Ubuntu
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Ubuntu is the Linux Distro this site is most concerned with. This page gives an overview of what Ubuntu is, but with very little detail on other available distros.

Linux Distros

As mentioned on the page on Linux, there are various distributions of the operating system, with various available components and drivers. Some of the more common distros are:

  • Debian
  • Fedora Core (formerly Red Hat)
  • SUSE

While many Linux distros are free and open source, others are put together by for-profit companies. The advantage of purchasing a version of Linux from these companies is that you get support for the application. This may not be as important for Linux geeks, but for many people (or companies) it's critical, which means that large companies/organizations looking to move to Linux are probably more likely to purchase it from one of these for-profit companies.

The distro I'm most concerned with on this site is Debian, because it's the distro Ubuntu is based on.

Debian

Debian is supported and maintained by volunteers. This means that it doesn't have the same kind of support that you'd get from a “commercial” version of Linux. They claim that you can get very good support from the Debian mailing lists and forums, however, that isn't always the case, so take it with a grain of salt.

It is becoming one of the most popular distros, partially because it has such a large amount of software available for it, and partially because it has a very good Package Management System, which is responsible for obtaining that software. It's very easy, from Debian, to type in a simple command to download and install an additional piece of software you need. For example, there are a set of “Microsoft Core Fonts” which can be downloaded, which include some of the common fonts used in Windows —Arial, Times New Roman, etc. You can download them by typing in the following command:

$ sudo apt-get install msttcorefonts

This downloads the appropriate package, and installs it. The package management system also keeps itself up to date, by periodically contacting the Debian repository, to see if there are updates, similar to how Microsoft Windows Update works.

For more information on the package manager, see the Advanced Packaging Tool article.

The Ubuntu distro is based on Debian, meaning that Ubuntu systems have access to all of the software available for Debian, and same package management system with which to keep up to date.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu's tagline is “Linux for Human Beings.” The goal of the people who maintain the distro is that the software should be usable. Although I don't think I've seen it expressly stated anywhere, it seems that they're doing their best to target Windows users, by making the operating system as useable as possible.

Ubuntu comes with some core software installed — including the Open Office suite, discussed below — and the GNOME desktop environment. (For more information on GNOME, see the Graphics On Linux page.)

From their web site:

Ubuntu is a complete Linux-based operating system, freely available with both community and professional support. It is developed by a large community and we invite you to participate too!

The Ubuntu community is built on the ideas enshrined in the Ubuntu Philosophy: that software should be available free of charge, that software tools should be usable by people in their local language and despite any disabilities, and that people should have the freedom to customise and alter their software in whatever way they see fit.

These freedoms make Ubuntu fundamentally different from traditional proprietary software: not only are the tools you need available free of charge, you have the right to modify your software until it works the way you want it to.

Ubuntu includes more than 16,000 pieces of software, but the core desktop installation fits on a single CD. Ubuntu covers every standard desktop application from word processing and spreadsheet applications to web server software and programming tools. Read more about Ubuntu on the desktop and Ubuntu on the server.

As mentioned, the core distro can indeed fit on a single CD-ROM. If you go to their download page you can find ISO CD images1, which can be burned directly onto a disk. And the best part: If you're not sold on Ubuntu yet, and don't want to install it on your computer, you can run it from the CD, to try it out!

Kubuntu / Edubuntu / Xubuntu

In addition to the core Ubuntu distro, there are also a few variants:

  • Kubuntu — basically the same as Ubuntu, except that it uses the K Desktop Environment (KDE) instead of GNOME.
  • Edubuntu — basically Ubuntu, but has some additional educational software installed as part of the core installation
  • Xubuntu — a lighter and more efficient distro, which uses the Xfce Desktop Environment, instead of GNOME or KDE.

This site is only concerned with the main Ubuntu distro, as that's what I've been using. However, most of what I write about here will apply to Kubuntu, Edubuntu, and Xubuntu too. (Not everything, of course; e.g. anything about configuring GNOME will not apply to Kubuntu or Xubuntu.)

Included Software

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Obviously, an operating system is no good on its own. You need some kind of software, to be productive; internet browsers, email clients, office productivity suites, etc. By default, Ubuntu comes with a pile of useful software installed. (And, as mentioned before, there is so much software available for Debian that there is a lot of additional software you can get, if you need.)

This section is only concerned with the software that comes with Ubuntu “out of the box.”

Firefox

It's no surprise that the open-source Ubuntu distro comes bundled with an open-source browser, Firefox. I had already started using Firefox on Windows, before I even tried Ubuntu, so I was very comfortable using it in Ubuntu.

Most plugins you're used to for Firefox, that you might be using on Windows, will also work in Ubuntu, or any other operating system on which Firefox runs.

OpenOffice.org

Open Office is a Microsoft Office-compatible office suite. For more information, see the Open Office page.

Evolution

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Evolution is a Personal Information Manager (PIM) which is directly comparible to Microsoft Outlook. It handles your email, calendar, task list, and contact list, in one place. Just as with Microsoft Outlook, this functionality is all integrated together, so you can receive a meeting request in your email, accept it, and have it go straight into your calendar.

Of course, like any other email client, Evolution can connect to any standard type of email server. It even talks to Exchange, but it does so through Outlook Web Access. That being said, I've found it to be very stable, and haven't had any problems talking to Exchange. (I was worried, when I heard it used OWA, that it might be flaky, but it's very solid.)

Another interesting feature is that Evolution integrates right with the GNOME desktop. If you click the clock, in GNOME's taskbar, it will show you any upcoming appointments you've booked in Evolution — even if Evolution isn't running.

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Pidgin Instant Message Client

In addition to a web browser, an office suite, and an email client, the last critical piece I needed for work was an instant messaging client. Because my team is distributed across the country, I do much of my communications over MSN Messenger. Ubuntu comes with Pidgin, which is an instant messaging client which can connect to various services: AIM/ICQ, IRC, Jabber, MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, etc.

When I use it at home, I find Pidgin to be rock-solid. It connects me to my MSN Messenger account right away, and keeps me there without dropping the session. I found it took a bit more configuration to get it to work at the office, through the corporate firewalls / proxy servers — although, ironically, less work than it took to get MSN Messenger up and running on Windows!

Click here for a quick description of what I had to do to get Pidgin to work at the office.

Games

Like any other operating system, Ubuntu comes with a bunch of games. (I count 16 on the Games menu.) When people produce operating systems, they love to include games, to show their cool systems off.

Unfortunately, I'm not much of a gamer, so I can't tell you if any of the games are good, bad, or revolutionary. I played around with it a bit,when I wrote this, and I noticed that it does come with a “Tetris-like” game called Gnometris. But it doesn't have the music the old NES version used to have, so it's not as fun.

Gimp Image Editor

The Gimp image editor is probably comparible to Photoshop, although I don't use Photoshop, so I don't really know how comparible they are.

If anything, I would guess that Photoshop probably has more features than Gimp. However, whether that's a good thing or a bad thing would, I suppose, depend on your point of view; If you use those features of Photoshop, then Gimp doesn't have as many features, and if you don't, then Gimp is a smaller, simpler image editor.

Totem Movie Viewer

Totem is a movie viewer; it shows movie files, plays CDs, and shows DVDs — although you need to get some extra pieces from the application package manager, to play DVDs.See the Totem page for more information on Totem, and the Setting Up Audio / Video Codecs page for more information on installing the codecs you need to watch movies/DVDs.

Terminal Server Client

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One application I was surprised to find included was a Terminal Server Client. This is an application that lets you connect to another computer, and use it as if you were at that computer's keyboard. The screenshot here shows me connected to my desktop computer, running Windows XP.

I was a bit surprised to see that, although, in retrospect, I shouldn't have been. After all, if I could use a Terminal Server Client from my PocketPC device, why not from a Linux workstation?

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