Linux is easier to install and use than ever. If you tried installing and using it years ago, you may want to give a modern Linux distribution a second chance.
What You’ll Need to Install Linux
As the Internet became faster, many Linux distributions shrank to consume less space than ever. In the old days, you might have to download five different CD images and burn them to discs, swapping out the discs as you completed the installation process. Or, you might have to download a huge ISO file that barely fit on a single DVD — or even multiple DVDs worth of content!
Modern Linux distributions are typically about the size of a single CD. Many of them have grown to take a bit more space than a single CD, so they’d have to be burned onto a DVD. However, they’re designed to be as small as possible, and not to fill up that entire DVD.
You don’t need a writable disc anymore, either. You can create a bootable USB drive containing the Linux distribution. In fact, this is a better, faster alternative. You don’t need a very large USB drive — even a 1 GB USB drive should be able to fit most distributions, and 2 GB should be more than enough.
You also don’t need specialized hardware to run Linux, as Linux supports more hardware than ever. This applies even to laptops, which were a weak point for Linux at one point. Linux distributions have also gained improved power management, so they can squeeze more life out of a laptop’s battery.
The Installation Process
The installation process used to be more complicated. You’d boot from the disc and access the installer, which might start in text mode before taking you to a complicated series of configuration screens.
If you wanted to install Linux in a dual-boot configuration alongside Windows, you’d have to resize your Windows partition ahead of time. Linux couldn’t reliably resize NTFS partitions and many people who tried experienced data loss.
After your Linux system installed, you’d boot it up to test it. Is the Linux distribution stable, does it support your hardware, and do you like it? If there was a problem here, you’d have to choose another Linux distribution and go through the process again.
You could run Linux from a disc without installing it, but this required a specialized Linux distribution like Knoppix.
Today, nearly every Linux distribution provides “live” media that doubles as installation media. Pop an Ubuntu disc or USB drive into your computer and you can reboot directly into a live environment. You can see whether your hardware works properly and whether you like it without installing anything. If there’s a problem, you can reboot and nothing will have changed on your system. If you just want to play with Linux a bit, you don’t even need to install it. If you have a Windows 8 PC with Secure Boot, you may have to disable Secure Boot to install Linux — but that should be quick.
The installation process is much faster. For years, Ubuntu has had a simple installation wizard with a few screens that ask about your time zone, keyboard layout, username, password, and partitioning setup. The partitioning process is the most involved, but this is true even when installing Windows — and Ubuntu can automatically partition your disk in several ways. You don’t have to resize any partitions ahead of time, as Linux can reliably resize NTFS partitions. (You should always have backups of your important files, anyway.)
The installation process even takes place on a live desktop, so you can browse the web or keep exploring the Linux desktop system for the few minutes it takes to install.
Install Linux in a dual-boot configuration and you can choose which operating system you want to use whenever you start your computer, just like Boot Camp works on a Mac.
Hardware configuration used to be a much bigger problem. An installation wizard might attempt to automatically detect all your hardware, asking you if it was correct and giving you options to tweak parameters. If you tried installing Linux on a computer with ISA peripherals back in the day, you might even have to manually enter IRQ values to get things working!
Autodetection now handles all this stuff on the fly. Even the notoriously finicky XF86Config file has been replaced by an X.org graphical server that can automatically detect and configure your graphical hardware.
Using a CD, DVD, USB drive, or floppy disk (hey, it was a long time ago!) could also be a hassle. Linux distributions tried to automatically “mount” removable media when it was inserted. This didn’t always work properly, and you sometimes had to mount things manually. Today mounting all happens automatically — you insert a drive and it’s ready to use immediately, just as it is on Windows.
Linux also includes native support for reading and writing to Windows NTFS file systems, so you don’t have to hunt down NTFS write support. You can just write to your Windows drive normally.
Included Software and Configuration Tools
Many of those older Linux distributions that came as multi-disc sets included a large amount of software. Perform a “complete” installation and you might end up with a large amount of redundant software cluttering your menus — picture an Internet menu with five different multi-protocol online chat clients.
Configuration tools could also be unwieldy, such as SUSE’s YaST (Yet Another Setup Tool) that provided configuration panels for managing many different configuration files and a set of scripts that ran every time you made a change.
Modern Linux distributions take a different approach. They include a smaller amount of handpicked desktop programs along with a simpler set of basic, easy-to-use configuration tools. They try to do as much automatic configuration as possible.
There was a time when Internet Explorer 6 ruled the web. You’d regularly stumble across Internet Explorer-only websites, mandatory ActiveX controls you couldn’t install, or just websites that never bothered testing on anything other than IE. You’d try to watch a video online and struggle with mplayerplug-in’s attempts to play Windows Media or QuickTime content on web pages. At least RealPlayer was a bright spot — yes, RealPlayer provided an official browser plug-in for Linux systems, so you could watch some (not all) RealVideo content online.
The web is a very different place today. Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome both run on Linux, and work just as well as they do on Windows. You very rarely stumble across a site that only works in Internet Explorer — unless you live in South Korea. Websites use either the Flash plugin or HTML5 for web-based video, and both work on Linux. Silverlight, which Netflix still uses, is a problem — but there are ways to watch Netflix on Linux and Netflix is moving toward HTML5.
Plus, as more and more software becomes web-based, Linux’s lack of desktop software support has become less of a problem. For example, if you really want Microsoft Office compatibility, you can use Microsoft’s free Office Online service in your web browser. And the desktop software support has even improved — you can install Microsoft’s Skype on Linux, or install Valve’s Steam service and play hundreds of commercial games that now support Linux.
Linux distribution discs were so large because they contained a large amount of software packages. When you wanted to install a program, many Linux distributions installed it from their discs.
A distribution like Mandrake or SUSE Linux at the time might come without any Internet software repositories configured. You might have to head to a third-party site like rpm.pbone.net and search for third-party packages of software compiled for your Linux distribution, downloading and installing each package and its dependencies manually. The process of downloading a package only to be informed that it required another package, and then downloading that package only to be informed it required yet another package, was known as “dependency hell.” You could even encounter a circular dependency hell, where package 1 required package 2, package 2 required package 3, and package 3 required package 1. Good luck dealing with that!
Linux distributions are now much better about this, providing preconfigured online software repositories with nearly all the software you could want. You can install Linux software with a few clicks or a single command — it will be downloaded and installed automatically, along with any other software it requires. (Yes, some Linux distributions like Debian did this even many years ago, but popular RPM-based Linux distributions like Red Hat, Mandrake, and SUSE didn’t. Ubuntu inherited its excellent software management system from Debian, and even those RPM-based distributions have cleaned up their acts.)
Ubuntu’s Software Center looks and functions just like an “app store,” although Linux distributions were doing centralized software management before it was cool.
When it came time to install proprietary or patent-encumbered software — like NVIDIA or AMD graphical drivers, Flash, MP3 support, or video codecs — you were often stuck searching for a third-party repository that contained this stuff. Mandrake had the Penguin Liberation Front (PLF), SUSE had the Packman repository, and Fedora had rpm.livna.org. You’d have to seek out the appropriate third-party repository for your distribution, add it to your system, and install the software from there. An update to the Linux kernel might break drivers you installed from a third-party.
Today, most of this stuff is available in the distribution’s standard repository. Ubuntu even gives you a one-click checkbox in the installer to quickly download support for Flash, MP3s, typical video file formats, and all the stuff you’d want. No more research or additional configuration required. (The one big exception here is commercial DVD playback support, which is arguably illegal in the USA.
The vast majority of hardware drivers are included, so you won’t have to go looking for them. If you do need a closed-source driver, Ubuntu includes a tool that will automatically find and install them for you. These are officially supported by Ubuntu as much as possible, so kernel updates won’t break them.
Not every Linux distribution is Ubuntu. Fedora believes in open-source software and won’t help you find that patent-encumbered stuff or closed-source drivers. Arch Linux forgoes automatic configuration and drops you at a terminal to configure the system and set things up on your own.
Some people will want those sorts of Linux distributions, but they aren’t the only option anymore.
Image Credit: francois on Flickr