Saturday, June 8, 2013

Installing Ubuntu: for non-geeks

Last Sunday I installed Ubuntu on an old laptop that was lying around the house.

Ubuntu is perhaps the most popular variety of GNU/Linux in use. Ubuntu is not only free but is backed by a stable and socially minded organization. For a while I've been thinking about whether an operating system like Ubuntu would be practical in the context of ICTD (information and communication technologies for development).

My first objective was to try out Ubuntu from the point of view of someone working from home. I am my IT help desk. If there's a problem with my computer, I'd better figure out how to fix it myself.

My second objective was to find out if I can live without MS Office, among other things. There's LibreOffice and OpenOffice for Ubuntu, but they're not the same as MS Office that I bet is used by at least 95% of the people I have ever exchanged documents with.

Coming back to the installation, here are the specs of my laptop:
  • Compaq 610
  • Bought in October 2009 for approx Rs. 40,000 (Indian Rupees), roughly $800
  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 GHz
  • RAM: 3 GB
The laptop came with Windows Vista and MS Office. It was in use until about a year back, when the battery died completely (the laptop doesn't last a second if it's not plugged in), Windows became unacceptably sluggish, and -- thankfully -- there was no longer a need for the laptop.


Step 1: I bought a 1 TB (or 1000 GB) external hard disk for about Rs. 5,000 ($100) from the famous Alfa store in Mumbai (massive discounts on pretty much anything from almonds to, well, hard disks). I copied all the data from the old laptop to the hard disk. Copying about 200 GB took a couple of hours I think.

A 1 TB hard disk: Not larger than a wallet!

Step 2: I downloaded Ubuntu version 12.04 from the Ubuntu website. This is the long-term support version so it seemed like the safest option. The installation file was 693 MB and took me a couple of hours to download.

Step 3: I used the instructions given on the Ubuntu site to burn the Ubuntu installation file on a CD. Note: You don't need a CD burning software to do this. A free software is recommended on the Ubuntu site. (By the way, I had to search for "installation" to get to the instructions -- would have been nice if there was a clear link to the installation instructions on the homepage.)

Step 4: I began the installation. I kept the CD inserted in the computer, said bye to Windows, and restarted the laptop. Generally speaking, if a CD is in a computer at the time of restarting, the CD is read to see if there's anything like an operating system on it.

A glitch

After restarting, the screen I got wasn't the same as what's shown in the installation instructions.

That's me looking at the options during Ubuntu installation from a CD. Not what I expected.

I soon began to get strange error messages in green at the top of the screen. Then a black screen with more incomprehensible error messages, starting with the phrase "Kernel panic". It was troubling to say the least.

I went back to the Ubuntu site to read the instructions more closely. I spotted the problem: I had burned the installation file on a CD when I had to do it on a DVD! Apparently a CD doesn't have enough space.

I don't have any blank DVDs so I went for the other approach: installing from a USB stick.

Ubuntu fits on a 2 GB pen drive.

Reattempting installation

I inserted the USB stick in the laptop and restarted it (after saying bye to Windows one more time). Just when the computer was restarting (the black screen with the messages we don't read), I pressed F9. You may need to press another key -- see what keys are recommended at the bottom of the first screen that appears when you restart your computer. You need to be quick!

I was given a few options, and one was "boot from USB hard disk" or something like that. I selected this.

It worked!

I saw almost exactly the same series of screens that the Ubuntu site says you'll see when you do the installation.

I wiped out Windows during the installation, but you can choose to keep it alongside Ubuntu. This is a clear step during the installation and you don't have to worry about tinkering with any settings to keep Windows.

After I'd done my part, the installation proceeded automatically and after perhaps an hour I was treated with the sight of the beautiful Ubuntu desktop:

Doesn't that look inviting?

Excluding the first failed attempt, installation to the point of seeing the Ubuntu desktop took about 3 hours. Not too bad as preparation for a new computing experience.

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