January 27, 2009, 10:12 PM — Getting started with Linux can be an intimidating task, particularly for people who have never tried any operating system besides Windows. In truth, however, very little about Linux is actually difficult to use. It's simply a different OS, with its own approach to doing things. Once you learn your way around a Linux desktop, you're likely to find that it's no more challenging to work with than Windows or Mac OS.
In this guide I'll focus on Ubuntu, the most popular Linux distribution today. But Ubuntu is just one of many different flavors of Linux. Literally hundreds of distributions are out there, appealing to a broad range of users--from teachers and programmers to musicians and hackers. Ubuntu is the most popular distribution because it's easier to install and configure than most others; it even comes in a few different versions, including Edubuntu and Kubuntu. If you happen to be running a different distribution, such as Fedora or OpenSUSE, you'll likely find that much of this guide still pertains to you.
Welcome to Ubuntu
It's little wonder why Ubuntu is one of the leading Linux distributions for desktop PCs; it makes installing Linux simple. ("Ubuntu Linux: The Easy Installation Guide" will walk you through it, step by step.) But once you have Ubuntu installed on your PC, what next?
The short answer is: Whatever you like. Ubuntu may be free, but it's hardly a toy OS. If you can do something with Windows or Mac OS X, you can do the same thing with Ubuntu.
Figuring out how to do what you want isn't always obvious, however, and Ubuntu has its own concepts and quirks that set it apart from other OSs. Experience is usually the best teacher, but if you need a gentle push in the right direction, this guide offers a novice's tour of the Linux desktop--so fire up your Ubuntu system and follow along!
Exploring the Interface
One of the first things you'll notice about your new Ubuntu system is that you need to log in each time you boot, giving the user name and password you specified during installation. If you prefer--and you're not worried about other people accessing your PC when you're not around--you can configure the system to log you in automatically from the Security tab of the Login Window panel of the Administration menu (more on that later). Even if you do that, however, don't forget your password; unlike in Windows, you'll need to enter the password again whenever you install software or perform sensitive administration tasks. (That may seem annoying, but it's an important part of Linux's famously high security.)
Ubuntu's default Gnome GUI desktop borrows many ideas from other operating systems, so it should seem immediately familiar. The alternative Kubuntu version of the OS uses a different desktop environment called KDE. I won't discuss KDE here, but whichever desktop works best for you will largely be a matter of personal preference. Neither Gnome nor KDE should pose much difficulty for an experienced Windows or Mac OS X user. Gnome is slightly more Mac-like, while KDE's interface is more similar to Windows.
In Gnome, the top and bottom menu bars together perform functions equivalent to the Windows taskbar. The top bar contains menus for launching applications, navigation, and system configuration, while the bottom bar keeps track of currently running programs.
In addition, the left end of the bottom bar includes a button to hide all currently opened windows, while on the right are squares that represent "virtual workspaces." Gnome allows you to open two or more workspaces, each of which acts as a separate desktop, just as if you were working on multiple monitors. Clicking on the menu-bar squares lets you jump from one workspace to the next. You will also find the Trash icon on the right.
Navigating menus and windows follows customary conventions. The left mouse button selects items, and double-clicking opens or launches an item. The right mouse button brings up a contextual menu. A number of global keyboard shortcuts are available, too, including Alt-Tab to switch between windows, Alt-F1 to bring up the Applications menu, and F1 for Help.
Working With Applications
The great thing about Linux distributions such as Ubuntu is that they include not only the OS but also a whole bundle of practical, full-featured applications. In Ubuntu, you can access them from the Applications menu, next to the logo in the top-left corner of the screen. Among the default applications you'll find on your Ubuntu system (along with many other free tools, games, and utilities) are:
If those aren't enough for you, you can always add more. In fact, there's probably a Linux replacement for most of the Windows or Mac OS X software you're used to. At the bottom of the Applications menu you'll find an entry that says Add/Remove. Clicking on it brings up a browser window full of software that's available from the Ubuntu software repositories. Downloading and installing new applications over the Internet is as simple as checking a box and clicking Apply Changes. The new software will appear under the appropriate category of the Applications menu once it has automatically installed.
That easy installation method works only for the most popular software packages, but many more are available. When you become more experienced, you'll want to experiment with the Synaptic Package Manager--found on the Administration menu, under System on the top menu bar--which offers more-fine-grained control over software installation.
As long as you're connected to the Internet, the system will periodically alert you that new updates and security patches are available for your installed software. Applying updates is simple: Clicking on the alert icon launches the Update Manager, which allows you to review the available patches, but downloading and installing them is really a one-click process. Often it doesn't even require a reboot.
Configuring Your System
We've talked about the Administration menu already. Between it and the Preferences menu--both of which are located under the System menu in the top menu bar--you can perform the majority of commonplace system-configuration tasks easily. The division between Preferences and Administration is somewhat arbitrary; just think of these two menus together as the equivalent of the control panels in Windows or Mac OS X.
For example, the Appearance panel (under Preferences) allows you to customize the look and feel of your desktop. You can adjust the shape and color of window borders and buttons, change your desktop wallpaper, and pick new default fonts for windows and applications. This panel is also where you enable the snazzy "desktop effects" of Compiz Fusion, if your graphics card supports them.
Look to the Printing panel (under Administration) if you're having trouble printing. Most USB printers will be detected automatically and the system will install drivers for you, but you'll need to adjust the settings here if you have a parallel or serial printer, or if you want to print over a network.
Under Preferences you'll also find the Network Configuration panel, which is where you can set up wired, wireless, mobile broadband, VPN, and DSL connections. By default Ubuntu will try to configure your wired ethernet connection automatically via DHCP, which should be sufficient for many cable and DSL modems, but manual configuration is straightforward. You'll need to install additional software before you can set up VPN connections--search for "vpn" in the Synaptic Package Manager.
As mentioned in "Ubuntu Linux: The Easy Installation Guide," not every Wi-Fi card will work out of the box with Ubuntu. Consult that guide if you're having trouble. If your card is supported, you'll be pleased to find that wireless configuration is simple and supports both WEP and WPA security.
One additional tool that's very useful is the Network Manager applet, which you can find to the right of the upper Gnome menu bar. It allows you to manage several connections from one easy menu, and it also displays the signal strength of wireless networks. You'll need to install extra modules to manage VPN connections with the Network Manager applet; search the Synaptic Package Manager for "network manager vpn."
For the most part Ubuntu coexists well with other operating systems and the hardware devices designed for them. In some cases, hardware manufacturers may choose not to release specifications for their devices, which can make Linux support difficult or impossible, but you might be surprised by the wide range of peripherals that Ubuntu can manage automatically.
Ubuntu will read most memory cards, USB thumb drives, CDs, DVDs, and floppy disks with no difficulty. It will even try to mount automatically any Windows partitions it finds on the same machine. Note, however, that this doesn't work both ways: If you're dual-booting to Windows or Mac OS X, the other OS won't be able to read your Linux partitions without additional software.
Ubuntu can also connect to Windows network shares from the Network Browser, which you bring up by choosing Network from the Places menu. You can access other types of network servers--including FTP sites and WebDAV shares--by choosing Connect to Server.
If cross-platform compatibility is your goal, it's important to pay attention to file formats when creating documents on Linux. For example, by default the OpenOffice.org productivity applications will save documents in OpenDocument format (ODF), which Microsoft Office can't read at the time of this writing. You'll need to specify the Microsoft Office format from the Save dialog box if you want to share files with your Windows-bound friends and coworkers.
Occasionally you may encounter a certain Windows application for which no Linux equivalent exists, and that you simply can't live without. In such cases a software package called Wine--available through the Synaptic Package Manager--can sometimes help. Wine is an emulation layer that lets you run native Windows software in Linux. It doesn't work for every application, but the list of supported programs is always growing.
Obviously this guide is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the wide world of Ubuntu and Linux computing. We'll keep updating this and other articles as Ubuntu continues to evolve, but if you're still stumped for now, your best option for further assistance is the Ubuntu forums, where beginners and advanced users gather to troubleshoot (and just shoot the breeze about) their favorite OS.
If you ask for help with a particularly thorny technical issue, you may be asked to post the contents of system logs or configuration files to help the gurus diagnose your problem. That may even involve delving into the dreaded world of the Linux command line (which you can access via the Terminal, under the Accessories heading of the Applications menu). Don't be afraid! Just follow any instructions you're given, but pay attention--the more you learn about Ubuntu, the closer you climb to guru status yourself.
Above all, have a good time. Linux's greatest strength is the community around it, and by choosing Ubuntu you have joined a thriving, growing community of users of one of the most powerful and exciting operating systems available today.
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