How To Get Linux

You’ve researched what Linux is.  You read our fantastic article about distributions and have picked your first.  You know what processor architecture you have (32-bit or 64-bit).  You’ve picked a desktop environment.

You’re ready to go.  But there’s something missing.  You’ve yet to actually get your distribution.  You still have to obtain it somehow.  And that’s the focus of today’s article.  Getting a Linux distribution.

Option #1:  Directly Download It

If you have a broadband Internet connection, like DSL or cable, this is your best choice.  Downloading it straight from the distribution’s website.

The other options on this list will cost money or need special software.  Downloading it is free and easy once you get the hang of it.

To download a Linux distribution, go to that distribution’s website.  If you don’t know the website address, use all-knowing Google to search for the distribution name.

Once you’ve found the website, look for a “DOWNLOAD or “GET <distribution name>” link.

Click on the download link.  Once you reach that page, you will typically be presented with a list of available download options.  The options vary from distribution to distribution.  Many of which you should already know, like which desktop environment and whether you want 32-bit or 64-bit.  Others are not as simple.

It is impractical for me to walk through the download page of every Linux distribution.  Instead, I’m going to do two.  One is fairly straightforward, Linux Mint.  And the other is more complex, openSUSE.


Linux Mint Download Options

Linux Mint is an example of a typical, no-nonsense download page.  The choices are fairly simple and well described.  Simply scroll to “Download Links” and go down the list and pick your desktop environment, and then the processor architecture.  My personal favorite is Cinnamon 64-bit.

OpenSUSE Download Options

OpenSUSE is more complicated.  First, you have to decide how big of a file you need or want to download.

The default option, a 4.7GB DVD image, is quite large.  But, the large download has most software you might want included, and you get to choose and customize the operating system during installation.  If the computer you’re installing Linux on isn’t connected to the Internet, or requires configuration to get it on the Internet, this is probably you’re best choice.

If you’d rather not download that huge file, then three other options, two LiveCD versions and a network install version.  LiveCDs are smaller and allow you to preview the distribution without installing it.  However, they are less customizable, and don’t include most non-default software.

The network install is a very small download, offers a lot of flexibility and customization, but requires an Internet connection.  Instead of storing software on the installation medium, the network install fetches everything it needs from the Internet.


Once you’ve picked your size, then you pick 32-bit or 64-bit.  You also have some other download options that I’ll talk about shortly.



Unless you have a reason not to, I recommend just getting the large file from download pages like openSUSE’s.  It can save you from problems during installation that LiveCDs and network installs are helpless to overcome.


Using the Downloaded File

The file you download from the website is known as an ISO image.  ISO images contain archived copies of a CD or DVD.  The idea is that you download this ISO image and then burn it to a writable CD or DVD.  You can also extract it to a bootable USB thumb drive.

If you need to, check out these instructions for dealing with ISO images:



Option #2: Torrent It

You may or may not have heard of BitTorrent before.  It usually gets pretty bad press thanks to people who use it to illegally distribute music, movies, and television shows.  However, the underlying concept is perfectly legal (in most countries), legitimate, and fantastic.

If you don’t know anything about BitTorrent already, I don’t recommend this method of getting Linux.  Linux is complicated enough on its own, we don’t need to add more to it.  If you are interested in BitTorrent, there is an excellent introduction to it available here.  If you are already familiar with BitTorrent, then read on.


The advantage to BitTorrent downloads is it doesn’t cost the distribution developers or supporting institutions any money.  Serving popular downloads over the Internet is expensive.  Using peer-to-peer networking, BitTorrent removes this burden.  Since most Linux distributions are free to use and don’t generate much profit, lowering their costs is a generous act.
*NOTE: Popular distributions usually have bandwidth donated by universities, hosting companies, and Linux related institutions in the form of mirror servers.  Subsequently, the benefit of torrenting to popular distribution developers is often minor.


Torrent files are usually available for download next to the regular download area.  Look up at that openSUSE download page screenshot again and see the BitTorrent option under “Download Method” for an example.  You the open the torrent file in your favorite BitTorrent client and off you go.  When completed, just like when directly downloading it, you should have an ISO image to burn to disc or extract to USB.



Option #3: Buy a Disc or USB Drive

If you have a slow Internet connection, or are disenfranchised with all this downloading nonsense, there are alternatives.  You can buy a CD/DVD or USB Thumb Drive with your distribution already on it.  They don’t cost much (about $6 USD for a CD/DVD or $15 USD for a USB thumb drive), and take the hassle out of everything.

I recommend the website.  They have a huge selection of distributions, fast worldwide shipping, and reasonable and consistent costs.


This is the easiest option by far, but it’s not free.  If you are confused or unsure of the download methods described above, I urge you to try this the first time.  As you gain Linux confidence, you will develop the ability to navigate a distribution’s download page with ease.  But to gain that confidence you have to try it.  It’s a catch-22 unfortunately.  Purchasing a disc or USB Thumb Drive circumvents the catch-22.


Closing Thoughts

Choice and flexibility is one of Linux’s biggest strengths.  But this freedom means sifting through lots of information and making decisions.  Getting Linux is one of the first roadblocks to overcome, and leads many to give up.  I encourage you to power through, even if you are overwhelmed.  One day soon, you will navigate these options with ease.  But first you have to try it.

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