Getting Linux onto a datastick

Introduction

These instructions are to help you download Linux onto a datastick, so that you can boot Linux from the datastick, and when you take the datastick out, you’re back to Windows. Any changes you make to files in Linux stay changed when you’re back in Windows. Then you can play with it until you’re sure that you know how to use it. Later, you can install Linux on your hard drive, and just keep Windows as a back-up in case you need to use it for some reason.

Incidentally, if you don’t even want to have a go at downloading Linux onto a datastick yourself, you can buy datasticks with Linux already on, for less than a tenner from eBay, so that you can boot your computer with it and have a play with it, without having to do anything yourself. But in the DIY spirit of open source, this article explains how to download and ‘unpacked’ Linux, put it on a datastick and run Linux on your computer from the datastick.

 

What to do

You’re probably not going to try Linux until you’ve got used to open source programmes like Libre Office, Gimp etc. But if you haven’t, there is even a Windows emulator, Wine, which lets you run Windows programs from within Linux. This probably isn’t necessary, as Microsoft documents etc. can generally be opened with open source software.

The following instructions should work for any version of Windows.

What flavour of Linux?

There are different flavours of Linux, called ‘distributions’ or distros for short. Linux Mint is probably the distribution that’s easiest to use for people familiar with Windows.

The most recent Linux Mint version at the beginning of 2017 is 18.1 ‘Serena’ 64-bit Cinnamon. This isn’t a complicated as it sounds. To explain – the 18.1 is just the latest version (and Serena is its nickname – each version has a nickname), and it’s ‘long-term supported’, so you don’t have to worry about upgrading to the next version – it does it for you. 64-bit is the system type (32 or 64-bit actually refers to the type of processor – chip or ‘CPU’ – in your computer; most computers under 10 years old will be 64 bit). To find out what you’ve got, go to Start / Computer / System properties, then look for system type. ‘Cinnamon’ is just the look of the thing, and Cinnamon is the most similar to Windows – the ‘vanilla’ Linux, if you like. Ubuntu is another look, but it’s not as similar to Windows, so might confuse a Linux virgin.

So let’s do it

Here’s an overview of what you’re going to do: you’re trying to download Linux Mint, and put it onto a USB data stick – it needs ‘unpacking’ from the .iso format it comes as in order to be able to work. The alternative option is to ‘burn’ the .iso file as a disk image onto a blank DVD – this will let you play with Linux but not save anything, so it’s worth putting it onto a USB datastick instead. This will all become clearer as we go through it.

Here’s a bit more introductory information on Linux before you start, if you like, from OpenSource.com.

1. Get yourself a big datastick (at least 5GB)

2. Download Linux Mint onto your computer

1. Go to Linuxmint.com and click ‘download’. The latest version as I write is Linux Mint 18.1, nickname ‘Serena’ (they all have girl’s names). Yours will probably be a later version.

There’s a user guide, plus there’s a forum you can register with, to ask the Linux community if you have any problems.

2. You will see ‘Release notes’ – but they’re not really for beginners. You can safely ignore them for now.

3. Then go to ‘Download links’ and click on Cinnamon 64-bit (see above).

There’s some information at the top, including ‘don’t forget to verify your ISO’. You can ignore that, because the download will do it for you.

4. It now asks you to download a ‘mirror’. Mirrors are sister sites to download from, because the main site might get too much traffic, which could make everything fall over. There’s a list of mirror sites in various countries, so choose one from yours.

Click on a mirror site, then click on ‘save’ and it starts to save it to your computer. It will probably take a couple of hours.

When it’s downloaded, you now have a Linux Mint ‘disc image’ file on your computer (probably in your downloads folder), which ends in .iso. Next you have to get it onto your datastick.

3. Move Linux Mint from your hard drive to your datastick

The Linux Mint .iso file is on your hard drive, and it needs to be on your datastick. If you copy it straight over, it won’t run – first it needs ‘unpacking’. You have to download a ‘USB installer’ to do this. This is because of Windows – once you’ve got rid of Windows, you won’t have to do this again. It’s a one-off.

Put your datastick into the USB drive of your computer.

You can download a USB installer from various places. For example, here – https://www.ubuntu.com/download/desktop/create-a-usb-stick-on-windows (there are very clear instructions, so it’s easy); or here – https://www.pendrivelinux.com/universal-usb-installer-easy-as-1-2-3/.

There are other places you can download a USB installer too – if you just do a search on USB installer, you’ll find one.

Very precise instructions are provided with the download, and these may change, in which case these instructions will be out of date. So just follow the instructions provided with your download. They work.

At some point in the proceedings, it will ask you to locate your Linux .iso file (probably in your downloads folder), and also where you want it to go (your USB stick), and then you’ll need to click start for it to unpack the downloaded file onto the USB stick. It will chunter away for a bit then say finished, then you can close it.

Your USB stick will now have a few files & folders on it – not just the .iso file (in which case it hasn’t been unpacked and won’t work).

4. Restart your computer from the datastick

If you close down your computer, put the datastick in with Linux on, and restart, it will boot from the datastick automatically – i.e. it will boot with Linux. Most computers will look for a USB datastick when they turn on. If your system stubbornly refuses to boot into Linux even though the USB stick is in the drive, you might need to change setting in the ‘BIOS’. This isn’t tricky, but when the computer turns on – it will briefly say something like ‘press F2 to change settings’ – but it might be the Esc or F10 or Del key. Press whichever key it tells you to, and you’ll then see some very old-school pages of computer-ey stuff, but you just need to use the arrow keys to find Boot Order and move USB to the top of the list, above HDD (Hard Disk Drive) so it looks for the USB drive first when it wakes up. Once this is done, exit (saving changes), & next time it should find the USB drive.

But in most cases, when you switch your computer on, it should boot from the datastick automatically. Then your screen will look like this:

linux-desktop

It has a very similar feel to Windows, and it should be pretty intuitive. If you want to switch back to Windows, shut down, take the datastick out and restart. It will restart in Windows.

Remember that Linux is running from the datastick, so it will be a bit slower than if it’s running from the hard drive. Installing Linux on the hard drive is covered later.

Have a play with Linux to see how easy it is. If you have any problems, there are Linux user groups and forums – including one on the Linux website – https://forums.linuxmint.com/. Plus do read the user guide again, carefully. It should answer any questions you have, or at least point you in the right direction. Forums are full of more experienced people happy to help you with your problems.

If you’re a business, or if you’re not successful with the forums, there are companies like Canonical and others that will sort out your problems for a fee – in the same way that IT support professionals will help with Windows / Microsoft problems.

[NB: Windows can’t see files that you have saved on the Linux part of your computer, but Linux can see your Windows files. If you need to work on files from within Windows, then save them onto the Windows part of the disk instead, or use a cloud-based server such as Dropbox to share files between both Windows & Linux – this backs up the files and means you are always working on the latest version.]

 

Next: Learning how to use Linux