to type in so if you’re accustomed to installing software and have maybe installed Windows once or twice, you shouldn’t find them a challenge.

Your New Linux System

Once the installation is completed, all that remains is to start exploring your new operating system. Fortunately, with so many other people using Linux Mint and Ubuntu, there’s a wealth of support online. If you run into a problem, check the official sites or one of the other forums or simply type a question into Google and you should find answers quickly, Another nice thing about Linux is that, even though it uses a different file system format than Windows, it can still read hard drives and other storage that’s been formatted by Windows so you’ll have access to any files that you’ve already created. With programs like LibreOffice, you might find that you can still use many of them, too.

Have fun!

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