[Trying Linux Without Changing Your Current Operating System]

How to discover Linux without damaging your current OS and how to decide which distribution to use and which desktop environment you like.

Table of Contents

  • Virtual Machines with VirtualBox
  • Choose a Linux Distribution
  • Choose a Desktop Environment
  • Download the Installer ISO File
  • Create the Virtual Machine
  • Virtual Machine Settings
  • Run the Virtual Machine
  • Next Steps
  • Writing the ISO to USB or DVD
  • Boot the USB or DVD
  • Taking the Plunge
  • Resources

Virtual Machines with VirtualBox

Virtualization software lets you simulate an entire computer from within your current operating system.

Installing virtualization software on you current operating system

  • Download and Install Oracle VM VirtualBox
    • VirtualBox is a powerful x86 and AMD64/Intel64 virtualization product for enterprise as well as home use. Not only is VirtualBox an extremely feature rich, high performance product for enterprise customers, it is also the only professional solution that is freely available as Open Source Software.
    • Available for WIndows, MacOS and Linux

Choose a Linux Distribution

There are literally hundreds of Linux distributions to choose from. I suggest sticking with a major distribution, preferably one geared toward newer users.

  • Ubuntu, Ubuntu “Flavors” and Ubuntu Derivatives
    • Ubuntu is by far the most popular and widely used Linux distribution and therefore has the most software available and is the easiest to find support.
    • Ubuntu Flavors Ubuntu flavours offer a unique way to experience Ubuntu, each with their own choice of default applications and settings. Ubuntu flavours are backed by the full Ubuntu archive for packages and updates.
    • Ubuntu derivatives are customized distributions based on Ubuntu so, much like flavors, come with the benefit of Ubuntu’s stability, large availability of software and so on.

Choose a Desktop Environment

Unlike Windows and MacOS, Linux users have a choice between many desktop environments

  • Mainstream Desktop Environments
    • KDE Plasma
    • GNOME
    • XFCE
    • MATE
    • Cinnamon
    • LXDE and LXQt

Download the Installer ISO File

Your distribution of choice will have provide an ISO file which contains the installer. In most cases, there is also a “live” environment which allows you to use the system without installing it first.

  • Installation ISO File
    • Usually starts at around 1 GB in size and can be larger depending on the distribution
    • Can be used with VirtualBox as-is
    • Can be written to a USB thumb drive or DVD for booting your computer
  • Live session
    • Runs in a non-destructive manner HOWEVER you can access and overwrite your files
    • Generally a good test of your hardware compatibility

Create the Virtual Machine

Open VirtualBox and create a new virtual machine

  • Follow the steps choose a name, type and location of your machine
    • Type and Version will usually set themselves to the correct option, depending on what you name the machine
    • If you have to set the Type and Version manually:
      • Most distributions are listed however if yours isn’t choose the closest match
      • For example, if it is Ubuntu based and not listed choose Ubuntu as the type
  • Allocate resources depending on your system
    • The minimum memory and disk space for installing and testing any given distribution is 2 GB and 15 GB respectively
    • If you can spare more memory 4 GB is a better option

Virtual Machine Settings

Optimize the settings of the new machine and mount the ISO file

  • Open settings for the newly created machine
    • System
      • If you have a multicore processor you can allocate more processors to the machine which can provide better performance
    • Display
      • Increase the video memory to the maximum value (128 MB)
      • Set the Graphics Controller to the VBoxSVGA option
      • Set the Enable 3D Accelerate option by clicking the box
    • Storage
      • Click the Empty storage device on the left and then the drop down CD icon
      • Select Choose and then browse to the ISO

Run the Virtual Machine

Click Start to launch the virtual machine

  • The new window displays as if you were viewing the monitor of a normal computer
    • The system should boot to either the install process or a live session
  • Use Live Session
    • You can choose to just use the live session however installing will let you have a persistent system which you can customize and test
  • Installation
    • Most distributions will either show a welcome screen or at least have an icon on the desktop for launching the installer
    • Follow the installation process, allowing it to allocate all the resources you gave the machine when creating it.
      • Remember that the machine is contained and not overwriting your actual hard drive hence this being a safe way to test

Next Steps

Once you have tested the virtual machine you have some options on how to proceed

  • You can repeat the process to test multiple distributions and desktop environments to find one that suits your needs
  • You can write the ISO to a USB thumb drive or DVD and test the live session on your actual computer

Writing the ISO to USB or DVD

I assume most people will want to use a USB thumb drive but DVD is an option

  • For USB, I recommend balenaEtcher
  • For DVD, use the burning software that should already be installed on your computer

Boot the USB or DVD

Insert the USB or DVD and reboot your computer

  • Your computer may boot directly to the USB or DVD but may require you to select the boot device at startup
    • Most PCs use the F12 key to show a boot menu
    • Select the USB or DVD device to boot to the live session
  • Once your computer has booted try using it as you normally would
    • Try doing things you would normally do like browsing the internet
    • Look at the software that is available and try things
    • Use this opportunity to really be critical about whether things will meet your needs
  • When finished, you can reboot and your system will be untouched
    • Remember to remove the USB or DVD

Taking the Plunge

From here, you can decide whether you’re ready to try installing it “for real” on your system.

  • Dual Booting
    • This is a good approach if you have the hard drive space or a second disk you can use
    • Most Linux installers will allow you to shrink your disk partitions to create space alongside to install the distribution
      • ALWAYS backup your critical data. It is very possible to make a mistake and overwrite your disk
        • Depending on the type of backup may not save your existing OS but at least you’ll have your important files. Certain “bare metal” backups can also restore an entire disk and recover the OS as well.
  • Full Install