BOOT CAMP 319 (30/03/04)


Linux – what’s it all about? Part 2


Following on from last week’s introduction to Linux it is time to see what all the fuss is about and install it on your existing desktop PC or better still, on a spare or redundant PC. By the way, Linux and laptops don’t mix, leave it to the experts…


Ideally your PC should be a fairly recent model with at least a Pentium II processor running at 400MHz and upwards of 192Mb of memory. You will also need your Linux installation discs and to recap on part one, I suggest ‘personal’ versions of the Fedora Red Hat, Mandrake or SuSe distributions. (Fedora Red Hat is the one we’ll be looking at in detail in part 3).


You’ll recall last week that I promised a safe installation method that won’t compromise your existing Windows setup and the only way to do that is to install Linux on a second hard disc drive. Loading Linux onto a separate partition on your main drive is possible but I wouldn’t recommend it to first-timers. It is risky; Windows and Linux may not get on with one another and there is an outside chance that one or both operating systems could end up inoperable.


The downside of this arrangement is that you have to use your PC’s BIOS program to switch between the Windows and Linux drives, which involves a few extra key presses at boot up. The alternative is a program called a ‘boot loader’, which gives you a choice of operating systems at boot up. One should be included with your Linux distribution (usually ‘Grub’ or ‘LiLo’); however, these can be difficult for novices to configure but if you take to Linux and want to progress further then make setting up the boot loader your first challenge. 


A typical desktop/workstation Linux setup requires around 2.4Gb of hard disc space (6Gb is better), so you could use a drive from an old PC (see Tip of the Week), but new 40Gb drives only cost around £35 from online retailers like and If it doesn’t work out you will still have some useful extra storage space for your Windows system.


There’s no need to go into the nuts and bolts of fitting a second hard disc drive since this is something we dealt with in Boot Camp 316, just follow the same procedure, including setting the new blank drive as a ‘slave’ to your main drive.


When you are ready to start installation unplug the PC, remove the lid and after touching the case metalwork (to dispel any static charge) disconnect the power and data cables from your main C: drive to ensure that Windows and your data remains safe. Also disconnect any peripherals (printer, scanner etc.); you can set these up in Linux later on. Refit the lid and mains lead and boot your PC into the BIOS program (usually by pressing the ‘Del’ key, or a combination of keys immediately after switch on but see your motherboard manual for details). Select the Advanced Setup or Boot menu, make a note of the currently selected first boot ‘device’ (usually IDE 0, or the name/model number of your master disc drive) and change it to CD-ROM; save the change and reboot. Load the first of your Linux discs, the PC should now boot up from the CD-ROM drive and the installation will begin.


The process is largely automatic and normally takes around an hour or so with easy to follow on-screen instructions. At various points you will be offered options for things like partitioning, disc management and monitor resolution. Stick with the defaults and you can’t go far wrong; you can always make changes later on. You will also be asked to select keyboard language, specify your location and time zone enter a user name and passwords, etc. I would skip the networking and Internet sections; you can set them up later using Windows-like ‘Wizards’. At some point you will be asked to remove any discs from the drives and Linux is ready to boot from the hard disc drive for the first time; you may need to change the BIOS first boot device selection to IDE 1 or your named slave drive.


The final stages include setting up hardware and installing the bundled software applications. Eventually, after a final reboot a lot of text will whiz down the screen, you’ll be asked for your username and password and if everything has gone according to plan you will get your first sight of an alien, yet strangely familiar desktop. Welcome to Linux and we’ll conclude this short series next week with a guided tour.


If at any point during or after the installation a problem arises there’s probably not a lot you can do unless you are familiar with the inner-workings of Linux. My advice is to start again, but don’t just go back to the beginning. Linux may try to recover a failed installation and you could end up going around in circles for hours. You should wipe the disc drive and give Linux a completely clean slate (Tip of the Week again).


When you are satisfied Linux is booting reliably you can go back and reconnect the power and data cables for your main disc drive. Since it is set to ‘Master’ your PC will automatically boot into Windows. When you want to switch to Linux reboot, enter the BIOS program and change the first boot device to your Linux ‘slave’ drive.



Next week – Exploring Linux





Basic Input Output System, a program stored in a microchip memory on the PC motherboard that checks and configures the hardware, memory and disc drives, before the operating system is loaded



The disc drive that your PC uses to load its operating system. Normally the C: drive, but it can be changed in the BIOS program to another hard drive or the floppy or CD-ROM drives



Dividing the space in a large disc drive up into two or more ‘virtual’ drives, to accommodate different operating systems or separate data




For the best chance of a smooth Linux installation you should start with a clean disc drive. Previously used drives, even when partitioned and reformatted may contain data and file structures that can interfere with the process so before you start use a disc wipe, reset or initialising tool. These can be downloaded from the support sections of most disc drive manufacturer’s web sites. Alternatively try Samsung’s ‘Cleanerhdd’ utility, which seems to work with most makes of drive and is small enough to fit onto a Windows recovery disc. More details and a link to the 11kb download can be found at:


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