Not so long ago, the only way to see whether Linux would run on a particular PC was to install the OS on its hard drive. Times change. Nowadays, many so-called live CD versions of Linux boot and run solely from a CD-ROM. Ubuntu Linux, our 2005 World Class winner for Best Linux Distribution, has a live CD version available for download. You may be asking yourself, "How do I download a CD-ROM?"
Answer: Linux live CDs and installation CDs often are available for download as files with a .iso extension. Such files provide a snapshot "image" of a CD-ROM's file system. If you'd like to try Linux on a CD, grab an ISO file, feed it to your CD-burning software, and a few minutes later you'll have a shiny -- and functional -- disc. (The command for burning an ISO image to disc depends on the burning tool you use. If you have a recent version of Roxio Easy CD Creator, click File, Record CD from CD Image. With a recent version of Nero, select File, Burn Image.)
For just the cost of a blank disc and the time and bandwidth it takes to download one ISO image, you can determine whether an entirely Free operating system floats your boat. Simply boot your computer using your Ubuntu live CD and have a good look around the OS. Kick the tires all you want: Surf the Web, send e-mail, open a spreadsheet you brought home from the office, hatch your pet plan for world domination, whatever.
If you like what you see, or if you're interested in trying the real deal, consider setting your PC to dual-boot mode. When you turn your system on, you'll have a choice: Windows or Linux. On the Linux side, you'll enjoy the increased performance of a true installation, the ability to install additional software, a home directory to call your own, and other features of the operating system.
If you prefer a distribution other than Ubuntu, here are two fully downloadable options. The Red Hat-sponsored Fedora Core will likely appeal to the geeks in the audience; but if interaction with Windows machines on your local network is key (or if you already know you favor KDE over the Gnome desktop), you may be better off downloading the Open Circulation edition of Xandros Desktop. Note that this version has only limited CD burning functions, and it cannot burn DVDs at all; Xandros is a commercial product, so its vendor doesn't offer the operating system as a free download in its unrestricted form.
Avoid selecting any installation option that allows Linux to take over your PC's entire hard drive; instruct the installer to leave Windows in place, and it will set up a dual-boot system for you automatically.
Before you install Linux, poke around your Windows system to get a few key pieces of information that the Linux installer might need. If your Internet link is anything other than a simple DHCP connection, write down your IP address and the IP addresses of your gateway and DNS server. To find these settings in Windows 98 and Me, right-click Network Neighborhood, choose Properties, scroll through the list labeled 'The following network components are installed' (if necessary), double-click your TCP/IP entry, and look on the IP Address, Gateway, and DNS Configuration tabs. In Windows 2000 and XP, right-click My Network Places, choose Properties, right-click your network connection in the right pane, choose Properties again, scroll through the list labeled 'This connection uses the following items', and double-click Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). Also note the make and model of your graphics card and monitor, in case the installer can't detect and identify them automatically.
Keep Ubuntu's Nautilus from misbehaving
Ubuntu Linux 5.04 contains a hack in Nautilus (the Gnome file manager) that causes your folder windows to close automatically as you open other folders. To defeat this annoying behavior (which runs contrary to the Gnome team's designs), select Applications, Run Application, type gconf-editor, and press Enter. In the folder tree on the left, select apps, nautilus, preferences. In the right pane, check the box beside the option no_ubuntu_spatial. Now close the Configuration Editor window, and you'll find that all of your folder windows will remain open until you close them.