How to install Linux

OK, you've settled on which version of Linux you want to load on your old PC. Here's how to make it happen.

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
5 min read
Larry Ewing

Nothing makes me happier than resurrecting an old, slow, useless Windows PC by installing Linux on it.

The result is a system that will almost always run faster, with almost zero chance of malware infections, and that affords all the computing basics. (Many of the latest computing advances, too.)

Before you begin, read my tips on choosing a Linux distro, arguably the most challenging part of the equation (if only because there are so many). Once you've made that decision, all that's left is to actually install the operating system.

Choose a boot option

But, first: This is a proceed-at-your-own-risk tutorial. Also, note that I'll be referring to the old PC as the "destination system."

Here's the overall process in a nutshell:

  • Step one: Download a Linux OS. (I recommend doing this, and all subsequent steps, on your current PC, not the destination system. Although the latter is an option if it's malware-free and in decent working order, everything will get done faster and more easily on your primary machine.)
  • Step two: Create a bootable CD/DVD or USB flash drive.
  • Step three: Boot that media on the destination system, then make a few decisions regarding the installation.

The first part is easy: Just download Linux from Mint or Ubuntu or whatever site hosts the version you want. That download will likely consist of a single ISO file. Note: An older computer may have a 32-bit processor, which won't work with 64-bit versions of Linux.

The second part -- creating boot media -- requires a little thought. The fastest, easiest method is to use a flash drive, even if the destination system has a CD/DVD drive. Indeed, the only reason not to go the flash-drive route is if the destination system won't boot (or boot properly) from one. (I've encountered this problem a few times, even after tweaking the BIOS boot settings and actually selecting "USB drive" from a pop-up boot menu.)

My advice: Try a flash drive first. If it doesn't work, you can always use that same ISO file to create a bootable CD later.

How big a drive do you need? It depends on the size of the Linux distro. The latest versions of Mint and Ubuntu run about 1.8GB and 1.5GB, respectively, so a 2GB drive should suffice. Make sure it doesn't contain any important data, as it'll need to get wiped as part of this procedure.

Build your boot drive

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Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Once you've downloaded your Linux ISO, you'll need a utility that can create a bootable flash drive. I'm partial to Rufus, which is fast, free and easy to use. Download the portable version; there's no need to actually install it, because most likely you'll just run it once.

Step 1: Plug in your flash drive (ignoring or closing any prompts that pop up), then run the Rufus utility.

Step 2: In the Device field, at the very top, make sure your flash drive is the one selected. If not, click the pull-down and select it.

Step 3: Near the checkbox marked "Create a bootable disk using," click the little disk icon and navigate to the Linux ISO file you downloaded. It's most likely in your Downloads folder. Click it, then click Open.

Step 4: If you like, you can change the "New volume label" field to something like "Linux," but it's not necessary. Click Start, then wait while the drive is formatted and the ISO installed.

Get ready to boot

Now it's time to turn your attention to the destination system. It doesn't matter what condition it's in or even if it's riddled with malware; you just need it to be able to boot from a flash drive.

That may mean venturing into the BIOS and changing the boot order, which by default almost certainly puts the hard drive first. Some systems do offer a pop-up boot menu that lets you choose what device to boot from without having to monkey with the settings. If yours does, count yourself lucky.

For example, I did some testing with a years-old HP Pavilion dm1z. When you first power it on, there's no boot menu -- just a blank screen and then the Windows startup screen. So I did a quick web search for "Pavilion dm1z boot menu" and learned that I need to press either F1 or F10 immediately after powering on the machine. (Turns out it was F10.)

That's pretty common, though based on past experience, it might also be F2, F9, F12 or even the Delete key. Depends on the system.

Once you've found your way into the BIOS, find the boot or startup menu and make sure "flash drive" or "USB drive" is first in the boot order. Then save and exit (usually by pressing F10, but, again, this varies).

One OS or two?

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Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

As you probably know already, Linux can boot and run right from the flash drive -- no actual installation required. That's a great way to test-drive a distro, but this tutorial is about installing the OS, so let's focus on that option.

The big decision you'll need to make is whether you want to install Linux alongside your existing OS, which would result in a dual-boot setup, or reformat the hard drive and run only Linux. The former is worth considering if the system has a large drive and can easily accommodate both operating systems , or you still have need for Windows.

This following instructions may vary a bit from one distro to the next, but they're based on my installation of Linux Mint.

Step one: Boot from the flash drive directly into Linux.

Step two: Double-click the Install Linux icon on the desktop.

Step three: Make any requested selections regarding language, installation of third-party software and so on. Then choose your OS installation preference: alongside the existing OS or erase-and-install.

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Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

After you make your choice, just sit back and wait while Linux does its thing. The installation might take some time, especially if the computer is on the older, slower side.

Now that you're up and running, hit the comments and let us know which Linux distro you chose and how the installation went!