Testing the Linux Waters - Live CD vs Dual Boot

There are some people whose interest in Linux is borne out of mere curiosity. And a good number of them can’t muster enough courage to go all the way right away. That is, to outright replace their Windows working environment with Linux. It is understandable that they would prefer a setup wherein they can continue working in the environment that they are familiar with and be able to try out Linux during their spare time. Luckily, these people have a couple of options: a Live CD or a Dual Boot System.

Live CD’s

Live CD’s are bootable compact disks that allow you to explore the features of an operating system (in this case, Linux) as if you were in that particular OS. To use, you simply load the Live CD into your optical drive, boot up your PC, and presto! – You’d be on your way to your first Linux experience.

Once inside, you’ll get to see everything that you’ll find in a basic installation of the particular Linux distribution that came with the CD. Now this is not just a regular window-shopping experience, as you’ll also be allowed to perform almost everything you can in a typical installation. That includes running programs, opening windows, exploring folders, checking out system resources, detecting hardware, viewing your Windows files and folders, and many others – even surfing the Web if you have an Internet connection.

If you think that sounds like a complete working environment, it is. There is one major drawback though. Most of this Live CD’s operations can be very slow, primarily because they load up into your RAM. Now, if your specs are limited, you’ll end up crawling your way to the shutdown button in no time. Let’s face it, if it would take forever to try out a single application no one can expect you to move on and try out the rest. In my experience, 1 GB of RAM already allowed me to seamlessly navigate through Ubuntu 8.10 (Intrepid Ibex), although I’m not sure if 512 MB still would.

Here’s a wiki table that provides a lot of good information regarding Live CD’s of the popular distributions. Some of them have specified the amount of RAM that will be used.

Dual Boots

A dual boot is a Linux installation wherein every time your system boots up you are allowed to choose between a Linux or a Windows boot. If you choose Windows, then you can go on with your usual tasks without even noticing the presence of the other operating system. In the same manner, choosing Linux would enable you to witness the full force of Linux, again without the slightest hint of the other operating system occupying your hard drive.

Dual boots actually take you a step further since the experience can be smoother. This is because Linux no longer has to load into RAM in the same manner that a Live CD does. The result is a full-featured setup that allows you to do everything that can be done in a Live CD operation and much more.

Unfortunately, there are no free lunches here. It's no longer as simple as loading a CD. You'll have to actually go through a complete installation process. In fact, it can get a little tricky once you get to the point of choosing the partitions on which Linux will be operating on.

In all my dual boot installations, I always installed Windows first. And in the context of our discussion, you don't have a choice since Windows would already be installed in the first place.

Since a dual boot does not require as much memory as a Live CD, and hence is substantially faster, it is ideal for emergency purposes (among others) such as the need to work on certain files in your Windows partition when your Windows environment is experiencing problems in the middle of an impending deadline.

So which one is better? Live CD or Dual Boot?

It depends on how curious you are and what level of Linux experience you'd like to have. IMHO, a Live CD is only a good testing environment if your hardware specs are pretty decent. That way, you won't be discouraged by the interface's slow reactions. A dual boot can provide a better testing experience if only you can hurdle the installation part.

While a dual boot is already considered as a full installation, it still is just a testing environment. If you're an average computer user, for as long as Windows is around in your system,you'll always be tempted to use it more often than your newly installed Linux. I'd love to hear some objections out there.

The fastest way to learn Linux might be to go all the way. But then again, this article is all about testing the Linux waters, isn't it?

It's time to go and have a cup.


Matthew Lenz said...

WUBI. Installs Ubuntu on your windows partition without partitioning. Just a slight decrease in IO but beyond that it works perfectly.

Jim said...

Hey, don't forget another very easy solution: virtual machines. I'm running and recommend virtualbox which runs on several platforms and can run as many distros as you have capacity for on your drive. Doesn't harm the host operating system, is fairly easy to set up, and imho better for testing than the slower live-cd - although I would recommend trying the live-cd first before installing to a virtual machine.

johnV said...

@ Matthew,

Thanks for that info. I googled Wubi right now. For those who haven't tried it, here's a link to the Wubi site.

It comes with the downloadable (iso) installer of Ubuntu 8.10, right?

You can just pop in your CD while you're in Windows, you're guided in installing Wubi, only takes up an already existing partition, then you're ready to explore Ubuntu.

Paul said...

I agree with Jim... Virtualbox or VMware is the safest option..

johnV said...

@ Jim,

Now this is one option I haven't tried yet. I googled around very briefly and couldn't find an easy How-To. Any site you can recommend, Jim? I myself would like to check it out.

johnV said...

@ Paul

Thanks for the tip. I'll squeeze some time into my schedule to test run VirtualBox.

johnV said...


Jim said...

re: virtualbox:

the manual on the webpage (pdf) is good. But it comes with the program when you download it. Very easy - just install the program, fire it up - hit new for new virtual machine and go through the dialog. Choose new hard drive (creates an image of a hard drive) and choose dynamically expanding, have the live-cd or iso in your cd drive and mount it through the dialog, then hit start.

Might be a bit simplified but gets you started and you can always delete the machine and start again. Be sure to install the guestadditions for better video display and other stuff. How-to is in the manual or help.

I have used vmware-server (free) and there's also vmware-player. I had some trouble with vmware-server on my gentoo host so tried virtualbox and for me it seems a bit better but others have fine luck with vmware.

Anonymous said...

I switched from Windows 2000 in 2001 and went cold turkey. No dual boot. It was hard. No doubt about it. I was a transit bus driver, not an IT worker, and knew no one who used Linux. There were no live CD's back then. Well, maybe Knoppix, but I was not aware of any.

Installation was easy enough even then, and hardware support was at least as good as Windows 2000 with my hardware.

What was difficult then was finding programs to replace what was available on Windows and finding information aimed at desktop users. You'll probably hear others say that is still the case, but I would have to say they don't know what they are talking about.

Nearly all information about Linux back then assumed that end users were setting up servers and were systems administrators or programmers. There is still some of that mindset, but as more average end users migrate to Linux, that attitude is fading.

When I started using Linux I had to make do with StarOffice 5.2 for office software and Netscape Communicator 4.5 for web browsing and email. Much of the software Linux users take for granted today simply did not exist then. amaroK, OpenOffice.org, Firefox, Thunderbird, Evolution, Pidgin, K3b, Scribus, and Inkscape are just a few of the applications that did not exist then.

When I decided to go cold turkey, I wanted to be sure I had no option but to learn the system. I didn't want having a dual boot setup and feeling uncomfortable while adjusting to Linux to become a temptation to return to the more familiar environment of Windows.

I can't really say how today's Windows or Mac users would feel while making a switch to Linux now. I did it alone when there was little support for desktop use. And there are many Windows users now that don't remember a time when Windows was not equated with personal computing. The very idea of computing without Windows or Mac OS is foreign to many of them. There is a lot more support out there for it, a lot more desktop related Linux distributions and applications, and a growing number of pre-installed options available. And netbooks are showing people that personal computers and Windows are not one and the same.

johnV said...

@ Jim

That's one useful comment you got there. Inspired me to come up with a section that features such comments. It's on the upper left of the blog, (just before the fold). You might want to check it out.

johnV said...

@ penguiniator

Rarely do we see users doing what you did. Majority of us, yes that includes me, have the tendency to "play it safe" by retaining Windows while exploring Linux.

Perhaps it would be easier if the potential user had not tried any OS at all. But to a complete shift from Windows? Now, that would take a lot of courage.

Anonymous said...

Truly interesting and admirable. I must admit I know no other non-technical person who has done this kind of thing.

I'd like to know why you did it though.

I switched as well - first to OS/2, and when IBM stopped supporting it, to SuSE Linux, and finally to Fedora. Because some programs were only ever available on Windows - and didn't work with WINE - I always had to keep a dual-boot setup. Over time though, my reliance on Windows has reduced completely so that now I only use Windows for updating my TomTom.

Curiously enough I bought the TomTom because it uses embedded GNU/Linux - how sad then, that such a product doesn't have a cross-platform client to update it!

Markus McLaughlin said...

The Author FAILED to mention the THIRD option which I use to test out different Linux Distros for my Linux Blog, linuxglobe.wordpress.com, which is VIRTUALIZATION. There are many paid virtualization tools like VMware Fusion, VMware Workstation, or Parallels. I highly recommend Sun's FREE VirtualBox which can be downloaded via a link I posted on the linuxglobe blog in the torrents links page. Please visit my site to download VirtualBox, read the User Manual, install it, then you can download a Live CD Image or Install Disc Image via torrent and ENJOY Linux!!! :D

Markus McLaughlin
Hudson, MA, USA

johnV said...

@ Markus

Thanks for dropping by. I have posted a link to the virtualbox site on one of my replies to the comments of this post. Thanks again to Jim for his bit of info re virtual machines.


Stephen said...

Nice post. Keep it up dude.