So, you’re starting to be convinced of the benefits of linux? Keen to experience the increased speed and power and to try out some of the thousands of pieces of free software available? Like the thought of being secure from viruses and spyware? But still a little attached to your Windows operating system? Here’s a few tips for making the best of both worlds.
1. Use Ubuntu
There are loads of distributions available and it may be difficult to make a decision. Ubuntu has rapidly become the most popular and this must be due in part to its ease of installation and use for newcomers. So why not follow the crowd and try Ubuntu first? Go on, go and download the latest release.
2. Dual boot Windows/OSX and Linux
Dual booting means that when you power on your machine you get a choice of going into either of two or more operating systems. There are lots of articles around on how to set up a dual-boot machine with XP, or with Windows 7, or with OSX. My own experience is dual booting Windows XP Pro and various versions of Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSuse and whatever else took my fancy at the time. The obvious benefit is that you have all your familiar applications there, and you can take your time learning linux without jumping in at the deep end and having to learn everything at once. Remember:
An alternative to dual booting is virtualization. Installing a program like VBox-OSE on Ubuntu lets you install a full copy of Windows or OSX operating systems plus your favourite applications right inside Ubuntu. There’s clearly a benefit here of not having to reboot to use other programmes but there’s a penalty in the speed your applications run.
3. Separate Data and Software
If you are dual booting it makes sense to put all of your data on a separate partition that can be accessed and written to by both operating systems. But even if you’re not dual booting, keeping your data separate may make operating system upgrades easier and lets you experiment with confidence. Keeping your data separate is more secure and if anything goes wrong you can simply insert a linux live CD to get a temporary operating system and get straight to your data. Points to bear in mind:
# mount data store partition
UUID=b7296b71-b1bd-4e73-9b7f-077dd37902c5 /media/filestore ext2 rw,user,auto 0 0
4. Investigate problems (and note down the solutions!)
Its always possible that some particular configurations of hardware don’t work as easily as one would hope. Hardware manufacturers might share information with Microsoft that they don’t with linux developers. (Although the biggest manufacturers are getting much better in this regard.) But if you’ve got a problem with your installation it might be relatively simple to fix and somewhere has likely been there before. Get googling and be very specific about your searches. (Searching ‘choppy graphics’ is clearly not going to be very useful – know your hardware so you can search, say, ‘NVidia 8500 ubuntu 9.10 video mplayer bug’.) Remember that you can trust information on the official sites (say the Ubuntu bug tracking website or community wiki) much more than random blogs (like this one!).
Most importantly, when you get your fix, note down exactly what you’ve done so you can a) undo it if it causes other problems and b) redo it if, say, you decide to install a different or newer version of your operating system. An obvious point perhaps, but its a lesson its taken me longest to learn.
5. Use the Cloud
Using cloud services – i.e. places available through the internet where you store some of your data – is a good way of separating data from software. It not only gives you a handy backup of your data but also makes it available from whatever computer you happen to be using – as long as you can keep track of all those passwords. Services I like include:
Depending on what sort of data you want to look after and/or share there are plenty of other services out there: Flixr is an obvious one for photographers and is often linked into photo management software like F-Spot and Picasa.
6. Keep up to date (but be careful of upgrades!)
Software updates are now a vital part of computing. Ubuntu installs with its Update Manager configured to run as soon as you turn on your computer. The updates only rarely require a computer restart so you can generally accept the suggested updates and leave the system to it. One warning, however, is that Ubuntu releases a new version of the operating system every six months. These upgrades won’t happen automatically, although the Update Manager will let you know when they’re available. But upgrading is a bigger job than simply accepting software updates – especially if you’ve got an odd selection of hardware or have heavily customised your operating system. The potential instability of system upgrades has caused some controversy among linux fans. The best practical advice is probably not to upgrade as soon as its available (in April and October each year) but to wait a month or so. When you do upgrade make sure you’ve got a little bit of time to iron out any wrinkles and go back to those installation notes you made so meticulously.
These tips are hardly an exhaustive how-to. But the purpose is to suggest some of the easy practical steps to feeling secure about your linux use. Keep things organised and your data secure and you can be free to experiment. Customize your desktop, set your visual effects to do something pointlessly cool, install a wide range of applications or even create another partition and install an entirely new operating system just because its looks take your fancy. The excitement of linux is in the experimentation – just take a few precautions before you hurl yourself in.