Getting started with Linux for the first time can be intimidating. But the freedom afforded by Linux includes the freedom to use it how and when you want. I’ll walk you through several different ways you can take advantage of Linux’s capabilities, involving more or less commitment and technical know-how on your part.
1 Live Boot
Perhaps the easiest method with the least risk is booting a “live” instance of Linux on your PC. All you need is a USB drive and access to the BIOS on your PC. Download any Linux distribution ISO file, flash it to the USB drive with a tool like Rufus or Balena Etcher, and then boot your computer using the USB drive. Now you’re cooking with Linux oil.
The nice thing about live booting is that you can test a distro (or 20) without making any serious changes to your current operating system. You’ll get a feel for the distro’s experience and also get a reasonable idea of how well it will run on your hardware. When you’re done, you just shut it down and remove the USB drive, and you can boot back into your existing operating system like nothing happened.
Speaking from personal experience, though, I can tell you there are some roadblocks you might run into when trying to live boot. For one, many distros require you to disable Secure Boot on your PC in order to boot at all (unless you’re willing to put in a lot of technical work). Some of the most mainstream do not, though, so I recommend you do a web search for “[distro name] secure boot” to find out.
Also, there’s no guarantee a specific distro will boot at all on your specific PC. I’ve had a few, namely Pop_OS!, that would hang indefinitely when trying to boot on an old laptop of mine. This despite similar distros having no problem live-booting on it and the same boot drive working perfectly on another PC. So if the first distro you try is a dud, don’t let that stop you from trying another.
2 Live Boot With Persistence
If you want a less ephemeral but still non-committal way to use Linux on your PC, you can upgrade your live boot drive by adding something called persistent storage.
Normal live boots are amnesiac; any changes you make, like installations, updates, and settings tweaks, are lost the moment you shut down. You’ll find everything reverted to the OS’s original image the next time you boot. By creating a boot drive with a persistent partition, you gain writable storage; changes you make persist from boot to reboot they would on a regular PC.
Persistence gives you more time to test-drive Linux on your hardware, and still without forcing you to commit to a full installation. Want to spend a week trying it out as a daily driver but still able to fall back on your Windows or Mac installation when you need to? Not a problem with a persistent live boot.
3 Cloud Boot
There’s also way to run Linux without making changes to your PC or writing to a USB stick: just cloud boot it in your browser. Put your browser in full-screen mode, click around, and use it as if it were your operating system. When you’re done, just close the tab.
In the past, there was a website called DistroTest that would let you do that for free, but it’s now defunct. Luckily, there’s a spiritual successor called DistroSea with myriad distros for you to try. The experience of course is limited by your internet connection. For me, DistroSea even on high-speed wired connection is still slower than a virtual machine. The project is volunteer-run, though, and meant just for testing, so you might get a better experience with a paid cloud provider like Shells that’s designed for usability.
If you’re running Windows, you’ve got a built-in tool for using Linux directly on your machine alongside your Windows apps. It’s called Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL), and it gives you a Linux terminal. You get to choose from a variety of distributions, including Ubuntu and Alpine Linux, and start typing commands and running useful terminal-based tools.
Unfortunately, you won’t get the experience of GNOME or any other desktop environments with WSL. What it can do is help you see what’s possible on Linux in terms of software without leaving the comfort of your Windows desktop. You’ll also get to brush up on your Linux command line skills.
5 Spin Up a Virtual Machine
While WSL only gets you a command line interface, a virtual machine (VM) can get you a full Linux desktop environment on top of your current operating system. VirtualBox, VMware, and Parallels are all popular choices. They use virtualization capabilities in your operating system to lay another operating system on top of it, so you can use a full Linux desktop without a live boot image and without losing your existing operating system.
If you’re hoping to do serious gaming or run any other intensive programs in Linux, a VM isn’t really your best bet. Virtualization takes a lot of resources, so that extra layer is going to eat into your performance. Still, you’ll like having a Linux instance you can launch and use without having to shut down or otherwise lose access to your existing operating system.
Want to use Linux without any virtualization layers or live boot drives, but also without losing access to Windows? Just install a Linux distro alongside Windows on your computer’s internal drive. Every time you turn on your computer, you’re given the choice to either use Linux or Windows.
While that kind of choice may sound like the absolute dream, it comes with some serious risks. Windows and Linux are simply poor roommates, and forcing them to share a space leads to problems. Windows’ increased reliance on TPM devices has aggravated the conflict, leading us to recommend against traditional dual-booting.
Alternatively, you may be able to add a secondary drive to your PC and install Linux on that one. You’ll reduce the chances of accidentally erasing or simply losing access to one of your two operating systems. I can speak from experience, too. My main rig has been running Windows 11 on one SSD and Ubuntu 22.04 on the other for about close to a year now. I’ve never had spats between them.
That setup though requires buying and installing a second SSD or hard disk drive. Laptops often don’t even have space for that in their chassis. So unless you can confirm you have the room and skills for such an upgrade, you’re better off with another method of using Linux.
7 Full Install
Ready to leave your PC’s current operating system behind entirely? You can transition fully to Linux with a whole-hog installation on your computer. While it sounds intimidating, it’s in fact one of the simpler options on this list, sometimes called the “nuke and pave”. The typical process is to create and launch a live boot medium as I explained earlier, then use the installation tool. You’ll usually be prompted to do so as soon as you launch, and in most cases, it’s a straightforward experience. Just select the option to wipe everything the existing drive.
Of course, wiping a drive means losing all data currently on the device, so be sure to create a backup of your data.
8 Buy a Linux Computer
If the technical work or fiddly nature of all the previous options doesn’t appeal to you, you can always just buy a computer with a Linux distribution reinstalled. These let you forget about the nonsense of installation media and virtualization layers and just get to work. You buy it like you would any computer, only when you power it on, instead of Windows or macOS, you get Linux.
Linux computers are a niche market, so it may not seem obvious where to start looking for one. Small retailers like System76 and Star Labs design and sell laptops and desktop PCs specifically with Linux in mind. We’ve reviewed some of them, in fact, like the System76 Gazelle and the Kubuntu Focus Ir14. Some manufacturers you’re probably familiar with also let you configure one of their models with Linux pre-installed, like our favorite Linux laptop, the Dell XPS 13 Plus.