A Safer Dual Boot

The Article

Do you happen to have a desktop computer?  If so, chances are you can try out Linux with what I refer to as a ‘safer’ dual boot.  This is not what we generally mean when referring to dual booting because the two operating systems will be installed on different hard disks.  Most full-sized desktop computers are capable of supporting at least two hard drives, but they are generally only equipped with one drive.  I use this feature to ‘dual boot’ a computer without interfering with the original operating system.

How Does This Work?

To boot an operating system (OS), the first part of the hard drive contains a section referred to as the Master Boot Record (MBR).  The BIOS reads the boot record and loads the correct OS.  The challenge with a traditional dual boot is the MBR contains instructions to boot multiple operating systems, but the operating systems may update the MBR in turn breaking other OS’s.  Additionally, the respective operating systems may overwrite files being shared on a disk in turn breaking the other OS.  The reason a traditional dual boot is not recommended to a beginner is due to number of things that can go wrong with one or both OS’s installed.

A better way to dual boot is by running each OS on a different hard disk.  This works because each drive will have an MBR reporting only one OS.  You can then decide which operating system is the default by setting that disk as the first boot drive in the system setup, and you can choose the other by pressing F12 when the computer starts, and then you will select the disk with the alternative operating system.  This way you have one computer running two different operating systems that you choose which one you load at startup.

What You Need

In order to boot safely from two different OS’s you need a computer capable of containing two hard disks.  Most traditional sized computer towers are capable of holding two hard drives but unless you custom built your computer it likely only has one.  A local office supply or electronic store will sell 3.5 inch hard drives for about $40-50 for a basic option.  You will also need a SATA cable which run about $10; the cable is to attach the new hard disk to the motherboard.  The computer should have another drive power cable in there already.  You also need a 4 GB or larger USB flash drive or DVD to write your .iso image.  Refer here for instructions on writing the drive.  If this is your only computer write your drive before proceeding.  The whole process should take about an hour and a half.

The Setup

Start by removing the computer side panel.  The typical computer case has two screws on the back and a pull handle to remove the side panel.  Find the hard drive and somewhere nearby should be a second identical dock, probably with four screws on the case.  Use the screws fasten the new hard drive to the case.  Locate the SATA ports by following the flat cable attached to the first hard drive.  The computer motherboard will have 3-4 SATA ports next to one another so look for the empty ports, labeled as SATA1, SATA2, etc.  Plug in the new SATA cable to the next empty port and take note of the number in case you need it later.  Leave the new cable loose for now as long as it will not interfere with any of the fans.  You will plug that into the drive after Linux is installed.

To install Linux on the new drive without breaking the existing drive, pull the SATA cable out of the first hard drive and plug that into the new hard drive.  Make sure you also plug in a power cord to the new drive.  The power cords are four-wired cords and there should be more of them dangling in the computer.  Now we are about ready to install Linux, so make sure you have your USB Key ready to go.

Plug the USB drive into the computer and power up while pressing the F12 key until the boot menu appears.  Select the option to boot from the USB drive.  If the USB drive displays multiple options, choose the Legacy mode to prevent issues with SecureBoot on your existing computer.  Follow the screen prompts for the distro to install Linux.  Once the installer runs, boot the computer from the hard drive.  Once you confirm the computer starts, shut everything down so we can plug the first drive back into the computer.

Open up the computer (if you put it back together) and move the SATA cable back to the first hard drive.  Plug the new cable into the new hard drive.  Put the computer back together and boot up.

If you just turn on the computer it should boot right into the old existing operating system.  To boot into the new Linux system, press F12 as the computer turns on and select the second hard drive as the boot device from the boot menu.  If you want to boot directly into the Linux system instead, enter Setup and change the boot order to put the second hard drive as the first boot device.

Using these steps will allow you to test out Linux in a great environment without jeopardizing the existing operating system on the computer.  I used Linux Mint KDE because I wanted to work with the environment more.  You can select any distro you want using this method.


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