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Installing an Operating System
(Linux) on Your Computer

Installing a Linux operating system on your computer is even easier now than it was 15-20 years ago when I started. There are a great many distros (distributions) out there now, and the steps may vary a bit, but there are some common elements too. I want to show those to you here. But first, let's take a quick glance at some of the reasons why you would want to do this. I may cover those in greater depth another time.

Why install a Linux Operating System?

1. Because you get fed up with viruses and crashes in Windows. Then you learn that Linux is much more secure and such computers are not plagued with viruses.

2. Because you see someone else's computer and are amazed to discover what neat programs they have, and that they can do all you can on Windows, and much more! You want that variety and colourful environment on your computer!

3. Because you went shopping for a windows program or system, and when you saw the price, you remembered reading that Open Source (Linux) systems are free. The license with the system says that you have to be willing to share freely with others, and can only charge for your services, or actual hardware like the CDs. The operating system has to remain free to any who want to use it.

How Do you Get a Copy of a Linux Operating System?

If you are already on a computer with high speed internet connection, you can simply go looking around online until you find a system you would like to try out. Download the iso file, and burn to a CD or DVD as an iso image. Or just copy to your USB stick.

Or, you might get a friend who has one to make you a copy. Sometimes you can find them inside the cover of a computer or electronics magazine. In the case of Ubunto, you can go online and order one for free and they will mail it to you.

Or, you can shop around online until you find a site where they are making copies and will send them to you for just $2-3 dollars. This basically covers their shipping costs and the cost of the physical disks.

Personally, I recommend giving yourself some time to just browse around the internet read up on various linux distros (distributions, or operating systems), and getting a feel for what is involved. Because there are so many to choose from, and not all the systems work the same on all computers, you may end up selecting several to try.

I've been downloading and installing linux systems left and right the last couple of years. I've also ordered them from others when I seemed to have trouble downloading on a slower connection. I discovered that some of the distros are so new and advanced that they won't work on an older computer. There are some others that seem to find no barriers and they will install just about anywhere. The first one I tried, Mandrake 9.1, was like that.

Sometimes I joke that I have 14 distros out of about 365. For what it's worth, I like the OpenSUSE system best. It is the most deluxe, but it needs a minimum of RAM and at least 6 GB of hard drive, just to be installed. You will need much more for all the files and graphics you will soon be creating. On the other hand, DSL takes only 50 MB of space and works best if left on the CD - which means you can have a linux operating system without installing it to your hard drive. (I tried installing it and then could not get rid of that one!) Other small ones that work well, are Puppy 3 or 4, and Feather.

The last 10 years or so I have been downloading and burning the Net-Install version of my operating system choices. That only requires a CD, and a high speed connection. The CD starts the installation, but it connects online to finish from there. Much faster and quicker!

How to Prepare Your Computer

1. Back up your personal files from your windows system first. Once you install a different system your hard drive will NOT have those files any more. But you can re-install them from the back up device later.

2. Most computers are set in their BIOS or CMOS to boot from the hard drive. You may never have looked there before. It's like a basic framework on your hard drive so that it can receive an operating system. You enter the BIOS by hitting certain keys just as you are booting up the computer. You have to be fairly quick too, or the opportunity to hit F2 or the Delete key on the numeric pad is gone. Once in BIOS you move around to find the setting for boot sequence. That's the order in which the computer will look for a command as to where to boot from. The default is the hard drive, but you can change that to the CD/DVD drive, or the floppy drive (older computers), or a USB port (newer ones). If you have your new operating system in the right drive, you save and close the BIOS and exit.

3. Now you are ready to boot up with the new operating system. The disk will open up on the monitor and guide you with questions and choices. Have paper and pen handy to record what choices you made. I have found that later that helped me solve a problem if things didn't work out right. Usually I had to go back and make a different decision.

Installing a Linux Operating System

As already said, there are small variations in how each system will proceed, but generally, there is a program that searches your computer to see what you have there to work with. I will use OpenSUSE 11.1 in my mind, as my recent experiences have been with that one. It loads an interface to allow you to make some specifications, such as the language you want your installation to be in, and what language type your keyboard is. Here I have found it best to stick with English (US) as some keys on my keyboard don't work as I'm used to, if I choose the English (UK). There is the license to agree to.

Next, at least in OpenSUSE 11.1, you must indicate whether this is a new installation, a repair, etc. Then, you get to choose the country or part of the world you are in, and your time zone. I also make sure the check mark by UTC is such that the time on the computer will be in local time.

Then you can choose what kind of desktop system you want. Some distros won't give you a choice, but in OpenSUSE you can have KDE or Gnome, or some other options. I've tried out the others and came back to KDE. It has far more programs created to work together in synergy with KDE as the base that ties them together. I think it causes less clashes.

In a few moments the partitioning screen comes up. This is usually the trickest part, but generally the installer is intuitive enough to do this with only a click on "next" from you. I learned to do my own partitioning at the beginning, and I often see that the installer wants to squeeze my new Linux distro beside the current windows system. If I'm planning to over-write that, it is better to go to custom partitioning and set my own partions manually.

Then I get a screen showing all the current parts of the hard drive(s). I delete everything, and create new partitions. There's a lot of options, but I have found it works fine if I stick to about three basic partions. I mark off about 500 MB to 1 GB for Swap area (that gives your system more virtual memory). I like to set apart about 5 or 6 GB for the root area which is shown with a / , and another 10 GB for /usr - that's so you'll have lots of space to install programs you want to use. The rest of the hard drive I partition for the /home area, which is where the files are suppose to be that you create in your day-to-day use of the computer. If you are going to play games or create lots of graphics, you want that /home are to be as large as possible. When you are satisfied that the partions are going to be good, and the ones you want formatted are marked, you can click on Next and move ahead.

Incidentally, if you have some files you want to keep, or are re-installing the operationg system over a previous linux system, you might just want to leave /home marked NOT to be formatted. That means that partition will be left alone and you should be able to see those files again when done. Never take that for granted though. Do your back up first! It is so easy to forget and if that partition is marked to format, it will be whipped out and a new /home space laid out for you.

About now the installer takes over and you can go take a break if you like. Or you can sit and watch the files whiz by as they are being installed. (change to Detail view to see that). It will also show you after a few minutes, how much is yet to be installed, and how long it should take.

When the system files and programs are downloaded and installed, you will be asked to specify your user full name and your username, and password. (Sometimes this is asked for before the installation stage begins). You can indicate whether you want to be automatically logged in when you boot up, or whether you should be asked for your password. This depends on whether you are the only one using your computer, or you want to keep your work private and secure. Linux always offers you lots of security options.

This last version of OpenSUSE (11.1) allows you to use that same password for root user. I'm finding it is better to still have a separate password for that. It's the password that only the person who will be making system changes or installing programs or uninstalling things or trouble-shooting should have. Once you are root user you have privileges that would allow you to mess things up real bad if you don't know what you are doing. However, if you are the only one using the computer, you need to be root user sometimes, so do set a password. Eventually, you will learn to do well with it. Just tread carefully at first.

About this time your computer is re-booting and you turn around to find that it's ready for you to use! Go to it! Explore and change personal settings like the colours and themes, etc. to your tastes. Get acquainted with what you have.

If - somehow things don't seem to be going right, get onto another computer and do more research for documentation and forums where others have already described a simiilar problem to yours, and someone has answered them. Then go back and try again. With persistance and patience you can learn to overcome all problems, and you will appreciate your operating system all the more, for the things you learned on the way.

You may especially need help for your fine-tuned internet settings if you are on dial-up >(tell me about that! - rolling my eyes!), and often sound is a problem until you have downloaded additional files and learned to configure sound. Printers can be difficult if you have certain brands or models. But again, there is plenty of advice out there on the internet. Just keep searching and trying things out.

Sometimes the smartest move is to join a Linux users group by email, and then you can ask a question and half a dozen people may write and offer suggestions.

Computer Skills Lessons

Your Computer's Hardware and Components

Set Up a Computer and Peripherals

Installing a Linux Operating System

Keyboarding Skills and Tips

Computer Troubleshooting




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