Replacing Your OS: Ubuntu Linux for the Casual User
I started this entry a while ago, but since it’s been a few months since I’ve posted here – I’ve been very active over on Google+ – I figured it was time to finish it and pull the trigger. I’ve been using Ubuntu for the better part of a year, and here’s why I think it’s awesome:
I’ve always been vaguely aware that Linux existed. In terms of operating systems, I knew that there was Windows and Mac OS, and then, somewhere out there, there was Linux. It might have had something to do with a penguin, I wasn’t really sure.
Before you make any snark comments, no, I’m not an idiot. I consider myself to be fairly computer-savvy and I believe I have a good working knowledge of how and why computers do what they do. It’s just that I never really considered Linux its own right. I’d always been content with Windows – for the most part – and never really felt the need to try anything else. Until recently.
About two years ago, my wife purchased a new laptop, a MacBook. This meant that her four-year-old Dell laptop was no longer needed. I made plans to refurbish it, but we moved shortly thereafter, I started a new job, and forgot all about it. Last spring, after pining after the just-released beta-tester-only CR-48 Chromebooks, I remembered my wife’s old laptop. I’m primarily a desktop user, but the ChromeOS on a laptop just seemed cool. I read somewhere that it was Linux-based, and that got me thinking about what I knew about Linux.
Here’s what I knew:
1. Linux is open-source. That means that anyone can make changes to the code.
2. Linux is free. Because of its open-source nature, most Linux-based products are free.
3. Linux is highly customizable. Again, because it’s open source, there can be infinite variations.
My assumptions turned out to be, for the most part, correct. I did some research about different versions of Linux (they call them “distros,” for “distributions”) to find the one that was best for me. I finally settled on Ubuntu, one of the most popular free desktop versions of Linux. There were a couple of reasons why I made this choice.
1. It’s stable and robust. Ubuntu Linux follows a regular stable release cycle every six months, and is intended to be a complete OS replacement, meaning it comes packaged with all the software you’d need, from Mozilla Firefox to an office productivity suite (Libre Office). Updates are also automatic and painless, and additional software can be downloaded free from the Software Center.
2. It’s easy on system resources. Ubuntu promised to be a cinch to run, which is a good thing since I was installing it on a five-year-old laptop with only 512 MB of RAM and a 30 GB hard drive. There are “lighter” versions of Linux (XFCE is one), but they aren’t quite as full-featured.
3. It’s pretty. I have to admit, Ubuntu won me over with the screenshots. I started with 10.10 (Maverick Meerkat), which looked great.
Using my desktop, I downloaded the Ubuntu 10.10 image and burned it to a CD. This was a little complicated and involved installing some extra programs to complete the task, but it was pretty straightforward. However, once I’d done it, I only have to do it once. Further updates go right to my laptop.
After installing Ubuntu and playing around for a bit, I made a few tweaks to customize it just the way I wanted it. One thing I did was install Docky, an Apple-like dock launcher that sits at the bottom of the screen. I also tweaked some of the system settings to make the most of my laptop’s limited resources.
At first, I used the laptop only as a back-up machine, for when I was sitting on the couch or wanted to take it somewhere. However, I increasingly came to rely on it for its convenience and ease-of-use. My desktop started experiencing problems, so I shut it down and transferred the essentials over to my laptop. Most of the stuff was already in the “cloud” via Dropbox, so this wasn’t difficult. Now I only turn on my desktop when I need to, and I’ve got a reliable machine to use until I can afford a new one.
I’ve already gone through two major updates, to 11.04 (Natty Narwhal) and 11.10 (Oneiric Ocelot), both of which worked well. 11.10 is drastically different, with the new Unity interface and launcher. (Yes, yes, I know Unity was included with 10.04 but it wasn’t quite ready for my machine. 11.10 runs like a dream.) I really like it. Care for a tour?
This what the desktop looks like. I’ve got the Main Menu open so you can see what the basic options are. Pretty standard fare here. Also, you can see I still have my Game of Thrones wallpaper up.
When I sign in, I have my own personal account with administrator privileges, but the option of “Guest Session” is available at the login screen. However, in order to make any changes to the system, such as installing new program, Ubuntu asks for my password – even when I’m signed in. No program can make changes without permission, so the threat of malware or viruses is reduced to virtually zero. That kind of security is very reassuring.
The Launcher and Dash
The highlight of the new distro is the Launcher, which is both a dock and start button. Clicking the Ubuntu logo (or hitting the WIN key on the keyboard) launches the Dash, which leads me to all my programs and files. This makes finding files or programs a snap because all I have to do is type the name. I can also click one of the categories at the bottom – Apps, Files, or Music – to browse through my collections.
Here’s what the App Dash looks like. It automatically shows my six most frequently used apps, as well as some suggestions for apps I might like to download from the Software Center. I can also browse through all of the apps I have installed. If I want to add one to the launcher, I just drag it over to the dock to moor it there permanently.
Banshee Music Player
Ubuntu comes with the Banshee Music Player, which is free and open source. It works great and it’s a snap to set up playlists and manage music. I can choose songs and playlists right from the volume control button.
Banshee also comes with a podcast directory called Miro Guide. It’s ad-supported, but as long as it shows me pictures of Christina Hendricks, I’m okay with that. It’s free.
Banshee is also compatible with Android mobile devices, so I can plug in my Droid X and update my tunes.
The Ubuntu Software Center archives almost every program you’d care to install, and most of them are free. It’s incredibly simple. All I have to do is type the program I’m looking for, click install, and type my password. After that, it will update automatically. If I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, I can browse through the categories and read the reviews until I find what I want. Uninstalls are painless, too.
I use Dropbox quite a bit to move files from one computer to another and to access them at work. Dropbox is fully integrated and shows up on my taskbar and as a folder in my Home folder. The taskbar gives me shortcuts to the most recently updated files, and the folder gives me thumbnail previews of my uploads, even while they sync.
Another advantage of Ubuntu is the ease with which you can work with multiple workspaces. I like to think of them as “virtual monitors.” Ideally, I’d love to have a multi-monitor set-up, but it’s not obviously possible with a laptop. Ubuntu gives you four workspaces by default, but you can change this number easily. Your workspaces can be previewed by clicking the Workspace Switcher button on the Launcher or a keyboard shortcut (see the top image of this post). You can also switch quickly between workspaces using CTRL + ALT + ARROW key in the direction you want to move.
And those are the basics of using Ubuntu. I’ll go into more detail later, but if you have any questions about switching to Linux. I would recommend it for anyone looking to make an older machine new again – for free!