Installing Linux on your computer

Installing Linux on a computer is neither hard nor time-consuming. For many people, Linux works right out of the box. But there can be frustrating problems.

In this chapter, I’ll go though the process of installing Linux step-by-step. I’ll also give some background, so that you know what is going on. This knowledge is very helpful when you’re troubleshooting problems.

You will need:

  • A computer that you are ready to devote to Linux. Any files on the computer will be wiped out, so any files you want saved should be transferred to other computers, hard drives, USB sticks, the cloud, etc. You can add them back later.
  • A USB stick or DVD with a copy of Linux on it.

In another chapter, I’ll explain how to get more information about your computer and how to decide which version of Linux to get (Bottom line: I recommend  Ubuntu Mate or Mint Mate.)

Concentrating on classic computers (2002-2012)

In the interests of keeping things simple, we’ll concentrate on Windows computers from about 2002-2012.

We won’t cover:

  • Mac computers. You can read this chapter to get the general ideas, but the details of the process are different on a Mac.
  • Late-model Windows computers that have UEFI rather than BIOS.  UEFI and BIOS are software that the computer runs when it is first powered on.  Computers that ran Windows XP or Vista had a BIOS, and are covered here.  For computers released in about 2011 and later, the situation can be more complicated.
  • Dual-booting, in which both Linux and Windows are installed on the same computer. Dual-booting sounds appealing – who wouldn’t want to have more options? – but it usually leads to problems, especially for beginners.

Basic idea: the operating system

Computer hardware by itself is mindless. It needs an operating system and individual programs in order to open documents, display photos of your kittens, and communicate over the Internet.

Operating systems (OSs) like Linux, MacOS and Windows are the infrastructure – the plumbing, highways and electrical system -which handle the underlying tasks. For example, the OS handles the creation and deletion of files.

Operating systems are huge (typically 1 Gigabyte and more) with hundreds of components. They exist as a bundle of files usually on a disk in the computer. When a computer is powered on,it first runs a small program in firmware (BIOS or UEFI) which does preliminary set-up and then looks for the “real” operating system files on the disk.  The necessary files are then loaded into the computer’s memory.

Normally when we turn on our computers, this process occurs automatically. We press a button and after some chugging, the familiar windows and menus are displayed on our screen.

In order to install Linux, we have to interrupt the automatic loading of OS files. Insteead, we tell the computer to load a temporary OS from a USB stick or DVD. We can either use this temporary OS as-is (“Live Linux”), or we can use it to install a more permanent version on the  disk.