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Linux and Windows: Peaceful Coexistence

By Jack M. Germain
Sep 18, 2012 5:00 AM PT

One of the stumbling blocks in migrating to the Linux desktop is the mistaken view that you can't take it with you. Your data must remain captive to the Microsoft operating system. Not true at all.

Linux and Windows: Peaceful Coexistence

A related misconception that stalls many Windows users from adopting the Linux OS is the belief that when you buy a new computer or install Linux to an existing computer, you must give up one operating system for the other. Again, not true at all.

Like an evangelist, I frequently tell people about a free Windows-like alternative that is faster and more secure than Microsoft's OS. The most common response I get is, "Linux, what's that?"

Often I also hear, "I can't switch systems. I am too busy to start from scratch with all my files." Or, "I'm too busy to go back and forth between two sets of files, one on my Windows computer and the other in my new Linux set up."

But you do not have to suffer either of those inconveniences to migrate to Linux. You can eliminate keeping duplicate files in both operating systems or the need to choose one OS over the other.

The solution is to install the Linux OS as a dual boot on the existing computer and continue to store and access all of your data on the Windows side of the hard drive. This lets you learn Linux in stages as you wean yourself from Microsoft Windows.

This approach works well on home computers and at worker's desks in an office setting. Using cross-platform applications when running the Windows OS makes switching to Linux even more painless.

For example, OpenOffice and LibreOffice are free clones of the Microsoft Office Suite. So you can save and read Word, Excel and PowerPoint files in the same look-alike apps in both Windows and Linux. Plus, Linux has a complete array of text editors and apps to view, create and save your existing and new movie, music and photo files that are compatible in Windows.

Two For One

This strategy works whether you apply it to a new off-the-shelf computer purchase or an existing older Windows PC. Whether desktop or laptop, you get two operating system choices for the cost of one computer. Remember that you pay for the Windows OS in the price of the computer. You also pay for upgrades to newer Windows releases and much of the software you run on Windows. The Linux OS is always free, even new releases. And Linux runs Open Source software, which is also free, so you always have a huge arsenal of great applications to meet your every need.

Whether you buy a Windows PC off the shelf or use your existing aging hardware, install a Linux distro in a separate partition on the hard drive yourself. The Linux installer will automatically create a dual boot GRUB startup screen. Turn on the computer -- or restart it -- to see the selection window. It's that simple!

Since the Linux OS is free, why not have both available even if you never need to boot into Windows? Newer computers will run any version of Linux faster than it runs Microsoft Windows. Some Linux distros specialize in running well on legacy gear.

Windows Plus Linux

Having two operating systems on one computer hurts nothing. Today's hard drives have more than enough storage capacity to handle all of the files from both systems and then some.

Some Linux versions, such as Damn Small Linux and Puppy Linux, run on low-powered older computers. Most Linux distros run from a CD or DVD in a live session without making any changes to the hard drive.

The trick is to access your data whether you run Windows or Linux. You could solve this problem by storing your data in the cloud or on a USB drive. Read on to learn how to keep your files in one location without maintaining duplicate sets of files for Windows and for Linux.

Installing Linux to run on the same computer that runs the Windows OS is not difficult to do, even for novice users. In fact, Linux installation disks automate the process for you.


When you set up your computer to run multiple operating systems from one hard drive, the start up process involves dualbooting. To do this, you must partition the hard drive.

The Linux installation process does all of the heavy lifting for you. It shrinks the large Windows partition into a smaller one. It creates a new partition and installs the Linux distribution you selected.

Most Linux installation disks include a process that installs GRUB, the Grand Unified Bootloader. GRUB lets you preselect the default OS to run if you do not make a selection in the allotted time.

Windows Is Antisocial

The Windows OS does not recognize the existence of other operating systems. Windows does not provide any way for you to access your other operating systems or files installed alongside it on the hard drive.

But Linux makes up for that Windows personality complex. Nearly all Linux distros recognize Windows on a hard drive. Knowing that Linux sees the Windows partition even when Windows does not reciprocate lets you store all of your documents, videos, music and whatever just where you would put them when using the Windows OS.

This lets you access everything when you run the Linux OS. It eliminates wasted storage space from having duplicate files on two partitions. It also eliminates the troubles associates with not opening the most recent document if you alternate between Windows and Linux often.

The soon-to-be-released Windows 8 OS makes an even more compelling case for migrating to Linux and keeping Windows 7 available in reserve, at least until you work in Linux full time. Windows 8, thanks to Microsoft's pressure tactics against PC makers, will have a mechanism that blocks any other OS from booting.

Finding Your Files

There is only one really tricky part in storing your files on the Windows partition. You must find where your Windows files are located and how to see them using the Linux file directories.

Finding your file storage location is largely a function of how the desktop environment of the distro you use displays the storage locations. For example, you might see icons on the desktop itself showing the Windows and the Linux volumes of the hard drive. Your system might display icons for each volume as well as icons for each plugged in USB drive.

Or your system may not place drive icons on the desktop. But it will let you select all available storage devices as part of the Nautilus or Dolphin or other Linux file manager apps.

Click on the various icons and file manager entries to find where the Windows partition of the hard drive is displayed. You will know you found the right location when you see folders labeled: Program Files, Program Files (x86) and Documents and Settings. The Linux OS does not use these types of folders. Most file manager apps let you bookmark locations for easy return visits.

Getting There

Unlike Microsoft Windows, Linux does not designate hard drive contents with letters (C:, D:. E:, etc.) Instead, Linux uses word labels or a multi-digit numbers for each storage device. The K Desktop Environment, for example, labels the Windows volume after the name of the computer maker in the Devices section of the file listing. It shows The Linux portion as Home in the Computer file listing.

Once you find the volume designation for the Windows OS file side of the hard drive, click on the Documents and Settings folder. Then drill down to the User folder. It will show whatever name you set up when you first ran the Windows OS. Click on this folder to open its content listing.

Now you will see all of the folders that the Windows menu and the Windows File Manager displays when you run that OS. You can click on the various folders that hold your stored data: My Documents, My Pictures, Downloads, Videos, etc.

You can bookmark each of these sub folders in the Linux file manager app or just bookmark the main Windows location. Some Linux distros let you place shortcuts to locations right on the desktop. Then you merely point the file picker dialog box to the appropriate area when you want to open a file in your Linux applications. You can also create new documents and save them to the same Windows OS location.

Safer and Better

Most computer users see a choice between hardware that runs either Apple's or Microsoft's operating system. They usually settle for what they learned to use in school or at work or at home. They are surprised to find out that a third choice -- Linux -- is free and easy to use.

Linux is a mature,stable and reliable operating system. It needs no resource-hogging anti-virus and anti-maleware applications to bog down the computer's performance.

Dual booting into Windows or Linux is easy to set up. Storing all your data files in one place accessible to both OSes makes migrating to Linux a no-brainer.

Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear.

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