Imagine a world where you never have to defrag your hard drive, viruses are merely a theoretical threat and your PC still runs as quickly as the day you bought it. That's the prize waiting for those brave enough to follow our step-by-step guide to migrating from Windows to Ubuntu.
Moving to a completely different operating system (OS) isn't something you should do quickly. It's better to make baby steps that will gradually build up your confidence, which is exactly what this article will guide you through.
Changing your applications
The worst part of changing your OS is acclimatising to using different applications, while working in a strange desktop environment. Therefore, it's a good idea to get used to new applications while still on the OS you're familiar with.
Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and Opera are all available for both Windows and Linux. Therefore, as long as you use your browser's online profile synchronisation, migration will be automatic. As soon as you install and log in to your new browser on Linux, you'll find everything as you left it in Windows.
However, if you use Internet Explorer or Safari, you'll need to change to one of the above cross-platform browsers. In general, the safest way to get your bookmarks from these browsers into any other is to export them to an HTML file. Follow this guide for Internet Explorer or this guide for Safari.
If you use web-based email then you can access your mail anywhere. However, if you're using something like Outlook Express or Windows Live Mail, you'll need to change to Mozilla Thunderbird.
Moving locally-stored email is the trickiest part of migrating to cross-platform desktop applications. Fortunately, Mozilla has great guides for transferring your data from a range of Windows applications, which you can read here.
When you're at the point of actually changing OS, you'll need to save your Thunderbird profile on an external drive for copying to your Linux account. Again, the Mozilla Foundation has a great guide that explains how to do this.
LibreOffice is the best open source office suite available. It's compatible with all Microsoft (MS) Office file formats, so you can immediately get to work editing your MS Office files. Unless you need niche features of MS Office, LibreOffice will serve you well. Furthermore, it's free.
An alternative that's more convenient but less functional is Google Docs. You can upload your office files to this service and edit them in your browser and Android devices.
Every Linux distribution, including Ubuntu, comes with a suite of pre-installed applications to cover the rest of your needs, such as image editing, instant messaging, music and video playback.
Getting a virtual feel for Ubuntu
The least disruptive way of trying a new OS is to install it as a virtual machine (VM). VM applications simulate basic computer hardware, which you can test another OS on.
VirtualBox is one such application and it's free of charge. It isn't the only available solution, but it's the most beginner-friendly. To install Ubuntu as a virtual machine, download the latest Live CD image.
To create a new VM in VirtualBox, click New on the toolbar. You'll then be taken through a wizard to set the specifications of the VM, and to create the file that will be used as its hard drive. Ubuntu requires much less disk space than Windows, so a file size of as little as 4GB will be sufficient to experiment with.
You'll also be asked to set the location of the CD image you downloaded as the VM's optical drive. Booting your VM from this image will give you your first taste of the Ubuntu installer.
Once you've logged in to your virtual Ubuntu for the first time, you can enhance your experience by installing VirtualBox Guest Additions, which will enable you to map locations in your Windows drive -- such as Music -- to a location inside your virtual machine, among other tricks.
The advantage of using a VM as a test platform is that you don't have to worry about making mistakes. The worst that can happen is that you have to delete the VM and start again.
You don't have to worry about hardware compatibility either. Removing fear is an important way of gaining confidence with a new system. However, it's somewhat inconvenient to live in a virtual machine. Therefore, you won't get a true everyday experience.
The Windows Ubuntu Installer
Ubuntu's Windows Installer (Wubi) allows you to install Ubuntu inside of Windows without using a VM.
This puzzling piece of technological trickery installs Ubuntu to a file on your C: drive, similar to the VM solution above. However, the Wubi system tricks your computer into thinking that this file is a bootable drive. Once it has downloaded and used the Ubuntu disc image, a boot option is added so you can choose which OS to run when you start your PC.
The advantage of the Wubi method is that you can run Ubuntu directly on your PC's hardware without having to partition its hard drive. Thus you can see if there are any hardware compatibility issues with your system. Because this is only a test install, you still have the advantage of being able to take risks as you can always start again if something goes wrong.
You can access the files on the rest of your hard drive, thanks to having the C: drive mapped to the /host/ directory on your pretent hard drive. This makes it much easier for you to spend time gaining everyday experience in using Ubuntu. You can get a much better sense of whether it's for you or not.
As part of being installed within Windows, the Ubuntu OS is added to the list of installed programs in Windows. Therefore, whenever you want to remove it from your system, you can activate its uninstaller, which will also clean up the Windows boot menu.
The Live CD
Restart your PC and ensure that your BIOS is set to boot from the CD-ROM (or USB drive). Your PC will then boot Ubuntu from whichever media you chose.
This is easier to set up than Wubi and is another way to rehearse fixing hardware compatibility issues before committing to a full install. However, it's slower to boot and whatever changes you make will be lost when the PC reboots.
Lose Windows or dual boot?
By now, you've likely taken a few weeks or months to gradually familiarise yourself with Ubuntu. Just as with any relationship though, it's time to take the next step and move in together.
There are advantages to keeping Windows on your system. For example, you may have peripherals that will only work with Windows, such as a Windows Phone device.
To prepare for a dual boot set-up, you'll need to shrink your C: drive to make room. You can find excellent instructions here.
To begin the installation, boot into the Live CD as described above. You'll find an icon on the desktop that launches the installation.
The Ubuntu installer is very similar to Windows, requiring you to enter details about your location and hardware. Ubuntu will happily set the hard drive partitions for you, but there is a manual option too. We recommend that you at least create separate partitions for your root -- / -- and home -- /home -- directories, in addition to the mandatory Swap partition. The latter is equivalent to the page file for virtual RAM in Windows.
If you opt to dual boot, a new bootloader will be added to the master boot record of your hard drive. Your Windows partition will be detected and entered into the boot menu.
Changing your OS is like moving house -- everything feels out of place for a while, so don't give in to frustration.
Providing you have compatible hardware, the benefits of using Ubuntu are clear: Linux operating systems are stable and secure. While Windows requires a maintenance regime to keep it running at peak efficiency, Linux can go for months and never need a reboot.
The best thing about installing any Linux operating system is that it requires far fewer resources. While Windows 7 may consume well over 2GB of RAM on a mid-level laptop, Ubuntu will take only half as much under the same usage patterns. Therefore, you can bring your old laptops out of retirement and give them a new lease of life.
Finally, Ubuntu has one of the most helpful communities in the Linux world. So if you have a problem, just visit the Ubuntu Forums and someone will be there to help. Good luck!