How to try Linux without touching your Windows installation

If you’re curious about what Linux looks like, but never dared to test for fear of breaking your PC, fear not. It is possible to test Linux with a USB stick and a little digital elbow grease.

The scheduled end of Windows 10 and the too strict conditions of compatibility of Windows 11 worry you about the future of your PC? Would you like to try Linux to see if it’s right for you, but you’re afraid to take the plunge?

Good news, it is possible to install Linux on a USB key to create a small alternative OS for you. All without breaking anything on your computer. Follow the guide !

Precaution of use

Before getting started, it is useful to remember the obvious: Linux is not Windows. You will find your favorite applications or equivalents without too many problems, but you will have to agree to change your habits a little and have the patience to relearn how your computer works.

Linux is now very far from the cliché image we had of it a few years ago. Many systems embed a neat and efficient interface, and complete software to solve the little hassles of everyday life. If you have a fairly basic use of your system (web, word processing, video), then Linux will probably be fine for you. If you use more advanced software, check its availability under Linux.

Linux Mint: designed for Windows regulars

By abuse of language, we often speak of Linux as an operating system similar to Windows. In fact, Linux refers to a kernel around which a bunch of different different operating systems are built, called “distributions”.

One of the best distros for taking the plunge from Windows is called Linux Mint. The system normally embeds all the drivers necessary for the proper functioning of your computer and has an interface which is similar to that of Windows. Ideal for testing Linux without being completely disoriented. It is therefore on this version that we are going to base our tutorial.

The Linux Mint Desktop Environment // Source: Linux Mint

The first step is to go download the Linux Mint system image from the official website. Once on the download page, choose a server near you and download the .iso file on your computer’s hard drive. After the almost 2 GB downloaded, put the file aside.

Create a test USB stick

To test Linux on your computer without erasing Windows, you must create a “live USB”, ie a USB key on which your operating system will be installed. The latter will then act like a hard drive, just like the one in your computer.

To create this startup key, you will therefore need a USB key (at least 4 GB and whose data you can shamelessly erase) and a little software called Rufus. The application is completely free and can be downloaded from the publisher’s website.

Once the software is installed, you will then find yourself faced with a window that is full of different options and drop-down menus all over the place. Don’t panic though, we’re not going to touch everything.

On the very first line, you should see the name of your USB drive listed. On the line below, click Selection and use explorer to find the ISO file you downloaded. Select it and then click on To open. The rest of the fields in Rufus should then fill in on their own. Then click on Start.

Rufus allows you to install Linux on a USB stick or external hard drive // ​​Source: Screenshot

If a window informs you that it is necessary to download additional files, click on Yes then click on okay on the window telling you that your system will be fully formatted. The installation will take a few seconds or minutes depending on the speed of your USB key. Once the progress bar is completely filled, you can quit Rufus, your USB drive should now be named Linux Mint.

Keep it fully seated in your computer’s USB port since the next step will be to boot directly to the system installed on it.

Switch to BIOS

Here we are entering the more technical part of the experiment. To force your computer to start on your USB key and not on its internal hard drive, you will have to enter the BIOS. To put it simply, BIOS is a very light program installed on your motherboard that manages basic system tasks (powering the USB ports, backlighting the keyboard, etc.).

Windows provides a convenient way to navigate to BIOS. Launch the app Settings, go to the section Update and security then in the tab Recovery. In the section Advanced start, a button offers you to Restart now. Click on it.

The procedure to enter the BIOS of your computer // Source: Screenshot

After a quick restart, you should find yourself in front of a screen asking you to “Choose an option”. Click on Troubleshooting, then Advanced options, Change UEFI firmware settings, then To restart.

Once in the BIOS, look for a section called “Boot Option” or “Boot Configuration”. Its location varies depending on the computer and it can sometimes be tucked away within a “System Configuration” tab or other similar vocabulary.

Once you find it, swipe using your keyboard (or your mouse if possible) the USB key in first position in the order displayed on the screen. The latter may bear the name of its manufacturer or more generically the name “USB Disk”. Once the modifications have been made, press the key offering to exit while saving the changes. On our test device, this option is assigned to the F10 key. This can change, but usually it is indicated somewhere on the screen.

Here, the “USB Hard Disk” is placed before “OS Boot Manager”, indicating to the computer that it is necessary to search the system on the USB key as a priority, before the internal hard disk of the computer // Source: Screenshot

Take advantage of Linux Mint

If the operation was successful, on restarting your computer should display a summary page with several options. Choose Start Linux Mint (which is usually the first line) with your keyboard then press enter.

Your system will boot up and you will find yourself in front of your brand new OS. Congratulations! You can install programs using the Software Center, store files, surf the web, all your activity will be kept, even after a restart. A simple USB key is all you need to access a brand new operating system, without affecting your Windows installation.

Source: Photo Corentin Béchade for Numerama

As long as you do not change the boot order in the BIOS of your computer, you will only have to insert the USB key before starting your machine to find your Linux environment. If the key is not inserted, your Windows will start automatically.

If you want to find your OS on other machines, you will first have to go through the BIOS. Obviously, your options will be limited by the performance of your key and its storage capacities, so choose carefully which hardware will host your installation.

Here you are with your own bone in the palm of your hand.

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