Trying Out Linux

Author's note: There used to be a website called "Try Out Linux.com". This website had a purpose similar to that of this article, however I had nothing to do with it, and at the time I wrote this article and chose its title I was unaware of it.

Many translators have now heard of Linux and would like to try it out, but are hesitant to do so. Linux is an operating system, and the operating system is the foundation on which all programs run. It is understandable that translators are reluctant to switch operating systems. "I wouldn't let Linux anywhere near my money-making machine", confided one translator I know. However, he then went on to ask me a lot of questions about Linux. Another person I know is the owner of an agency in New York. I once encouraged her to consider switching her entire agency to Linux, leaving only the salespeople to use proprietary operating systems to pacify technophobic customers. She replied "We don't have programmers to do things like that". Of course today nobody needs programmers to run Linux, and it is clear that what translators do need is to try out Linux.

Is there any way to try out Linux without any risk and without making a commitment? The answer is yes, and in fact there are several options for the translator who is curious but hesitant to switch before learning more.

Before trying out Linux, you might want to "break the ice" by trying out some applications produced by the open source community. First, there is a web browser called Firefox and a mail client called Thunderbird. These are both available free from the Mozilla web site. There is also an office suite called OpenOffice.org that is similar to the proprietary one you are already using. Once you satisfy yourself that open source software is not only as good as proprietary software, but in many cases it is much better than it, you will have more confidence and will probably have a more open mind to trying Linux. (If you used to subscribe to the Open Source Update newsletter for translators you will already have read about these.)

There are at least four possible ways of trying out Linux without abandoning your proprietary operating system. The first and simplest is to get a Linux distribution on a "live" (bootable) CD-ROM. This will allow you to boot your computer to run Linux without making any changes to your hard disk. Once you are done experimenting with Linux, simply eject the CD-ROM, shut down and/or reboot the computer, and voilà: Your computer is back the way it was.

In order to do this, your computer's BIOS has to support booting from the CD-ROM drive (this is true for most newer computers). Not only must your computer have this capability, but it must also be configured to try to boot from the CD-ROM drive before the hard disk. This is different from the feature called "Autorun" or "Autoplay": This feature tells the operating system to run a program on a CD-ROM that is inserted after the computer is already running. By contrast, booting from the CD-ROM means having the computer look for a "boot record" on the CD-ROM when the computer starts up. Your computer may already configured this way, so the best thing to do is save your work and close all your programs, put the bootable Linux CD-ROM in the CD-ROM drive, and restart the computer. Don't worry about anything: It won't touch your hard disk. Once your computer boots into Linux, you will see a desktop environment that is very similar to the one your proprietary system uses. When you're done experimenting, you can easily shut down Linux (usually by clicking on a button at the bottom left of the screen, as in many propriety operating systems), but even if you can't figure out how to do this, you can simply reboot or turn the computer off. Make sure to eject the CD-ROM at some point, or your computer will boot into Linux again the next time you start it. (If you can't get the CD-ROM to eject in Linux for some reason, you can do so at an early point when the computer is rebooting.) Just one word of caution: Make sure that the CD-ROM you have is a "live" version of Linux, not a regular installation version. If the computer starts asking you questions about partitioning or formatting, you may have gotten ahold of the wrong CD-ROM. In this case, exit from the program and eject the CD-ROM.

If your computer does not boot into Linux when you reboot with a "live" CD-ROM in the CD-ROM drive, you will have to configure your computer to try to boot from the CD-ROM drive before the hard disk. This setting does not have anything to do with Linux, does not affect the normal operation of your computer, and does not have to be changed back after you have tried Linux. Older computers may not have this capability.

A few distributions which have "live" CD-ROMs that are suitable for this are the following (there are others as well):

Gnoppix
Knoppix
PCLinuxOS (this the one used in Linux computers sold by WalMart)
SLAX Linux
Damn Small Linux

All of these can be ordered from the Linux CD web site: Click on the "Live CDs" category on the left side of the page. One that I recommend is Knoppix. The last time I checked it costed US$1.75 (plus shipping).

Note: There are many distributions of Linux that can run very nicely with less powerful hardware than current proprietary operating systems require. However, the "live" versions of Linux typically require a respectable amount of memory: Because they cannot write to the hard disk, they have to keep everything in memory. If you try to run a "live" CD-ROM on a very old computer, it is possible that you will have difficulties, even though it might be possible to perform a regular installation of Linux on that same computer.

Another way to experiment with Linux is to install it on your old computer. I know you have one under your desk or in your closet. You haven't turned it on in several years, but you can't bring yourself to give it to charity. If you are certain that you don't need any information on the old computer's hard disk, you can simply install Linux on this computer. Of course this will wipe out the hard disk, so think carefully and/or make backup copies before doing this.

Several other solutions are mentioned below, but they are not discussed in detail here since they either involve additional costs or are more difficult to carry out. However, although these solutions are not good ways to try out Linux, they do represent ways to run Linux in parallel with a proprietary operating system, for people who feel they need both operating systems. (These solutions may be covered at some point in the future.)

If you do not have an old computer, or if you use your extra computer as a backup and are reluctant to wipe out its hard disk, another possibility is to get an additional hard disk and install Linux on the second hard disk. If this is done properly, there is no danger of touching the data on the other hard disk. It will then possible to use either operating system. If you expect to use one of the operating systems only rarely, this can be done by turning off the computer, unplugging one hard disk, and then plugging in the other one; if you expect to switch back and forth frequently, it is better to leave both hard disks plugged in and use a special program called a "boot manager" to select which one to boot from at startup. This approach can be used either with a backup computer or with your main computer. Since this involves the purchase of an additional hard disk (US$50.00-100.00 at today's prices), this approach is not the best way to try out Linux, and it will not be discussed here. (Please remember that even though this is not a good way to try out Linux, it is a good solution for a person who wants to run both Linux and a proprietary operating system.)

It is also possible to have both Linux and a proprietary operating system installed in separate partitions on the same hard disk. In this case, as when the operating systems are installed on separate hard disks, a boot manager is used to select which operating system to boot when the computer is turned on or rebooted. If your hard disk is big enough this is a perfectly good solution, and does not involve any additional cost, but configuring it is tricky. This is not recommended except for people who are very experienced with computers, and it will not be covered here.

There is a software package available called VMware Workstation which allows another operating system to be installed like an application. For example, it is possible to run a proprietary operating system, install VMware Workstation, and then install Linux as you would an application. Linux is kept separate from your other operating system and cannot disrupt anything. (Even better, VMware Workstation can be installed on a Linux system, and then a less-stable proprietary operating system can be installed as an application from within Linux.) This solution involves purchasing VMware Workstation (US$189.00 as a download at the time this was written) and also requires a fairly powerful computer, so it is best suited to people who know for certain that they have to run both operating systems: This is not the way to experiment with Linux, so it will not be covered here.

Now, go get that "live" CD-ROM and try out Linux! I would wish you good luck, but you won't need it.

Thought control violation detected on this computer. The Thought Police have been notified. Immediately stop thinking these thoughts, delete all non-proprietary software, and buy an expensive upgrade to your proprietary operating system. Failure to do so may result in prosecution.

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