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28

Switch to Linux part 1 – preparation

by Rob Zwetsloot

Switch from Windows XP to a Linux distro with our complete guide and you’ll never look back

The inevitable has happened; the once- revered Windows XP has been taken out back by Bill Gates and tearfully shown the business end of a shotgun after many years of loyal service at the Redmond ranch. The end of security support is the final nail in the coffin from Microsoft as it tries to shuffle its expansive client and customer base over to Windows 8 if it can – or Windows 7 if it must– before the gun has even finished smoking from the deed.

Microsoft would make you think it’s the only alternative, however that ignores the shining beacon of Linux just beyond the horizon. Once thought to be the malformed operating system of only the most hardcore tech nerds, speaking in riddles and snake languages such as ‘Python’, the Linux landscape has changed to be more welcoming to everyone.

Spurred on by the success of Ubuntu, the various versions of Linux – known as distributions or distros – have become more stable, more usable and generally more useful for your day-to-day computing. Over the next few pages we’ll help you safely make the switch and begin your enlightening journey into the world of Linux.

Make the jump to Linux
Make the jump to Linux

Keeping XP

We’ll let you know various methods for keeping or being able to return to XP if you need to at various points in this tutorial. Linux is all about choice, and you can choose to run it with XP if you wish.

Resources

Having problems with your first forays into Linux that Google can’t solve? These people will be able to help…

The Linux Mint forum is an active community of people that has answered many questions on all sorts of Mint topics. If you can’t find your specific problem, make a post and they will do their best to give you advice.

LinuxQuestions.org is the nexus of all Linux knowledge, with a setup dedicated to helping people and a good search system to make sure you’re not repeating a question. They’ll answer all types of questions for all the software you’ll be using and any distros you might find yourself using in the future.

Backing up

f you’re a well-organised person you will very likely already have your PC or laptop backed up, which means a gold star for you. Well done! A lot of us unfortunately forget to get a backup solution sorted out, though. If you’re at this stage, it doesn’t really matter so much about creating a backup plan for your Windows machine but you will need to create copies of your files, documents and anything else you want to take over with you to Linux.

What this involves is very simple: all you have to do is create a copy of the data in your My Documents folder. This folder holds your actual documents, your videos, your pictures, your music and just about any other personal file of yours. Now may also be a good time to have a quick scan through the folder to see if there’s anything you don’t specifically need – have a spring clean of your files, if you will. Once that’s done, you can copy them to a place off of your computer; we suggest doing this onto a spare USB stick or external/ portable hard drive so you can easily get them when your new Linux is all set up.

Very few of your programs will need backing up; they’ll either all be replaced or work so differently on Linux that there would be no real point. If there’s a way to export a profile, like on Firefox or another program you know you’ll be able to use on Linux, get that now and add it to your collection of backed-up files.

Full backup

We’ve talked about saving the files and documents that you need the most and putting them in a safe place, but if you want to do a proper backup just in case, we recommend using the excellent Bacula. It’s incredibly powerful, open source and also available on Linux, so you’ll be able to use it on there for backups once you’re all settled too.

Clone your hard drive

As well as backing up all your files, you can make a perfect copy of your hard drive in case you ever want to reinstall it to precisely how it was. It’s also a sure-fire way to restore the computer to exactly the way it was before you installed Linux. The Linux distro Clonezilla (www.clonezilla.org) can boot directly from a CD without needing to be installed and can create an ‘image’ of your hard drive, which is information on all of the data – where it is, the size of it, and so on. This image can be used with Clonezilla to restore the hard drive as well.

Make sure you have sufficient storage space though, as the image will be as large as your hard drive. A big external hard drive will do the trick as long as you can spare the space.

Create an exact copy of your hard drive with Clonezilla
Create an exact copy of your hard drive with Clonezilla

Virtualise your hard drive

A more novel – yet still incredibly useful – way to keep a copy of your old PC is by creating a special virtual hard drive with all the data currently on it. Microsoft actually supplies a pretty helpful tool to help you achieve this using your XP computer called Disk2vhd.

These snapshots can be created onto the computer you’re already using, however it’s a little quicker to simply save it straight to an external hard drive. Once you’ve got Linux installed and ready to go, you can always create a ‘virtual machine’ with Virtual Box using this vhd file, resulting in a fully working version of your original computer setup inside your new computer setup. This can be especially handy if there are some specific programs that you want to be able to use on Windows, or if you forgot to back up some specific files earlier on.

We recommend…

Discover some of the best distros on offer that will help ease you into the world of Linux

Linux Mint

We’ll be using Linux Mint as our example distro during this guide. Based on the popular Ubuntu distro, it strips away the more commercial features and adds its own ‘desktop environment’: the term used for the graphical interface you use to interact with the computer. The excellent Cinnamon desktop is reminiscent of Windows XP, yet has the search functions of newer distros and a more customisable program bar at the bottom. It’s incredibly easy to use.

Fedora

Fedora Linux is famous for being the test bed for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, one of the most profitable and popular versions of Linux around. Fedora is strict with what it includes for you to install and download, preferring open source software. This means you may have problems playing MP3s and a lot of video files unless you modify it using RPM Fusion. It’s still a great look into the most up-to-date Linux software around though, and many people use it as their main distro.

Mageia

A relative newcomer to the Linux scene, Mageia is a wonderful operating system to use that is possibly one of the most accessible versions of Linux we’ve used. It has a few quirks during initial setup that may be a little beyond the most novice users but it can be well worth it in the long run. It also has an excellent control centre like openSUSE and can use similar installation files like the ones found in Fedora. If you’re looking for something after Linux Mint, this is it.

openSUSE

A community-run project that is to SUSE – an enterprise Linux operating system – as Fedora is to Red Hat Enterprise Linux. It’s less cutting-edge and is more optimised for being used at home or in the office, though. OpenSUSE has an excellent settings program that allows you to easily control all of the major functions of the operating system in great detail. The project’s goals are to make it the most accessible Linux in the world – and it’s well on its way.

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    • Geoff Halsey

      First I’ve heard of Disk2vhd. Sounds really useful.

      As a long term Linux convert, I’m rarely able to persuade other Windows users to jump the Microsoft ship, even when they are really impressed with my favourite, Linux Mint. Virtualizing their existing Windows and then slowly weaning themselves off it, maybe the the answer.