Ridiculously Easy Ways to Try a Free Operating System

Originally published on LiveJournal, 2.19.08

There are so many painless ways to use Ubuntu and free software for free operating systems, even if you have to or want to keep Windows. It’s a crime not to give it a try.

1. Run Ubuntu inside Windows! andLinux, which is currently in advanced beta, lets you do exactly that. Sounds impossible? Well, because free software is all open source, people can do pretty amazing things with it. andLinux is real Ubuntu, except that the regular Linux kernel is replaced with coLinux. “co” here stands for cooperative: it works by implementing all the Linux kernel services that Linux applications need in order to run, while actually cooperating with the Windows kernel services where it can. Graphics and windowing, usually handled by the X Server on Linux, are handled by Xming on andLinux, so that andLinux applications behave just like regular Windows windows. Obviously there’s some performance overhead due to coLinux (but not due to Xming), but it’s really quite minimal, because Linux is such a compact kernel. andLinux adds a few nifty Windows utilities to make it especially easy to use: an extra start menu just for your Ubuntu applications, and integration with explorer, so you can right-click and open files using Ubuntu software, rather than Windows software. Ubuntu-based applications run absolutely seamlessly in Windows, using real Windows windows. That’s pretty awesome.

2. andLinux, however, doesn’t contain a complete free desktop, because it expects that you will be using your regular Windows desktop. If you want the full free desktop experience, with GNOME, KDE or Xfce, and not just the applications, then you can run a complete free operating system virtually. Simply install VMWare Player, a free virtualization client, and use it to run a pre-installed Ubuntu virtual appliance. Here’s a good basic one, which you can easily expand by installing more software on it. The VMWare virtual appliance directory has many other pre-installed Ubuntus, and also many other free operating systems you can try. There’s only one serious limitation to this method: you won’t be able to run a 3D desktop on the virtualized Ubuntu with the current VMWare player (in the future, there might be some 3D support). But the main advantage is that it’s very, very safe. Simply delete the virtual appliance files if you don’t want Ubuntu anymore. Note that virtualization does have a performance hit (much minimized on the latest CPUs) and, more importantly, it does require a lot of memory to get the full experience, because you are running two complete operating systems together. So, if you plan on regularly using virtual Ubuntu, you better have a lot of extra RAM. The whole procedure is utterly harmless to try, though.

3. Another very safe option is to install Ubuntu in Windows, while running it separately, via dual boot. Dual booting is a bit scary for some people, because it usually requires you to change the partition structure of your hard disk in order to make room for another operating system. Wubi comes to rescue by saving you from having to do that. It installs Ubuntu, with the real Linux kernel and all, in a virtual file system, sitting inside a file on your Windows hard drive. The performance hit, due only to accessing your files through the Windows file system, is negligible. When you boot your computer, you’ll be asked if you want to run Windows or Ubuntu. If you ever get sick of Ubuntu, simply delete the file from within Windows.

4. Finally, not many people realize this, but the Ubuntu installation CD is, in fact, a live CD. It boots into honest-to-gosh Ubuntu, which is immediately usable. In fact, you can run this live CD on a computer that doesn’t even have a hard disk! And, if you do want to install Ubuntu, you install it from within Ubuntu. Yup! You can furthermore continue using the live Ubuntu while it’s installing Ubuntu. I like to browse the web and play Mahjongg while it copies files. The Ubuntu installer does require you to re-partition your hard disk, but it does it quite painlessly for you.