If you’ve ever wondered what a Linux OS is like, but have been put off by complex installation procedures, we’ve got news for you: it’s not difficult.

Running Linux as your only OS will require either ditching Windows or installing it on a second machine or hard drive. Of course, if you need Windows to run some of your software, or are reassured by its familiarity, this won’t be the best option. A better solution might be to set up Linux on a second partition and dual-boot Windows.

For those taking their first steps into the world of Linux, who aren’t sure whether it’s for them, using virtualisation software to run the OS within Windows might be a more appropriate solution – but a fast PC is required to enjoy usable performance. See Upgrade Advisor.

A fourth installation option utilises a USB flash drive, letting you in effect plug in the Linux OS when you wish to use it. This is the method we’ll use here, since it has no impact on your hard disk or system performance.

Linux is available in several flavours; we’re using Damn Small Linux (DSL). This slimmed-down OS is quick and simple to install and use, although more sophisticated variants are available, such as Ubuntu.

Here, we’ll describe how to create a bootable system on a USB flash drive and configure a PC to boot from it. We’ll then take a tour of Linux. Treat this as a preview of what’s on offer: any files you create will be lost when you shut down the system.

DSL can be configured to permanently save files, but the procedure can be involved and it isn’t necessary for the purposes of our tutorial.

Back up any important files on your USB drive before you begin, then download two files: dsl-4.4.10-embedded.zip from tinyurl.com/5vcq7, and Universal-USB-Installer- from tinyurl.com/y87u7aq.

Install Damn Small Linux on a USB drive

Step 1. Insert your USB flash drive to a PC, then double-click the Universal USB Installer in Windows Explorer to run the file. Select DSL 4.4.10 from the drop-down menu. Although it offers to download the distribution, this didn’t work for us (which is why we instructed you to download it manually).

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Step 2. You may find that the location of your DSL distribution file is already filled in; if it isn’t, click Browse and manually select the file. Next, select the drive letter your computer has assigned to your USB flash drive (you can check this information in Windows Explorer, Computer if you aren’t sure).

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Step 3. A warning screen notifies you that DSL will be installed on your USB flash drive, and that any existing data will be overwritten. Double-check that you selected the correct drive letter in the previous step before clicking Yes, since it’s all too easy to accidentally wipe the contents of your hard drive.

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Step 4. Leave the USB flash drive plugged in, then reboot the PC. Enter the Bios (look for an onscreen message before the Windows login loads that tells you what key to press). Find the boot priority menu (naming conventions vary), enable booting from USB devices, and ensure that USB devices appear above the hard disk.

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Step 5. Exit the Bios, electing to save the changes you’ve made. Your computer should restart, then boot into DSL rather than Windows. If it continues to boot into Window, track back to Step 4 and try altering the settings to persuade the PC to boot from the USB drive instead of the hard disk.

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Step 6. DSL won’t necessarily include drivers for all your hardware and peripherals. It’s a good idea to plug in a wired keyboard and mouse before you boot into the OS. Similarly, to avoid potential driver issues with Wi-Fi adaptors, you should use a wired connection to your access point.

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Step 7. On first launch, a window entitled ‘Dillo: Getting Started with DSL’ will pop up. Dillo is a small and fast web browser. It’s an ideal accompaniment for DSL, and the file displayed onscreen is simply a getting started guide. If you’re a habitual reader of manuals then feel free to peruse it, otherwise join us on our quick tour of DSL.

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Step 8. Given that Dillo doesn’t support the enhanced content found on many modern websites, it’s useful to have an alternative browser option. Firefox is included in the distribution and, although it’s a rather old version, it’s better than Dillo. Click on its icon in the taskbar and get a feel for web browsing DSL-style.

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Step 9. Click the DSL button at the bottom left of the screen. This is similar to the Windows Start button. Click Apps, Graphics, mtPaint in the context menu. mtPaint is very much like Windows’ Paint; try your hand at creating a work of art, then use the File, Save menu to store your painting in the default folder.

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Step 10. To later find the file you created, click the Files icon in the taskbar to open emelFM. This file manager is noticeably lacking in the graphics department when compared to Windows Explorer, but its directory structure is simple to navigate. You’ll find your painting in /ramdisk/home/dsl.

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Step 11. DSL includes some basic office productivity applications. To launch its word processor, click DSL, Apps, Office, Ted Word Processing. Ted uses the RTF file format. The easiest way to try it out is to email yourself a sample file while running Windows, then pick it up in DSL using Firefox.

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Step 12. You’ll find Siag Spreadsheet in the same menu. Siag has a remarkably similar interface to Microsoft Excel, but first appearances can be deceptive: those familiar with Excel won’t find Siag intuitive in use. More suitable alternatives include LibreOffice, which also includes a word processor and spreadsheet tool.

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Step 13. This lightweight Linux distribution also includes some games. As with the games that are bundled with Windows, it’s mostly primitive stuff. Click DSL, Games to take a look at the games on offer. Our screenshot above depicts The Ace of Penguins Freecell and Minesweeper, although there are 12 games to choose between.

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Step 14. Click on the Panel icon in the taskbar to launch DSL’s Control Panel. This isn’t nearly as extensive as Windows’ same-name configuration utility, but it does let you set preferences for various system attributes, such as the keyboard layout and desktop background. You can also view system statistics.

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