Installing Linux isn’t hard – if you ask yourself the right questions first. Help you rarely find in installation guides.
The large selection of Linux distributions can be confusing. In addition, they often come with multiple desktop environments. But these are only the interfaces.
If you choose a Linux distribution based on the interface, you’ll quickly run into problems during installation. Or getting annoyed again and again – for example because he never has the latest version of his favorite application on his computer.
In this article, we ask you eight questions that you should answer before installing Linux to avoid technical problems and, if necessary, a reinstallation.
Desktop environment not the first choice
The desktop environment determines what you see on the screen. Is there a panel or a dock? Let the background shine through? Does the window manager position the close button on the top left or right side? What to see on the desktop? Your files? The time? The CPU load?
Too many questions at once? The good news: You do not have to commit yourself. You can adapt a desktop environment at any time and even change it completely – without having to change the distro.
Colleague Jurgen Vielmeier has already presented two Linux distributions with their standard interfaces here: Deepin Linux and Voyager OS.
The common desktop environments that are interesting for beginners from our point of view:
The desktop environments not only determine the appearance, but also include a number of pre-installed applications. But you are not locked into that either. You can uninstall them at any time and add new ones as you like.
Strictly speaking, Linux is only the technical foundation. The individual distributions differ in the composition of the kernel and the most important system programs. With the choice of the distribution you set a course, which you can not easily change afterwards. Often not at all. Then only a new installation helps.
Most Linux distributions are offered in combination with several desktop environments. First choose the distribution that meets your needs, and only then the desktop environment you like best.
Weigh security against up-to-dateness
Windows updates usually appear for all devices on a fixed day. This is already different with Android. Each smartphone manufacturer updates the mobile operating system according to its own schedule.
With Linux this is also not uniform. If the kernel or an app is in a new version, each distribution decides how quickly the update gets to users’ computers. The providers choose between security and up-to-dateness. Both do not work together.
The publishers of a Linux distribution test first whether this update can lead to problems. If this happens quickly, you have a fairly current system. But sometimes they overlook inconsistencies in the system. If you value stability, you should choose a distribution whose publishers only offer an update if they have tested this extensively beforehand.
By the way, this is not only true for the individual applications, but also for the distributions themselves. With a Rolling release the publishers play in the updates continuously. Most distributions, however, offer a major upgrade once or twice a year. Some even release a version with Long Term Support (LTS) every few years. This is then provided with updates over several years, without the need for an upgrade or a new installation.
Debian is generally considered to be very stable. A good compromise between topicality and security offers Ubuntu. Linux Mint, which is based on Ubuntu, also benefits from this. As a rolling release, Arch Linux is very popular, but I would not recommend it to beginners – but Manjaro, which is based on Arch, but is very user-friendly. Other popular Linux distributions include Fedora, Zorin OS, OpenSuse, Deepin and Elementary.
With the choice of the Linux distribution you determine, how updates get on your computer – quite fast or extensively tested. Thus you decide for more actuality or for more security. Remember that as a Linux beginner you can be quickly overwhelmed with error messages.
Linux for old computers, Linux for new computers
Before you decide on a distribution, you should clarify a few technical questions. In former times it was said that Linux also runs on old computers. This only applies to a limited extent.
Now you have to decide: Only 32-bit versions run on old computers. But many new distributions are only available in the 64-bit variant. So not every distribution is suitable for every computer.
If you want to install Linux on a current machine, there is one more point to consider. On new hardware you will find a UEFI by default instead of a BIOS. Then Secure Boot is also usually activated – especially if Windows was previously on the computer.
For Linux distributions based on Debian or Ubuntu, this is not a problem. However, if you want to install Arch-based systems like Manjaro, you need to disable Secure Boot. It will not make your system insecure – even if the name suggests it.
If you have a rather old computer, look for a particularly slim Linux distribution that is still available in a 32-bit version. If you have a fairly new computer, consider whether you are ready to turn off Secure Boot.
Dual boot with Windows or Linux alone?
If you do not want any problems during the installation, choose the standard installation. Then Linux formats your hard disk and partitions it in such a way that each range has enough place. (A partitioning divides your hard disk or SSD into several areas. In one lies the boot manager, on another the operating system, on another your data.) Extra wishes are then not.
In this case, a pre-installed Windows is also deleted. However, if you can’t do without it because you need special programs, you can install Linux in parallel with Windows. When you switch on the computer, a selection of installed systems appears, between which you can choose.
This is done by the boot manager on the boot partition. Or not. Since both operating systems have access to it, it can happen that a necessary setting is overwritten. The help forums are full of it. You also have to deviate from the standard way during installation and may be confronted with unexpected questions again.
I therefore advise Linux beginners not to do this. This is too much new territory for the first big step. Better install Linux on a test machine and dare to set up a dual boot system if you feel confident enough.
Personally, I’ve banned Windows from my laptop altogether. For emergencies, however, I still have an old clamshell computer on which Windows 10 is meanwhile waiting for its next update. I will then probably have to wait for hours until I can use it again after turning it on.
A dual boot system with Linux and Windows on the computer is practical. But the installation can lead to problems. These problems can also occur later. Decide beforehand if this is a risk you want to take.
Surprise! Unexpected questions at the installation
The installer will present you with a few questions that you should be aware of ahead of time. At points like this, I’ve already started researching wildly – or cancelled the installation.
Put in your computer a graphics card from Nvidia? Then you need a special driver. Research beforehand how to do this and have this guide at hand. Laptops where the Intel or AMD processor brings its own graphics unit will not be affected. So on most notebooks it should not cause problems.
The installer will ask you for the file system: ext2, ext3, ext4 or even more. Just follow the default or choose ext4. You will not notice the difference.
Finally you have to decide if you want to completely encrypt the harddisk. I did not do this. Later in the installation process I was asked if I want to encrypt the home directory where my personal data is located. This was the right choice for me.
Regardless of the distribution, there are still questions that might surprise you during the installation process. Instead of aborting the installation, think about whether your graphics card needs a driver, which file system you use and whether you want to save your data. want to encrypt your system.
Keep data separate from the operating system
Even if the installation of Linux succeeds without problems, new problems can arise during operation – for example, due to a failed update. A reinstallation can then be an easy and quick solution. Maybe you just want to try another Linux distribution.
This reinstallation will be easier if you keep your personal data separate from the operating system and applications from the start.
Your data is always in the directory /home. If you put this on your own partition during the first installation, you can install Linux again and again on the designated partition without overwriting your data. Afterwards you mount the home directory. You have access to your data again.
This seems to contradict what I wrote above: Follow the suggestion of the installation when partitioning. But this mainly affects all other partitions. The installation program will later ask you explicitly if you want to encrypt the harddisk /home you want to put on your own partition.
After a new installation, you still have to install your desired apps and configure them. But if you really have to take this radical step, you can do it in less than 30 minutes.
Put your personal data on a separate partition during installation. It makes a new installation easier.
Where you get your apps from
Once the operating system is installed, you still need to add applications. The distribution offers you over a software manager called Appstore admittedly access to many programs. But you can also mount alternative repositories, i.e. additional sources.
This is useful if you want to install an application that a distribution does not offer. Or if you want to have a more recent version (see tip 2 above). But mounting foreign repositories can also lead to problems.
Under Linux an application is not a self-contained program code. It rather accesses existing packages, which are also used by other applications. To avoid conflicts, the distributions test the compatibility. The system cannot do this for external repositories that you mount.
But there is a new approach: Snaps and Flatpaks are two ways to install programs that don’t have these dependencies on existing packages, but bring everything necessary by themselves. This prevents problems, but bloats the system a bit and also slows it down a bit. Whether these points are really important, is controversially discussed. For beginners, flatpaks and snaps are certainly a good choice.
You can install, try, and uninstall applications – but you can also wreck your system. Try everything on a test computer and keep your productive system as constant as possible.
Alternative: hardware with Linux pre-installed
If the hurdle is still too high? Or you simply lack time and desire? You can also buy hardware with Linux preinstalled on it.
Dell and Lenovo offer laptops with Ubuntu, Lenovo also with Fedora. These are actually deals for businesses, so high end devices. Ubuntu and Fedora are easy to use.
Besides there are offers from Linux enthusiasts like Tuxedo, who deliver good, but not the best hardware with a Linux distribution. Tuxedo has tuned them to this hardware in every detail for this purpose. You may also pay less here.
Speaking of hardware. If you still want to try it yourself: Lenovo Thinkpads of the X- or T-series are a good choice – for example the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon, which I had the chance to test some time ago. You get a lot of support from the Linux community. Not only do fewer problems crop up. If you look for a solution on the Internet, you will find it more easily. What you have to pay attention to when buying a notebook, I have written in another post.
If you don’t trust yourself with the installation, buy a computer with Linux preinstalled. You can then familiarize yourself with the operating system and maybe later dare to reinstall another distribution.
In my experience, many Linux installations result in abandonment or later reinstallation because the right questions were not asked at the beginning.
We do not provide installation instructions here. There are enough of them on the Internet. Besides, we can’t do this for all distributions and every hardware. But the eight questions we asked above are relevant to anyone who wants to install Linux – especially if you don’t have much experience with it yet.
If you have decided for a distribution, load this as live version on a USB stick. Then you can try this Linux version on a Windows computer. From there you also start the installation.
Here you should have another calculator within reach to look for help on the Internet. Entering the error message in the wording into a search engine is the best way. This can also be a tablet or a smartphone.
Disclaimer: I am not a Linux professional. Some years I have had Linux on my computers. After that, I used Windows 8 and Windows 10 for a few years, because I had bought a notebook with the Samsung Ativ Book 9, which could be broken by a Linux installation. I simply lacked the courage.
On my current Lenovo Thinkpakd T495s I recently started running Linux Mint Cinnamon. This is a safe choice to start with. I’m also learning a lot about Linux and plan to switch to Manjaro soon.