If you want to try out the improved Windows Subsystem for Linux 2 (aka WSL 2) in the latest Windows versions here’s how — we cover everything you need to do to install it in this post.
WSL 2 is a major upgrade over the original version of WSL that Microsoft introduced back in 2017. WSL 2 isn’t a mere version bump. It’s faster, more versatile, and uses a real Linux kernel. Future Linux kernel updates are even released as Windows 10 software updates — which is kinda crazy when you think about it!
Microsoft’s goal in creating WSL 2 is to boost performance. And the best way to do that? Add full system call compatibility, i.e. put a real Linux kernel at the heart of things.
“[This] new architecture presents a better platform for the WSL team to deliver features that make WSL an amazing way to run a Linux environment in Windows,” say Microsoft of the tech.
The crazy shows no sign of abating just yet as Microsoft plans to let users run desktop Linux apps on Windows 10 and leverage GPU-intensive tasks. It’s also making it possible to install WSL in a single command.
For now, unless you’re riding the latest insider builds, WSL 2 is something that requires a bit of effort to set up — but isn’t having a full Linux system at your beck and call inside of Windows worth that?
Install WSL 2 on Windows 10
To install WSL 2 on Windows 10 you need the following things:
- Windows 10 May 2020 (2004), Windows 10 May 2019 (1903), or Windows 10 November 2019 (1909) or later
- A computer with Hyper-V Virtualization support
Although the Windows 10 May 2020 update was released in May 2020 not every device is currently able to upgrade to it. To see if the Windows 10 May 2020 Update is available on your computer go to Settings > Update & Security > Windows Update.
If you can’t upgrade, don’t panic. In August 2020 Microsoft backported WSL 2 to older versions of Windows 10. Anyone on the 1903 or 1909 builds can install WSL 2 too – but must install Windows Update KB4566116 first.
Advanced (and impatient) Windows users can also force install the Windows 10 May 2020 update, just keep in mind that you may encounter missing drivers, GUI glitches, or other hardware hiccups if you go this route.
Technically you can install WSL 2 on an “insider” build of Windows 10 build 18917 or later. I’m not too familiar with how the “insider” build system works so just be aware that the rest of this post is based on using the feature on a stable version of Windows.
Your computer also needs to support Hyper-V Virtualization to run WSL 2. You can check your Hyper-V support to be sure.
If you don’t meet both of the requirements then you cannot install or enable WSL 2 — but you can use WSL 1.
The process of installing WSL 2 on Windows 10 is this:
- Enable WSL 2
- Enable ‘Virtual Machine Platform’
- Set WSL 2 as default
- Install a Linux distro
I’ll walk through each of these steps in turn using the PowerShell app, which you need to run as an administrator. You can find PowerShell in the Windows Start Menu.
Note: it is possible to install WSL 1 using a GUI too but it’s much faster to use the command line, and since WSL is a CLI tool it kinda makes sense too!
Step 1. Enable WSL
Regardless of which version of WSL you want to use you first need to enable it. To do this open the PowerShell tool as an Administrator and run the command below. Be careful not to mistype or leave out any character in the command:
dism.exe /online /enable-feature /featurename:Microsoft-Windows-Subsystem-Linux /all /norestart
Only want to use WSL 1? You can skip to step 4.
Step 2. Enable ‘Virtual Machine Platform’
WSL 2 requires Windows 10’s “Virtual Machine Platform” feature to be enabled. This is separate from Hyper-V and hands some of the more interesting platform integrations available in the new version of the Windows Subsystem for Linux.
To enable Virtual Machine Platform on Windows 10 (2004) open PowerShell as Administrator and run:
dism.exe /online /enable-feature /featurename:VirtualMachinePlatform /all /norestart
To enable Virtual Machine Platform on Windows 10 (1903, 1909) open PowerShell as Administrator and run:
Enable-WindowsOptionalFeature -Online -FeatureName VirtualMachinePlatform -NoRestart
To ensure all of the relevant bits and pieces fall neatly in to place you should restart your system at this point or you may find that things don’t work as intended.
Step 3. Set WSL 2 as default
Open PowerShell as Administrator and run this command to set WSL 2 as the default version of WSL:
wsl --set-default-version 2
You can (at any time) configure a distro to run in WSL 1 mode if you need to.
Step 4. Install a distro
With WSL and the necessary virtualisation tech all in place all that is left for you to do is pick and install a Linux distro from the Microsoft Store.
Several different distros are available, including OpenSUSE, Pengwin, Fedora Remix, and Alpine Linux. But my personal recommendation is (naturally) Ubuntu 20.04 LTS (though 18.04 LTS and 16.04 LTS are also available).
To install Ubuntu on Windows 10 open the Microsoft Store app, search for “Ubuntu 20.04”, and hit the “Get” button:
Whilst you in the Microsoft Store I highly recommend that you also install the open source Windows Terminal app. This tool is designed to give you the best possible WSL experience:
5. Use WSL 2
When you installed Ubuntu (or a different Linux distro) a shortcut was added to the Start Menu. Use this to “open” Ubuntu (or whichever distro you chose). The first time you run the distro things will seem a little slow. This is expected; the distro has to unpack and decompress all of its contents — just don’t interrupt the process.
You will also be promoted to set a username and password for use on the distro. Try to pick something you won’t forget.
Convert Ubuntu on WSL 1 to WSL 2
If you use WSL 1 you can upgrade an existing WSL 1 installation to WSL 2. To convert an existing WSL 1 distro to WSL 2 run the following in PowerShell, e..g,:
wsl.exe --set-version Ubuntu 2
You should replace ‘Ubuntu’ with the name of whichever distro your WSL 1 install runs.