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 a ton of different distributions based on Linux, with different desktop environments to choose from and different apps already built into the system. There’s more than one way to build a happy Linux machine, so don’t fret if your favorite is missing! In many cases, we’re highlighting a few standouts in each category, so you can decide which one is the best fit for your system.
We love app launchers and the speed they bring to our workflow, and they can do a lot more than just launch apps.Unfortunately, now that GNOME Do hasn’t had any major updates since 2009, Synapse — the awesome GNOME Do alternative with Zeitgeist integration — is our current pick. 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. And if you’re pining for Notepad++, check out Notepadqq.
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, especially if you’re sending files back and forth with people who use Microsoft Office.
Internet and Communication
Chrome is our favourite on all three platforms this year. It’s fast, powerful, syncs everything, and has an incredible extension library. The version that comes with your distribution may be its open-source cousin, Chromium, which has all the same advantages. (One minor difference: you have to install the flash plugin separately if you want it, although your distro probably has a tool to make that easy.) That said, Firefox is also a great option if it’s what you’re used to.
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.
Google Hangouts beats Skype on Linux hands-down, but only because Skype still isn’t available for modern 64-bit architectures. Unfortunately, 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. Use Hangouts if you can, but figure out those Skype install issues now so you can 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 and Flickr (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. You can also just use the web player if you don’t mind giving up a browser tab.
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.
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, this might end up being the compromise you need.
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.
Command Line Tools
The command line is often the fastest and easiest way to do simple tasks, and the standard command line tools that come with your distro are already immensely powerful. There’s more where those came from, though! Here are a just a few bonus tools that you may not have realised existed.
- Pdftk slices and dices PDFs. Ever have to print and scan a ten-page contract just to sign the last page? Next time, scan that page by itself, and run the commands:
pdftk contract.pdf cat 1-9 output firstnine.pdf
pdftk firstnine.pdf lastpage.pdf output signedcontract.pdf
- Undistract-me solves that problem where you start a long running command (maybe a code compile), switch over to your web browser while you wait for it to finish, and then realise later that you totally forgot to get back to the thing you were doing. Undistract-me watches for commands that take more than ten seconds, and pops up a notification on your screen when the command finishes.
- Joe is the perfect text editor for when you don’t want to leave the terminal. It’s quick to load and easy to use, no matter what editor you’re used to. That’s because it comes with a chameleon-like set of aliases. Do you have all the emacs shortcuts memorised? Invoke it as jmacs. Nostalgic for pico? Call it as jpico. If you don’t know what any of this means, just type joe. (Or scroll up to our recommendations for Kate and Geany.)
- Smem measures the amount of memory that your computer is using. Sure, you thought you had a tool for that. But some memory is shared, and tools like free don’t count it in the most helpful way. Smem gives more meaningful numbers.
- Powertop is a handy tool for figuring out why your laptop’s battery is draining so fast, or why your desktop is getting so hot. It shows how much power each of your currently running programs are using. It can also tweak low level power management features that you never knew you had — for example, is your USB controller suspending when it’s not in use? Now you can find out.
Plenty of other tools in our pack have command-line equivalents, too. If you’d like to start exploring the world of the terminal, check out our beginner’s guide to the command line.