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Why would you want Linux?
Call it hype, freedom of speech, the winds of change to open source, whatever it may be, Linux is a genuine threat to Microsoft as an operating system of choice for the masses. But so many people either don't know of its capabilities or are too fearful of making a change from what they currently have with Windows. Whether you want to run Linux alone, duelboot, virtualize or check out the alternative to Windows without installing, here we aim to not so much dispel myths, as discuss you options for running Linux and/or Windows.
Note: If you want to know more about Linux, our very own Linux Channel has a lot of content to satisfy your hunger for information. This article will solely focus on getting Linux running on your Windows computer.
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Dualboot? Single-boot? Virtualization? Which one's for me?
You've surely heard words like these being thrown around when any Linux discussion is taking place? Well, they're just different ways of experiencing Linux on your computer. Let me describe them for you.
Dualboot: In such an environment, two operating systems (generally, Windows and Linux) are installed side-by-side on the same computer. It can be on the same hard-disk but on different partitions or on different hard-disks altogether. A completely different but relevant example would be WUBI which treats a single file inside a Windows partition as a separate disk and runs Linux through it. I'll get to that a little later.
Singleboot: In this environment, you've just installed a single operating system on your computer, which could be Linux, Windows or any other OS.
Virtualization: Virtualization is a term used when you're running one operating system inside another. There are special applications available which will create a separate environment inside your current OS (host) which mimics a real computer. You can then install/run another OS (guest) inside this program, without the guest ever coming to know that it's running inside a virtual machine.
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Selecting which distro you should use is a bit like choosing a color for your car. There's no right or wrong answer, only a right answer for YOU! And with the huge number of distributions available these days, it can get quite confusing. A site I've personally found very useful when recommending a Linux distro is the Linux Distribution Chooser. They ask you a bunch of questions about yourself and your needs and proceed to recommend you a list of distributions which would be suitable. I went ahead and took the test and got Gentoo as my answer. Incredibly accurate and useful since that's the distro I use everyday on my laptop.
Or you can go to distrowatch.com and look around at the huge list of distributions available and choose one from the list.
Once you've chosen a distro, you will have to go to their specific site and download the CD image which they have made available. It could be a live-cd (more on that here), or an installer cd. After getting the .iso image, it's time to burn it to a CD/DVD. Fire-up your favorite CD/DVD burner application and use that, or try something like ImgBurn which is free and specifically made for this purpose. Once you've burn't the image, it's time to boot into Linux!
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Learn more about the different ways of trying Linux on your Windows-based PC. Find out if you should dualboot between Windows and Linux, delete that Windows partition off your disk and go with a clean Linux install, or run Linux inside a virtual machine and have the best of both operating systems at the same time!
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As described above, dualbooting is an environment in which two operating systems exist side-by-side on the same computer. This is incredibly convenient for newbies who are just learning Linux, or for people who need to boot into Windows for that killer app which isn't available on Linux.
Typically, you run the Live/Installer CD which will allow you to install Linux on your computer. It will give you an option of either allowing you to make separate space for a Linux partition or clean the Windows install and install Linux onto the whole drive. Since we're going to dualboot in this section, you will select the option which allows you to install Linux without deleting your Windows partition. This will install Linux on a separate partition and setup a bootloader which will give you the choice of booting Windows or Linux when you turn on your computer. To switch from one OS to another, just reboot your computer!
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This is what you'd call a clean install. It will wipe your Windows partition and all the data off it, and install Linux. If you're not interested in Windows anymore, you can take this route. The steps to do this are the same as in dual-booting, but instead of selecting the dualboot option, you select the Windows partition as the partition where you want to install Linux. That will wipe off the Windows partition and install Linux on it. This option is not recommended for newbies who are not very comfortable with Linux.
Sure, you could learn your way around the platform, but unless you have a second computer which has a usable internet connection, you might be stuck with a problem in case you run into problems with Linux, and with no resource for help.
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Virtualization is a very useful tool for those who are too scared to modify or play around with partitioning or bootloaders. You just install an application which mimics a complete environment of a computer inside it. This basically allows you to run one OS inside another, with the added convenience of not having to reboot to switch between Windows and Linux. These applications are called virtual machines and you have many options to choose from.
These virtual machines can use a file on your computer as a virtual hard-disk, or have complete control over a separate partition on one of your hard-disks. Most users would choose to use a file as a virtual disk. They also allow you to mount the Linux ISO/image files as a CDROM, so you don't need to burn the image to a CD to run it. Everything else like networking, graphics and input/output is taken care of by the virtual machine. The guest OS running inside the VM will never know that it's being run inside a VM.
If you want to spend money, you can buy Parallels Workstation or VMWare Workstation. These cost quite a bit but have a lot more features than the free virtual machine applications. On the other hand, if you're just testing virtualization, you can go with one of the many free applications available today - VirtualBox, Qemu, Microsoft Virtual PC are the most popular ones. These give you a pretty good feature set and allow you to try Linux inside your Windows OS without modifying any partitions. The only downside of using a Virtual Machine is that you will never get the full performance that you would've got when running the Linux distribution directly without any middle-layers. Two operating systems running at the same time along with a bunch of applications places quite a load on your hardware. Expect to see amazing performance differences between a native install and a virtualized one.
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Every method has its pros and cons. A native (singleboot/dualboot) install will give you better performance, but at the cost of inconvenience. A virtualized install will have less performance than a native one. Plus, you will not be able to use all your hardware inside a virtual machine. Which one you choose depends on what you're going to use Linux for. Have fun learning Linux and don't forget to check our Linux channel for new and informative articles everyday!