The reviews are in, and the just-released Ubuntu 9.04, i.e. "Jaunty Jackalope," rates as a slick, fully-formed Linux desktop. Looking to get started or upgrade your system? We're recommending 10 downloads for everyone to try.
Graphic by Andrew Mason.
A quick note about this compilation—it's a little different than a list of Windows or Mac utilities. We link to each application's home page, but most of them (with exceptions noted) can be installed from Ubuntu's repositories, the default collection of software any user can access by heading to their System menu, then Administration, then choosing Synaptic Package Manager. Search out the app's name there to install it (or, for terminal fans, type something like sudo apt-get install conky). Many of the applications also have Windows or Mac versions that work well for dual-booting users.
If you're fine with all the default settings on your shiny-fresh Ubuntu system, you have no need for Ubuntu Tweak. For newcomers, or anyone who feels confined by having their Computer icon stuck with the name "Computer," Ubuntu Tweak is an OCD multi-tool. Besides allowing you to change all the little bits and ends of Ubuntu in a manner far easier than editing a text file or using the gconf-editor tool, Ubuntu Tweak also turns installing (and keeping up-to-date) third-party upgrades like the Avant Window Navigator dock or the latest Firefox beta into a simple check-the-box job. Short version for Windows geeks: It's like TweakUI for Linux. (Head to the program site to download).
Look, we get it—not everyone's a fan of widgets/gadgets/whathaveyou, and we totally understand; turning off Vista's sidebar was one of the first things we did on a new install. But the Screenlets application gives you access to any of the hundreds upon hundreds of Google Gadgets and other open widgets, some of them hardnessing actual productivity tools like Google Calendar or Remember the Milk. With Ubuntu's now built-in Compiz powers, you can even set the Screenlets to be hidden away until you press a key (like, say, the Mac's F9 default). To do that, you'll need to install the compizconfig-settings-manager package, where you'll find all kinds of other goodies.
We've always liked Handbrake, our readers like it, too, and it works just fine in Linux (as it does on Windows and for Macs). With its latest version, Handbrake works hand-in-hand with our favourite media player, VLC, to make ripping any DVD into a video file for any device. (Head to the program site to grab a pre-compiled Ubuntu version; the 8.10 version should work fine in 9.04).
It's come a long way, but no Ubuntu user can get by without a little command line work now and then. Yakuake takes the drop-down terminal from gaming touchstone Quake, makes it seriously speedy and easy to tab, and customised coloring and transparency shading for a terminal that looks how you want it, pops up in the same place each time, and feels a lot more integrated into your overall experience. Technically, it's built for KDE-based systems (like Ubuntu's KDE version, Kubuntu), but GNOME-based systems like Ubuntu can run it with very few dependencies or problems. You'll want to make this one start up with your system.
Trying out new Linux distributions is fun, even if you're a long-term relationship with an Ubuntu desktop. Because, hey, maybe CrunchBang would make a good quick-boot alternative, right? And isn't the Fedora 11 beta looking mighty nice? UNetbootin makes it dead simple to turn pretty much any Linux distribution into one that boots from a USB stick. It can automatically download and install the majority of popular distributions (Ubuntu, Fedora, openSUSE, etc.), or adapt any bootable ISO file you've got. You can even get crazy and custom-roll your own system from a chosen kernel, but UNetbootin doesn't require much more than one download and one click.
Songbird's available on all three platforms, but if you're one of the vast many iPod or iPhone owners out there on a Windows or Mac machine, there's a good chance you're okay with having iTunes run your music and manage your device (not that there aren't alternative iPod wranglers). Linux has its fair share of innovative music managers, but Songbird is the most adaptable, attractive, and streamlined music app around. It too can manage your iPod (except for the standard iPhone/iPod touch conundrum), grab album art from the web, play the streaming tracks from any web site with its built-in browser, and offers a whole host of neat add-ons that mash up web data, customise how Songbird looks and feels, and basically change up anything the way that extensions can for Firefox. It's not perfect, but it's very usable on almost any Linux desktop. (Head to the program site to download).
This one's an old-school app, controlled entirely by text files, but the results can be brilliant, as evidenced by one hacker's mutli-colored, iconic desktop, or a setup for fans of to-dos and Twitter replies. Best of all, you can mix and match the features and data you want displayed in any setup, as we showed you in our Conky guide. Basically, Conky can put any data you want, from your desktop or the web, on your desktop, and keep it updated, and that's a great thing.
VMWare is better if you're serious about running multiple, uber-efficient virtual machines in a development environment. For the average home user who just needs access to a Windows application now and then, it's hard to beat a trimmed-down XP running in VirtualBox. It's easy enough for a beginner to get into, but customisable enough to run as a seamless taskbar on your Linux desktop. In other words, it's a free semi-equivalent of what Mac users have been using (Boot Camp or Parallels) to run the necessary Windows app now and again. (Ubuntu's repositories carry the "Open Source Edition" of VirtualBox, which is much the same, but lacks certain features, including USB support; head to the program site to download standard packages for 9.04).
Most Linux desktop users are loathe to admit it, but any app that Just Works is worthy of praise. Whether you're installing from source or a pre-rolled package, Dropbox integrates itself smoothly into the Ubuntu desktop, creating a Dropbox folder in your home directory, keeping whatever's in it synchronized (up to 2GB with a free account), and offering quick access and notifications from the system tray. When you're away from your system, you can grab whatever you've got in the 'box from Dropbox's web interface. Simple, streamlined, helpful. (Head to the program site to download pre-compiled Ubuntu packages).
1. GNOME Do
Adam never fails to remind me of GNOME Do's similarity to Quicksilver, the uber-essential application launcher and productivity tool for Macs. But that's a good thing. With Do installed, a quick keyboard smack could open up a super-quick way to open an application, fire off a one-shot terminal command, start a VirtualBox machine, add a Google Calendar or Remember the Milk obligation, update Twitter, restart your system, start an email to a Gmail contact ... this list goes on. As a two-for-one, GNOME Do now includes a smart and intuitive desktop dock for clocks, trash, and those moments when you've already go the mouse in hand.
What apps and add-ons make your Ubuntu desktop productive and comfortable? What alternatives do you prefer to our list items? Give us your open-source offerings in the comments.