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Installing Linux
For Newcomers

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NO INSTALLATION AT FIRST - TRY A LIVE CD

For those who just want to 'try it and see if it works', there's no need to install Linux until you feel confident about it. Just use a Live CD. Two of the best are Knoppix and PCLinuxOS. Live CDs can often be found on the cover disks of Linux magazines, purchased from Australian vendors, or you can choose from these alternatives:

You can buy Live CD/DVDs and installation CD/DVDs in Australia from:

Once you've got a Live CD, here's is how to use it. Switch the computer on and allow it to boot as normal. Put the CD into the drive, logout and/or restart the computer (reboot the system). One of four things can happen:

  1. The system boots the LiveCD. In this case just follow the on-screen instructions. The Live System should install itself in RAM and display the initial screen. This is the normal and most common result.
  2. The system boots as usual, ignoring the LiveCD. This indicates that the computer's BIOS is set to boot straight from the Hard Disk. Read this section to learn how to change this setting to boot a CD or DVD.
  3. The system starts booting the CD, but fails or reports an error at some point. This is uncommon, and is almost always caused by old, faulty, or unusual hardware, especially unusual or unsupported video cards. Read this section to try some simple alternatives that solve most problems.
  4. The system starts booting the CD, but halts or repeats at some point. This is quite unusual, and can be caused either by a damaged CD or by unknown or faulty hardware. Try using another CD, or the same CD in a different computer in order to isolate the fault.

The Live CD should boot either to the login screen (follow the instructions to login) or to a desktop something similar to Windows. A complete Linux distro is now available, but will run somewhat slower than an installed version due to the need to read and decompress files from the CD prior to execution. You can use the computer normally, even connecting to the Internet – a potential life-saver if your Hard Disk system has failed – but remember that all setting changes will be lost when you reboot, and will need to be changed again every time you boot the LiveCD. This is why installation is necessary, unless you're happy with the LiveCD 'as is'. When you logout, remove the LiveCD and reboot. Your computer returns to normal operation. Nothing will have changed, since everything was done in RAM (temporary) memory.


Fig 1. Booting from hard disk.

Fig 2. Booting from a CD/DVD.

The way this works is very simple. When your computer boots normally from its hard disk drive (HDD), the operating system (OS) copies itself into RAM (high-speed temporary) memory, and executes from the 'RAM image'. When you invoke a program, the OS in RAM reads the program from HDD into RAM and executes it.

The process is similar when booting from CD/DVD. The compressed OS is read into RAM, and then decompressed into a similar 'RAM image'. When you invoke a program, its compressed version is read into RAM from the CD/DVD, decompressed, and executed. The need to decompress data from the CD/DVD is why that system runs more slowly. As you can see, none of this requires the HDD, which remains unused and unaltered (unless you command the system to alter it).

TAKE TIME TO PREPARE BEFORE INSTALLING

Most computer users are so bemused by the 'commercial in confidence' secrecy built into Windows that they've never even considered the possibility of taking full control of their machine. You're now about to do that, so a little time must be spent preparing for it.

Of course, you don't want to know everything about it, even if that were possible; but half-an-hour spent reading this page and trying out a few new tricks will quickly convince you of your ability to understand and control it far more capably than at present. Even if you decide not to install Linux, the knowledge you'll acquire can help you use Windows more effectively.

• Hardware requirements

The first requirement is suitable hardware. The CPU clock speed should be 800MHz or higher, at least 256MB of RAM should be installed, and the hard disk should be at least 10GB in size – 20GB if you want to keep your existing Windows installation. If your computer does not meet these specifications, Linux can still be installed, but you may need to use a distro designed for low-end hardware – see this page for suitable distros.

• Installation options

There are a few different methods of installing Linux, some easier than others.

  1. The simplest option is to erase the existing system, wipe the hard disk, and replace it with a new Linux installation.
  2. However, most Users will want to retain their existing system (probably a version of Microsoft's Windows) with the option of switching between it and the new Linux system. This is called a multi-boot system (see following paragraph). There are two basic ways of doing this:
    1. Add a second hard disk for the Linux system, leaving the first one unchanged. This is not only easy to understand and implement, but does not alter the existing installation, and adds extra storage capacity. If you have a spare hard disk or your budget allows, it's a simple, reliable option.
    2. Install both systems on the existing hard disk. This requires that the hard disk be split into at least two sections, one for Windows and the other for Linux. These sections are called partitions.

Both options of item 2 are multi-boot options. When the system is powered-up or rebooted, a Boot Menu appears allowing the User to select the required system.

• Hard disk partitions

Even is you're not installing Linux, learning how to divide your hard disk into two or more partitions is extremely useful for the following reason:

The operating system and your personal data should always be kept in separate partitions. If an error occurs in the operating system, the partition in which it resides often becomes unreadable. If your data is in the same partition it will be lost. If it is in a separate partition it will almost always be intact. This is the best and simplest way to guard against the "Blue Screen Of Death" that all Microsoft users rightly fear.

Splitting your hard drive into two partitions is a simple, straight-forward task that results in creating two logical drives named C: and D: on the same physical hard disk. It can be done by "shrinking" (i.e. resizing) the existing C: drive partition, which usually occupies the whole disk, to a size large enough to accomodate the operating system (somewhere around 10GB) and using the free space for the D: drive partition. It's also a good way to gain confidence, and practice basic operations on your HDD. See this page for instructions.

If you've got an empty hard disk and an hour or so to spare, experimenting with it using fdisk, cfdisk, Gparted and GpartedLive is highly recommended. Partitioning is usually only done during new system setup or a major reconfiguration, so it's very hard to find an opportunity to use and gain confidence with these simple but essential skills. Most "Blue Screen of Death" and other crises can be salvaged from catastrophe if these skills are available.

• Automatic partitioning

Most Linux distros will automatically partition your HDD during the installation process. If this is your first Linux installation, you'll probably prefer this option. The only question you may need to answer is how big to make the partitions. Some distros detect the amount of free storage in the Windows partition, others don't. Whatever the case, the following step should always be performed, and it will give you both the information you need and the confidence to proceed.

• Defrag your Windows HDD and backup all of your files

The first rule to observe before making any major changes to a computer system is:

Defragment all HDD partitions (where necessary) and back up all of the data on your hard disk(s) before making any changes.

It's quite likely that you've been promising yourself to get a round tuit for ages, and never have. Now's your chance. Do it carefully, do it properly, and the confidence you'll gain will be a major asset in what follows. In Windows you can then use the "Properties" of Drive C: to find out how much storage space is used, how much is free, and how far to shrink it (add 4 – 5GB to the "used storage" as a guide to minimum size).

• The installation procedure

Installing and setting up a Linux (or any other) system occupies several phases:

  1. Hardware identification.
    Before beginning the installation, get together all information in your possession about the hardware you plan to use, including the type of CPU, amount of RAM, the video chip or card in use, and your Internet connection details. Modern systems automatically detect the hardware successfully, so the hardware information is usually not needed, but it will be useful if questions must be answered or something goes wrong.
  2. Hard disk preparation.
    If you're using a second HDD, you've only to install it. If you've decided to partition your existing HDD, there are two ways of doing so:
    1. Use automatic partitioning during the Linux Install process.
    2. Design a partitioning scheme to suit your needs. This is simple enough once you understand the concepts, especially if you have an old HDD to practise on. See this page for more information.
  3. Operating system installation.
    The installation process installs the Linux operating system on your computer. It requires that your computer is set to boot from the CD drive. Most machines will be set up like this. You can check the BIOS setup by following these instructions.
  4. Environment configuration.
    Setting up the environment includes such things as connecting to the Internet and setting up your email accounts on the new system. It also allows the system to be "personalized" for each User.
  5. Additional package installation.
    Once the new system is connected to the Internet, additional packages can be downloaded and installed if required. Normally this won't be necessary until you're more familiar with Linux.

• Caution for Windows users

There is an additional consideration for Windows Users. Many modern Windows systems do not come with an installation CD; instead, the operating system is installed by the computer vendor. If such an operating system is damaged or otherwise unusable, the computer must be returned to the point of sale and a technician paid to reinstall it.

If an installation CD is available, any problems can be resolved by re-installing Windows. You may be able to do this yourself, or enlist the assistance of a friend to reinstall it. Whatever the case, be aware of this possibility, and discuss it with others if you feel uncertain. There are discussion forums on the Internet if you have no other source of technical advice.

CHOOSE A DISTRO THAT SUITS YOUR NEEDS

OK, LET'S INSTALL LINUX

If you've completed all of the above steps, the installation process will probably be simple, straight-forward, and trouble-free. There are two main types of installation:

  1. from a dedicated installation CD or DVD.
  2. from a Live CD.

Dedicated installation CDs/DVDs must be (re)booted after insertion, and it's then just a matter of following the instructions.

Live CDs must also be (re)booted after insertion. Once running, there will be either an icon on the Desktop or an item in the Main Menu to invoke the installation procedure. Click the icon, follow the instructions, and you will almost always be rewarded with a new Linux installation as an option to your existing Windows one.