With so many flavours of Linux and the awesome apps in their repositories, finding the right app for getting things done can be tough. In our annual Lifehacker Pack for Linux, we're highlighting the must-have downloads for better productivity, communication, media management, and more.
The Lifehacker Pack is a yearly snapshot of our favourite, essential applications for each of our favourite platforms. For our always-updating directory of all the best apps, be sure to bookmark our Linux App Directory.
How We Designed the Lifehacker Pack for Linux
Unlike Windows and OS X, Linux isn't one cohesive entity. There are lots of different distributions of Linux, with different desktop environments to choose from and different apps already built into the system. Some people prefer to use apps tied to their desktop environment, some would rather use the best in class, and some might even prefer to do everything in a terminal. This makes the Lifehacker Pack for Linux hard to curate.
So last year, we added a few more apps to reflect this. In some categories, we'll list a few of our favourite apps for different desktop environments instead of listing just one — that way, you can decide which you want to use based on your distro and desktop preference. We could never make one pack that fits everyone, but hopefully this is one step closer.
So a few years ago, we haven't changed much from the 2014 pack — just removed an app or two to keep things neat. Linux development is a bit slower than other platforms, so most of these apps haven't gone through any huge updates, nor have their competitors. We considered swapping out Kate and Geany for Sublime Text, and VLC for SMPlayer, and even Deluge for qBitTorrent, but at the end of the day, we picked these for a reason—and decided to stick with them rather than changing for the sake of change. As always, much of this is personal preference, so don’t take our recommendations as the only viable options!
We love app launchers and the speed they bring to our workflow, and they can do a lot more than just launch apps. Unfortunately, app launchers are in a weird spot in the Linux world: GNOME Do hasn't had any major updates since 2009, and Synapse — the awesome GNOME Do alternative with Zeitgeist integration — has now been all but abandoned. If you're using Ubuntu's Unity interface or the GNOME Shell, you can probably skip this, as they have a lot of app launcher functionality built right in. But for those on other desktop environments, we recommend at least checking out Synapse for your app launching and other needs. Alternatively, GNOME Do is still available for download, and if you're really a minimalist, you might like dmenu. KDE users have the handy KRunner built in as well.
When the built-in Gedit just doesn't cut it, Kate and Geany will bring some more advanced coding and development features to the table. They have got a similar feature set, but Kate is our favourite text editor, providing syntax highlighting, code collapsing, on-the-fly spell checking, a vi-like input mode, and even code autocompletion. If you need more than the built-in editors can provide, Kate and Geany will make you happy. If you want something even more hardcore than these, check out Eclipse or Sublime Text 2.
Text expansion is one of the greatest improvements you can make to your productivity. Think of any tedious typing you do during the day — addresses, canned email responses, bits of code, or anything else — and imagine being able to type it all with just a few keystrokes. That's what text expansion does, and it can save you hours of typing. There aren't a lot of text expansion apps for Linux, but AutoKey fits the bill well enough. You'll need some Python skills for the more advanced snippets, but right now, it's the best we've got.
Chances are, LibreOffice comes with your Linux distribution, but just in case it doesn't, we've added it here. From documents to spreadsheets to presentations and more, LibreOffice has the tools you need to get things done.
Internet and Communication
As customisable as Firefox is, these days we're finding it hard to pull away from Chrome as our main browser recommendation — even in Linux. It's powerful, fast, smooth, syncs all your settings, and has an incredible extension library. If you want to stay truly open source, you can try Chromium, but you'll be missing a few features (like Flash), so we recommend downloading Google's version of the browser. Of course, if you're a diehard open source supporter, Firefox is probably still the best browser around.
We still think Pidgin is the best IM client around on Linux, despite the fact the Ubuntu developers (and others) have ditched it for programs like Empathy. Not only does it support loads of IM protocols and features, it has a pretty sweet extension library that lets you do just about anything you want with it. If you're using GNOME shell, Empathy does have some nice integration options, though, so it's worth a look too.
Skype isn't our favourite video chat tool (though we do like it for general telephony), but it is one that you'll probably need in your arsenal. The fact of the matter is, most people use Skype for their video chat needs, which means someone in your life — friends, family, or other — is going to want to video chat with you on it one day. Download it now and keep it in your pocket for when you need it.
Music, Photos, and Video
Chances are, your Linux distribution of choice comes with a solid video player, like MPlayer. For most people, that's fine, but if you need something with a bit more control, VLC is a good place to start. It supports more video and audio formats than you can shake a stick at, and it requires virtually no work to get your movies playing — though it does have some handy command line tools for you advanced users out there.
Linux actually has a few solid photo management tools, but our favourite is definitely digiKam. It's more on the professional side of things, which means it has more features than you can shake a stick at, including a lot of organisation options, support for over 300 RAW formats and the ability to compare pictures side-by-side. It is a bit complicated to use, though — so if you prefer something a bit simpler, Shotwell may be more your speed. It does the basic sorting, tagging, and editing most users need, plus it has the built-in ability to share photos to Facebook, Flickr, and Picasa (a feature digiKam also boasts).
If you're editing something that can't be done in digiKam or Shotwell — whether it's a screenshot or you just need some more advanced tools — the GIMP can probably get it done. It may not be Photoshop, but it can do an awful lot on its own.
Picking a music player for this list was tough. Linux has a big selection, and as we've said before, music players are an incredibly personal choice. In the end, we decided on Clementine. It has a good set of features, an easy-to-browse interface, and is loved by basic and advanced users alike. If you want something a bit different, we recommend checking out Banshee and Amarok, too.
No matter what you pick for your music player, we recommend having a streaming service on hand, even if it isn't your main player. We like Spotify, and while it isn't technically supported on Linux, Spotify has some preview builds available that can at least get you up and streaming.
These days, lots of us have more than just one device. Maybe it's a Linux machine at home and a Windows computer at work. Or maybe it's three computers, a smartphone, a tablet, and a netbook running Archbang. Whatever your span of devices, Dropbox is absolutely essential for keeping all your files (and other stuff) in sync. You get 2GB of free space to start, but it's really easy to load up on extra space for free.
When you have to download a large file, BitTorrent is almost always a better alternative than a slow direct download. Linux has some good BitTorrent choices, but our favourite client is Deluge. It's simple to use feature-rich, and has a nice plugin library, so advanced users have all the features they need to tweak their speed and privacy to their liking. If you aren't a fan of Deluge, try qBitTorrent — it's equally as awesome.
Everyone needs a backup. There's no worse feeling than having your hard drive crash and having to start from scratch. Enter CrashPlan. While you could always back up to an external drive, that won't save you if you lose your computer in a fire, burglary, or other disaster. CrashPlan backs your computer up to the cloud, using either CrashPlan's cloud service or a friend's computer, keeping your data safe no matter what. Plus, it's really easy to set up. Set it, forget it, and relax.
Linux has a lot of file archiving tools, and if you're a command line buff, look no further than the terminal to get everything done (whether it's the built-in tar command or the awesome p7zip). But, if you need a more friendly GUI, PeaZip is our pick. It may not be pretty, but it can work with over 130 different archive types, encrypt archives for safe keeping, and integrate with both GNOME and KDE. Plus, it still has the command line features advanced users crave, for when the GUI isn't necessary.
Linux has some awesome apps, but sometimes the big guys ignore Linux and we're left out in the cold. Wine is (sometimes) the answer: if you've got a Windows program you can't leave behind (whether it's Outlook for work, Photoshop for images, or World of Warcraft for fun), Wine will run it on your Linux desktop. It doesn't work with every program out there, but Wine's app database will help you figure out which ones work well, so you can get one step closer to leaving Windows behind forever.
Linux users spend a lot more time in the terminal than the average Windows or Mac user, which means you should have a really good terminal emulator on hand. The default terminal that comes with your distro may be fine, but Terminator will take your command line work to the next level. You can arrange terminals in a grid, re-order them, configure a bevy of keyboard shortcuts, save your layouts, and a lot more. If you don't want or need everything Terminator has to offer, you might still want to check out Guake and Yakuake, the awesome drop-down terminals you can access with a keyboard shortcut.
When Wine doesn't cut it and you just have to run that Windows program or two, VirtualBox is your next choice. VirtualBox will run an entire Windows installation in a virtual machine, so you can perform all your Windows tasks without ever leaving Linux. It isn't always ideal, but if you're stuck with Windows at work, for example, you'll have to make a few compromises somewhere.
Title image by Tina Mailhot-Roberge.