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Flipping the Linux switch: Countdown to the dual boot

KDNewton's LAN probably doesn't dual boot but it could!I have been a Linux user for quite some time -- about eight years. My husband and I have known each other since we were twelve, when our school's only computer was an Apple IIe attached to a dot matrix printer. We grew up together, bought our first computer together, and built our first home-grown computers together.

He has never used Linux. Sure, he's played Frozen Bubble a few times. He's shut down my computer during thunderstorms. That's it.

His desktop Windows machine is older, and truth be told, he uses it for games and web surfing. He just bought an MSI Wind for work and school, and plans on keeping most of the "work stuff" on there.

He is a Windows user, but Windows irritates him on regular basis. He has said (for years) he'd be happy to use Linux for internet and document creation, but he can't part with a couple of games.

Now, the time has come. He is ready. He has asked that his computer be set up as a dual boot machine. How did he reach this conclusion, and what needs to be done to get his computer ready for the Linux invasion? And if you find yourself in this same position, what do you need to do?
The question anyone thinking of dual booting needs to ask themselves is whether it is the best option. My husband wants to play games, for instance. I could have advised that he wipe Windows off the drive completely and install WINE in Linux for this purpose. Could it be done? Sure. Easily? Maybe not. Would it work as expected? Maybe. There are many people who say certain games run in WINE better than in Vista. But then, other games won't run at all.

He could also download a distribution that makes a persistent image on a flash drive. It'd save his profiles and settings. Nice, certainly, but he has his Wind to carry around with him, and his old computer has a shortage of USB ports and a questionable amount of power to support a hub.

So dual-booting it is. Dual booting essentially takes the empty space on your existing hard drive, divides it up, and allows you to install another operating system in that space. Windows exists on your drive, most likely, in one or more partitions. Many "newbie friendly" Linux distributions (like Ubuntu, Mint, or openSUSE) have built in partitioners which make resizing your partitions (hopefully) stress-free.

How these partitioners behave can vary, with some resizing taking place across various partitions (if you have them) or just taking a section of the partition with the most available free space.

But before my husband gets to have yours truly do any of this stuff, there are a few things that I have to do to make sure he still has Windows intact when all is said and done.

Yes, there is the ever-present caveat: Doing this sort of operation can cause data death and destruction. It doesn't usually, but there's the off chance. I have set up many dual boots over the years, and whereas I've never wiped a Windows partition, I have on occasion had a bootloader (the application that lets you chose which system to load) either install badly or not be configured (by design, or by accident) to recognize and boot the Windows partition. The data remained safe, it just took an extra step to access.

It should go without saying that before undertaking a dual boot configuration, it is recommended you back up your data. Goes without saying, yet, I am saying it, if you know what I mean. Any backup method is fine -- use a DVD, or an external hard drive, or a large flash drive. Back up any personal files or user information you may need, and once they're backed up, verify that the backup actually worked. A few of us here from DLS speak from experience when we say that there is nothing worse than reinstalling Windows, only to find that your back up files are borked, for whatever reason.

Make sure, as well, you know where your Windows install disk (and key/activation code) is located. For that matter, make sure you know where your drivers are for your devices (either on disk, or how to get them online).

Finally, be sure to defrag your hard drive (under Accessories). This will tidy up the drive to make partitioning smoother (and less likely to muck up some stray files you might have needed).

If you have the inclination or ability, it might be to your advantage to install a second hard drive for your Linux partitions. This way, it's much less likely you'll wipe Windows out accidentally. And if you should decide that Linux (or Windows) is where you want to stay, you'll have extra storage. And if you're working with a newly built machine with no operating system right now, you've got to install Windows first. It's pushy that way.

If you haven't chosen a distribution yet, hop to it. We'll be installing some variation of Ubuntu on the machine in question. Ubuntu does have an installer that works right through Windows (though not quite the same as dual boot configuration, it is an option), but I've chosen to do this the old fashioned way, both for illustration, and just in case my husband decides in a month or two he's really itching to try Mandriva.

When we next flip the ol' Linux switch, we'll watch the whole sordid dual boot scenario unfold. Yes, my husband's computer will take the (really minimal) risk, so that yours doesn't have to!

Tags: dual boot, dual booting, DualBoot, DualBooting, linux, linux-switch, opensource, windows