Installing Linux on a Windows PC that won't boot a removable device
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By Pastychomper at 2014-04-30 09:06
Many PCs are sold without floppy drives, and those which are a few years old may be unable to boot from a USB device. Some laptops also lack working CD drives. To make matters worse, the preinstalled set-up usually makes it impossible to create or free up a hard disc partition while running the default operating system.
There are various utilities, e.g. WUBI, which allow Linux to be installed in a loopback device on a Windows partition, but this method has one or two drawbacks.
Fortunately, there is another way, using the closed-source but free-to-use Plop boot manager. This method is straightforward, but it requires the system to have a working operating system and a USB port. I assume the pre-installed OS is Windows, as is likely in most cases, but Plop's website includes instructions for Linux and DOS.
You will also need at least one USB memory stick.
Download the Plop boot manager.
An old Windows installation might contain a virus or two, so to avoid allowing anything nasty to 'phone home' it might be worth downloading it on another computer and transferring via memory stick.
In Windows, extract the Plop Zip file and run InstallToBootMenu.bat.
If you feel lucky, you may be tempted to use InstallToMBR and skip to step 7, BUT remember that if you clobber the bootloader and then find that Plop doesn't work for you, you'll be left with an oddly-shaped paperweight.
Reboot, and select Plop from the boot menu.
Plug in a bootable USB stick and select "USB" from Plop's main menu. Make sure the USB stick boots all the way!
If the stick fails to boot, you might need to enter Plop setup and alter the "Force USB 1.1" entry. I found that "Mode1" worked for my old Toshiba convertable.
Reboot into Windows and install Plop to the hard disc's MBR. That way, you will still be able to boot the machine if you corrupt the Windows partition later.
This is the most dangerous step, since if it fails you could end up with a brick, so pray you don't get a sudden power surge half way through! :o) Fortunately, the actual writing process is very quick.
Plop can be installed from a live Linux distribution if you prefer, to save you a reboot.
Using the newly-installed boot manager, reboot to a USB stick containing a utility distibution such as Parted Magic.
Shrink the Windows partition using a partition editor (GParted worked well for me) and add your preferred arrangement of Linux partition(s). Don't forget a swap partition if the system's short of RAM.
Read Note 10 below, then reboot and install the Linux distro of your choice from a USB stick.
If you're using an oldish system, remember to choose a lightweight distro.
During the installation, you will need to put a Linux bootloader somewhere. The obvious choices are to install it to a Linux partition, leaving Plop as the initial boot manager, or to put the bootloader on the MBR as usual, which will clobber Plop. Most Linux installers will happily do either, and both methods should work equally well.
There are good reasons to leave Plop on the disc: Despite the name it's prettier and boots more devices than any other boot manager I've come across, and you never know when you might want to boot a rescue system. Plus, writing another bootloader to the MBR repeats the (small) risk of bricking the system if something goes wrong, as mentioned above.
On the other hand, Plop is not open source, plus there is a small theoretical malware risk if it was originally installed from a potentially-compromised system.
My preferred method is to install Grub (or whatever) to the MBR, but have Plop on another partition in case you want it. The easiest way to do this is to leave the Windows partition intact.