Flipping the Linux switch: Installations are disturbingly easy
So there we are, looking at the "Download" page of an Ubuntu derived distribution. We decide that we'll download the x86 version of the distro (we'll assume we don't have a 64 bit or PPC system or don't want a 64 bit OS). So we click on the file that ends in .iso, and it starts downloading.
We're going to make a broad assumption that most people burn their first Linux CD on a Windows machine. If your machine has a program that burns disk images (or .iso files), such as Nero, you're ahead of the game. You will absolutely need a program that can burn disk images, not just data or bootable CDs. There are quite a few free, very nice ones out there. We've had a lot of luck with ISO Recorder.
And yes, some distributions (such as Ubuntu) can be installed from within Windows. We just feel that for many reasons, it's good to have a liveCD kicking around. And call us old-fashioned, but we just feel a little bit like less could go wrong with an existing install from a liveCD. Is that really based in truth? Our therapist is helping us work through that. Until we know for sure, though, we are using liveCDs.
When the liveCD is finally in our hot little hands, the fun (really!) begins.
We place the disk lovingly in the drive on our computer, and restart. Is the computer set to boot from the CD or DVD drive? The place we find out (and set this information) is the BIOS. It is accessible for a short period of time as the computer boots. The machine we are installing on lets us enter the BIOS if we hit "Del" at start up. Some machines are different: ESC or F2 are not uncommon BIOS keys.
The BIOS is a tricky thing. Not that what we're doing is particularly risky, but if we were to fiddle with something we didn't really know what it did, we could, in theory, really muck things up. So here's a big, fat caveat: Be careful, and if anything is slightly unclear, look it up in your computer's manual or online at the manufacturer's site.
The short, non-scary BIOS story is that we're looking for an option that says "Boot" or "Boot Order." If the first device in the boot order option is the optical drive that has the disk in it, we can exit the BIOS (usually the ESC or a function key) with or without saving.
If the first device is not an optical drive, we just need to cycle through the order till the optical boots first, and the hard drive second. Then we save and exit.
We are presented in a few moments with our desktop. If it takes a bit longer than you think it rightly should, don't get alarmed. It's a liveCD, and it will run slower than the operating system would off your hard drive.
But hey, welcome to Ubuntu (or in this example, Kubuntu). Lo and behold, there is a little icon on the desktop that is creatively named "Install."
Click it. You know you want to.
Ubuntu launches a little application called Ubiquity. It's an installer. It's like other distribution's installers, in terms of function. It partitions, formats, sets up accounts and installs your system. Ubiquity is, in our humble opinion, the pinnacle of easy operating system installs. Any operating system. And it's a great way of seeing how an OS installs. Any OS.
We are presented with a language screen. It defaults to English, but of course there are many languages to choose from. Say thanks to all the hardworking translators out there.
Other distros may handle this step by asking if the hardware is set to UTC (system) or local time. This means the time that is set in the BIOS (remember the BIOS?) and not on the desktop itself. Granted, we have a very North America-centric view, but it seems that most machines that originally ran Windows of some variety are set to local time.
So we're going to choose a manual partitioning set up. Fear not. We'll show you a bit how it works. Your partition set up will look different (this computer was installing Kubuntu over an existing Linux install).
We'll also note that it is a bit weird to have /dev/sda1 be swap. Weird, but not detrimental. We won't go into how that happened. It had nothing to do with Ubuntu, so don't panic. And no, swap does not need to be /dev/sda1 on your system.
We can edit or delete existing partitions. Once we delete them, the space will be free and we can create new partitions from that. In our case, though, we want to edit the existing partition. We know for sure it will need to be formatted, so we'll go ahead and check that.
Here we can also choose our file system type. Ubuntu usually defaults to ext3. This is fine. There are certain cases you'd want to use other file system types. Some types are better for quick writing. Some write less than others, and can extend the lives of some solid state disks (in theory, anyway).
Our mountpoint is the actual partition name. Windows would call it the drive name and assign a letter. This is where we rename the existing /media/sda2 to /. Essentially, it goes from what is considered "storage" to become a working part of the system.
In this case (or if you were reinstalling an existing system yourself) we do a very similar set of steps as above, except we are really careful to the point of outright paranoia that the "Format?" button doesn't get selected. If we were to format an existing /home directory, everything would disappear. Kind of defeats the purpose, eh?
If you should make a little mistake here, it is very fixable by editing your /etc/fstab (as root) after the fact. But hey, why make more work for yourself? Double check 'er.
We're done here, so let's move on.
That, we promise you, was the most taxing part of the process. And you've probably discovered that it doesn't really have to be. If you don't want a separate /home partition, just roll with the Guided set up. (It's also interesting to note that some distros, like openSUSE, make a separate /home by default.) We included partitioning in a little more depth, though, because it is a nifty little thing to know how to do.
Now Ubuntu gets personal. It's not selling our information to spammers. It's setting up a user account. We go through and answer a few questions. Pick a password and remember it (seriously). You do not need a password for a liveCD, but if you want to get anywhere with your hard disk install, for the love of jessup, remember what you typed here.
You can pick the name of your computer on the network. Ubiquity just happily defaults to your username-desktop or username-laptop. Other distros might ask a few more questions to essentially do the same thing. This can be changed, regardless of distribution, after install.
Ubuntu notifies when the process is finished, and allows you to either keep working in liveCD mode, or immediately restart in to the new install. Whichever you choose is fine, and on shutdown (or restart) Ubuntu will remind you to remove the liveCD.
No need to touch the BIOS on reboot. If there is no disk in the optical drive, it will search for the next available drive media (usually your hard drive). You should have your shiny new Linux system appearing shortly.
That's it. Well, sort of. Next week we'll take a look at some of those tweaks to a new install that most new users have to make. Flash plugins, codecs, and DVD playback don't have to be horrible headaches. Honest.