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5 Things to Know When Installing Ubuntu MATE for the First Time

Prior to trying Ubuntu for the first time in 2012, it had been roughly 20 years since I installed an operating system on a computer–and back then, it was MS-DOS 6.22 on 3.5-inch floppy disks. So I understand that installing an operating system is not something most people do. And while I’m not going to walk you through the Ubuntu installation process on this blog, I will offer five pieces of general advice on the subject.

1. Read the Manuals

One thing I do recall from that early 1990s MS-DOS installation was that software used to come with thick printed manuals. That’s not the case anymore. But there is plenty of documentation available to help new users install Ubuntu or any other Linux-based operating system.

For Ubuntu MATE, which is the Linux distribution I use in my business, there’s a pair of excellent reference works authored by Larry Bushey: Ubuntu MATE: Upgrading from Windows or OSX and Using Ubuntu MATE and Its Applications. Bushey works with the Ubuntu MATE team, so these books are de facto user manuals for the operating system. Bushey also co-hosts the long-running Going Linux podcast, which targets new users looking to Linux and open-source software.

2. Practice on a Virtual Machine First

Even with instructions, you may still be understandably hesitant to jump right into replacing Windows with Linux on your computer. Fortunately, there’s a helpful intermediary step: using a virtual machine (VM). A VM uses software to emulate the hardware of another computer. Basically, you can create a VM inside of your existing Windows machine–and then install Linux on that VM.

To create and manage a VM, I recommend VirtualBox, which is a free-to-use program published by Oracle. VirtualBox has a simple interface that guides you step-by-step in creating a VM. Once you’ve installed VirtualBox, you can download a copy of Ubuntu MATE or another Linux-based operating system. This download is in the form of an ISO or “disc image file.” ISO refers to a type of filesystem commonly used by optical storage discs (i.e., CDs and DVDs). After you create your first VM in VirtualBox and start it up, the program will ask you for the location of an ISO file, which it will then treat like an attached DVD-ROM drive. Select the Ubuntu MATE ISO file (which will likely be in your Downloads folder on Windows) and then the VM will start the installation procedure.

A few things to note about using a VirtualBox VM:

  • By default, VirtualBox assigns 1 GB of Memory and 1 core from your CPU for the VM to use. In my testing, which is on a Windows 10 PC with 8 GB of memory and a 4-core CPU, I find it works much better to assign at least 3 GB of memory and 2 CPU cores.
  • VirtualBox creates a single file to house the VM’s hard drive. This file can be identified by the vdi suffix. When you’re done trying out the VM you can just delete this file to get rid of the VM.
  • VMs work both ways. That is to say, you can install VirtualBox on a Linux computer and use it to run Windows in a VM. But if you do this, keep in mind that your Windows license may not transfer to the VM.

3. Should You Use a USB Drive or a DVD?

When you’re ready to install Linux on “bare metal,” i.e. not a VM, you must convert the ISO file into something your computer can actually boot. Typically this is done by writing the ISO file to a USB thumb drive. There are a few different programs that can do this in Windows. In my testing, a utility called Rufus performed well.

But if your computer still has an internal DVD-ROM drive–and a lot of refurbished office PCs do–you might consider writing the ISO file to a DVD instead of a USB drive. Here’s a few reasons why:

  • Some computers are setup to automatically boot from the DVD-ROM drive, bypassing the hard drive. With USB drives, you may need to fiddle around with the manufacturer’s settings just to get the system to boot.
  • Writing an ISO to DVD in Windows 10 does not require any additional software. Just right-click the ISO file in the Windows file manager and you’ll see an option to “Burn Disc Image” to a blank DVD.
  • I always keep an archival copy of Ubuntu MATE on a DVD in case I need to reinstall it later. Sure, you can do this just as well on a USB drive, but those are smaller, easier to misplace, and cannot be neatly labeled.

4. “Minimal” Does Not Mean Better or Faster

The first time you run the Ubuntu MATE installation program, you’ll see the following dialog box:

By default, Normal installation is selected. You might be tempted to go with the Minimal installation, thinking that will save time and disk space. But in most cases, you’re better off with the normal installation, which includes a number of useful applications such as the LibreOffice suite. As for time, the minimum installation actually takes a bit longer, as the software actually does a normal installation first, then removes the “extra” applications.

5. Always Encrypt Your Hard Drive

After choosing between the normal and minimal installation, the installer program will present you with an option to “encrypt the new Ubuntu MATE installation.” This is not checked by default. You should always check it. Always.

Encryption is not just a good idea. If you’re using your computer for any kind of business purposes, encryption protects you against accidental disclosure of customer or other sensitive information. When you think of a “data breach,” you might imagine a mysterious hooded “hacker” breaking remotely into a computer system. But a data breach also occurs when someone leaves their laptop–with an unencrypted hard drive–in the back seat of their car and the vehicle is stolen.

The good thing about encryption on Ubuntu is that it’s unobtrusive. You don’t really notice it’s there. The only thing to remember is that you will need to create a decryption password–which should be different than your user login password–that must be entered each time you reboot the machine. And if you forget the decryption password, you will not be able to boot into Linux at all.

Categories: Welcome to Linux

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S.M. Oliva

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