Why and how to replace Windows 7 with Linux Mint

Windows 7 is down to its last days. If you don't care for Windows 10, it's time to consider running Linux Mint instead.

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On Jan. 14, 2020, Windows 7's free support ride ends. According to the Federal Digital Analytics Program (DAP), 20% of you are still running Windows 7. I get it. Windows 7 works. But Windows 7 is close to dead. It's time for a change. Linux Mint, an exceptional open-source desktop, might be right for you. 

Here are your other choices: If you want to stick with Windows, you can either keep running Windows 7 without vital security patches, which would be stupid, or you can pay a lot for Windows 7 Extended Security Updates (ESUs) on a per-device basis. 

How much is a lot? ESUs for Windows Enterprise users start at  $25 per device in year one to $100 per device for year three. For Pro users, ESU pricing goes from $50 per device in year one and jumps to $200 per device in year three. Windows 7 Home? So sorry, you're not supported at all. I might also add that, if you're a small-to-medium business owner, you're going to have a lot of trouble finding a VAR or MSP who's willing to sell you ESU. 

Or, you can migrate to Windows 10. And, yes, for now, you can still update to Windows 10 for free from Windows 7. But, since Windows 10 came out in July 2015, if you haven't upgraded by now, it's pretty clear you don't want any part of Windows 10.

So, why not consider Linux Mint instead? 

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ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF A LINUX DESKTOP

The only real reason to stay on Windows is its applications. Say you need Microsoft Office. Fine. Run the free Office Online, which comes with limited versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Need Teams? It's now available on Microsoft's first Linux Office app. Skype has long been available on Linux. There you go. Welcome to 2020, when you don't have to be running Windows to run "Windows" programs.

At this point, you can't easily run Office 365 on Linux. That may be changing. Rumor is Microsoft's exploring bringing its popular cloud-based desktop office suite to Linux. 

You can run many other native Windows programs on Linux using Wine. This can be difficult to set up, so I recommend using its commercial implementation, CodeWeaver's Crossover Linux.

If that doesn't work for your Windows-only application, you can always keep running Windows 7, without any dangerous network connections, in a virtual machine on Linux. For this purpose, I recommend Oracle's excellent and free VirtualBox.

For all your other desktop software needs, there's usually a free, open-source program that can do just as good a job. Gimp, for example, instead of Photoshop. Or Evolution instead of Outlook. LibreOffice is a full-featured office suite.

Another plus for desktop Linux is it's far more secure than Windows. Oh, you can run into trouble, but it's not like Windows, where every day is an opportunity to get zapped by the latest malware. 

You may have heard it's a royal pain in the rump to install applications on Linux. That's nonsense. With Mint's Software Manager, installing software is as easy as click and run. 

WHY LINUX MINT? 

There are many good Linux desktops, and I've used many of them. I recommend Mint, but there are numerous others you can consider, such as openSUSE, Manjaro, Debian, and Fedora. I have one big reason to think Mint is a good fit for Windows 7 users: Mint's default Cinnamon interface looks and works a lot like Windows 7's Aero interface. Yes, there's a learning curve, but it's nothing like the one you'll face if you move to Windows 10 or MacOS.

Another advantage, which Mint share with other Linux distros, is it rests lightly on your system. Mint can run on any of your Windows 7 PCs. All Linux Mint needs to run is an x86 processor, 1GB of RAM (albeit, you'll be happier with 2GB), 15GB of disk space, a graphics card that can handle 1024x768 resolution, and a CD/DVD drive or USB port. That's it.

Mint is ideal if you have a low-powered machine that would choke on Windows 10. With Mint, you can still get useful work out of a system that would otherwise be heading to the trash can. 

Mint, like the other Linux desktops, won't cost you a single red cent. You also don't have to commit to it. You can try it first, and if you don't like it, reboot back to Windows, and you're done. No fuss. No muss.

Ready? Let's go.

KICKING MINT'S TIRES ON YOUR WINDOWS PC

1. Download the Mint ISO file.

First, download the Mint ISO file. This is about 2GB, so it may take a while to download. 

2. Burn the Mint ISO file to a USB stick.

Once you have it, you must burn it to a USB stick. While you can still install it on older systems with optical drives from a DVD, I recommend using a USB stick -- since that makes it easier to give a trial run. Running it from a DVD can be quite slow.

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 the LinuxLive USB Creator and UNetbootin. These are all free programs.

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

It's better to use a USB stick with persistent storage. There are two reasons for this: First, you can then give Mint a trial run on your PC without installing a thing. If you don't like it, you'll have lost nothing but some time. In addition, installing Mint from a USB stick is much faster than doing it from a DVD. 

Another handy thing about using a USB stick with persistent storage: You can also store your own programs, files, and desktop setup on the stick. This way, you can carry Mint with you and use it as a walk-around operating system at a hotel, conference, and library PC. I've found this to be very handy, and there's always at least one Linux stick in my laptop bag.

3. Insert your USB and reboot.

Next, reboot your system, but stop the boot-up process before Windows comes up, and get to your PC's UEFI or BIOS settings. How you do this varies according to your system.

You should look for a message as the machine starts up that tells which key or keys you'll need to press to get to the BIOS or UEFI. You can also do a Google search for your specific PC or PC brand and "UEFI" (or, with older PCs, your computer brand and "BIOS").  For example, with Dell PCs, you tap the F2 key to enter system setup; with HP, you tap on the escape key once a second; and on Lenovo systems, you tap (Fn+) F2 or (Fn+) F1 key five to 10 times after the power-on button is pressed to get to system setup.

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 anything with the word "boot" in it, check other menu choices, such as "Advanced Options," "Advanced BIOS Features," or "Other Options." Once you find it, set the boot order so that, instead of booting from the hard drive first, you boot from either the optical drive or from a USB drive.

After your PC is set to boot first from the alternative drive, insert your DVD or USB stick, reboot, and select "Start Linux Mint" from the first menu. In a minute or so, you'll be running Linux Mint.

4. Now, play with it for a while.

Take a few days if you like. Windows is still there. Anytime you reboot without the drive or stick in, it will go right back to it. Like what you see? Then let's install Mint on your PC.

HOW TO INSTALL LINUX MINT

Like any serious upgrade, you'll start with making a complete backup of your Windows system. Installing Linux in the way I'm describing shouldn't hurt your Windows setup at all, but why take chances?

It used to be that installing Linux on Windows PCs with UEFI and Secure Boot was a major pain. It can still be annoying, 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, except 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.

Now, let's get on with the actual installation. 

1. Make sure your PC is plugged in. 

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.

2. 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. 

3. Partition your hard drive.

Next, you must 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 option will be how to partition your hard drive.

Partitioning a hard drive can be a real pain, but it doesn't have to be for our purposes. We'll set your PC up so you can dual-boot both Windows and Mint. To do this with the partition command, pick the first option on the Installation Type menu: "Install Linux Mint alongside them."

This procedure will install Linux Mint next to your existing Windows system and leave it 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. No matter which one you pick, you'll get a few seconds to switch to the other operating system.

4. Name your system.

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.

5. Set up a system snapshot.

Mint 19.3's setup menu enables you to set up a system snapshot with Timeshift. This way, if something goes wrong later, you can restore your system files and get back to a working system. I highly recommend doing this. While you're at it, set up a regular Timeshift schedule.

6. Check for additional drivers.

Next, you can have it check to see if your computer needs any additional drivers. You should do this. You can also install proprietary multimedia codecs such as drivers to watch DVDs. That's a good idea, as well.

7. Set it to update.

You should also set it to update your system to the latest software. Unlike Windows, when you update Mint, you're updating not just your operating system but all your other programs such as the web browser, office suite, and any other programs you installed afterward from Mint's Software Manager.

To do this manually, click on the shield icon in the menu bar. By default, you'll find this on the menu bar on the bottom part of the screen, and the icon will be on the right. Once clicked, it will prompt 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 try.

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.

8. 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 400Mbps 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.

You'll still miss Windows 7 at first, but soon, you'll appreciate how much Mint can do for you. Me? I run both operating systems --and a host of others -- but for every hour I spent on Windows 7, I've spent 50 on Mint. It's that good.