Alright, you have at least decided that Linux is interesting. But you are not yet sure you want to commit disk space to a dual boot or wipe out Windows® from your hard drive just yet. Well, no problem. You can still get familiar with Linux. How you ask? Linux can be booted from CD or “thumb drive” without changing your installed system or putting anything on your hard disk. It sounds like it might be complicated but really it is not. It is as simple as putting a CD or DVD in your drive and booting it at startup time. This assumes that your computer is new enough to have a bios that allows booting from different sources (floppy, CD, hard disk, USB, etc.). Not all computers have this capability. If your computer is less than 10 years old it will at least be able to boot from CD and floppy (if you have one).
All of the popular distros of Linux have a “go live” version that boots from CD or DVD and does not change your system. For simplicity sake we will look at only two of these to keep things simple. You are of course free to download and try any or all of them.
The first DVD–only version to review is the Ubuntu Live DVD. Ubuntu is available for PC, 64–Bit PC and Intel–based Mac
architectures. At least 384 Mb of RAM is required to use the live CD based installer. Full install requires at least 4 GB of disk space.
You can download and burn this DVD from
www.ubuntu.com/getubuntu/download for CD image or
for a very stable distro, based on Ubuntu, go to www.linuxmint.org or
This image, once downloaded, can be burned to your DVD or CD and it is ready for booting. It is a very large image and takes some time to download even on a high-speed broadband connection. Allow several hours for this depending on your connection speed and traffic through your local gateway. DO NOT INTERRUPT IT. When booted, the DVD will allow you to choose the “live” option at boot time. Actually, this image could even be copied to a 4Gb or larger “thumb drive” and booted the same way – assuming your computer is allowed to boot from a USB device. This is usually an option on the most recent PC models and something you must verify before spending time and effort.
Booting with the “live” option from the DVD, a fully functional Linux system will boot and operate as though you had installed it on your system. You can do this as many times as it takes to get comfortable with Linux without changing your system in the process.
The illustration shown is a snapshot of a Ubuntu 9.10 desktop running Gnome and highly customized to the users’ taste and operating style. The default desktop will be somewhat different, but this illustrates how versatile the Linux window manager can be.
The second option you could have is the distro from Harvey Nelson, AI9NL/K9NXI called “Harv’s Ham Shack Hack”. In spite of it’s unusual name, this is a serious distro of the Knoppix Linux distro base created by Klaus Knopper, and adds useful ham radio related software. Knoppix is available in the ”plain Jane” version as well, but this distro is a bit more interesting for hams. It is available from: hamshack–hack.sourceforge.net
This is what the desktop will possibly look like when the boot process completes. This distro is using the KDE window manager to display windows and the desktop. As you can see from the illustration, there are quite a few Linux programs to check out. You will be very fortunate indeed if all of the applications work with all the hardware necessary on your system. It is not possible to cover all the bases when it comes to all the possible hardware combinations availble that you may have on your system. So, if an application does not work, your disappointment and frustration should be tempered somewhat with the knowledge that there is a more than even chance it would or could happen.
Take some time to launch each application from the desktop to see what it does. There is very likely a Windows® equivalent by a different name. Also explore all the menus and instant launchers available from the task bar at the bottom. The more familiar you become with the differences between Linux and Windows® the more you will find them to be minor and fully adaptable.
Also keep in mind that this is a “read–only” version of Linux. The next time you boot the CD, DVD, or Thumb Drive any changes you made during your last session will not be there on the next boot. To have a fully configurable and persistent experience you must apply Linux to permanent mass storage (your hard disk). The “thumb drive” option is great because the flash memory is the solid state equivalent of your hard disk in that it offers persistent mass storage only in a very fast, compact, and removable package.