- by Lee Schlesinger -
The fact that Linux is free software is intriguing to many computer users fed up with their current operating systems, but one obstacle many users face when they decide to try Linux is figuring out how get started. Sure, you can run down to the local retailer and drop $29.95 on a retail SKU, or even order a cheap CD from the Web, but that's not free. A better option for getting one's feet wet with Linux is to download a distro, burn it to a CD, and install it from there.
If you're a Windows user who wants to try Linux, this article is for you. If you're a Linux expert, please skip down a bit, because to finish this article right I need your help.
Okay, newbies (GNUbies?), are you with me? Make sure your computer has a CD-R or CD-RW drive, and made sure you have a blank disc to write. I suggest using an 80-minute disc; I just tried burning Slackware to a 74-minute CD-RW disc only to find that it didn't have enough space. You also need a broadband Internet connection -- cable modem or DSL at home or T1 or better at work -- or an understanding friend who has one..
Speaking of Slackware, let's use that distro for our example. (If you already know you want a different distro, you can probably find it at linuxiso.org or distrowatch.com.) Use your favorite browser to go to Slackware's download site and click on one of the available links. You'll see a list of folders, each containing a version of the operating system. Pick the latest non-beta version -- slackware-9.0-iso as I write this. Click on the folder to open it, then click on the .iso file and save the file to your hard drive.
The file you're downloading with the file type of .ISO is formatted according to the International Standards Organization's ISO 9660 spec for data CDs -- sometimes called High Sierra. It contains an image of the software that's meant to be written to the physical disc.
To actually do the writing, turn to the software that came with your CD-R drive. There are too many packages to give step-by-step directions for all of them, but the general idea is to open the ISO file, specify the CD-R drive as the destination, and say go. Most software makes it just that easy.
If you don't already own software for burning CDs, download a free trial version of one of the popular packages like Nero Burning ROM, Alcohol 120%, or RecordNow Max. Just make sure the package you choose can handle data CDs as well as music and MP3 files.
When the burning software says it's finished, all the files you need are on your CD. You still need two more items, though -- a computer to install the software on, and a guide to help you over the rough spots.
The best way to try out Linux is on a separate machine whose disk drive you can trash. If you don't have one available, you can make Linux run side-by-side with Windows on a single machine, but it's a complex arrangement to set up, involving backing up your disk, repartitioning your hard drive, and installing Linux with a boot manager program that lets you choose which operating system to run. If the link in this paragraph doesn't give you enough information, a simple Web search will turn up a dozen other how-to articles.
In fact, the Web is a great place to go for all kinds of Linux advice, but I recommend having a reference book on hand too. It's easier and faster to find answers in a good book. My Linux bible is an older edition of Richard Peterson's Linux: The Complete Reference. (By the way, if you'd like us to review new Linux books, please let me know.)
Nothing with computers is easy or fault-free, and installing an operating system can be a complex task. But if you're the kind of user who found this article, you have what it takes to succeed in downloading and installing a Linux distro.
A few paragraphs ago I quickly passed over the question every newbie asks: Which distro should I start with? There's no easy answer to that question, but there are some guidelines, and I hope to address them in a future article. That's where I need my readers' expert help.
To answer the question, you have to know what hardware someone is using and what he or she hopes to accomplish with Linux. In as specific a way as possible, I'd like you to share your advice with a hypothetical Windows user of average intelligence and experience (who has a hypothetical friend with Linux expertise). If you find yourself using the word "if" a lot, you're probably being a big help.
You can post a comment below. Let me know if I can mention your name and/or email address in the article. I'll assimilate all reader input and try to produce some practical advice.