Try It Before You Buy It – Linux

If you’re one of our readers who is interested in Linux, we have another great article for you today about trying Linux out before you actually buy it. Read on!

Switching operating systems isn’t a trivial matter. Doing so generally involves the arduous tasks of backing up all of your important data and, in the case of Linux, repartitioning your hard disk. If you’re just curious about Linux in a peripheral sort of way, that’s a lot of work to go through just to take a quick look.

Fortunately, us GNU/Linux users are so confident that you’ll prefer Linux over Windows or OSX that we have the means to let you ‘try before you buy” many different versions of Linux without doing a single thing to your existing system.

The Live CD ISO

Sound too good to be true? It’s not. What you’re looking for is called a “Live CD” and to use one, all you need is a fast Internet connection, a CD burner and a late model computer that’s able to boot from its CD ROM drive. With these tools, you will be able to download a Live CD image (called an ISO file), burn it to a CD ROM disk and then boot your computer into Linux. You can do all of this without putting your existing operating system or data in peril.

The first thing we need to do is pick a Live Linux distribution (called a distro) that we want to try. Not all Linux distros have a Live CD variant, but enough do that there are several to choose from. You can visit each individual distro’s Web site to see if they have a Live CD version, but a much quicker way to find them is to visit FrozenTech’s Live CD list at FrozenTech’s list is ordered by user votes with the most popular at the top. Which distro you pick is up to you, but I’ve had some very favorable experiences with Kanotix. At the time of this writing, the Kanotix Live CD was number two on the list. I’m going to download that one.

It’s important to note that a Linux Live CD ISO file contains an entire operating system within it. It is therefore, quite a large file (hence the requirement for a fast Internet connection). The Kanotix ISO that I’ve chosen is 700 MB. Note that this image is too large for many CD-RW (re-writeable) disks, which generally top out at 650 MB vice a normal burn-once CDR, which can hold 750 MB of data. If you’re planning on using a CD-RW to burn the ISO onto, pick a small enough distro so that it will fit. In any case, I recommend starting the download and going for lunch.

Burning the ISO file

Once the ISO is downloaded to your machine, you’ll need to burn it onto a CD. As I mentioned above, an ISO file contains an entire operating system within it and to make it work for you, you will need to extract that operating system and burn it onto a CD. Think of an ISO like a Zip file. It’s a single file, but it actually contains many files within it. You cannot burn an ISO file like you would a normal data file. You must burn an image. If you burn the ISO file onto a CD in the same way in which you would burn a normal data CD, you will simply end up with a CD with a big ISO file on it. That’s not what we want at all.

To burn an image, you will need to root through the menus on your CD recording application and look for an item named something like create image or record image. The below image shows the Burn CD Image option from K3B (a Linux CD burning application).

Once you’ve found your image burn menu item, pop a blank CD into your drive and browse for the ISO file you’ve just downloaded. While this may be the first time you personally have burned an image, the technique, tools and standards have been around for a long time. This means that in most cases, you won’t have to change any settings on the record window. After you’ve selected the ISO file, simply click OK or record and watch the blinking lights.

Booting Into the Live CD

When the burn process completes, you should be left with a shiny new bootable CD. In many cases, you will simply be able to restart your computer with this CD in the drive and you will boot into Linux.

This capability comes from the fact that your computer has a specified “boot order.” In general, you boot up from the C: drive (or hda, for you Linux users), but that doesn’t mean that the C: drive is the first drive that your computer looks at for a bootable operating system.

Many computers check the floppy drive, then the CDRom drive and then the hard drive. If your boot order has the CD drive in front of the hard drive (which is very common these days), your computer will boot into your newly minted Linux Live CD. If the hard drive is in front of the CD ROM drive in the boot order, you’ll need to change that. Some computers let you specify the boot drive when it is starting up by pressing a key such as F12, but most will require you to go into your BIOS and change the boot order to put the CD drive first. Watch for tell tale messages on your screen as soon as your computer boots up. Once you’ve put the CD drive first, you can leave it there. Usually, you won’t have a bootable disk in the CD drive, so there’s no harm if your system goes looking there first.

Final Words

There are many reasons why Live CDs are not only fun, but practical. For starters, you can run a variety of Linux distros any time you’d like without having to do anything dangerous to your system. Simply put the CD in and reboot. When you’re done with your session, shut it down and take the CD out. Live CDs are also good to determine how well a particular Linux distro will fare on your computer if you were to do a full install of it. There are many flavors of Linux and they all have differing abilities to detect hardware and different desktop interfaces. In general, a distro’s Live CD and its full-blown version will be quite similar, so the abilities of one is a good indicator of the abilities of the other.

The only real downside to running a Live CD over the full-blown version is speed and memory. A CD drive operates many times slower than a hard drive and therefore, your computer may seem sluggish when running a Live CD. Don’t despair though. Installing the distro onto a hard drive will increase its speed dramatically. As well, a CD is a read only device and as such things, like preferences, cannot be written to it. Therefore, don’t spend too much time customizing the desktop of your Live CD, because you’ll likely have to start all over th
e next time you boot into it.

Live CDs are also useful for system recovery. If your computer has taken ill and won’t boot up anymore, there’s a decent chance that the data on the computer is still in good shape; just hard to get at. Booting up into a Linux Live CD may give you access to the hard drive and enable you to copy that data off to some safe location, so you can go about reinstalling your operating system.

Happy testing!

~ Jon Watson