How to Install Linux

Installing Linux follows a similar pathway regardless of the distribution

All you need to install Linux is a computer with available hard-drive space, a flash drive, and a copy of the installer for a specific Linux distribution.

Check Your Hardware for Linux Compatibility

Linux runs on almost any hardware, including very old desktop and laptop computers that otherwise struggle to run modern Windows or macOS hardware.

system performance

Before you get started, check your hardware specs—different Linux distributions run desktop environments that require varying degrees of hardware sophistication. The core measures include the clock speed of your processor, the architecture of your processor, the computer's available RAM, and the video-card manufacturer.

By architecture we mean the processor family. Every operating system supports a limited number of processor types. Microsoft Windows, for example, supports Intel and AMD processors by default, and can support ARM processors in special Windows 10 variants. Linux supports many different processors, but each individual distribution only supports a subset of them. Thus, the scope of distributions available to you is dependent on your processor. If your computer uses Intel or AMD processors, you're generally safe in almost all circumstances. More obscure processors are hit-or-miss in terms of distribution support.

Select a Linux Distribution

Linux is a single operating system, but it's expressed in a variant called a distribution. Think of a distribution as a special flavor of Linux. It consists of a specific Linux kernel (common to all distributions, but at different version levels), a package manager, a default shell, and default desktop environment.

Elementary OS
The Elementary OS Desktop.

The greater Linux ecosystem supports several hundred distributions. Some of them, by design, features ease-of-use tools to help people new to Linux to get their feet wet. Others offer deep customization options that appeal to experienced Linux aficionados.

Desktop Environments

The graphical user interface for Linux is called a desktop environment. Pick from more than a dozen options. Of all the choices you must make, the selection of a DE, or a distribution with a default DE, is among the most significant because the DE is the single biggest consumer of system resources. The newer, flashier DEs (including KDE Plasma) work great on modern hardware, whereas older and less-intensive DEs like LXDE fly even on decade-old equipment.

It may not matter if your preferred DE isn't a default option for your preferred distribution. In most cases, you're free to install your favorite DE just as you'd install any other application package.

Plan Your Installation Strategy

Pick one of three different options:

  1. Install Linux on the entire hard drive, overwriting any existing operating system.
  2. Install Linux to a virtual machine.
  3. Install Linux on part of a hard drive, alongside an existing operating system.

Of these, the easiest option is to simply wipe everything and install Linux to over the entire hard disk.

disk partitions

Some people prefer to run Linux as a virtual machine within a host operating system. For example, Windows 10 Professional supports Hyper-V, within which any Linux distribution may be installed. It runs in a window. Similarly, tools like VirtualBox also support full-featured Linux computers within a Windows session. You'll still allocate some disk space and memory for Linux, but it'll subtract from what Windows requires. Virtual machines are great options if you've got plenty of disk space and available RAM—16 GB or more.

Installing Linux alongside Windows or macOS requires an extra step. Before you install Linux, you must use Windows or macOS to free disk space safely.

All computers, when they're initially powered, run a diagnostic utility and a tiny hardware-based operating system that facilitates the loading of your "regular" operating system. On old computers, this hardware OS is called the BIOS. On modern computers, it's called the UEFI. If your computer uses UEFI, you'll need to tweak how you burn your ISO to Flash. Consult your distribution's installation guide for specific procedures.

Write the Distribution's Installer to a USB Drive

In most cases, you'll download an ISO file from your distribution's website. This ISO is technically a disc image originally intended for burning to CDs or DVDs. Now, most people write the ISO to a dedicated removable USB drive.

USB flash drive with laptop
bluehill75 / Getty Images

After you've prepared the USB stick, backed up essential files, and—if necessary—resized your Windows or macOS volumes, you're ready to install Linux.

Install Linux

Almost all Linux distributions install with a similar graphical installer. Although each distribution offers its own quirks and screens, for the most part, they're fairly interchangeable. The only complex distributions are those without a graphical installer—e.g., Slackware.

The process typically unfolds as follows:

  1. Reboot your computer with the USB drive plugged in. Depending on how your computer is configured, it'll either boot to the USB drive, or you'll have to press some sort of escape-key sequence to prompt an alternative boot order.

    Watch your computer's screen during the initial start-up sequence. Often, you'll see a brief message advising you to press a special key to launch the BIOS/UEFI settings or to modify the boot-device order.

  2. Allow Linux to load. Depending on the distribution, it'll either push you to an installer program, or it'll load a live USB environment. In the live environment, you're free to play with it a few minutes to verify you're comfortable with the distribution. When you're ready to install Linux to disk from the live environment, select the Install Linux or equivalent utility. Often, this utility resides as an icon on the desktop.

  3. Answer the prompts in the installer. The biggest decision point relates to the partition scheme. To install Linux on the whole hard drive, accept the defaults. To install Linux alongside an existing operating system, assign Linux to the partition or free space you created in Windows or macOS before you started your Linux installation.

    You're free to mount your Windows or macOS partitions within the Linux filesystem, provided your distribution recognizes the filesystem type for Windows or Mac. Be careful, however, with mounting remote filesystems if you're not familiar with how filesystems and drive mounting works—mistakes here could lead to loss of data for Windows or macOS.

  4. Set the bootloader. Determine your bootloader strategy. Either Linux manages the bootloader for the computer—required for whole-disk installations—or Windows or macOS does. Windows 10 sometimes struggles on EFI systems with Linux managing the bootloader. If you let Windows or macOS manage the bootloader in a true dual-boot system, use the Windows or Mac tool to reconfigure your bootloader so that it recognizes your Linux system.

    Let Linux manage the bootloader if you're installing a virtual machine. Your host operating system (Windows or macOS) won't be affected.

  5. Reboot the computer. After the installer completes, you're either prompted to remove your installation media and reboot, or you're dropped back to the live session. In either case, remove the USB drive and reboot your computer. Pick your Linux distribution from the bootloader screen.

Configure Linux

When you log in to your new Linux system for the first time, you're working from a clean slate. Use this opportunity to install valuable open-source software and configure your desktop environment.