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I have installed all sorts of GNU/Linux distributions on all sorts of machines.

Common for them has been that the bootloader (LILO/GRUB) is always installed last.

This has again and again been annoying when there is trouble with the bootloader, because you would have to wait for a full installation before you can retry the boot loader.

To me it would make more sense to have the guide do:

  1. Set up file system (default password if any is needed)
  2. Install a bare minimal but bootable system consisting of:
    • boot loader and kernel
    • rescue shell
    • CLI package manager
    • possibly graphical tools for package manager (+ dependencies)
  3. Boot into the new system if you want to
  4. Change default password
  5. Choose language, username, password, network, printer, ...
  6. Install the rest

The idea being: First we need to get a bootable system. If that works, then the guide will help you do the rest after booting. And if something fails while installing the rest you get a chance to rescue that.

As it is now, a failing installation of LibreOffice will keep the system unbootable (unless you are an advanced user, that can bypass the guide).

Is there a technical reason the distributions wait until the very end to install the boot loader?

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Some reasons:

You need to have a file system to place the kernel on before you can install the boot loader (LILO doesn't care about file systems, so technically you could do without, but it becomes a pain to upgrade the kernel). So it really can't be the first step, and depending on the disc+fs setup those previous steps can a long time.

You'll want the kernel to come from a package, so it makes some sense to install it along with other packages.

Until you know that every other part of the installation went well, you can't decide on whether it makes sense to make the new installation the default in the bootloader, so if there are other systems installed the bootloader has to start guessing (or ask some potentially confusing questions) which won't be overwritten later in the process, and which shold be the default and perhaps revisit this later during the installation.

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This has again and again been annoying when there is trouble with the bootloader, because you would have to wait for a full installation before you can retry the boot loader.

This is wrong. Most Linux distributions offer some way to simply (and only) reinstall the boot loader on an otherwise correct disk. For example, on Debian installer ISO you can start a shell to run grub-install (and IIRC there is even a menu entry for that).

BTW, what you propose (installing a minimal system and reboot) is possible on most Linux distributions. You just install a small system (e.g. without selecting any desktop or GUI or display server -no X11 or Wayland server! - thru Debian's tasksel), then you reboot and you install the rest on the command line. I've done that several times. However, you need to be fluent with the Unix command line (and most Linux newbies are not).

Henrik's answer covers the rest of your questions.

As it is now, a failing installation of LibreOffice will keep the system unbootable.

I'm surprised. IIRC, I did even install a Debian minimal graphical environment (e.g. icewm based) without having Libreoffice.

  • I think you are focusing on installation users, who know how to configure everything by hand. That is not my focus. I am focusing on the normal user, who do not know which packages he should install after booting into the minimal system: I.e. where does the guide continue after installing the minimal system. – Ole Tange Jul 26 '17 at 7:18
  • On Debian, the only command to know (for installing more stuff on a bare command-line system) is tasksel – Basile Starynkevitch Jul 26 '17 at 7:22

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