OK I’m Ready... How Do I Try/Install It?

So you’re ready to install a Linux? Great! If it’s your first time, hopefully you’re starting with Ubuntu. Also if it’s your first time, you may want the help of an experienced Linux buddy. If you don’t know where to find one, you could ask in Slack or on the hackers-discuss mailing list (more info here: Hacker Society Communication Streams).

Protip: Avoid making any major changes to your computer (like installing Linux) if you know you’ll desperately need your computer the next day!

If you’re not installing Ubuntu, these steps may not apply perfectly to you. The information on virtual machines, live CDs, and live USBs will probably be helpful though.

Step 1: Download

If you haven’t already, download your Linux. It should be a file ending in .iso, and if there are many options, you’ll probably want the amd64 one (unless you know you have a 32-bit computer). It will likely be several hundred megabytes in size, and so the download might take a while.

Step 2: Try it in a Virtual Machine

Installing Linux replaces your existing operating system, overwriting all of your programs and files on your computer [1]. If you’re not ready to completely jump ship to Linux, this is a bit impractical. Ideally, you should try it out before committing to using it full time. You can do this with a virtual machine!

Virtual machines are exactly what they sound like: programs that pretend to be an entire computer. They let you install entire operating systems inside of them without modifying anything on your computer. We recommend using VirtualBox.

Once you’ve installed VirtualBox, run it and click “New”. This will guide you through the creation of a virtual machine. Make sure to name it after the Linux distro you’re installing (e.g. Ubuntu), which should automatically select the right machine type. The default settings in this wizard are all fine, but if you have a computer with lots of memory you may benefit from using 2048 MB of RAM instead of 1024.

Once you’ve created the VM, you’ll need to “insert” your distribution’s ISO file into it. You can do this by going to “Settings” and clicking the “Storage” tab along the side. Select “Controller: IDE” and click the icon that shows a CD with a plus sign. When it prompts, select “Choose Disk” and select your ISO file. Hit OK to save your settings.

Now, in the main VirtualBox window, you can hit “Start” to turn on your virtual computer. It will boot from your ISO file and (if you use Ubuntu) present you with an installer that will walk you through setup. Pretty much everything can be left at its defaults.

Once the installation completes (this may take a while), you can go into VirtualBox’s settings, remove the ISO disk, and reboot the VM. Voila! Linux is installed on your VM!

Now try things out! Mess around with the terminal, maybe try out some other parts of the “Hacker’s Toolbox” section. If you decide you like it (and you don’t mind wiping your computer), you can continue these steps to install it to your computer. If you don’t like the distro you chose, just delete the VM and try a new one!

Step 3: Live USB

The next step to installing Linux is putting it on a CD or USB flash drive. Since part of the installation procedure is wiping your hard drive, you can’t just install straight from the ISO file. So, you install Linux by putting the contents of the ISO file on a CD or USB, and then rebooting your computer to run the installer.

The easiest is to use a USB, since they are rewritable and every computer has a USB drive. You’ll need an empty USB drive (or one whose contents you don’t care about) to do this.

Ubuntu has excellent instructions on doing this:

Step 4: Install to Your Computer

At this point, you should be confident that you want to replace your existing operating system and erase all of your files (back up EVERYTHING important–your CWRU Google Drive is a great place to do this). If this is your main computer, you ought to be confident that you can do everything (homework, entertainment, etc) on your chosen distribution. Try the VM approach above if you’re not sure.

The steps for this are deceptively simple:

  1. Plug in the USB stick.
  2. Reboot your computer. As your computer boots up, it should show you a message about which key to press to “interrupt normal startup” or something like that. Press this key as your computer boots. If there is no message with a key, F8 through F12, or Escape. Usually one of these will bring up a menu where you can select what you want to boot from. Select your USB stick from your computer’s boot options.
  3. Follow the install menu (hopefully you already did this when you tried it in a VM!). You’ll probably need to remove the USB drive when you reboot.

If you see an option in your installer to “try without installing” or “boot live USB”, this usually means that it will start up a full version of the Linux you’re about to install, but without actually installing it. This is another great way to try out a Linux distribution! It’s especially nice because it uses your computer’s actual hardware - if it doesn’t work Live, you may have a problem installing it.

[1]There is a way to install Linux onto your computer’s hard drive without wiping the contents of your hard drive. It’s called dual booting, because what you end up doing is installing a second operating system onto your computer. When you boot your computer, you get to choose which OS to use. In order to make this work, you have to shrink the partition of your hard disk holding your current operating system in order to make room for a new one. Then you install the second operating system to the new partition, and setup a bootloader so you have the option to boot either operating system. This can be easy or difficult, depending on a lot of factors. If you want to try this, make sure to back up all your programs and data, and make sure you have a backup plan for how to re-install your original operating system! Do lots of Google searches like “dual boot windows 10 and ubuntu 16.04” to get an idea of how it works.