How to install Linux on your Windows PC

It's simple to get Linux Mint up and running on a Windows PC. Here's how you do it.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Want to run whatever browser you want and not be forced into Edge? Sick of being told to "upgrade" to Windows 11? Tired of one Windows 10 zero-day after another being exploited? I have a radical suggestion: Switch to Linux.

Now, I've been telling you this for years, just like I've been telling you not to use "password" for your passwords and to use virtual private networks. In all cases, it's just common sense.

Also: Your Windows 11 upgrade is ready. Should you do it?

For years there have been lame excuses about why you couldn't switch to Linux. They were bogus, to begin with, and they're nonsense now. The only one that still holds water is that not all Windows applications will run on Linux. But, with the rise of Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) Windows programs, there are fewer and fewer such programs. For example, you can now run Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator on Linux. Heck, with Azure Virtual Desktop and Windows 365 Cloud PC, you can run Windows itself remotely on a Linux PC

Get the picture? Other than habit, there's no good reason to put up with Windows any longer.

So how do you do it? Well, for starters, you can just buy a PC with Linux already installed. Companies such as PC giants Dell and Lenovo and Linux specialty OEMs such as System76 all offer good machines ready to run. 

Or, you can do what I usually do and just install Linux on an existing PC. 

In this article, I'm going to tell you how to install Linux Mint. Mint is my favorite Linux desktop. But, the basic instructions work with any desktop Linux both for newcomers and for experienced pros

Download Linux Mint

First, download the newest version of Linux Mint. As I write this, that's Mint 20.2, but Linux Mint 20.3 will be out in early 2022. At about 1.5GB, depending on your internet speed, this may take a while. 

Mint comes with three different desktop interfaces. These are MATE, Xfce, and its default desktop, Cinnamon. I recommend you go with Cinnamon, for starters. If it turns out you really want to get deep into Linux, you'll have plenty of opportunities to explore the various Linux interfaces. 

Once you've downloaded Mint, you should try the Linux distro before installing it. Fortunately, unlike other operating systems, Linux distros like Mint make it easy to give them a test run before committing to it.

If you don't have an ISO burner program, download one. I recommend freeware programs ImgBurn for optical drives and Yumi for Windows for USB sticks. Other good choices are LinuxLive USB Creator and UNetbootin. These are all free programs.

Unless you're using an older PC that won't boot from a USB stick, I strongly recommend using a USB flash drive for your test drive. You can run Linux from a DVD, but it's very slow. But, I might add, Linux Mint will run on pretty much any PC that hasn't turned 10 yet. So, if you have a computer collecting dust in the closet that you want to get some use from, go for it. 

Putting Mint to the test

Once you've installed the burner program and have the latest Linux Mint ISO file in hand, use the burner to put the ISO image to your disc or USB stick. Check your newly burned disc for errors if you're using a DVD. Over the years, I've had more problems with running Linux and installing Linux from DVDs from bad discs than all other causes combined.

You can also set Mint up with a USB stick with persistent storage. With persistent storage, you essentially have a computer on a USB stick. You can store your programs and files on the stick. This way, you can carry Linux and use it as a walk-around operating system for hotel, conference, and library PCs. I've found this to be very handy, and there's always at least one live Linux stick in my laptop bag.

Next, you place your disc or USB stick into your PC and reboot. Stop the boot-up process and get to your PC's UEFI or BIOS settings during the reboot. How you do this varies according to the system. Google for "UEFI BIOS settings" for your PC model to find which one will work for you. 

You can also look for a message as the machine starts up that tells which key or keys you'll need to press in order to get to the BIOS or UEFI. Likely candidates are a function key or the "Esc" or "Delete" keys. If you don't spot it the first time, don't worry about it. Just reboot and try again.

Once you get to the BIOS or UEFI, look for a menu choice labeled "Boot," "Boot Options," or "Boot Order." If you don't see a choice with the word "boot" in it, check other menu options such as "Advanced Options," "Advanced BIOS Features," or "Other Options." Once you find this option by any name, set the boot order so that instead of booting from the hard drive first, you boot from either your DVD drive or USB drive.

That done, insert your DVD or USB stick and reboot. You should see a menu giving you several choices. For our purposes, you want to select "Start Linux Mint" from the first menu. From here on out, you'll be running Linux Mint.

Some Nvidia graphics cards don't work well with Mint's open-source driver. If Linux Mint freezes during boot, use the "nomodeset" boot option. You set this to the Start Linux Mint option and press 'e' to modify the boot options. Then, replace "quiet splash" with "nomodeset" and press F10 to boot. On older PCs using BIOS, press 'tab' instead of 'e.'

Mint will run slower this way, but it will boot and run. If you decide to install Mint, you can permanently fix the problem with the following steps:

  • Run the Driver Manager

  • Choose the NVIDIA drivers and wait for them to be installed

  • Reboot the computer

So far, you've not installed anything on your PC. You're just getting a chance to see what running Mint is like. Use this opportunity to play with Mint to see if you like it.

If you're running it off a DVD drive, Mint will run slowly, but it will run quickly enough to give you an idea of what it's like to use Mint. With a USB stick, it will run fast enough to give you a good notion of what working with Mint is like.

Installing Linux and dealing with Secure Boot

Let's say you like what you see. Now, you're ready to install Mint.

First, make a complete backup of your Windows system. Installing Linux in the way I'm going to describe shouldn't hurt your Windows setup at all, but why take a chance? 

It used to be that installing Linux on Windows PCs with UEFI and Secure Boot was a major pain. It can still be an annoyance, but Ubuntu and Mint have made booting and installing with the Secure Boot system a non-issue. All pre-built binaries intended to be loaded as part of the boot process, with the exception of the initrd image, are signed by Canonical's UEFI certificate, which is implicitly trusted by being embedded in the Microsoft signed shim loader.

If for some reason, you can't install Mint with Secure Boot running on your PC, you can always turn off Secure Boot. There are many ways to switch Secure Boot off. All involve going to the UEFI control panel during the boot process and switching it off.

Starting your Linux Mint installation

Next, make sure your PC is plugged in. Seriously. The last thing you want is to run out of battery power during an operating system install! You'll also need an internet connection and about 8GB of free drive space.

That done, reboot into Linux again. Once you have the Mint display up, one of your icon choices on the left will be to install Mint. Double-click it, and you'll be on your way.

You'll need to walk your way through several menu choices. Most of these decisions will be easy. For example, the language you want Mint to use and your time zone. The one critical choice will be how to partition your hard drive.

Partitioning a hard drive can get really complicated, but there's an easy choice that will let you dual-boot both Windows and Mint. Simply pick the first option on the Installation Type menu: "Install Linux Mint alongside them." No fuss, no muss. 

This procedure will install Linux Mint next to your existing Windows system and leave it totally untouched. When I do this, I usually give half my PC's remaining drive space to Mint. You'll be asked to choose which operating system you want to boot by default. You'll get a few seconds to switch to the other operating system, no matter which one you pick.

You'll also be required to give your system a name; pick out a username for yourself, and come up with a password. You can also choose to encrypt your home directory to keep files relatively safe from prying eyes. However, an encrypted home directory slows systems down. It's faster, albeit counterintuitive, to encrypt the entire drive after you have Mint up and running.

The Mint setup routine also lets you set up a system snapshot with Timeshift. By doing this, if something goes wrong with Mint later, you can restore your system files and get back to a working system. While you're at this, set up a regular Timeshift schedule. 

I've never had to restore from Timeshift. Linux Mint is stable as a rock. But, I've also never had a bad accident, but I always put on my seat belt. It's the same thing.

Next, you can have it checked to see if your computer needs any additional drivers. I highly recommend you run this. After this, you can choose to install proprietary multimedia codecs such as drivers to watch DVDs. I think you should do this, as well.

You should also set your PC to update your system to the latest software. Unlike Windows, when you update Mint, you're updating not just your operating system but all the other programs such as the default web browser, Firefox; office-suite, LibreOffice; and any other programs you've installed from Mint's Software Manager. If something doesn't work, you just use Timeshift to get back to a working system.

To do this manually, click on the shield icon in the menu bar. By default, the bar will be on the bottom part of the screen in the Cinnamon desktop, and the icon will be on the right. It will then prompt you for your password and ask if you really want to update your system. Say yes, and you'll be ready to give your new Mint system a real tryout.

The setup routine also offers to let you look at system settings and find new programs with the Software Manager, but since you're probably a new user, you can skip those for now.

That's all there is to it. I've installed Linux hundreds of times, and it usually takes me about an hour from starting my download -- the blessings of a Gigabit internet connection -- to moving from booting up to customizing my new Mint PC. If you've never done it before, allow yourself an afternoon or morning for the job.

If you do have trouble, look first at the Linux Mint installation documentation. If you're still having trouble, head over to the Linux Mint forums. For your purposes, start by reading the "How to get help" post. Then, the most helpful ones for beginners are the aptly named Beginner Questions and Installation & Boot.

Have fun, get work done, and enjoy.

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