How to Install Linux on a Virtual Machine: The Distro

This article is part of a series on how to install Linux on Windows and Mac. As there are several factors to consider, which range from the choice of the Linux distribution to the configuration of the virtual machine itself, I divided this procedure into three articles:

Overview of the procedure, hardware and software considerations 

This article provides an overview of the elements to consider before you install Linux on your Windows or Mac computer. 

Part One: Choosing a Linux distribution as your second OS

This article. In it, you will learn about the different characteristics specific to Linux, which will help you decide the ideal distro to choose as your additional operating system. 

Part Two: Configuring a Linux Virtual Machine 

This article provides a step-by-step guide on how to configure the parameters of the virtual machine that will host your new Linux OS. 

If you already are familiar with Linux and its distributions, then skip ahead to the last article of this series (configuring the Virtual Machine).

The Basics: Downloading the Linux Distro You Want to Use on Your Virtual Machine

To boot Linux from a virtual machine, you first need to get a copy of the operating system. In the CD and DVD era, you had to get a hold of a physical copy of the OS. Nowadays, things are much more straightforward. All you have to do is visit the official Linux distribution website and download its disc image. 

For those new to this concept, a disc image (aka ISO image or ISO file) is a virtual copy of a software program or operating system. Unlike .exe or .dmg files, however, ISO files require a particular procedure before being usable. You can’t simply double-click on a Linux ISO file and launch the OS that way. Instead, you have to either burn the ISO on a bootable USB drive or boot it from a dedicated virtual machine. 

Even though downloading the disc image of an operating system is a simple process, choosing the appropriate ISO image isn’t always as obvious.  

Most Linux distributions will offer several ISO images, each one with its peculiarities. You might stumble upon different files, categorized by one (or several) of the following: 

The Distribution Flavors

A Linux flavor represents the use of a distro paired with a specific desktop environment (aka DE). Many distributions offer a choice between several flavors (DEs). 

Some, such as Linux Mint, will add the name of the desktop environment to the ISO filename

Others, such as Ubuntu, take things further and change the name of the distribution according to its flavor. Ex: Kubuntu for Ubuntu + KDE Plasma 5, Lubuntu for Ubuntu + LXQt, Xubuntu for Ubuntu + Xfce, etc.  

The Linux Releases

Many Linux distributions offer a choice between different releases. Generally, a release represents a specific version of the OS.

  • Distributions such as Ubuntu offer the choice between two releases. The first one will be older but highly stable and comes with LTS (Long Term Support). The second is more recent, but not as stable and is for those with brand new hardware or those who are already comfortable with Linux and the prospect of having to troubleshoot issues.   
  • Other distributions such as Debian offer several releases, including stable, unstable and testing (more on that HERE), as well as a live version and an unofficial version including nonfree firmware. If you ever opt for Debian as your distro of choice, I highly recommend sticking to the unofficial nonfree version. To know more, read THIS article.  
  • Most Linux distributions offer a different ISO image for 32-bit and 64-bit architectures. Make sure to download the ISO image that corresponds to your system’s architecture. Choosing a 64-bit release while your system runs 32-bit will result in an inoperational distro. Using a 32-bit Linux release while your computer runs 64-bit will result in a severely underperforming distribution. You can find a reminder of the hardware information you need to gather in the overview article
  • Some distributions (but far from the majority) offer a specific ISO image for the live version of their OS. The goal of this version is to test the distro on your computer and get a feel for it. Because we are installing Linux on a virtual machine, do not use a live version ISO. It counteracts the whole purpose of using a VM as the goal is to install Linux on your computer in a way that mimics a full hard drive installation. Use the regular ISO release instead. Note that most distros offer the live version directly within the installation wizard; make sure to select the full disc installation option when booting the OS for the first time. 

Choosing the Right Linux Distribution for Your Virtual Machine

Your virtual machine will need to host the disc image of an operating system before being functional. VirtualBox provides the “shell” that will host your OS, but you need to have the operating system itself on hand. As we have discussed above, only one filetype will work: a disc image, which will end with the “.iso” extension.

Picture of penguins. There exist several Linux distributions. The best Linux distro for your Virtual Machine will depend on several factors.

One of the most crucial steps when installing Linux on a virtual machine is to decide which distribution (and desktop environment) to choose. 

If it is the first time you hear about desktop environments, then I suggest reading this article on them (LINK). 

Factors to Consider When Choosing a DE

The desktop environment weight

Some DEs are “heavyweight,” while others are “lightweight.” If your Windows or Mac hardware isn’t top-notch, you might want to consider opting for a lightweight desktop environment. What you might think is little in terms of RAM or storage space might be regarded as more than enough for someone else. The number is arbitrary to some extent. However, to give a general idea, if you have less than 8 GB of RAM or less than 125 GB of internal disc storage, choose a lightweight desktop environment. 

The DE’s widget toolkit

In layman’s terms, a widget toolkit represents the collection of graphical control elements used by a DE. All you need to know is that developers sometimes create applications for specific widget toolkits. If you want to install Linux because you want to use some of its software applications, make sure to check whether the app is compatible across all desktop environments. A simple way of knowing whether an app will work on your DE is to check for the following:

  • An app that has the word GNOME in it is for the GNOME 3 desktop environment (the default DE of Ubuntu) or MATE.   
  • An app that has the word KDE in it is for KDE Plasma 5. 
  • An app that mentions using the GTK toolkit is for GNOME 3, MATE, Xfce, or LXDE. 
  • An app that mentions using the Qt toolkit is for LXQt or KDE Plasma 5. 

Choosing a Linux distribution

It would take to long to elaborate on all the different Linux distributions available. If you are brand new to Linux and use older hardware, consider reading this article comparing seven lightweight Linux distributions

If you are unfamiliar with Linux and want an in-depth guide about some of its main distributions, consider these articles: Debian, Ubuntu (LINK), and Linux Mint (LINK).

If you’d prefer to get the gist of Linux distros, consider the following: 

Make sure to read the minimal hardware requirements of your potential distribution before committing to it. Also remember that by booting the Linux distro from a virtual machine, you might have to give up significant RAM and storage space. The lower the minimal hardware requirements, the smaller the virtual machine’s RAM and storage needs. A distro that requires little in terms of hardware will allow you to maintain optimal system performance.

Do you want to try a reliable, well-known distribution that is often the default first Linux OS people try out? Then opt for Ubuntu. Be aware, however, that Ubuntu can be somewhat taxing on your hardware. Download link: Note that Ubuntu provides a single DE by default (GNOME 3). If you’d rather use a lighter desktop environment, take a look at the Ubuntu flavors ( If you download the default Ubuntu release and want to switch from GNOME 3 to another DE, you can find instructions on how to do so here

Would a lightweight Linux distribution be the best choice for you? If you use an older computer or want to set up two or more Linux virtual machines, then a lightweight distro is all indicated. Consider:

Bodhi Linux (,

Linux Lite (,

PCLinuxOS (

Peppermint Linux OS ( 

Photo of baby penguins. Opting for a lightweight Linux distribution.

Do you want a hands-on approach and are comfortable with the use of the Terminal? Then Debian might be a good fit. If you wish to better your command line skills and like the opportunity of choosing two or more desktop environments from the get-go, give Debian a chance. Be aware though that installing several DEs might not be the wisest thing to do (more on that HERE). 

Now that we have reviewed which distribution would be the best candidate for your Linux virtual machine, it is time to look at the VM configurations. Click here for the last part of this series: configuring the virtual machine.

Owner and content creator behind Geeky girl and blogger based in Montreal, Canada. Chocolate and nature lover (in that order). View all posts by Larryssa →

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