Ubuntu Linux: The Easy Installation Guide

Ubuntu Linux 8.10, aka Intrepid Ibex, is the most popular Linux distribution available for installing on your PC, thanks to its steadily improving hardware compatibility and installation software, along with a wealth of free applications and utilities that run on any version of Linux.

But even though the bad old days of disappointing Linux installations are mostly over, putting Ubuntu on your PC can still be tricky if you haven't done it before. Many PC users have never had to boot their computers from a CD or had to partition a hard disk. And most of us take for granted that the OS will include drivers to handle crucial hardware devices such as graphics cards and wireless networking controllers.

For would-be Linux adopters, these and other system configuration complexities are make-or-break issues. Fortunately, most potential hassles are easy to overcome with a little know-how. A few--including the secret to enabling the dazzling Compiz Fusion 3D window manager--reveal the advanced features and customizability that set Linux apart from Windows and Mac OS X. Though it is impractical to try to offer a solution to every conceivable installation snafu in a single article, we will tackle some of the most common problems that plague newcomers and veteran Ubuntu installers.

If, during your installation, you run across a problem that isn't covered in this tutorial, head over to the Ubuntu Forums, where a massive community of Ubuntu users is always ready and willing to help out a motivated newbie. Just bear in mind that the Linux community rewards users who make the effort to find the answers themselves. If you take a moment to search for solutions on your own before demanding that others give you the answers, you'll find that more-experienced users will be very cordial and helpful when you truly get stuck.

Editor's Note: Much like Ubuntu itself (and Linux in general) this guide has been created and improved in part by feedback and input from experienced Linux users. We are grateful for the insightful contributions of the community, and we welcome new ideas to help us improve and expand this Ubuntu installation guide. If you have new information that you believe would make this guide more helpful to first-time Ubuntu users, please let us know in our comments section. We will update this guide regularly as Ubuntu Linux continues to evolve.

Get a Copy of Ubuntu

Select a mirror site near your location to use for downloading the Ubuntu CD image to your desktop. Be warned: It's nearly 700MB in size.
The most common way to install Ubuntu is to download and burn a copy of the free installation CD. If you still live with a dial-up connection, you may be better off buying an installation DVD from a distributor such as Amazon or arranging to have a free copy mailed to you from Canonical (be prepared to wait six to ten weeks for it to arrive). The 700MB download takes only minutes to complete over a cable modem connection; if your transfer time is slower, don't be afraid to stop the download and select a different mirror site from the list.

But what do you do with the resulting ISO disc-image file? Neither Windows XP nor Windows Vista knows how to burn .iso files, but Alex Feinman's free ISO Recorder does the job. After installing the version of ISO Recorder that's compatible with your version of Windows, right-click the downloaded Ubuntu ISO file and choose Copy image to CD. Alternatively, you can copy the Ubuntu install CD to a sufficiently large USB flash drive, using the techniques described in the Ubuntu documentation Web site.

Choose Your Install Method

Once you've burned the Ubuntu ISO file to a disc, it's time to decide which installation method works best for you. Basically, you have three options:

  1. Use the Windows Ubuntu Installer (also known as Wubi) to install Ubuntu as a secondary OS on your PC. This is the best option for anyone trying Ubuntu for the first time, as it allows you to remove the entire Ubuntu installation from within the Windows uninstall tool. If you're not yet convinced that Ubuntu is for you, this method will give you the most peace of mind.
  2. Install Ubuntu as the primary OS on your PC, keeping Windows in a secondary partition. This is the default method of installation offered through the Ubuntu Live CD, and it works well for people who are committed to keeping Ubuntu. Your Windows partition will be shrunk down to about half its original size, and your Windows files will be accessible from within Ubuntu.
  3. Install Ubuntu as the only operating system on your PC. This method is best for people who are committed to giving Ubuntu the old college try, and who aren't likely to back out. Generally speaking, this is only recommended if you've tried Ubuntu before and liked it, or if you're installing the OS on a secondary machine.

Option 1: Windows-Based Installation

To install Ubuntu from inside Windows, just insert the CD and choose 'Install inside Windows' from the menu.
If you don't want to mess with hard-disk partitioning, but you'd still like to try out Ubuntu on your PC, you're in luck. Just insert the Ubuntu CD into your optical drive and choose Install inside Windows from the Ubuntu CD Menu. The Wubi installer puts Ubuntu into your existing Windows partition just as if it were a Windows application (albeit one that required 5GB of disk space). After installation, Ubuntu will appear as a menu option in your Windows boot menu (which you may now be seeing for the first time during boot-up). This is a nearly hands-free initial installation if you simply accept the default settings. And if you don't like the results, you can use the Wubi installer to remove all traces of it in a few clicks.

Option 2: Live CD Installation, Keeping Windows

To retain your existing Windows partition alongside your new Ubuntu partition, boot from the Ubuntu Live CD and double-click the Install icon on the desktop. Enter your time zone and location information when prompted to do so, and you'll find yourself at the 'Prepare disk space' screen. If Ubuntu detects a Windows partition, it will automatically set the partition method to Guided - resize.

Slide the divider bar between the Windows and Ubuntu partitions to a setting you're happy with.
By default, Ubuntu wants to set your Windows partition to a minimal size, but you can even out the distribution a little if you prefer. Just slide the divider bar between the Windows and Ubuntu partitions to a setting that you're happy with, and then click Forward. The rest of the installation process should be smooth sailing.

Option 3: Live CD Installation, Sans Windows

If you're not planning to keep Windows on your Ubuntu machine (or if Windows isn't installed there to begin with), this method of installation is pretty easy. Just select Guided - use entire disk at the 'Prepare disk space' screen, and the rest of the install process is the same as in the other two scenarios.

Ubuntu Installation (continued)

The steps outlined on the previous pages will yield a complete Ubuntu installation. But to enable all of this distribution's bells and whistles, read on.

Create Your Own Partitions (For Experts Only)

Ubuntu lets you free up this disk space in the course of installation, but if you're unfamiliar with Ubuntu's included Gparted disk-partition utility and with Linux partition-naming conventions, you may prefer to shrink or delete partitions beforehand. Warning: Before making changes to disk partitions, always back up your hard disk, or at least any key files that you can't afford to lose.

Windows XP's Computer Management console lets you delete partitions, if you happen to have an existing partition that you can afford to lose. Choose Start, Run, type compmgmt.msc, and select Disk Management under Storage. The Windows XP Disk Management tool can't shrink existing partitions, so if your existing Windows partition takes up the entire hard disk, you'll need a third-party partitioning tool to shrink it down. I recommend Andy McLaughlin's free Partition Logic.

The Windows Vista version of the Disk Management tool does allow you to shrink--though not move--partitions (to launch this tool, enter the same command as above in Vista's search field). If you have Vista, we recommend using it in lieu of Partition Logic, which is not yet completely compatible with Vista. Often you'll be able shrink partitions to their smallest size by first defragmenting them.

Whichever partitioning tool you use, it will ultimately display all of your existing partitions. Any Windows partitions should be clearly labeled as type 'ntfs' or 'fat32'. Create a swap partition that is approximately one and a half times the size of your system memory, and create an ext3 or ReiserFS partition of at least 4GB mounted at the file system root (/). As we warned earlier, always back up important files before performing this kind of operation.

Let Your Restricted Drivers Roam Free

Much like Windows or Mac OS X, Ubuntu automatically downloads updates over the Internet.
After the initial installation is complete and you boot Ubuntu for the first time, one of the first things that will happen (assuming that you have network connectivity) is that Update Manager will prompt you to download and install updates. By all means, do it--Ubuntu 8.10 is wonderful, but some parts of it are still incomplete and the first fix you download could be the one that keeps you from pulling your hair out.

Next, if your system contains hardware that isn't supported by open-source drivers, the Restricted Driver Manager toolbar applet will pop up a balloon notifying you that proprietary drivers for audio, video, or other hardware devices are available but are not enabled. To review and enable the proprietary drivers in use, click the toolbar applet, or choose System, Administration, Hardware Drivers, and then enable the ones that you want to try out. If you plan to use the advanced effects of the Compiz Fusion window manager, the 3D acceleration and other features that proprietary drivers usually provide are a must for satisfactory performance.

Ubuntu does such a great job of recognizing your PC's hardware via both open-source and proprietary drivers that its limited support for wireless networking cards may come as a shock (unless you're familiar with the opaque licensing practices of some leading wireless card vendors--we're looking at you, VIA). Even more shocking, however, is the solution: Just use Windows drivers.

If Ubuntu doesn't recognize your wireless network adapter, you can use an ingenious piece of software called ndiswrapper to replicate in Linux the Windows networking interface that the Windows wireless drivers expect to see, thus allowing them to run natively in Linux.

To install ndiswrapper, first launch Synaptic Package Manager by clicking System, Administration, Synaptic Package Manager. Type ndiswrapper in the search field and wait for the results; then select the three resulting packages (ndiskgtk, ndiswrapper-common, and ndiswrapper-utils) for installation, click Apply, and restart the computer when installation is complete. Download the Windows driver from the manufacturer of your wireless hardware, and choose System, Administration, Windows Wireless Drivers to launch the ndiswrapper configuration utility. Click on Install New Driver, browse to the manufacturer's .inf file (we were able to browse directly to the folder in our Windows partition where the driver was installed), and click Install.

Get Multimedia Codecs

The first time you try to play an MP3 file, a helpful dialog box will pop up, prompting you to search for the necessary codecs.
Another thing that Ubuntu can't do straight out of the box (as it were) is play a vast array of media types, including MP3 audio, and MPEG, WMV, and DivX video. The first time you try to play an MP3 file, a helpful dialog box will pop up, prompting you to search for the necessary codecs. Alternatively, you can install them ahead of time by using the Synaptic Package Manager (to open it, choose System, Administration, Synaptic Package Manager). Either way, the package you're looking for is labeled "ubuntu-restricted-extras," and comes chock full of codecs and multimedia helpers, including support for music and video, Java applets, Microsoft's TrueType fonts (which are required to view many Web sites correctly), and DVD playback. Some of these features come with restricted licenses in some countries, but that won't actually stop you from being able to install and use them.

While Flash comes included with the ubuntu-restricted-extras package above, it occasionally proves more stubborn to install, and requires a direct download from Adobe to get it going properly. To do this, browse directly to Adobe's Flash download page. Choose the .deb for Ubuntu 8.04+ file for Linux in the Select version to download drop-down list, and click on Agree and install now. Click OK in the next dialog box to open the archive file with Ubuntu's GDebi Package Installer, click Install Package in the Package Installer dialog, enter your password if prompted, then click on Close when the installation is finished. Close the Package Installer window and you should be set.

Compiz Fusion's Illusions

One of the coolest things about Ubuntu 8.10 is its inclusion of Compiz Fusion, an extensible, 3D-accelerated window manager that puts Windows Vista's Aero interface to shame. If your system has a graphics card capable of running Compiz Fusion, and if the drivers that enable 3D acceleration are enabled (see "Let Your Restricted Drivers Run Free," above) it is probably already installed and running.

To see whether Compiz Fusion is running on your PC, choose System, Preferences, Appearance, click the Visual Effects tab, select Extra, and click Close. Now when you drag windows around, they will wobble, which is kind of neat but also merely a surface scratch compared to all the things Compiz Fusion could do if you let it. To unleash its full set of features, install the full-fledged Compiz Fusion configuration utility. Search for 'compizconfig-settings-manager' in Synaptic Package Manager, mark the package for installation, and click Apply.

After installation, choose System, Preferences, Advanced Desktop Effects Settings, and start experimenting with the dozens of included plug-in effects, which do pretty much any window animation effect you've seen in OS X or Windows--transparent spinning cubes, circular and Flip3D-style window switchers, and then some. You'll probably find at least one or two animation effects that you like, and you can adjust their speed and transparency settings until they are just right.

Overcome Broken Windows File Sharing

Ubuntu generally does a great job of letting you browse Windows workgroups, access shared folders, and even share Ubuntu folders with other computers on the network (including Macs, which can also access Windows shares). Sometimes, however, Ubuntu doesn't want to play nice with others. If your PC connects physically to a network of Windows PCs with shared files or printers, you can see this for yourself: Choose Places, Network, and click the Windows Network icon. If you see all your shares, you're set. If not, follow the steps below.

To connect to individual Windows shares directly, choose 'Places', 'Connect to Server', choose 'Windows share' in the 'Service type' drop-down list, enter the server and share names in the corresponding fields, and click 'Connect'.
If Ubuntu doesn't spot your network shares right away, you can still see a Windows PC's shares by typing the path to the server in the Windows Network browser window's Location field--for example, smb://fileserver , which will then display all of the file server's shares. To connect to individual Windows shares directly, choose Places, Connect to Server; choose Windows share in the 'Service type' drop-down list; enter the server and share names in the corresponding fields; and end by clicking Connect. To create a permanent link to the share in Ubuntu's Nautilus file manager, put a checkmark next to Add bookmark, and enter a descriptive name in the 'Bookmark name' field before clicking Connect.

If you see this message when trying to share folders from your Ubuntu PC with other computers on the network, follow our instructions to install the Windows sharing service.
To share a folder with other computers on the Windows network, right-click a folder (choose Places, Home Folder to try this with one of the folders in your Home directory) and choose Sharing Options. Check Share this folder, and click Install service in the dialog box that suggests you install the Windows networks sharing service. After the software installs, log out of Ubuntu, and then log back in. Finally, right-click a folder and choose Sharing Options again to share it with other computers on the network.

Apps, the Icing on the Cake

To see what apps are available, choose 'Applications', 'Add/Remove', and start browsing through Ubuntu's wide array of applications.
With much of Ubuntu's infrastructure humming along, you're finally free to explore what may be its most attractive feature--a library of thousands of free productivity apps, utilities, games, and scientific and industry-specific applications, all just waiting for you to give them a try. Some of the best--OpenOffice.org, F-Spot Photo Manager, the Pidgin IM client, and the Evolution PIM--are already installed by default. To see what else is available, choose Applications, Add/Remove, and start browsing through Ubuntu's wide array of applications. Should that prove overwhelming, start with our favorite Linux replacements for leading Windows programs. The money you save could be your own.

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