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Baby Linux steps
by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols (Dec. 26, 2006)

So, you want to give Linux a try, do you? Good for you! You'll find that desktop Linux can work well and doesn't come with a tenth of the security problems that makes using Windows such an adventure.

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The first thing you need to do is to pick out a beginner's distribution. I've dealt with this issue before, but let me touch lightly on what I consider to be three of the best Linuxes for beginners.
    MEPIS -- It's getting a bit out of date, but Robin "Roblimo" Miller's book: Point and Click Linux, is still the best Linux beginner's book I know. His book includes an older version of MEPIS Linux. Just because it's not brand new, though, don't think it's not good. This older version also has the advantage of running on low-end systems. I've used it myself on PCs with only a 1.5 GHz Pentium IV processor and 128 MB of RAM. Of course, you can also download the newest and best MEPIS, as well.

    Xandros -- For a Linux that's a lot like Windows XP in look and feel, I recommend Xandros Linux home edition.

    Freespire -- If you want the best possible chance for your Linux being able to get the most from your hardware and work with Windows specific files, Linspire's Freespire is your best distribution.
These may not be the best distributions for everyone, but if all you want to do is get up to speed on Linux, I don't think you can beat them.

Once you've decided which one to try, you need to actually get copy of the distribution. If you don't buy the MEPIS book, that means your choices are to download it or to buy it.

Most Linux users download their distributions. But to do that, you really need a high-speed Internet connection. If you have less than a DSL connection, downloading a distribution, which run to about 600MB, can be a slow and painful experience.

If you're still stuck in the dial-up age, you can buy CDs with MEPIS, Xandros or Freespire already loaded on the disk. Interested in trying out another distribution, but you only have a modem? Then give OSDir a visit. I've heard good things about this company. Their stock in trade is inexpensive Linux (and other free software operating system) CDs and DVDs.

Getting a downloaded distro onto a CD or DVD

Let's say, though, that you download your distribution. The download comes in the form of an "ISO" file. What next?

Well, you need to get it onto a CD or DVD. You don't, however, do this by simply copying the Linux ISO file that you downloaded to the disk. Instead, you have to "burn" the image. The difference is that when you burn an ISO, you're making an exact replica of the distribution disk. A mere "copy" will work as well as trying to play a Xerox copy of a CD in a CD player.

To do this job on Windows I use the remarkably powerful -- and annoying -- Nero 7 tools. If there's anything you want done to -- or with -- a CD or DVD, Nero can do it. It will, however, require you to learn how to do it the Nero way and that's not always the way you'd expect it to be.

If you elect to go with Nero, you'll need to run Nero Burning ROM. The easiest way to get to it is through the Nero StartSmart program.

Once there, pick CD or DVD, as appropriate. Next, choose the option of creating an ISO disc. Do not go down the wrong path of either a UDF/ISO or a bootable DVD-ROM. The ISO road is the best way to create a bootable Linux disc. The default settings should work, so you shouldn't have to worry about the various option tabs. I normally give the disc the name of its distribution using the Label/Manual option, but if you're better than I am at keeping track of your CDs and DVDs, you need not bother.

Once you've done that, hit the New button and select the distribution ISO file you're going to burn from, on your hard drive. After doing this, you'll end up at the Burn Compilation menu. Here, it often works best if you select a slower speed than your drive can theoretically handle. Hardware vendors tend to say their drives can burn discs faster than the drives can reliably do the job.

Finally, hit the burn button, and in a few minutes you should be ready to go.

That said, a far cheaper (free) and less annoying answer for most purposes, including burning ISO images, is DeepBurner Free 1.8. If all you want to do is burn Linux ISOs to disc, DeepBurner is all you need.

Making the Linux CD do something

OK, so now you have your disc in hand, what next? With a newer computer, all you may need to do is place the CD in the CD player -- the first one if you have a choice -- and then restart your PC. When it boots back up, your PC is likely to start off the CD, and you're on your way to installing Linux.

If it doesn't do that, or if you have an older PC, you may need to configure your system's BIOS settings to look to the CD drive first when booting up the computer. Typically, you can get to the menu to configure your BIOS settings by pressing one of these four keys during your PC's boot-up: F1, F2, ESC, or DEL. Your PC may also tell you which key or keys to press when it boots up with a message like: "Press F2 to enter BIOS setup."

Once you're in the BIOS setup program, one of your choices will be to set the boot order. I recommend that you set it up like this:
    1 - Floppy (if available)
    2 - CD-ROM
    3 - Hard Drive
    4 - Network (if available)
Then, save your new settings, and reboot. If all goes well, you should be on your way. If not, check to make sure that your CD is good. In my experience with burning discs, about one time in twenty something will go wrong. More often than not, the next time you burn your Linux ISO image, it will boot up just fine.

What happens next depends on the exact distribution you're running. One choice you'll always get, though, is whether the system should use the entire hard drive or not. Myself, I usually put only one operating system on a system at a time. You can, however, very easily put Linux on the same PC with Windows. Just follow your distribution's instructions for making your PC a "dual-boot system" and all should be well.

At the end of all this, you should have a working Linux PC. Give it a try; I suspect you'll find out that Linux is a lot friendlier than you may have been led to believe.

-- Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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