The prospect of installing Linux on a computer can seem daunting, but proper planning can go a long way towards avoiding problems. The first thing any prospective Linux user needs to understand is that there are differences between the many variants, or distributions, of the operating system; some may be more appropriate for a given user’s needs and desires than others. One should also take stock of all computer hardware and accessories, and check to make sure they will work in the preferred distribution. Among other tips, users who wish to run Linux alongside another operating system should also be careful to avoid overwriting their existing data.
Linux, often referred to as GNU/Linux, is a free and open source computer operating system that can be used, modified, and distributed with very few or no restrictions. All variants of Linux are built around a core set of software known as the kernel. A Linux distribution, sometimes referred to as a “distro,” takes the kernel and bundles it with additional software, including hardware drivers, one or more graphical user interfaces, and user applications. Each distribution may have its own design philosophy or special focus, so a potential Linux user may want to look into the background of a particular distribution before downloading it.
Choosing a distribution is one of the most important steps in installing Linux because it can impact many other aspects of the install. Some distributions, for instance, have a strict philosophy of including only fully open source software, which can create extra headaches for users if no open source drivers are available for certain hardware. Different distributions may also offer different types of installers suitable for use from a CD/DVD or over a network connection. Some even feature special tools for installing Linux from Windows®, which can be an attractive option for novice users.
As a precursor to installing Linux, users should check their computer’s hardware and accessories — including printers, scanners, and any other devices — for compatibility with Linux in general and the specific distribution in particular. Most distributions maintain an online database or wiki of hardware compatibility along with other support options. Linux distributions are often offered in many different versions, such as desktop and server editions or versions for different processor technologies; users should make sure they take the time to obtain a version that best meets their needs.
If the computer is to be used in a dual-boot scenario where Linux and another operating system will run side by side, users should take extra caution to preserve the integrity of the existing system. When installing Linux, the disk or drive selected by the user is often reformatted before being written to, thus resulting in any data on the disk being lost. Most distributions can overcome this problem by partitioning a drive into two or more pieces for each operating system. These partitions may be difficult to resize later; it’s a good idea to put some thought into how to divide available disk space.