Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Windows to Linux, Part I: leaving a trail of crumbs to get back

Turns out that Windows 8 isn't the great new operating system that everyone was expecting. To me, Windows 8 is just Window 7, in disguise. Much of Windows 7 is there, it's just dressed up to look different and new. If you find that you don't like Windows 8 at all, and you lack a licensed copy of Windows 7, take heart for there is an alternative: Linux.

If you're just browsing the web, doing some word processing and personal accounting, Linux will do the job just fine. You won't need Windows to do most of your basic computer needs.

In this tutorial, I will show you, in a series of articles, how to convert a shiny new Windows machine into a Linux machine. In this installment, I will show you how to preserve the operating system so that you can put it back if you should ever decide you want to return to Windows. I've learned to do this because, even though I have no plans to ever go back to running Windows, the next person to use my computer might want Windows as a requirement for a sale of my old computer.

There are two main ways to preserve your operating system:

Imaging - use an offline utility to boot your computer and make a clean, bit for bit copy of the disk as it is now.

Recovery DVDs - Most OEM's like Dell, HP and Acer, include a backup feature that allows you to create DVDs that can be used to restore your computer to factory condition.

First lets review the Recovery DVDs, since for most of us, that's easier, but it may take somewhat longer to do. As you may have discovered, in recent years, many computer makers stopped including installation media with their computers. People were often surprised to find their computer unable to boot and had no media to use to reinstall the operating system. I know because I've supported them.

I've made requests for such media from companies like Toshiba and HP, only to find that the company will charge some ridiculous fee to send out a fresh copy to you. I say ridiculous as in, the nominal cost of creating the copy and the disk with shipping, is probably about $5-$10. One company wanted to charge about $125 for the recovery media.

If you have just unboxed a computer, creating those DVDs is what you need to do first, before you even browse the internet. If you don't know how, don't worry. It's easy to find out how. Here's a video from Dell that explains how to create the DVDs or USB boot disk. It's only 99 seconds long, which is very cool. All the OEMs offer tutorials on how to create the installation DVDs from a new computer. Even if you don't plan to run Linux on your new computer, this is still the first thing to do after you login to your new computer for the first time.

Creating these DVDs takes about an hour but it's worth the trip.

The next method is imaging your computer. This is technically more involved and requires some understanding of hard drives and space. This is a great option because it preserves your computer in exactly the same state for a long period of time as a set of files that can be restored later.

To begin, you will need a USB external drive like the Seagate Backup Plus, or the Western Digital My Passport. Both of these drives are portable in the sense that they have no external power supply, and they are powered by the USB port on your computer. They both offer ample capacity for most people, too.

Once you have your drive, you will need a blank CD or DVD. I like CD-RW or DVD-RW because you can rewrite over the media again and again if you want to put different software on it.

Then you need imaging software. You can purchase software like Norton Ghost or Acronis True Image. But there is a free version that works and it works very well. Clonezilla.

Clonezilla offers a simple method of working with your hard drives. It will create compressed archives of your hard disk and store the backup to another drive or another network target of your choice. There are many tutorials on how to use Clonezilla on YouTube. To find them, just go to YouTube and type "Clonezilla" in the search box and you will have many to choose from. Here are a few good examples: here for Windows 7 and here for Windows 8.

To summarize the steps with Clonezilla:

  1. Boot your computer with Clonezilla.
  2. Connect your USB drive.
  3. Follow the prompts to select the target drive, where the backup will go.
  4. Follow the prompts to select the drive you want to backup.
  5. Let it run until complete.
  6. Follow the prompts to poweroff your computer.
  7. Disconnect the USB drive from your computer.

Clonezilla is free, open source software and is constantly being improved. The nice thing about using this is that it can restore your operating system very quickly, usually in about 15 minutes or so. This is especially true if you've been using your computer for a long time and have installed a fair number of programs on it in Windows.

This concludes part one of this series. In the next article, we will cover choosing a version of Linux that you might enjoy using.

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