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Using liberty-minded opensource tools, and using them well

Install a Distro

A high-level overview of what I mean when I say "Install your favorite distro".

So it’s not that very hard to make a installable CD/DVD/USB of a linux distro to install/tryout/etc. There are two basic ways to do it. First however, a little prep work.

Get .iso file

Every disto has an .iso file that is a bootable filesystem in a condensed form. The easiest way to find out where they are is by going to DistroWatch. Fine the distro that you want to demo/install and distrowatch at the top of that distro’s page should give you a link to a download mirror. Learn what your target computer’s architecture is (i386 vs x86_64) and obtain the appropriate one.

Now even better than a download mirror is using a magnet link, also know as a torrent file. If you can torrent the .iso, then you can leave the torrent up and help the next guy who wants to download the distro that you are currently enjoying on your other install. You’ll probably be looking to Transmission or Deluge to handle that job.

For right now, let’s assume that you’ve got the .iso file and that you’ve saved it to ~/Downloads/distro.iso.

Get some install medium

I just recently was baffled trying to install a distro onto an old tower. Turns out it didn’t have a DVD drive, just a CD drive and a USB port or seven. So the DVD’s that I burned to launch a live session wouldn’t work. No big deal, if you have the right medium at hand.

CDs work for all of the minimalist distributions, and most of the System Repair distros that are out there. They try to make them less than the 700MB that CD’s are limited to. Any more than that and you’ve got to look otherwhere.

DVDs are the logical successor to CDs. If you’re going to shill out for DVDs, you may as well just get a USB or two. They can always be re-written and plus they look much cooler and sophisticated when used. Either way it’s the same though.

Install .iso file onto the medium

Whichever .iso file you choose and whichever medium you end up going with, eventually you’re going to have to put the one on the other. The command-line way to accomplish this on linux is:

dd if=/dev/sdb of=~/Downloads/distro.iso

Where /dev/sdb is the bootable medium you’re creating the image. Keep in mind it’s not a partition thereof, it’s the actual storage unit itself. (Aka, it’d be /dev/sdb not /dev/sdb1/.) Read up on dd before trying this. Linux assumes that you’re the expert and that you really want to do what you’re telling it to do. So make sure you’re telling it the right thing.

Otherwise you got a couple other ways of going about doing this. I’m running CrunchBang at the moment (based off of Debian) and preinstalled is xfburn, a nifty GUI that makes it easy to create .iso disks.

There are plenty more disk-burning utilities out there in the linux world, including ImgBurn, Brasero, and others. Check out what your distro comes with, and use that.

Boot from medium

This is the most difficult part. Well, most frustrating at least. Boot up the target PC to install/demo Linux on, and then get ready to press either:

  • Esc
  • F9
  • F10
  • F12

…or anything in between. Those are just the ones that I’ve seen most often. See if you can’t drag your fingers across the ‘F’ row as soon as you see the first graphic pop up onto the screen and hope you don’t break anything.

If that’s too inaccurate for you, either look up the BIOS that you’ll be booting and see what buttons to press, or boot it up once, look for the button that it says to press to get to “Advanced Settings” or whatnot, and reboot. Now you know what button to spam when it reboots.

Once you’ve got into the BIOS settings, see if it will allow you a one-time “Boot From X” (CD/DVD or USB…depending) or if you have to change the boot settings to put your intended drive above the harddrive in the boot order. If that’s the case, no big deal, just make sure you disable that default later if you execute a successful install.

Every BIOS is different, so once you’ve made your selection, save and exit. Hopefully at that point your distro will boot up onto your target machine. If it doesn’t, troubleshoot. Don’t be afraid of search engines. Look for compatability issues if nothing shows up, (ahem…DVD in CD tray…) and work your way backwards in the steps to see where you might have gone wrong.

The most frustrating is when your boot medium doesn’t show up as an option in the BIOS. If that’s the case, save yourself some time and make a USB (use unetbootin) and if that doesn’t work, you may just be SOL. But keep searching, keep in mind computers always have a logical reason for doing (or not doing) things. It may just be the case that you are unaware of that reason temorarily until you unearth it. Then you can get on with fixing it.

LiveCD vs Install

Some distros will let you try out the system on your hardware via a Live environment. Do this if possible. Nothings worse than having to go through two installs instead of only having to go through one. Try it out. Keep a system monitor handy to see how many resources you take up at any given time. Test out the internet browser’s impact on the RAM and CPU usage, and the same for media players and anything else intensive that you may be working on (video editing comes to mind).

After you’re done with the Live playground, reboot and install. The install wizard of whatever distro you’re using should make it fairly easy…at least if it’s not Arch or Gentoo…the uninitiated may have problems with Slackware…and Fedora has been giving me a headache lately. I do highly recommend anything debian-based though. Or CentOS if you want something practical and boring.

After the install, make sure that you eject the install medium so that you’re not booting into another live session or another install session once you reboot. No need to go through that again.

Finishing touches

There you have it. If you’ve installed a bootloader successfully, you’ll be able to access your new distro on your new partion for your new distro. Go ham.

Do us all a favor if you torrented the .iso and seed the most recent one so that others will be able to share in the experience, and spread your new-found expertise around and preach the good word of FOSS.

If this concludes your first install, save your first install medium as a momento. I still have the first #! disk that I had installed onto my old-ass laptop that kept getting the blue screen of death. Good luck and may the FOSS be with you.