Chapter 4: Preparing to Install Linux

What sort of computer will I need for Linux?

This question has a lot of answers. The bottom line is: depending upon what you want to do with Linux, the system requirements can range from an old Intel 386 to a state of the art PC.

This section of the chapter will go through all the major parts of hardware attached to a typical computer and detail what is expected to run a typical modern Linux desktop, starting first, with the CPU.

CPU (Central Processor Unit)

The brains of your computer defines the speed which Linux will run at. Linux was originally devised on an Intel 386 back in the early 90’s, and believe it or not, it will still work on a 386! It is worthy to note that Linux is a truly cross-platform system. A Macs computer (PPC or Intel) can run Linux, You can even run Linux on some stranger hardware including ARM based machines like Raspberry Pi’s and more. Today’s Linux desktop is most popular on 64 bit (x64) Intel or AMD PPC (G3-G5) and AMD processors, therefore, most of the common software is actively developed for these platforms. If you have another platform such as a Sparc, Amiga or ARM based processor, Linux will no doubt be different in that many software titles may not exist for that given platform, or software is older than that of the most popular platforms, but it is still possible to run Linux on them.

  • Minimum Specification: 2GHz Intel Pentium 4/AMD K6, ideally with a dual-core processor. It is possible to run Linux on even more modest hardware, however the the desktop experience will be limited.
  • Recommended Specification: Intel Core i5/AMD A10 or better.

RAM (Memory)

Picture of a RAM chip - DIMM

Most Modern day Linux distributions will require a minimum of around 2GB to use it to a reasonable degree, but if you wish to use Linux for non-graphical based uses, such as web page hosting, or a firewall, you can run a basic installation of Linux from almost nothing. Some of the most basic installations will run on 8 MB (yes megabytes, not gigs!). If you’re going to be serious about Linux, and want optimal performance, then as with any software, the more RAM you have for it, the better it runs. Ideally, if you reckon you’re going to be a fairly standard home user, 4GB RAM is a reasonable minimum. If you want to do demanding stuff like perform movie editing, edit artwork or edit lots of audio, then we’re probably talking about 8GB+. Server users who want to serve up hundreds of websites may want 4GB, 8GB or even more, but again, if you want to make a small server with only a website or two and a low number of users, then you can get away with 1GB or less.
In summary, If you have the RAM, Linux will use it, and it will be used well, thanks to the superb memory and process management within the Linux kernel a modern-day 64-bit version of Linux will support up to 64 TB (terabytes) of RAM.

  • Minimum Specification: 512MB-1GB
  • Recommended Specification: 4GB+

Hard Disk Drive (HDD) & Partitioning your disk for Linux

hard disk drive

As with all things Linux, it’s possible to do it in the smallest of setups. Using distributions such as Puppy Linux, you can achieve a fully working Linux setup in a few hundred megabytes. However, if you want to install a standard desktop installation of any up-to date distribution, you will probably want at least 20-40GB (gigabytes) free hard disk space. If you are going for the plunge and will convert your entire system over to Linux, then the more the better – 100GB+ in order to store all of your stuff: Apps, MP3s, Movies, Documents, emails etc and over time, it uses up quite a lot of drive space.
Modern Linux distributions easily support new drive technologies such as software RAID and SATA out of the box. Enterprise grade iSCSI or fibre channel disk arrays, are supported by distributions like Ubuntu Server edition or RHEL.

SSD (Solid State Drives) have become commonplace on higher end laptops and PCs these days and increase read and write speed significantly, making the whole system feel faster. This benefit is mirrored in Linux with an SSD.

Another option is to purchase a new hard disk to install Linux on or recycle an old hard drive if you have one spare! The reason for using a seperate disk is because you are likely to be using another Operating System already such as Microsoft Windows or Mac OS. If you wish to use both Linux and Windows/Mac OS (so you can see if Linux is for you), then the easiest way to set it all up is if you have another drive to put Linux onto. You won’t have to mess around with resizing partitions and the like.

  • Minimum Specification: 5 GB (although some distributions can be smaller).
  • Recommended Specification: Minimum of 25GB, or as much as you can afford to give Linux.


Typically, Windows/Mac OS will allocate 100% of your computer’s hard drive to it’s own use, meaning there is no space left for Linux. If you don’t want to buy a new hard drive for Linux, then you will somehow have to re-allocate some of the unused (free) space on your Windows/Mac OS drive for Linux. The act of slicing up the space on a hard drive into distinct segments is called Partitioning.

Thankfully, recent versions of popular Linux distributions now make it a snap to re-partition your disk. They work by utilising the free space that you have in your Windows drive (say your C: Drive) and creating a partition out of some or all of that free space for Linux. Although not necessary, you can also use something like the freely available GParted or commercially available Acronis Disk Director (for Windows). This allows you to split your disk into partitions as well as resize existing partitions before you even start to install Linux. It gives you absolute control of the whole process.

Give Linux as much breathing room as you can afford to!

If you are resizing your Windows partition to accommodate the installation of Linux, try and devote as much space to Linux as you can manage. If for example you have 100GB unused/free space on an 500GB drive, resize your windows partition down from 500GB to 410GB, leaving 90GB for linux and 10GB ‘breathing room’ spare for windows. This way you probably won’t have too much concern about free disk space in the future.

Example: You can split it any way you like, here is an example of how your hard disk would look, if drawn as a sideways graph. This shows an example of roughly 30% Windows, 70% Linux. You would resize the Windows partition down to the size you want, which would give you the remainder of the disk as unallocated space. You can then use that unallocated space for Linux. Note in this example, most of the 70% Linux space is ‘EXT4’, however a small amount (say 8GB) is dedicated as ‘SWAP’. SWAP is the area which if the memory fills up on your machine, it will use the disk instead. This is useful if you only have limited RAM (Memory), however on higher RAM specs, you probably won’t need it.
The GParted tool is great for partitioning your hard drive. In this example you can see two Windows NTFS partitions (sda1 and sda2), then two linux partitions (sda5 and sda6).

Although the process of re-partitioning and dual-booting your PC with Linux and Windows is far easier than it used to be, to a computer novice it can still appear to be a daunting task. Don’t worry though, I’ve got it all covered in Chapter 5.

Video Card (Graphics Adaptor)

Any bog standard graphics adaptor will do for linux. Optimally you will want to have an SVGA adaptor in your PC that has enough RAM to support resolutions of at least 1024×768. Graphics Accelerator cards of many types are supported by today’s modern distributions for even faster graphics. If you’re looking for really good graphics performance under Linux, the NVidia range are an excellent choice, because they are well supported under Linux by Nvidia. ATI cards are also popular, however their driver support for Linux does not appear to be as good as NVidia’s, which seems to be an ongoing issue with ATI. If you don’t know what card you have in your machine, visit your device manager in Windows, or System Preferences in Mac OS. Integrated graphics chipsets such as the Intel i Series or Cirrus Logic on board chips like those found in modest-price laptops generally work well, however if you need 3D graphics performance, or intend on playing games, you are best using a 3D accelerated graphics card/chip from the likes of Nvidia or ATI.

  • Minimum Specification: A standard graphics card capable of 1024×768 resolution (pretty much all graphics cards since the mid-late 1990s).
  • Recommended Specification: 3D Accelerated Graphics card with at least 256MB graphics RAM.

Using Wireless & Wired Network Adapters and (Broadband) Modems with Linux

Wireless card support in Linux is generally good. Standard desktop PCI based WiFi adapters will work out of the box without any need to install a driver. WiFi adapters that work out of the box include Broadcom, TP-Link and ASUS. For more information on Wireless compatibility under Linux, see the Linux Wireless LAN wiki. Some vendors have made cheaper soft-pci, mini-pci ‘wintel’ based adapters which are proprietary in nature and won’t work out of the box. This can usually be resolved by loading a Windows driver inside Linux, using a tool called ndiswrapper (see this wikipedia link for further information).

Almost every wired network adapter available should be quite happy with Linux. Modern PCI or integrated based options such as those manufactured by Intel and Realtek range will automatically plug and play.

Internet routers or ADSL & Cable modems are usually one of two breeds, either they either plug into the USB port of your computer directly or they are fully blown Ethernet routers, today these mostly contain WiFi radio as well. Thankfully, most ISPs are now providing ‘proper’ Ethernet based routers which simply plug and play with Linux either over WiFi or via an Ethernet cable. If you do have a USB modem from your ISP, consider shelling out for a proper router as the USB modems support under Linux is somewhat hit-or-miss and you will often find that performance from a USB modem is less than you would get from a router (regardless of whether you are using Windows, Linux or a Mac). Good examples of external routers are Belkin, Netgear, Linksys, Huawei and Draytek.

Let’s get this show on the road!

Of course this page has been a rough guide. Hardware changes so rapidly, it’s very hard to keep up, especially if the hardware vendors aren’t willing to help out the Linux community. Fortunately, more and more vendors are these days, and most installations of Linux I have seen recently have ‘just worked’. As always, YMMV – Your Mileage May Vary.

Now that you have a rough idea of whether your hardware is fit to run Linux in a manner that you want it to perform for the tasks you need, let’s get started on installing Linux. Chapter five shows you all the steps you need to know to install Linux safely and properly.

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