25 Ubuntu tips for beginners

Taking a trip into the weird and wonderful world of Linux with the world’s most popular distro isn’t always the easiest of tasks, particularly if you’re used to Windows’ clean embrace.

This isn’t helped by the fact that Ubuntu isn’t as fully featured as it should be from the start.

Learn a bit about the OS, and get up and running with some interesting and helpful tools by following this guide.


1. Run essential updates

Any Linux installation worth its salt will alert you immediately to any changes that need to be made after installation, particularly if you’ve installed from a Live CD that might not be entirely up to date.

Ubuntu alerts you to this with an orange flash in its taskbar. Click on it, enter the administration password you set during installation and use the Update Manager to install the essentials. You’ll also find it at ‘System | Update Manager’.

2. Manually update packages

The auto-updater isn’t the only way to get your system up to speed. The package manager – which deals with downloading, installing and configuring new programs – might need a little kick, however.

Open a terminal window (select it from the menu, or hit [Alt]+[F2] and type gnome-terminal), then type sudo apt-get update to ensure that Ubuntu’s knowledge of packages is up to date.

3. Perform package upgrades

The next step is to turn your installed packages into the shiny new versions, which you can do using a slightly different command in the terminal window: apt-get upgrade.

Insert it (remembering to prefix it with sudo, which tells Ubuntu to perform the action as a super user) and apt-get will hammer through the list, marking and installing any packages that have fallen behind the times.

4. Upgrade the distribution

Apt is a monster of a tool. It can help you stay right on the cutting edge with little or no effort on your part.

Let’s say, for example, you’ve had an Ubuntu installation running for a while, but you want to install the latest version of the OS. You need to do a full backup, burn a new disc, sit through a reinstallation process and cross your fingers, right? Wrong.

Type apt-get distupgrade to bring your installed distro in line with current standards automatically.

5. Manage repositories easily

Apt doesn’t conjure packages out of thin air. It uses repositories – vast databases of software packages that ensure the latest versions of software are always easily available from (almost) one place.

To add more repositories, we recommend starting by installing a repository manger.

Type sudo wget http://mac4deb.googlepages.com/addrepo -O / usr/bin/addrepo into a terminal window to install addrepo, then sudo chmod +x /usr/bin/addrepo to set its permissions properly.

6. Add new repositories

Adding another source for software is easy; once you’ve installed addrepo, you can do it in the terminal by typing something along the lines of addrepo deb http://mirror2.ubuntulinux.nl/ lucid-seveas all.

If you find new repositories online, they will usually give you the right details to enter. You could also do it graphically by going to ‘System | Administration | Software Sources | Third Party Software | Add’.

7. Check the package manager

Ubuntu’s package management tools are, as you might have noticed, not restricted to the command line. Synaptic Package Manager is an excellent graphical interface for apt.

To open it, go to ‘System | Administration | Synaptic Package Manager’. Part of the fun of repositories is hunting around them for interesting packages – feel free to have a poke about!

8. Install restricted extras

Ubuntu is free software, so many features are left out by default for licensing reasons. That doesn’t stop you installing them yourself, though.

To get the Flash plug-in, support for MP3 and DVD playback, and standard TrueType fonts (among other things), search Synaptic Package Manager for ‘ubuntu-restricted-extras’ and install it. All the essentials are in that single package.

9. Get some games

Ubuntu’s default selection of games is a little weak. There’s a wealth of gaming gold on the default repositories, though.


Search for and check out the following: Tremulous, a decent first-person shooter; FlightGear, a seasoned and accurate flight sim; Gridwars, a flashy topdown retro shooter; and vDrift, a track-based racing simulator. All deserve a place on your hard drive.

10. Enable more tweaks

There’s a single package that will open up a world of further customisation options, and that’s ubuntu-tweak. You can download the DEB package installing a repository manger.

Type sudo wget http://mac4deb.googlepages.com/addrepo -O / usr/bin/addrepo into a terminal window to install addrepo, then sudo chmod +x /usr/bin/addrepo to set its permissions properly.

11. Set up Gnome-Do

Adding functionality to Ubuntu starts with Gnome-Do, which simplifies and speeds up searching for programs and files, or activating functions. Look in the package manager for ‘gnome-do’ (or install it using apt-get) to add it. You’ll now find it in the Ubuntu menu.

12. Understand the panes

Get Gnome-Do running, then hit [Super]+[Space]. [Super] is the [Windows] key on a standard PC keyboard. The left-hand pane contains the item you’re searching for, while the right-hand pane will eventually contain the action to be applied to it.

13. Try it out

We’ll use Firefox as an example application for Gnome-Do. Start typing firefox and it should appear in the left window after a few letters – that’s all you need to type. Now hit [Tab] to switch to the second pane, and start typing the action you wish to perform, such as Minimise or Close.

14. Use further features

The arrow keys are a satisfying way to navigate around Gnome-Do. Start typing in the first pane, then hit [down] to see all the possible options. Use [right] to expand folders or panels. Choose one, hit [Tab] and use the [down] arrow to select the action to perform on it.

15. Add more plug-ins

Gnome-Do can act on just about any software. Bring up the window with [Super]+[Space], click the little down arrow at the top-right corner and select Preferences. You can then add plug-ins for everything from Google tools and Twitter to music players such as RhythmBox.

16. Change your wallpaper

Ubuntu features some pretty – clearly Mac-inspired – purple desktop backgrounds, but no operating system is really yours until you’ve plastered a picture of your cat all over it. Right-click the desktop and choose ‘Change Desktop Background’ to load one in.

17. Switch window styles

You can change the look of your desktop’s windows from the ‘Appearance Preferences’ window. Click the Theme tab, then click on a style to see how it will look. If you click ‘Customise’, you can combine elements from different themes.

18. Install hardware drivers

To get the most out of your Ubuntu desktop, you’ll need the optimal drivers for your graphics card. They’re not installed by default, but if you go to ‘System | Administration | Hardware Drivers’, you’ll see your options. Select the latest driver, install it and restart.

19. Set up desktop effects

You’ll get a fancier looking desktop if you switch on visual effects (‘System | Preferences | Appearance | Visual Effects’). Install the ‘compiz’ settings application – search Synaptic for ‘compizconfig’ – and you’ll have access to many more stylish tweaks.

20. Add a dock

There’s a neat little desktop application, based on the code behind Gnome-Do (discussed elsewhere), that emulates the dock from Mac OS X. It’s worth a try. Search Synaptic for ‘docky’, install it, and you’ll be able to configure its minutest details by simply clicking the icon on the far left.

21. Play Windows videos

Type this into a terminal: sudo wget http://www.medibuntu. org/sources.list.d/$(lsb_ release -cs).list –outputdocument=/ etc/apt/ sources.list.d/medibuntu. list. Then run sudo apt-get install w32codecs to get the appropriate files.

22. Install VLC

You’ll find VLC listed in Synaptic under a search for ‘VLC’. Like most apps, it installs a number of other programs at the same time, which it needs in order to run. However, it doesn’t install the Firefox plug-in – search for ‘mozilla-plugin-vlc’ to find it if you want media handled in your browser.

23. Set up Samba

Sharing files with Windows computers? You need Samba. Search for ‘samba’ within Synaptic, mark the packages ‘samba’ and ‘system-config-samba’ for installation and click ‘Apply.’ You can use the configuration app to set up permanently linked shares.

24. Mess with panels

Ubuntu’s default layout is a mix of OS X and Windows. To fiddle with its panels, right-click an empty spot and select ‘Properties’. You can also add or remove elements with the appropriate command. If you’ve installed Docky, you may need to shift at least one panel out of the way.

25. Unleash GIMP

There’s one premier artistry app for Linux, and that’s GIMP. If there were an award for ‘most Photoshop features aped’, it would win two of them. It doesn’t come on a standard Ubuntu Live CD, but it deserves to, so grab it from Synaptic Package Manager and get doodling.



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