One of the best things about Linux is that you don’t need to give up Windows to use it. You can install and use both on the same computer in just a few steps.
For this tutorial we’ll use Ubuntu Linux 7.10, because it has one of the largest user installation bases of a Linux desktop OS, and because there’s lots of support available. At the time of writing Ubuntu 7.10 is the latest version.
Before installing Linux, check that your computer can run it. Ubuntu recommends at least a 500MHz system with 8GB of hard disc space, and 192MB of RAM, although we recommend at least 256MB or more. You should also check that all your system hardware is supported. There’s a hardware support information page at wiki.ubuntu.com/HardwareSupport.
Adding an operating system is a major step, so back up your system before you start (see our report on Backup software for our test of backup packages). It’s also worth having your system recovery discs on hand. If you don’t have a recovery CD/DVD for Windows, ask your vendor for one — you are entitled to a recovery disc.
Every operating system has its own way of talking to the hardware on your PC and using the space on your hard drive. To logically divide the space on a drive it can be partitioned, and in turn each partition appears to the operating system (such as Windows) as a unique drive. In order to run Ubuntu and Windows side by side, each needs its own partition on the drive. Windows will already have one at the moment, but to install Ubuntu you’ll need to create a partition for it to live in.
Fortunately, Ubuntu will handle this for you during installation. It’s important to note that while Linux will happily install alongside Windows, the reverse is not true — if you installed Linux first and then Windows, the Windows install would overwrite the Linux one. However when installing Linux after Windows, as we’ll do here, Linux will detect Windows and setup your system to boot one or the other when you turn your machine on.
Most free versions of Linux are available for download as an .iso file. An ISO contains an 'image' of a CD or DVD, including the data and file system information. Linux installs are frequently provided as images so that you can run the operating system directly from disc — this is known as a LiveCD — and so that installation is simple and straightforward.
To use an .iso file, you need to burn it to disc as an image, rather than as a data CD. CD burning software such as Nero Burning Rom can burn images, but there are also free open source image burning programs, such as ISO Recorder (isorecorder.alexfeinman.com) and Infra Recorder (infrarecorder.sourceforge.net).
Alternatively you can purchase pre-made install CDs cheaply from Australian distributors such as Linux System Labs (www.lsl.com.au) and Everything Linux (www.elx.com.au).
How to: burn an Ubuntu CD
If you have a CD burner and an ISP that will allow 700MB downloads, downloading and creating an installation disc yourself is straightforward.
If you’re on dial-up or a 256Kbps broadband connection, it might help to leave it downloading overnight. Just check to make sure you don’t go over your bandwidth cap!
Head to www.ubuntu.com/getubuntu and select 'Download Ubuntu'. On the Download Ubuntu tab, choose the most recent desktop version — currently 7.10, also called 'Gutsy Gibbon'.
You’ll also need to identify your computer type. If you know you have a 64-bit computer, select '64bit AMD and Intel computers', but otherwise choose 'Standard personal computer'. Finally, select a location from which to download the file, and click 'Start Download'.
Once the file is downloaded, burn it to disc as a disc image. We'll use Infrarecorder here. Insert a blank CD into your CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive, then in the Actions menu select Burn Image. Finally browse to locate the file you downloaded.
The .iso file is large, so it may not fit on your CD unless you use overburning. Overburning writes information to the disc right to the edge, using all the space for data rather than writing the files that usually close the CD. In the Advanced tab, tick to enable overburning, and then burn your CD.
How to: install Ubuntu
Installing Ubuntu takes around half an hour to an hour, depending on your system. Once you’ve answered a few questions, you can leave it to complete the process by itself. While it's installing if you want to you can still use the LiveCD desktop, read documention, and browse the web!
First, defragment your computer. Defragmenting moves all the data into contiguous sections of the hard drive, which makes it easier to partition the drive between the two operating systems. In XP click Start ➝ My Computer. Right-click on the drive you want to defragment and choose Properties. On the Tools tab, select Defragment now.
In Vista, type 'defragment' into the search box to launch the defragmenter. Note that if this is the first time you have defragmented your hard drive, it may take quite a while. You can speed it up by first deleting any unnecessary files.
Insert the Ubuntu disc you made earlier into your CD-ROM or DVD drive, then restart your computer. After Ubuntu loads, you’ll be presented with a list of options. If you want to ensure nothing goes wrong later, click Check CD for Defects — this takes a few minutes and will restart your system in Windows once completed, so you’ll need to repeat the process of starting from the CD.
Ubuntu loads as a LiveCD — this means that it runs as an operating system straight from the CD. You can explore Linux here, including browsing the web, running applications and changing settings, although nothing will be saved. Note that running from the LiveCD is slower than running a fully installed Ubuntu.
If you find, after testing out the LiveCD, that you want to install Ubuntu click the Install icon to start the installation.
There are only a few questions to answer to get Ubuntu set up. Click the Forward button after each question to move to the next. First, select your language, then choose a timezone. On the world map, you can click directly onto the map of Australia to zoom in, and then click on the city that matches your time zone. Next, choose your keyboard layout — for most people this will be US English.
Partitioning is the trickiest step of the installation. Choose Guided resize and, if necessary, adjust the slider — note the dialog here is a little misleading: the slider will reduce the size of your Windows partition, with remaining space dedicated to a new Ubuntu partition. So move the slider until the remaining space is equal to the amount you want to dedicate to your Ubuntu install. The minimum partition size for Ubuntu is 8GB, but if you plan to use Linux frequently, aim to give it 20GB or more.
If you have multiple hard drives, you can also choose to install Ubuntu on an entire hard drive using the second option. Be warned though — using an entire hard drive that isn’t empty will erase all the data on it.
After partitioning is complete, Ubuntu installs automatically, and you can go and grab a coffee or tea while you wait!
After installation you’ll be prompted to restart. When you restart your computer, you’ll see a menu that allows you to select which operating system you want to run — Ubuntu or Windows. Select Ubuntu 7.10 or wait to start Ubuntu automatically. To restart in Windows, shutdown Linux and select Windows on restart.