Some Useful Basics For Newcomers To Ubuntu

Getting Ubuntu running on your PC is pretty straightforward, and most of its features are fairly obvious if you've been used to a graphical user interface like Windows or Mac OS X. Here's a handful of tips to help you make the transition and find some useful features if you've started playing with Ubuntu.

One of the great advantages of Ubuntu is that it's dead easy to get it up and running on your PC, even if you don't want to make it your main operating system but are simply feeling curious. Our detailed tutorial on building a recovery USB that runs Ubuntu will walk you through the process, and that will let you sample the delights of Ubuntu without having to get rid of your existing (and familiar) environment. One thing to bear in mind is that this isn't necessarily a speedy process: while setting up the USB stick is pretty straightforward, downloading 700MB-odd of Ubuntu files can easily take a couple of hours. So let your PC do this while you're relaxing in front of the TV of an evening.

Ubuntu isn't your only choice when it comes to Linux distributions, of course -- a lot of the Lifehacker team like Mint because it includes lots of helpful default codecs and players, and there are plenty of other fine choices. But Ubuntu's ongoing commitment to developing an overall environment that isn't scary for newbies does make it a sensible choice for anyone migrating from other operating systems, and its existing set of standard bundled applications give you plenty to get started with.

The basics of Ubuntu will be no shock to a Windows or Mac user: click around the menus and icons at the top of the screen and you'll find most features you want without a lot of trouble. Here's a handful of not-necessarily-as-obvious solutions once you've got Ubuntu up and running.

Installing software

While there are many ways to install software on a Linux system, if you're running Ubuntu your easiest bet is to click on Applications and choose the Ubuntu Software Center. From here, you can search for new packages to install and also manage your installed applications.

As Kevin details in our setup guide, you should change Ubuntu's software sources so you can install applications that don't fit within Canonical's tight definition of what's acceptable. Under System --> Administration --> Software Sources, make sure you've set the options to allow software restricted by legal issues -- that gives you a much wider range of choices. (Those kinds of apps won't necessarily receive automatic updates via Ubuntu, but that's rarely a major drama.)

First stop: VLC

A prime example of software that isn't included in Ubuntu but that you want is VLC, our favourite media software for taking on all comers. If you want to play DVDs or obscure downloaded videos, this is absolutely worth hunting down via the Software Center.

Changing the window controls

Since version 10.4, Ubuntu has placed window controls for closing, maximising and minimising on the top left hand corner of applications, which can be disconcerting if you're had years of Windows experience. If you'd rather have those controls back on the right-hand side, it's pretty easy to make the switch back.

Taking screen grabs

Just like Windows, you can capture a screen by hitting the PrtSc button (or Alt-PrtSc to just capture the active window). Ubuntu will pop up a dialog to let you save the capture in PNG format, or you can opt to copy it to the clipboard if you want to use the image in another application rather than saving it as a file.

Keeping up-to-date

While Ubuntu will attempt to keep itself up to date, you can initiate updates manually by clicking System --> Administration --> Update Manager. If you've often complained about the size of Windows or Mac updates, you won't necessarily feel much better -- running this process invariably produces a long list of potential updates. However, many of these are for individual apps, not the core operating system, so you can skip updates for software you never use if you're concerned about bandwidth.

Obviously, that's far from everything you might discover, but it's a few elements to consider as you get started. What other Ubuntu tips would you offer recent Linux migrants? Share your tactics in the comments.


    In 10.10 the Software Sources dialogue is found on the Edit menu of the Ubuntu Software Centre.

    If you want email notifications for all your accounts without using a full client (evolution, thunderbird etc) replace empathy, which is the current default IM client with Pidgin. There are also heaps of other small email notifiers, I use Gmail Notifier on my laptop. Which as the name suggests, checks gmail (including apps) accounts.

    Ubuntu Tweak is an application to config Ubuntu easier for everyone. Among many other benefits, it provides one-click solution to re-placing window controls on right hand side.

    SO...I noted in the article picture that the ubuntu screenshot was spotting a mac-like dock. Never seen anything like that on Ubuntu...what's the application called? Is it hard to configure and install? A Mac-style dock would certainly make it more appealing.

    I've never used a dock thinger in ubuntu, but one piece of software often gets mentioned when talking about them. It's called "Docky". A quick google should provide everything you need to know from here. I imagine installing it is as easy as adding a ppa (a special software source specific to one or a few programs. software sources (as per the article above) -> other software -> add source), opening ubuntu software centre, searching for "docky", and clicking install.

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