Linux is the computer operating system that you can download for free. It's an alternative to Windows that offers lots of free software as well. If you want to know more about Linux and the different versions (known as distributions or distros) that we recommend, read our article Switching to Linux.
If you're ready to try Linux, we recommend you start with Ubuntu. This distro is best suited to beginners due to its user-friendly desktop environment and straightforward install process.
Six reasons to start with Ubuntu
- Easy to navigate.
- An intuitive desktop environment similar to OS X.
- No terminal commands (technical mumbo jumbo) required for installing software.
- Supported by an actual company, as well as a base of volunteers and enthusiasts – this means users have a much better chance of getting technical support, and more importantly, technical support they can understand.
- Ubuntu has very little assumed knowledge. You can dive in without knowing a thing about Linux and be up and running within a day.
- Downloadable software that's easy to locate in the Ubuntu software centre, a software shop that automatically lists most known Linux software so you don't have to dig through the net to find it all.
How to install Ubuntu
Here we show you how to install Ubuntu via USB, but you can also install from a DVD. The installation process varies between distros, but YouTube has plenty of step-by-step videos to guide you through installing your distro of choice if you want to try something other than Ubuntu. You should also check out our 'what not to do' article, The price you could pay for free PC software.
Create a bootable USB stick
- Go to ubuntu.com/download/desktop, scroll down and click on Create a bootable USB stick. Next, click Download Pen Drive – Linux's USB Installer – and download the installer from the external page. This installer will automatically link you to the latest build of Ubuntu.
- Run Universal USB Installer and pick the latest desktop release of Ubuntu – i386 is the 32-bit version and amd64 is the 64-bit release. The 64-bit will only work on certain computers, so check your system compatibility before proceeding.
- Tick the box adjacent to the dropdown menu that says Download the iso (Optional) and click Yes. This will automatically download the Ubuntu disk image to your allocated download folder. The file is about 800MB.
- When the download is complete, click Browse and locate the ISO file on your PC. Insert a minimum 2GB thumb drive, open My Computer and note the drive name. Go back to the USB Installer and pick that drive from the Step 3 dropdown menu. When you install the ISO it will erase the contents of the drive, so make sure you picked the right one. If your drive doesn't appear in the list, tick Show all Drives (note – use with caution).
- Click Create to mount Ubuntu on your thumb drive. When it's complete, eject the drive and label it, so you don't accidentally overwrite your installer.
Install Ubuntu alongside Windows
The safest approach is to install Ubuntu alongside Windows to create a dual-boot system, so you can easily switch between Windows and Linux. The Ubuntu installer will automatically partition your system and create a dedicated zone for Linux on your hard drive. Before you begin, back up your Windows data and create an image of your system to protect your documents in case something goes wrong.
- Shut down your system, insert the bootable Ubuntu USB, turn on your computer and open the boot menu. On most computers, the boot menu can be accessed by pressing F12. If this doesn't work, look towards the bottom of the screen when you boot Windows. You will see a set of instructions, one will read Boot menu ‹F12› or similar. Press the F key that corresponds.
- Scroll through the boot menu and select USB-HDD. If this is the bootable drive, your computer will load a purple screen with the word Ubuntu in the centre. If it loads Windows, it means you have selected the wrong drive. Reboot your system, open the boot menu again, and pick different options from the list until Ubuntu loads.
- You can browse Ubuntu before you install it by clicking Try Ubuntu, or you can get straight to the installation by clicking Install Ubuntu. On the next screen, make sure all the criteria have a green tick. If not, don't install. Tick Download updates while installing and Install this third-party software. The third-party software will let you watch MPG movies and listen to MP3 files. Click Continue.
- Next, select your installation type. Ubuntu should automatically detect if you have Windows installed. Click Install Ubuntu alongside Windows to keep Windows installed, or Replace Windows with Ubuntu to completely erase Windows. Click Continue.
- Pick your time zone and keyboard layout and enter your name, username and password. The computer name will default to match your name, but you can change this if you wish. Select Log in automatically if you don't want Ubuntu to ask for a password each time you boot up, or Require my password to log in if you do. Encrypt my home folder will add an additional layer of protection to your documents. The home folder is where Ubuntu saves your files by default. Encrypting it means you'll have to enter a password whenever you want to access the contents. Encrypting your home folder is optional.
- Finally, choose an image for your account. Click Continue to start the installation process. When it's complete, your computer will load the Ubuntu desktop.
If you installed Ubuntu alongside Windows, your computer will open the purple dual-boot menu when you power it up. Ubuntu should appear at the top of the list, and Windows should appear at the bottom. Memory test and advanced options may also be in the list. These are only used for troubleshooting. Use the arrow keys to select the operating system you want to load and press Enter.
Essential software for Ubuntu
Now that you've got Ubuntu up and running, it's time to install some software. The most important thing to remember is that Ubuntu doesn't have a traditional start menu – instead, it has a search function in the top-left corner (default). This is where you go to open folders and run programs.
Type the name of the folder or program into the search tool to open it. The list of icons on the left side of the screen is a quick launch station, similar to the dock on Mac OS X. You can add frequently used programs to this list, and any program or folder that's open will appear there.
Look for a filing cabinet icon in the left hand menu. This contains your system files, and may require a password to access if you encrypted the folder during installation. Unless you're an expert, don't go poking around in your system files. You can permanently damage the operating system if you accidentally delete a crucial system file. If you're running a dual boot system, note that you can still access and delete your Windows files via Ubuntu.
How to install software
One of the best features of Ubuntu is the pre-loaded software. Most of what you need to run a basic system is already included, although there are a few things missing. You can install most additional programs from the Ubuntu Software Centre, which will automatically complete most of the terminal commands for you.
These steps will work with any program in the Software Centre but we're going to use VLC media player for this example. Every computer needs a good media player and VLC is versatile, easy to use and available for free. To launch the Ubuntu Software Centre, go to the menu on the left side of your screen, click the briefcase with an A printed on it, then follow these steps:
- Go to the search bar (top right), type VLC and press enter.
- Pick VLC Media Player from the list and click More Info to read about it, or Install.
- Either a dialogue box or the Terminal will open. Enter your password and press Enter to proceed. If the installer accesses the Terminal instead of a dialogue box, you will need to press Y (for yes) then Enter after you type in your password.
- Software Centre will download and install VLC automatically.
VLC will automatically appear in the left hand column. You can remove it by right-clicking the icon and selecting remove from Launcher. Some programs will not automatically appear in Launcher, but you can access these with the search tool.
There are hundreds of programs to choose from. We recommend these if you're running a basic system:
- Firefox – Comes pre-installed on Ubuntu
- Opera – Another browser which claims to offer the fastest internet speeds.
- LibreOffice – Comes pre-installed on Ubuntu.
- OpenOffice – The other major open source office program. You will need to uninstall LibreOffice for this to work.
- VLC Media Player – An essential, multi-purpose media tool that can play almost any format (except Blu-ray) including DVD.
- SMPlayer – Similar to VLC, gaining popularity for its stability and image quality.
- XBMC – Multi-purpose media centre software capable of playing almost any format. Great for watching movies, streaming media, playing music or viewing pictures.
- Amarok – Popular, versatile music player with great library capabilities that may be able to sync with your iPod. Do some research before installing to make sure that it works with your iPod's generation and model.
- Thunderbird – Mozilla's free email client.
- Evolution – Similar to Microsoft Outlook.
- Claws Mail – Lightweight mail client for people who want software that can access emails without all the bells and whistles.
- Steam – The internet's best one-stop shop for digital distribution. Download, sign up and install for free, and get access to their growing range of Linux-friendly software. Look for the Tux icon for Linux-friendly games.
- Ubuntu Software Centre – Giant list of free and low-cost downloadable titles for Ubuntu.