OS & system enhancement software

4 Ways to Give Desktop Linux a Test-Drive

That desktop Linux offers myriad compelling advantages for business users is no longer the subject of much debate. All that remains for many Windows users is to give it a try.

That step, however, can cause some anxiety. Though not difficult, installing Linux outright can feel like too big a commitment for some people; others may worry about the effect on their current software and files.

The good news is, there are multiple ways you can take Linux for a test-drive without actually installing it. Everything else on your computer will stay the same, and if you decide you don't want to keep Linux after all, there's no harm done.

Ready to meet Linux on your desktop? Then just pick an approach and give it a whirl.

1. LiveCD

Probably the most common way to try out Linux is to boot it off of a LiveCD. Such CDs let you run Linux right from the CD, so nothing changes on the rest of your computer. Most major Linux distributions now have LiveCDs available--sometimes by mail, if you don't mind waiting, and always by download.

If you have a slow Internet connection, you may want to order a LiveCD via snail mail. One place to find many Linux LiveCDs for sale is OSDisc.com, which currently offers discs for Ubuntu 10.04.1, Fedora 13, openSUSE 11.3, Knoppix 6.2.1 and Linux Mint 9. Pricing is about $2.

A much faster route, however, is to download the CD image, or .iso file, from the project's website, burn it to a CD yourself and then boot from the resulting LiveCD. A list of myriad LiveCD downloads is available from FrozenTech along with ratings, requirements and links for actually downloading them.

Once you've got the .iso file, you just burn it to a CD using a CD burner program. If you don't already have one, Active ISO 2.0 is a good free option, and there's also PowerISO 4.5, which costs $29.95.

Finally, insert the resulting LiveCD in your computer and restart. The computer should then use Linux when it boots up.

Keep in mind that most Linux LiveCDs make Linux seem slower than it really is, since the CD must be accessed to run it. Installed versions of Linux are much faster. In any case, when you're done exploring Linux, you simply remove the CD and restart, and you'll be back to Windows as usual.

2. Live USB

Much like a LiveCD, a Live USB is a USB flash drive that contains a full, bootable copy of Linux.

LinuxCD.org offers some distros for sale by USB as well as CD. Alternatively, as with a LiveCD, you can download the .iso file and put it on a USB drive yourself, booting from there as above.

The big advantage of booting from a Live USB is that Linux can run almost as fast as a fully installed operating system.

3. Wubi

Another way to test out Linux is to run it as if it were simply another Windows application. One way to do this is with Wubi, which is basically just a special version of Ubuntu that leaves Windows entirely intact.

To use Wubi, you need about 5 gigabytes on your hard drive. Simply hit the download link on the project's website to get the installer; when double-clicked, that software will download and install the rest of Ubuntu without touching Windows.

Wubi does not require you to modify the partitions of your PC or to use a different bootloader; it also does not install any special drivers. Rather, it works just like any other application and keeps most of the Linux files in one folder. If you decide you don't want it anymore, you can simply uninstall it as you would any other application.

Note that if you already have an Ubuntu LiveCD, Wubi should be included on that CD already if it's a fairly recent version.

4. Virtualization

Though more involved than any of the above options, virtualization can be another nice way to test out Linux, again by running it much as if it were a Windows application.

To use this approach, you'll need some desktop virtualization software; VMware is probably the leading commercial version, while a nice freeware package is VirtualBox.

To begin, you first download the virtualization software--VirtualBox, for instance, comes in versions for multiple platforms--and then install it as with any Windows application. From there, you can use the software to install Linux as a "guest" operating system using the VirtualBox wizard with an .iso Linux image file.

The result, once again, is that you can run Linux alongside Windows without affecting your Windows installation at all.

Of course, another relatively commitment-free option is to install Linux on an old computer you may have sitting around. One of the operating system's greatest virtues is that--unlike Windows--it doesn't need the latest and greatest hardware, so you can play around with it on older machines to your heart's content.

Whichever approach you choose, my bet is that you'll be so impressed with Linux, you'll want to install it for real. Now, more than ever, Linux is a good business choice.

Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk.

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