Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Windows to Linux; Now with moving pictures!

This guide is going to look at how you can use Linux to substitute your regular Windows desktop using freely available programs. It will also cover where to find and place basic files such as photos, movies and documents as well as a brief overview of how the Ubuntu file-system works in general.

What this guide will not cover is how to install Linux (there are a lot of guides for that already) and how to use Linux for professional purposes (to much depth to cover in one guide).

The Basics

For the purpose of this guide I will be using Ubuntu 10.10 as this is (at the time of writing) the most commonly used version of the most popular Linux distribution. Ubuntu is also a good choice for beginners as it has one of the largest communities who are renowned for being welcoming and helpful to newcomers as well as having a very large library of documentation to guide you through any conceivable task within Ubuntu.

Like all operating systems, Ubuntu has minimum and recommended system requirements, however compared to Windows Vista and 7 they are easily achievable;

  • 1GHz Processor
  • 512MB of RAM (Recommended 1GB)
  • 5GB of Hard Disk space available (recommended 15GB)
  • Video adapter capable of outputting 1024x768
  • CD/DVD Drive and/or a USB port
  • Ideally an Internet connection to install new software and updates.

Essentially, this means that any computer made in the last 4-5 years will have no trouble installing and running a full installation of Ubuntu. For older computers or models that do not meet the requirements, there are also different variations of Ubuntu available (such as 'Xubuntu') that can run on significantly lower specifications. As a general rule of thumb, if your already using Windows XP, Vista or 7; you can run Ubuntu much faster.

Finally, it is also worth noting some of the basic functions that can be achieved right out of the box with Ubuntu – if these fulfill your needs, then you may not even need to read the rest of this guide!

  • Open Office Suite; This is a fully featured office suit that comes pre-installed by default with Ubuntu, to begin with you have the 'Word Processor', 'Spreadsheet', 'Drawing' and 'Presentation' programs installed which replicate the function of 'Word', 'Excel', 'Paint' (sort of) and 'Powerpoint' respectively. To anyone who has used the 2003 Microsoft Office suit, the layout will be instantly familiar. Additional Open Office programs can be installed through the Ubuntu Software Center.
  • Firefox web browser; Many people will probably already be Firefox users in which case no explanation is necessary, however for the uninitiated Firefox is a web browser much like Internet Explorer. The general consensus is that Firefox is considerably more secure and faster than the current version of Internet Explorer and it also allows for extensive user customization through the use of addons.
  • Evolution Mail and Calendar; This is a powerful email and organiser client that emulates the function of 'Outlook' in that it offers almost identical features. Very easy to setup and use, Evolution comes with its settings pre-configured for many common mail providers such as Yahoo! and Gmail, so all you need to do is enter your address and password.

Customizing Your Desktop

One of the main advantages of Linux and Ubuntu is the control the user has over their computer. It is possible to change any aspect of how your computer appears or functions, from the style and look of your desktop through to what your computer does while it is starting up. In this guide, we will look at some basic customization options that will help personalise your computer.

The above window can be reached via System → Preferences → Appearance, and it allows you to control many commonly changed aspects of your desktop. The tab shown allows you to toggle between a variety of pre-installed and custom 'themes' that will change the appearance of windows, colours and folder/icon appearance. The 'Backgrounds' tab allows you to add and change wallpapers, additionally you can also choose to display slide shows as wallpapers much the same as can be done in Windows Vista and 7. Fonts can also be changed within the Fonts tab, this can effect how all text is displayed on your computer (expect in word processing applications). Finally there is the Visual Effects tab which lets you adjust the level of 'fanciness' in your desktop. This accounts mainly for a variety of effects when opening/closing/minimizing/moving windows but also for what effects occur when you move between desktops (see later chapter).

More advance users may feel comfortable installing major overhauls of the UI (user interface) made by fellow Ubuntu users. These are freely available from , installation instructions differ between packages, but most are very simple and well documented.

Installing New Software

Not only is the vast majority of software available for Ubuntu free, but it is also extremely easy to install. In fact, with a few clicks and a password you can install anything from a web browser through to a CAD program or a fully featured video editor. To install software all you need to do is open the 'Ubuntu Software Center' at Applications → Ubuntu Software Center and find something that takes your fancy!

This is the main screen for the software center and as you can see; its very user friendly and reminiscent of iTunes in some ways. Available programs are divided into categories, popular ('Featured') and new arrivals. You can also manage existing software from here under the Installed Software drop-down menu on the left. To install something, simply select the program you wish to install and press Install, Ubuntu will handle the rest for you and prompt you for the administrator password when needed. The process is the same for uninstalling software, albeit in reverse.

Again, for more advance users there is a more flexible and powerful (yet less user friendly) method of managing software 'packages' – the Synaptic Package Manager. Found at System → Administration → Synaptic Package Manager this application allows you to search a much wider library of software (some of which is not officially supported), mark as many packages for installation as you need and install/uninstall en masse. It also gives you access to library files and other more advance packages that may be required to accomplish very specific tasks. If you wish to use 'Synaptic, then installing software is done much the same way; right click on the packages you wish to install, select 'Mark for installation' and the click on 'Apply'. You will get a few more prompts (same password is needed), which you can just O.K most of the time.
For most of you however, many of the software packages will be unfamiliar, for example; who has heard of or used Déjà Dup Backup Tool? Probably no one, however it is easily one of the best, easy to use backup tools I have ever had the pleasure of using. So in order to cater for at least a few regularly used program types that aren't included with Ubuntu by default, here is a short list to keep an eye out for;

  • VLC, a fully featured media player that can play more or less any file type known to man. If it can't play a certain type right away there is a very good chance that someone has made a codec for it.
  • Cheese Webcam Booth, simple and easy to use webcam utility that lets you take photos and videos using your webcam. Like most webcam programs you can apply the obligatory visual effects and have numerous options for tweaking photos and videos.
  • OpenShot Video Editor, a powerful yet easy to use entry-level video editor that compares favorably with the likes of iMovie and Windows Movie Maker.
  • GIMP Image Editor, yes the name inspires a few giggles the first (few) times you see it, but in actual fact this is a very useful photo editor that has features on-par with Photoshop Elements. Also; GIMP stands for 'GNU Image Manipulation Program'.... You sickos.
  • Audacity, this particular title may familiar to any of you who have worked with audio editing before as it is very popular on Windows, Mac and Linux. For those of you who have not used this before, it is a powerful audio editor that can be used for anything from cutting a simple sound file a short or composing an entire song from samples on your computer.
  • Inkscape, again another program that some people may be very familiar with. This is a vector image editor that can be used for a large variety of tasks. Used in conjunction with GIMP, you have a very powerful digital art creation kit.
  • BlackLists, is a 'parental control' application that simply allows parents to control what, when and how their children use the computer. Fairly simple and straightforward to use, but certainly very effective at what it does (sorry kids).

Of course these are just a few of the thousand of freely available programs, but just this small collection alongside your Ubuntu installation gives you a fully featured desktop that is capable of almost any task you can throw at it. Better yet, it cost you nothing.

Where is my XYZ?

For the uninitiated, the file-system used in Ubuntu can be a bit daunting; anything other than your most basic folders (such as Photos, Music and Movies) do not have “normal” names. With titles such as 'dev', 'bin' and 'etc', browsing through your file-system can be a bit of a shock after coming from a Windows environment where all critical files/folders are hidden from view. This is one of the key differences between Linux and Windows – it is assumed you know not to touch things if you don't know what they do. For example, while browsing through your file-system on Ubuntu, you stumble across a folder called 'boot', is deleting this folder on the spot a logical thing to do? Windows assumes (occasionally rightly so) that the average user is prone to accidentally deleting system critical files, whereas Linux hides them from plain sight but allows you to easily find and modify them should you ever need to (advance users do this frequently). While both Operating Systems present valid points, there are of course pros and cons to both.

Therefore the nature of the Linux file-system makes it important to know just a little bit about how it works...

Firstly, there is '/' which is essentially the beginning of the file-system. In Windows this is similar to 'My Computer' or just 'Computer' in newer versions, in fact it is called Computer by a shortcut in your Places menu. From this spot, you can access all the system critical files and folders as well as users personal libraries and any external storage devices you have plugged in (pen drives, CD/DVD etc).

A quick glance over the list of folders here will reveal very little about what they do, however the 'media', 'home', and 'cdrom' folders are what we're going to look at for now. All of these are folders that you will use regularly (in one way or another) and are fairly straightforward in their use; media is where external storage *media* appears (is 'mounted'), home is where you will find your personal library folders such as Music, Photos etc, and cdrom is simply a shortcut to a folder called cdrom within your media folder where CD's and DVD's will appear. Another thing that you might have noticed is the lack of capitalisation in system critical folders, this is because Linux is case-sensitive – very important to remember when using the Terminal (more on that in later tutorials).

*Note; any files in the / directory other than the ones I have mentioned should be considered 'off-limits' for the time being as any modification or deletion of them (unless you know what your doing) can prevent your PC from functioning normally if at all.

Updates and Drivers

Like all operating systems, Ubuntu is regularly updated and on occasion you may need to hunt down a driver for a piece of hardware. Unlike Windows however, Ubuntu should work right 'out of the box' on most hardware – meaning you won't normally need to install extra bits and pieces to make your computer work properly. However there are a few pieces of hardware that will probably require you to download additional drivers to get full use out of them, main these are video and wireless network cards.

The above screenshot shows my 'Additional Drivers' window which can be accessed from System → Administration → Additional Drivers. As can be seen here, I have the option of changing drivers for my video card (the green dot shows which driver I currently have installed). To install a driver all you need to do is select the one you want and press 'Activate', Ubuntu will take care of the rest. You will also notice the short description on the bottom, this particular one mentions desktop effects cannot be enabled without this driver so many of the appearance options looked at earlier will not work without this driver having been activate/installed. This is also the case with other drivers; some features will not be available without driver software, be it wireless access or support for higher screen resolutions.


A few final points on Ubuntu; Ubuntu One and viruses.

This is the Ubuntu One menu, what is Ubuntu One? It is a free (for the first 2GB) cloud based storage service offered by Canonical (Ubuntu's best friend basically). Put simply; cloud storage is Internet based storage that you can access from anywhere with an Internet connection – so any data you put on here is available anywhere, anytime. That's not to say Ubuntu One is unsecure however as you have to register your account which is secured with a password much the same as your computer.

To begin with you are given 2GB (a decent amount) of space in the 'cloud' for free, and you can use this for whatever you want. If you decide you need more space, it can be purchased by going into System → Preferences → Ubuntu One which will bring up the above menu. From there all you need to do is hit “Upgrade your subscription” and you can then add additional blocks of 20GB for $2.99 USD each (per month).

Also, you Ubuntu One service, once signed up for, will place a folder under Places called Ubuntu One – this is where you store any files and folders that you wish to access with your Ubuntu One service.

Finally; viruses. Linux is more or less safe from viruses, however that doesn't mean there aren't dangers out there for you on the Internet. For starters, its only your computer which is safe, not information that leaves it – once information has left your computer it is up for grabs. For this type of situation the same rules apply here as do under Windows; always look for the padlock symbol in your web browser's address bar when entering personal information on a website. That padlock means that the website is using encryption methods that make it almost impossible for hackers to steal your personal information. The last thing you need to be careful of is keeping your administrator password safe. Whoever know this password has as much control over your computer as you do, which means they can do whatever they want. The simple way to avoid problems here is to choose a password that is 8-10 characters long and consists of at least one capital letter and one numeral/character.
Well that about covers it for now. Hopefully after reading all that waffle you feel confident moving from Windows to Ubuntu even if just to try it out for a while!

In later guides I will be looking at some more advance/specialized tutorials that will cover how to use certain programs, accessibility options in Ubuntu, advance customization and maybe just a little bit of Terminal work just to show you what can be done using nothing but a keyboard.

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