In the past, installing UNIX of any kind has been a difficult task. Today's Linux distributions, as well as the newer Solaris and *BSD variants, have installation programs and utilities to make installation and configuration easier than ever.
Backup Your Data First!!!
When doing any task of this magnitude on your computer, or even in everyday computing, you should always back up the data on your machine. Nothing is more frustrating than to have to reconstruct lost data from scratch. Backing up your data ensures that your data is safe.
Even if you do not plan to convert to Linux, you still need to get in the habit of backing up your data on your hard drive.
Start with a Full Backup First
If you are just starting a backup plan, or even if you have not backed your data up in a while, you will need to do a full backup. For those of you not familiar, backing up data means you are making a backup copy of your data (personal settings, photos, videos, documents, audio clips, etc.) to another storage medium for safekeeping.
A Full Backup means you will need to backup everything stored in your home directories on your system. If you are a system administrator, a Full Backup to you means backing up all home directories in your system, and maybe global settings for software applications and network configuration.
In any case, you can use a CD/DVD burning application to make a full backup of your system to CD or DVD disks. Ideally, DVD-R DL and DVD+R DL discs are best for this type of backup as they have storage capacities of 8.5GB per disc. However, your DVD burner must be able to support the medium in order to create such backups. For most of us, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, and DVD+RW will do for such purposes.
Bonus: If you are using DVD+RW discs, you can rewrite the discs by simply rewriting on top of the old data. No reformatting is needed for these type of discs. DVD-RAM discs take the concept one step further by reading and writing the data directly to the DVD-RAM disc in much the same way as data is written to a floppy diskette. Unlike floppies, you must still use a CD burning application to write to DVD-RAM discs.
In any case, you must do a full backup of your data before you commit your hard disks to Linux.
Try a Live CD
The current trend for Linux is to burn a CD containing a fully configured Linux distribution of which you can boot and use directly from the CD or DVD. These are called Live CD distributions, and are a safe way to try Linux before installing the distribution on your hard drive. Live distributions are also tools for safely repairing Windows and Linux PCs whose file systems have been damaged, or for diagosing hardware installed on your PC.
PCLinuxOS comes as live CD in several variations: Full KDE, MiniMe (minimal KDE), GNOME, ZenMini (minimal GNOME), XFCE, LXDE, OpenBox, and Enlightenment E-17.
Which one you choose depends largely on your system configuration, the age of your system, and which desktop you would like to use. Visit the official PCLinuxOS website to see all the variations of this distribtuion, including screenshots of what the desktops look like.
If you are accustomed to using Windows, and have an PC with less than 1GB of system memory, I recommend using the the LXDE version of PCLinuxOS. If your machine has at least 1GB (as it is with machines built in the past two years), I recommend the original (KDE) version of PCLinuxOS.
Next, we need to plan how to partition your hard drive. Once you have the plan for partitioning the hard drive go to the next step.
Now, choose your distribution, place it in the CD-ROM or DVD-ROM and restart your system. Most systems built over the past ten years can boot from a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM, or can be made, through a single download, to boot from a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM. When you are ready to install PCLinuxOS, simply click on Install LiveCD (if you are running the Full KDE, GNOME, XFCE, LXDe or Enlightenment 17 versions), or select Install LiveCD from the Other Applications on the system menu.
The installation utility should prompt you to backup your data first. (…and you should have already done that before running LiveCD.) Click on Continue to get to the disk partitioning screen.
This is where planning your hard disk partitions is necessary. Windows installations have a nasty habit of placing everything in one disk partition (apparently to make it easy for the end user to install Windows without having to think about where the system software should go.) PC manufacturers have gotten wise about this in recent installations of Windows on new machines. When I purchased my laptop, the hard drive was divided into three partitions. One partition contained system restoration data, and was hidden from the user. One partition was for Windows itself (and applications), and one was for user data.
This still does not solve the real problem with Windows taking up the entire hard drive. When the operating system and applications load into memory, the system memory is used first. When the system memory is near full, the operating system swaps memory not being used between the system memory and the hard drive. Windows uses a swap file containing memory segments that have been swapped between physical memory and the hard drive. This swapping is a form of virtual memory, and is a mechanism operating systems use to manage memory and to (attempt to) keep the system from crashing due to lack of memory.
The problem with this mechanism is that the swapping takes place on the same disk space as the user data files and application data and program files.
Linux (and UNIX in general) solves this problem by using a separate swap partition. A swap partition is hard disk space allocated specifically for swapping pages of memory between physical memory and the hard drive.
PCLinuxOS only requires one swap partition and one data partition. (The same is true of all other Linux systems, as well as other UNIX systems, including Mac OS-X.)
Create a Normal User Account for Your Linux System
During the installation process, you will be creating two accounts, the system administrator account, called root, and a normal user account.
Most of the time you should use your normal user account for everyday tasks. Only if you are doing an extensive amount of system administration should you use the root account. Using the normal user account minimizes the possibility of irreparable (usually accidental) damage to your Linux machine.
Most Hardware Should Be Setup Already
Modern distributions should have your system hardware setup for you automatically. The major distributions also contain utilities that allow you to set up and/or configure your hardware for specific needs. Some devices, such as Hewlett-Packard's all-in one machines, need special configuration.
Of course, Linux is not perfect when it comes to being ready out of the box, but neither is Windows. One of the reasons I recommend SimplyMEPIS, PCLinuxOS, or Mandriva for those just starting out is that they provide the best configuration tools of any distribution available.