How to upgrade from Windows 7 to Ubuntu – Hardware and software considerations
Some time ago, Rhys Davies wrote a timely article, titled Why you should upgrade to Ubuntu. In it, he outlined a high-level overview of what the end of support of Windows 7 signifies for the typical user, the consideration – and advantages – of migrating to Ubuntu as an alternative, and the basic steps one should undertake to achieve this.
We’d like to expand on this idea. We will provide a series of detailed, step-by-step tutorials that should help less tech-savvy Windows 7 users migrate from their old operating system to Ubuntu. We will start with considerations for the move, with emphasis on applications and data backup. Then, we will follow up with the installation of the new operating system, and finally cover the Ubuntu desktop tour, post-install configuration and setup.
What are we going to do?
This series will cover the following topics:
- Preparation for the migration – In the first installment here, we will cover the options available to Windows 7 users, the necessary checklist of steps before the actual migration, and the data backup ahead of the change.
- Installation of Ubuntu – In essence, Ubuntu is an operating system, just like Windows. This guide will go through the different scenarios by which the Windows 7 users will be able to install Ubuntu on their machine. The operating system installation is not a trivial process, especially for users without prior knowledge in this domain, and we want to make this part of the journey as seamless as possible.
- Post-install configuration – Once Ubuntu is installed, the user will need to familiarize themselves with the new operating system, the layout of the desktop, the applications, and other settings that form part of the day-to-day desktop usage. For many people, the question of whether they will be able to continue using their apps is a critical one, and we will pay special care to this aspect of the overall experience.
Before we start, it is important to clarify some of the tech lingo we will use in this series of tutorials. Technical terms get thrown about with wild abandon (think photon phasers), and often, they are confusing and intimidating to ordinary users. Indeed, each of the articles will have its own table of jargon – to help you understand and navigate the topic effectively.
|Phrase||In Windows||In Ubuntu|
|Operating system||Windows||Ubuntu (Linux)*|
|Distribution||N/A – the closest analogy is version (see below).||The flavour of the operating system. Examples include Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, etc.|
|Version||7, 8.1, 10, etc.||Numerical – 16.04, 18.10, typically denotes YY.MM of release. There are also point releases (e.g. 18.04.3), which signify updates from when a specific version was released.|
Names – Ubuntu releases also have names that correspond to the version number. For example, Ubuntu 18.04 is called Bionic Beaver, so if anyone says Bionic, Beaver, Ubuntu 18.04 or just 18.04, they mean the same thing.
|Desktop environment||N/A – the closest analogy for this term is Aero, Metro, Modern, which define the type of visual styling of the desktop in Windows.||The presentation layer that includes the desktop, toolbars, window decorations, other styling elements.|
The desktop environment also includes usage model (behaviour – like single-click, double-click, position of window controls, etc).
Desktop environments are usually closely associated with the distribution, e.g. Ubuntu uses the GNOME desktop environment, whereas Kubuntu uses the Plasma desktop environment. Some distributions offer more than one edition, e.g. they come with different desktop environments.
* Linux (also GNU/Linux) is an operating system kernel, upon which many distributions are based, including Ubuntu. Some of the distributions share a large number of underlying components, but differ in others. Quite often, in day-to-day parlance, terms are interchangeable. Someone may use the word Linux to refer to their choice of the operating system. It is worth mentioning that techies have strong, passionate options about all this terminology, but we won’t go into that here.
What options do Windows 7 users have?
If you’re a Windows 7 user, as of January 14, 2020, the operating system is no longer supported, unless you’re paying for extended support. For most if not all home users, this is not a viable option.
Running an operating system that no longer receives updates and security patches can be problematic in some scenarios. Tech-savvy users will have the knowledge and means to maintain their setup working in a safe manner, but most folks will not necessarily have the skills needed to continue using an end-of-life (EOL) operating system. The most reasonable solution is to migrate to a supported operating system.
- Buy a new computer, which comes preinstalled with a supported operating system (Windows 10, macOS, etc) – This is probably the least intrusive option, especially if you have planned on changing your hardware anyway. However, it requires a financial investment and necessitates adapting to the new device and operating system.
- Upgrade to Windows 10 – This is the likely course of action for the majority of users. They can do this by running the Windows 10 Media Creation Tool, which will upgrade their Windows 7 instance to Windows 10. However, users still running Windows 7 probably have solid reasons for not having upgraded to Windows 10 by now.
- Upgrade to a non-Windows alternative – Effectively, this means Linux. The notable advantage of this step is that most Linux distributions are offered free of charge, and do not have strict licensing conditions tied into their usage. This makes Linux a viable option, but it also requires learning new terminology and usage patterns, which can be quite challenging. In this series of articles, we will focus on Ubuntu.
Why you should consider Ubuntu
The easiest way to explain why Ubuntu is to think of smartphones. Why iPhone? Why Android? Both offer certain advantages, and they also mandate their own ways of doing things. There is no fundamental right or wrong here – only what best suits the user’s needs.
Here are some reasons why Ubuntu can be a good candidate for migration from Windows 7:
- Ubuntu is a free, open-source operating system developed and supported by Canonical. However, parts of Ubuntu are based on other projects (often referred to as upstream), so there is a strong element of collaboration with the wider open-source community.
- It is a robust, safe operating system. It has a bi-annual release model; every six months, a new version is released (April and October, hence the version numbers 18.04, 19.10). Every two years in April, a new Long Term Release Support (LTS) version is released, which comes with five years of updates and security fixes for home users. For example, the current LTS is Ubuntu 20.04 Focal Fossa, released in April 2020, and will be supported until April 2025 (extended support is available to commercial customers). The next LTS will be released in April 2022.
- Ubuntu is used by millions of users and comes with a rich ecosystem of software – popular applications for many aspects of the typical desktop usage. For example, Firefox, Chrome, Skype, Steam, Spotify, VLC are all available on Ubuntu.
The image above shows a typical desktop session in Ubuntu, with Firefox and Skype; the desktop environment is GNOME, and it uses a slightly different visual layout than what Windows 7 users are accustomed to. The taskbar is split over the top and left sides of the screen. The top part contains the system area (tray), calendar, and notifications. The left part contains an application launcher (dock), where you can pin your favourite applications.
Now, equally, it is also important to mention reasons why one might not be able to migrate to Ubuntu (or any flavour of Linux):
- They do not have the necessary technical knowledge to install and configure the operating system themselves – if they have a technically adept friend who can help, great, but otherwise, they are not interested in doing any hands-on work themselves. In this case, buying a new computer that comes preinstalled with Ubuntu could be a good idea.
- They do not have the necessary knowledge or time to learn a new usage model and want to continue using a familiar desktop like Windows. For such users, the migration could be a frustrating experience.
- They require specific software that is not available for Ubuntu. Just like there are differences in available apps for iOS and Android, so are there for Windows and Ubuntu. There is no parity in the software choice between the two operating systems. With Windows being the most popular desktop (roughly 85% total usage), potential future Ubuntu users will naturally look for Ubuntu-compatible software that matches their Windows needs.
The table below provides an overview of typical software choices, and their availability in Ubuntu. Y means the application is available natively, as in Windows. N means there is no suitable equivalent. P means there is an alternative application available that offers a partial set of functionality, and/or requires different usage to achieve the same results.
|Application||Windows||Ubuntu||Alternative & notes|
|Firefox||Y||Y||No change required.|
|Chrome||Y||Y||No change required.|
|Opera||Y||Y||No change required.|
|Microsoft Office||Y||P||You can use the online version of Microsoft Office through a browser like Firefox or Chrome. This requires setting up an account. You can also use a free alternative office suite, like LibreOffice or OnlyOffice Desktop Editors.|
|Outlook||Y||P||You can use an alternative mail client like Evolution or Thunderbird.|
|Windows Media Player||Y||P||You can use an alternative media player like VLC.|
|VLC||Y||Y||No change required.|
|Spotify||Y||Y||No change required.|
|Steam||Y||Y||Some game titles are Windows-only and will not be available.|
|Discord||Y||Y||No change required.|
|Skype||Y||Y||No change required.|
|Slack||Y||Y||No change required.|
|Telegram Desktop||Y||Y||No change required.|
|Acrobat Reader||Y||P||You can use an alternative PDF reader like Evince or Okular.|
|Photoshop||Y||P||You can use an alternative image manipulation suite like GIMP.|
|Premier||Y||P||You can use DaVinci Resolve.|
|Lightroom||Y||P||You can use an alternative image manipulation tool like Darktable.|
|Java||Y||Y||Ubuntu uses OpenJDK.|
|Media codecs||P||Y||Ubuntu offers a larger set of media codecs by default.|
By and large, Ubuntu has good, broad support for hardware, and often you will not require to make any manual modifications, like installation of drivers, to fully initialize and use your hardware. There can be exceptions, and in some cases, your particular hardware kit may not be fully supported. For instance, some printers may not have drivers for Ubuntu. Unfortunately, there is no definite list that can cover all the available scenarios.
However, one of the great advantages of Ubuntu is that it can run from live media, like DVD or USB thumb drive, without having to install it to the hard disk. This means you can fully trial Ubuntu on your computer to see whether you like the look & feel, test the applications, and check the hardware support – all without making any modifications to your computer! If you find something you don’t like, you can simply try a different Linux distribution.
We will cover this in the second article of this series.
If you do want to purchase a new computer that comes preinstalled with Ubuntu, there are various commercial offerings available on the market. For instance, Dell ships XPS 13 Developer Edition preinstalled with Ubuntu, including optimized drivers specifically tailored for the laptop and its hardware.
If you feel the information provided above sounds like a practical, useful course of action to explore, then the next step is to begin the migration journey. Before we do anything with Ubuntu, we will back up the data in Windows 7. This is the most critical step of this entire process. If something goes wrong, your personal files will be intact.
Backing up your data
Broadly, there are two types of data:
- Personal files like photos, videos, documents, and others.
- Application settings, which include things like browser bookmarks, application interface layout configuration, themes, wallpapers, and other components.
In Windows 7, personal data may reside anywhere on the disk. For example, you could keep your files in the default locations (like Documents, Pictures, etc), or you could have a custom folder, something like C:\Files, or even store them on a separate drive, like D:\Data.
Application settings are stored inside the AppData folder inside your user folder. For instance, if your username is Igor, then the application settings will reside under C:\Users\Igor\AppData. By default, AppData is a hidden folder, and will not be visible in Windows Explorer. You will need to change the view options to see hidden files and folders.
Inside the AppData folder, there will be multiple sub-folders containing application settings. For example, your Firefox or Chrome profile, or your Skype settings and saved conversations will be stored here. Some of this data may not necessarily be required or relevant for the migration from Windows 7 to Ubuntu, but it is very useful to create a backup, should you ever need it.
The table below lists default locations for some popular applications:
* XXXXXXXX will be a random combination of strings and letters, e.g.: b4c3M6y7.
Later on, after we install Ubuntu, we will demonstrate how to use the saved application data to restore the Firefox profile. This means you will have all your bookmarks, your browsing history, even cookies and saved logins.
You have multiple options available for how to backup your data:
- Local backup – Create a copy of your data on another hard disk. Preferably, this will be an external drive that you can remove, so that you don’t accidentally delete anything during the installation of the new operating system. You can also burn data to DVD.
- Network backup – Store a copy of your data on another computer on your network. If you have more than one device available, you can copy/sync data between them. Again, if anything goes wrong, your data is intact.
- Cloud backup – This option may not necessarily be available or desired for all users. But it may be a suitable backup method in some cases. For instance, you could be using a cloud backup service like OneDrive or Dropbox to periodically sync your data into your cloud account. You could also save files in your Google Drive. Signed-in Chrome users can sync their browser data to their Google account. Similarly, if you set up Firefox Sync, you can keep an online backup of your Firefox data. Other applications may offer similar settings.
- Replace your hard disk – In addition to retaining your existing data from Windows 7 on the old hard disk, this gives you an opportunity to upgrade to a larger device or faster storage (like SSD), and then use the disk with Windows data with a USB connection, for instance.
Create local or network backup
You can manually copy the data or use a dedicated utility to help you with the data move:
- Copy files using Windows Explorer.
- Copy files using a replication tool like Karen’s Replicator.
- Create an archive (zip or 7z) file of your files. This allows you to place a large number of files and folders into a single archive, which makes it convenient if you need to copy or move data around. You will also benefit from compression, making the size of your total data set smaller. Furthermore, you can also create encrypted archives, to protect your data from accidents (especially if you intend to store your files online). You can use software like 7-Zip to create archives with a password.
Creating a password-protected archive in 7z format (zip is also available).
Having to change the operating system on your computer is not everyone’s idea of fun. In some cases, it is a prudent, or even necessary activity. The end of support for Windows 7 creates uncertainty for a large number of users, but it may be possible to work around them with minimal disruption – and perhaps even have some fun in the process.
Hopefully, this tutorial provides a good overview of what lies ahead – the questions around hardware and software, the expectations of what you will have once you install Ubuntu, and how to keep your data safe. The next step is to install Ubuntu, which we will cover in the next part of this series.
Photo by Barth Bailey on Unsplash.