Don't Fear the Penguin: A Newbie's Guide to Linux

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:

  • OpenOffice.org, a complete office-productivity suite, including word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software
  • The Mozilla Firefox Web browser
  • Evolution, an e-mail, calendaring, and groupware application similar to Microsoft Outlook
  • The Gimp, an open-source graphics-manipulation and painting program akin to Adobe Photoshop
  • Rhythmbox, a media player similar to iTunes or Windows Media Player

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.

Synaptic Package Manager

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.

Ubuntu Preferences

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."

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