The Big Bad Switch

It’s day 4 of having Linux Mint installed. My old hand-me-down laptop is running incredibly well and I’ve been having a ton of fun playing with all these new programs and features. However, my journey didn’t start with the install, it started when I first decided Linux was the way to go.

Changing to a new OS seems like no big deal now that I’ve done it. But 5 days ago, I was scared. I was worried I’d mess up and not be able to fix whatever I did, ruining this laptop for good. I’ve done upgrades and reinstalls before with Windows (all pre-Vista), and they were a HUGE hassle. In comparison, changing to Linux was a lot more work upfront, mostly research & restarts, but the install itself was super easy.

The first step in the switch was deciding on a distribution. I asked for advice from my mom, who works in IT. One of my mom’s coworkers suggested that I look the Red Hat distribution. That suggestion started a search to find which version of Linux would be best for me. I decided to go with Fedora because of its link to Red Hat.

When I decided on Fedora, I didn’t realize exactly what all that entailed. I found the newest version and downloaded it. I followed the instructions to create a bootable USB drive. At the time, I assumed I’d have my new OS up and running in no time. Then I started reading the Installation Guide. Coming from Windows, the sheer volume of instructions, details and options seemed outright crazy. It was a lot to absorb, but I read it. A few days later, when I thought I had a decent handle on the instructions, I started working through the steps for my install. At first, I was going to run Fedora off the USB, take it for a test drive. I was so excited, waiting for the menu to pop up to let me choose to run Fedora. I was sure I’d done everything right and I was ready. Then my screen went black, a lonely cursor blinking in the top right corner.

Being used to Windows, my first thought was “It just needs a minute to think.” I’m pretty used to waiting for my computer to think. I stepped away for a few minutes to give it time, but when I came back the cursor was still mocking me. At this point I freaked out a little, worried that Fedora failed and somehow wiped out Windows too, leaving me with no OS. Yes, it’s irrational, but that’s what I worried about. So I turned off the laptop, unplugged the USB and rebooted. Windows came on just like normal. I had no idea what was wrong with Fedora.

This failure put me back into research mode. The various Linux forums all suggested that some piece of hardware (probably the graphics card) was incompatible. I thought I had checked compatibility pretty well, but assumed that I missed something. If something was incompatible, I knew I didn’t have the knowledge to fix it. I decided I’d have to try another distro.

Ubuntu seemed like the next logical choice. It came up a lot while I was doing research because it is so popular. I restarted the process, researching, downloading, reading documentation, double checking compatibility. After a few days, I tried again. The horrible black screen that came up meant I had failed. But I wasn’t ready to give up on Ubuntu. I decided to try an older version. Maybe this laptop was just too old to deal with the newest OS. This time I tried Ubuntu 13. When the black screen and evil cursor popped up again, I almost gave up.

At this point, I decided to just start trying a bunch of different distributions until I found one that was compatible. I felt like I couldn’t rely on the compatibility research I’d done since none of it was working. I texted my mom to ask if she knew anything I was doing wrong. She said I might not have enough memory, but other than that she had no idea. I knew I had checked the memory requirements. I didn’t have much over the minimum, but the laptop was at or above the minimum for every OS I downloaded.

After texting my mom, I began downloading again. I started with Mint because I had seen a forum post where someone said Mint ran well on my model of laptop. I decided to go with the 32-bit version this time, maybe my mom was right. Maybe they actually needed more memory than the minimum requirements. Lo & behold, the 32-bit version of Mint worked. My mom was right, I didn’t have enough memory. But it wasn’t because the other distros had given me the wrong requirements or anything. When I got Mint up and running, I checked the system monitor program and found a different amount of memory than what I’d seen when I’d checked on Windows. It’s not a huge difference, but it puts me under the 2GB line for 32-bit vs 64-bit. I’ve found other differences in hardware stats too, I dunno if this is a common thing on Windows or if it was just a glitch in this old laptop. Either way, I know now that any distro I decide to put on this laptop needs to be 32-bit.

After I got to the “grub menu” where I could chose to run Mint, the install was a breeze. I did a test run first. I ran Mint from the USB, checking all of my hardware. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the volume buttons at the top of the keyboard now worked, they never worked before. After tinkering around and exploring, I decided to do the install. I did a clean install instead of doing a dual install and keeping Windows. I did this because the problems I’d experienced on this laptop seemed to disappear when I was running Mint and because it would wipe all the old data. The set up was easy, pretty much pick a password and setup the keyboard. The actual install took far less time than I expected.

For all the work and worry the 32-bit vs 64-bit problem caused, I’m actually really glad that happened. If I’d had the memory that Windows said, or if I’d downloaded a 32-bit version to begin with, I wouldn’t have read or learned as much about Linux. I’m also very happy that I ended up with Mint. It seems to be considered more stable than Fedora, controls and settings are intuitive (stuff is where I expect it to be, no searching), it has a really good community with extensive forums, and it came with FAR more programs ready to go than I expected. I think having a good selection of software bundled with the OS makes it easier for a Windows user to transition.

The most important lesson in all of this was surely that I should always listen to my mother. It’s the moral of every story.

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2 Responses to The Big Bad Switch

  1. Jim says:

    Windows and Linux have different ways of estimating memory. From what I remember, I haven’t used Windows much for years, Windows usually shows the total memory installed. However Linux shows the memory available, i.e. after the bios etc. has loaded. The old laptop I’m using at the moment has 3G but Fedora is only showing 2.94. Not much of a difference but can be enough to cause problems when you only have a gig or less in the machine.

    BTW there are a number of things that could have caused your black screen issue starting with a corrupted download and include hardware compatibility.

    • Val says:

      Thank you so much! I had no idea Windows and Linux calculated memory differently. That completely explains the problems I experienced. 😀 It seems to make more sense to show the memory available instead of the total memory, or perhaps to show both.

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