Curious about Linux? If you haven’t heard it’s an operating system just like Windows and Mac OS. However, unlike those, it’s completely free and able to be installed on pretty much any PC hardware you have. It can do pretty much anything these other OS’s do as well. So, ready to give it a try? This article will tell you how you can try Linux without getting rid of your current Mac or Windows install.
Acquire a Linux .iso
First thing you will need to do before trying Linux is to pick a version of Linux and download its image file(.iso). So let’s touch on that if you are completely new and haven’t done any research.
Picking a Distribution
So before you can try any version of Linux you will want to find at least one distribution to try. One of the best place to find distros is over at distrowatch.com. On the far right of the page part way down there is a Page Rank section that shows each option ranked by popularity.
I personally have used the following and would recomend that you at least give these a try:
- Mint (Very user friendly and easy to install and use)
- ubuntu(Including xubuntu, Lubuntu and Kubuntu, all are fairly easy to use and install)
- openSUSE (For those who love to tinker, this distro is for you)
- Fedora (Stable well established distro)
- CentOS (The free version of Red Hat Enterprise, you’ll want this or SUSE if you are thinking of learning Linux for work)
As this guide is designed for those who want to try it and get to know the OS, you can skip Arch, Debian and Gentoo as they require a certain level of knowledge to get your machine up and running.
Things you should know about Linux before using/trying distros:
Linux as it is most commonly referenced is actualy GNU/Linux which is a combination of the Linux Kernel and other free software to make a desktop distribution. So in reality all distros are the same and different. They are the same in that they use a version of the Linux Kernel, but different in what software they use to built the operating system. So you may notice when searching that many different distributions use the same desktop environment such as KDE, GNOME, XFCE, Cinnamon, MATE, LXDE etc. So unlike Windows and Mac where everything is set in stone and requires hacks or special software to change the look and feel, with Linux you can change the default desktop environment at will. So you can run Ubuntu with Unity, and then install KDE and use that instead without having to change to kubuntu.
Distros usually have a specific goal or theme in mind which set’s them apart from others. For example Mint (my personal favorite at the time of this writing) goes for simplicity and ease of use. This means media codecs are printsalled as well as document editors and viewers and everything you pretty much need to get going. Other distros like xubuntu use XFCE which uses smaller, less resource hungry apps for a more nimble and smaller install footprint.
This concept was the hardest part for me to wrap my head around when first stepping into the world of Linux. Basically distros are similar to different models of the same car. They all use the same base, but have different default options. However, unlike cars, with some work you can make any other part or feature part of your desired model. If that isn’t clear just let me know in the comments. Currently I hope to go more in depth with a full Linux beginners tutorial sometime in the future.
32 or 64 bit?
Ok, so once you have decided on a varient you are usually presented with two options to download: a 32-bit or 64-bit version. If you PC is relatively modern you should be able to use the 64-bit without any issue. 64-bit capible machines started to go mainstream back around 2007 (if my memory serves me well), so unless you are rocking a really old machine or a netbook style device, your hardware should be compatible.
If you have time, its safe to try 64-bit first as if it will work, it will work else it won’t run. That’s it. If your bandwidth and time are precious, you can check your hardware for compatibility and as for how to do that, I found a few options on a stackexchange thread here. If you have a Mac, you can see this thread on stackexchange. So then you can tell if you will require the 32 or 64 bit version.
One addition check if you use a virtual machine and using 64-bit, you need to make sure your CPU has 64-bit virtualization support. You can find this out by googling, but if that sounds like it’s too complicated, you can just use 32-bit. Basically with 32-bit everything will work the same, but you will be limited to 4GB of RAM. However if your machine already have more than 4GB of RAM you are probably safe for 64-bit baring the 64-bit virtualization piece.
Okay, still with me? So with that covered, let’s talk about how you can install and try Linux out without breaking your current working PC.
One of the easiest way to ensure no damage is done to your PC and to test things out is to use a Virtual Machine or VM. A VM is what it says, a virtual machine or virtual PC. Basically VM software (called a hypervisor) enables complete hardware virtualization so you can share hardware resources amongst multiple running operating systems. There are a lot more details but basically it lets you run Linux on your Windows or Mac like it’s an application.
The easiest VM (hypervisor) to work with is Oracle’s VirtualBox. You can find it’s download page here: Oracle VirtualBox Download Page
Once installed you will want to add a new VM. This is pretty straight forward but can be confusing for first time users. You can use Oracles documentation available here for help.
Quick Text Tutorial
Basically you just create a new VM, pick a name, pick RAM size, and virtual HDD size and type. Defaults work just fine, but for a better experience 1024MB or 2048MB of RAM is recommended for most distros(or whatever your distro requires) and although 8GB is the minimum hard drive size, I would suggest setting up to have 20-30GB virtual drive so you can install programs and work without running into many limitations as you may find quickly using a tiny 8GB drive.
Once set up your VM settings are done, but you still have to tell it to use your downloaded .iso file. To add this, highlight your new VM and then click settings. Then go to the storage section and select the IDE controller and use the drop down on the right to select your ISO file. This can be removed once you install Linux.
What if you don’t choose a file? Well VirtualBox should prompt you for a bootable disk image file. So once launched you should be prompted with a file chooser to pick your downloaded file.
Once you have the ISO added you are good to go. You can click ‘start’ to boot your new virtual PC and install/play with your desired Linux distro.
VirtualBox Guest Additions
Once you are running your distro you may get warnings about running in software rendering mode. To resolve this you just need to install the VirtualBox Guest Additions. This is available in VirtualBox by clicking ‘Devices’ and ‘Insert Guest Additions CD image’. Once you do that it should show up as a CD rom where you can open it and run the install file (.sh file). This will install the special VirtualBox Drivers to help improve performance.
Check out my new post to walk you through creating your first VM. I cover only whats needed to get you up and running without extra fluff. Hopefully you find it a great starter tutorial! You can read it here: https://nautilusmode.com/2015/09/20/virtualbox-basics/
If you need additional documentation be sure to visit VirtualBox’s manual available here: https://www.virtualbox.org/wiki/Documentation
So, maybe you can’t use VirtualBox for some reason or want an alternative? Your other option is to create a live CD/DVD/USB.
What is a live CD/DVD/USB?
It’s a CD, DVD or USB drive that you install your .iso file to and then can run it from that device. For CDs and DVDs this means you can run your OS without making or saving any changes, and for USB based installed you can actually install and run your entire OS from the USB drive allowing you to work with it as if it was your default installation(if you enable the persistent option when creating it, otherwise it will work like a CD/DVD).
One note for doing this is you need to know how to pick or change your computer’s boot order. Some PC’s may also have Secure Boot enabled with Windows which prevents other OS’s from running. A quick search online should point you in the right direction on how to work around these limitations if you run into them. Unfortunately the steps required to work around this varies by not only manufacturer but can also vary by device as well.
The easiest way to create a live CD/DVD/USB is to use UNetbootin. You can find the projects home page here: http://unetbootin.github.io/. Basically, this application will walk you through the process of selecting your target device (CD/DVD/USB) and having it write the files to it so it can boot. It will use all of your USB drive, so be sure you do not have any files on it! Once completed you can then reboot your PC with the device in the CD/DVD drive or in a USB port and select it to boot.
When using a Live CD you can access the contents of the local hard drive. This is something to be cautious of as you do not want to modify any files that your OS needs. You also don’t want to delete personal files. So be warned, although isolated from making direct changes, it is still possible to modify your system. Most live CD/DVDs have an installer available on the desktop when it runs. This will install Linux onto the machine it is running. So don’t run it or go through the motions unless you know what you are doing or wish to install it!
Interested in learning more about Linux or would like to see additional articles on specific topics? Let me know in the comments below!
If you have any questions about trying Linux feel free to list them in comments as well! If I can’t answer them I will be sure to try to direct you to a proper answer.