Free Agent: Ubuntu's Missing Batteries

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I haven't talked much about Ubuntu Linux since last fall, but Ubuntu-related e-mail keeps pouring in. Apparently quite a few Free Agent readers have taken my advice and given Ubuntu (a PC World 2005 World Class Award winner) a shot. And a whole lot of folks seem to get themselves about 90 percent of the way to where they want to be, and then hit a wall. "Why can't I play a DVD?" "Why can't I listen to MP3s?" "How can I watch streaming video in my browser?" These are the sort of questions I keep reading.

The problem, as I've detailed in previous columns, is that Ubuntu Linux does not come with all its batteries included. For example, the library that makes it possible for an Ubuntu machine to play DVDs is missing when the Ubuntu installation process completes. Ditto for the library that decodes MP3 files. The same deal also applies to video codecs that turn a data stream into a movie trailer in your Web browser. It's up to you to add these capabilities to the system.

Ubuntu is not the only flavor of Linux that requires the user to do a bit of legwork; Fedora Core, Red Hat's cost-free (and 100 percent Free) distribution, is another alternative that works the same way. On these sorts of systems, it has been a real chore for users to round up all the various bits and pieces they need to make to their systems as worldly wise as a Mac or a Windows PC.

Automatix to the Rescue

But Ubuntu users now have a automated helper of sorts that can solve all these issues. It's called Automatix, and after your PC has had a taste of it, there's little it can't do. However, as Automatix's installer will tell you, some components use technology that Automatix has not licensed and therefore may allow you to do things that are illegal, so proceed with caution.

To install Automatix, visit the main Automatix thread at Ubuntu Forums. The first "Code" block on that page provides you with two commands that you should enter into a terminal window. (To open a terminal window, select Accessories, Terminal from Ubuntu's Applications menu.) As I write this column, the commands are as follows, but you should check to see if they have changed to reflect a newer edition of Automatix or a new location for the package:


sudo dpkg -i automatix-ubuntu_4.4-2_i386.deb

The first command downloads the package file from the specified location. The second command installs the package. (Once you've fired off both commands, you can delete the downloaded package file.)

What's on the Menu?

The Automatix main window is simple enough: Select the components to install and click OK. Automatix does the rest.
The Automatix main window is simple enough: Select the components to install and click OK. Automatix does the rest.
Now, from Ubuntu's Applications menu, select System Tools, Automatix. A few message dialog boxes will appear (including the previously mentioned warning about the legality of certain actions Automatix can take), and then you'll see a new terminal window asking you for your Linux system password. After you've entered it, you'll see the main Automatix window, which lists all the components it can install.

Here are the highlights:

Multimedia Codecs: Installs support for MP3s and several other audio and video formats.

AUD-DVD Codecs: Installs the libdvdcss2 library (enabling DVD playback) as well as the w32codecs package, which will make QuickTime, Windows Media, and many other video formats playable. Be aware, however, that Automatix has not licensed this technology, and using it may put you in murky legal water.

Firefox Plugins: Installs several plug-ins for Mozilla Firefox.

MS TTF Fonts: Installs the Web-friendly font set that Microsoft once made freely available online, which includes the well-known Verdana font. Many Web sites specify these fonts for their display, so you'll get better results if you have these fonts on hand.

Gnomebaker: Sets up a fantastic CD and DVD burning application.

Ctrl-Alt-Del: Remaps this keystroke to call up the Gnome System Monitor. Longtime Windows users who are used to seeing the Task Manager when they hit Ctrl-Alt-Del tend to like this one.

Ripper and Tuner: Installs StreamTuner, a fantastic Internet radio tuner I've crowed about, as well as a means for recording any stream you listen to.

DVD Ripper: I imagine I don't have to spell this one out.

Mplayer with plugin: This option is a Holy Grail of sorts: If you've selected the AUD-DVD Codecs option listed above, pretty much any video you encounter on the Web will play in Firefox--including Apple's movie trailers and the newscasts at CNN's site. Huzzah! (Be sure to close and restart Firefox if you leave it open while Automatix does its work.)

Open Office: Upgrades from the prerelease version of 2.0 that shipped with the current Breezy Badger release of Ubuntu to the final version; also installs a whole bunch of clip art.

Sun Java 1.5 JRE: Select this to enable Java support in your browser or anywhere else you might need it.

Firestarter: Don't have a firewall? Here's one that's effective and friendly.

nVidia Cards: Installs the proprietary drivers that enable 3D graphics for your nVidia board. If you select this option, you will see an informational dialog box that provides a magic command-line incantation to use if the 3D driver fails. Be sure to write that command down on a sheet of paper. On your next reboot, if the X Window System (Linux's GUI layer that sits underneath Gnome or KDE) fails to load, you'll be presented with a text-only log-in prompt. After logging in, issue the command you wrote down, and then press Ctrl-Alt-Del to reboot. You won't have 3D support, but you'll have your display back.

Firefox 1.5: Upgrades to Firefox 1.5. This option also pops up an info dialog if you select it, letting you know that your bookmarks will not be inherited by the new version of Firefox unless you manually copy them over. You can do this from the command line or by using the Nautilus file manager; if you choose the latter, you'll need the View, Show Hidden Files command to complete your task. (In Linux, like all Unix systems, files and folders whose names begin with a dot are hidden.)

Also note that this option automatically installs the Adobe Acrobat Reader, a bloated little bugger that phones home to Adobe looking for updates and reporting goodness-knows-what. I prefer Gnome's built-in PDF and document viewer, Evince, which is installed by default on Breezy Badger machines. If you've upgraded to Firefox 1.5 and want to remove Acrobat Reader from your system, use Synaptic to remove the Acroread and Mozilla-Acroread packages.

What's Going On?

After you've selected all your options and clicked OK, Automatix springs into action, and you'll be able to watch everything it does in the terminal window it opened. First, Automatix makes your system aware of a few additional package repositories--the online locations for downloadable Ubuntu-specific software. Then Automatix downloads, installs, and configures all the software you've selected. Go grab lunch if you're not interested in watching the magic happen.

You can run Automatix as many times as you like to install additional features, but be aware that on subsequent uses you won't find check-boxes next to any options you've installed previously. Automatix doesn't keep track of what it has done in the past; its listing is simply a menu of actions you can take any time you run it.

The package repositories that Automatix adds to your system configuration contain thousands of programs. You can browse them all with Synaptic, Ubuntu's package management tool. Select System, Administration, Synaptic Package Manager. I'd suggest selecting Muine and F-Spot for installation; the former is a music player, the latter a photo management app. Both are fantastic. I am also partial to Galeon, an elegant Gnome-ish Web browser that uses the Firefox rendering engine. And if you'd like a couple of simple yet addictive puzzle games in the vein of Tetris, check out Frozen-Bubble and Pathological.

Automatix works wonders for the current Breezy Badger version of Ubuntu Linux, and I hope that its authors update it for the next release, the Dapper Drake, when it arrives this spring. Prerelease versions are already available for download; the "Flight 3" release can be thought of as "version 6.04 beta 3" and is coming along nicely.

If you install Flight 3, the Update Manager applet will inform you as updates become available and will download and install them for you. Keep up with the frequent updates, which become ever more frequent as the final release draws near. When the Dapper Drake is complete, your system will update all its packages to final versions and you'll be sitting pretty. This is probably only for geeks who really love being on the cutting edge, though. For now, an Automatixed Breezy Badger is such a delightful way to compute, I'm willing to wait and experience the next Ubuntu version when it's fully baked.

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