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HOWTO Use a Linux Live CD

Date/Time Permalink: 03/15/06 07:21:10 am
Category: HOWTOs and Guides

Linux Live CDs are one of the coolest tricks I've ever seen. They are
a way to check out Linux without installing it on your computer. They
are also a way to have more variety - I keep a small library of them.

To use one, just insert it into your CD drive and reboot your
computer. Most of the time, when your machine comes back up it will
run the CD. In cases where it doesn't, this is because your computer
isn't set up to boot off the CD-Rom drive. To fix this: reboot again
and watch the *first* *screen* that comes up. A PC has a little
routine that it goes through; it first runs BIOS (Basic Input Output
System) which is like a little system embedded in your motherboard,
and after performing some self-checks, called the POST (Power On Self
Test) it will usually beep and boot whatever operating system it
found.

You will need to catch it before it beeps. Watch the text on the first
screen; it should tell you what key to press to set
options/configurations. Press that key, and you will go to a screen
running your system's BIOS. Don't panic, BIOS setup screens will print
the instructions right on the screen for you! Find the boot order
section and set it like PCs are supposed to be set up anyway: (1) it
should check the floppy drive (provided you have one!), (2) it should
check the CD-Rom, and (3) then check the hard drive. Set it this way
and the machine will reboot.

Now that you have the CD running, you are looking at the splash screen
and a prompt that says "boot:" Most of the time, you should just press
enter and you're good to go. The rest of the time, you might have to
set an option in case something didn't work. Most boot screens should
also give you instructions - usually pressing F1 or F2 will give you a
list of boot options. For instance, if the CD didn't detect your
monitor correctly, it might make your screen unreadable! You would
probably fix this by typing "linux screen=800x600" at the boot (after
reboot), for instance. Most Live Cds won't have this problem. But some
do get tricky!

In the next step, you'll be on a Linux desktop! From here, you can use
the system just as if it were installed on your machine. Most live
distros will start up with a splash screen welcoming you to the distro
and telling you where to go for help. If you have an internet
connection, your distro might recognize it out of the box. Every
distro I've tried recognizes my ethernet DSL connection - other setups
may vary! If you have internet, you're in luck - go to the home page
for the distro (it will usually be bookmarked), and spend some time
getting acquainted with it.

A common question is "How do I access root?" You might need root
access to set some configurations. That's up to the distro - check the
distro's FAQ. Some have "single-user mode" where root isn't required,
some have no password (just press enter!) and the rest will have
something common-sense like the name of the distro is the password or
the word "root" is.

A good combination is a live CD and writable media - preferably a USB
"keychain" drive. If you have this, you can tell the distro to use
this media (after it's mounted) as your home directory to save files
to. With a live CD and writable media, you have your own personal
operating system set up to run wherever you go!

Most live CDs won't touch the system it's on, but a few write a small
configuration file to your hard disk. This is just to speed subsequent
boots and save configuration options. It will usually tell you if it
does this - relax, it knows how to handle other operating system's
file systems! If you find this file later on your system and delete
it, it'll just rewrite it when it next runs. This file is harmless,
however, and usually too small to bother with.

Many live CDs have a way to install them to hard disk (this is usually
in the FAQ as well). If so and you choose to do this, realize that the
safety of your data on the hard drive is *gone* - The CD you are
running will become the system OS on bootup. Use at your own
risk. Sometimes the install program will be able to create a new
partition if you want to save part of the drive intact, but don't
count on it. Installing the CD to hard drive, of course, won't change
that you can still run any system from live CD as before.

Live CDs are almost too numerous to count - new ones pop up on
Distrowatch every week. They run a wide variety, and there are live
CDs based on virtually every Linux base system known. Live Cds are
also an excellent medium for specialist distros - distributions that
focus on one thing or topic. I predict that given time, nearly any
special interest or need will be fulfilled with a live CD.

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