February 18, 2011

Weekend Project: Taking the Next Step with Linux after the Install

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Weekend Project: Taking the Next Step with Linux after the Install
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You've installed Linux. Now what? A lot of folks hear great things about Linux, decide to try it out, and then aren't really sure where to go from there. Relax, and take the weekend to get settled with your brand new Linux install.

One of the things I've run into time and again when recommending Linux to people is that they find Linux easy enough to install, but then don't know where to go next. So here's a step-by-step guide to setting up Linux for new users. If you've been using Linux for a while, most of this is going to be obvious. But every day is somebody's first day with Linux, so here's to the new users who need a little nudge in the right direction.

Weekend Project Logo For the purpose of this piece, we'll assume that you're running Ubuntu Linux. The overall suggestions should hold true for most of the Linux distributions, but some of the particulars (like the Ubuntu Software Center) will not translate exactly to other distros.

Master Your Machine with Updates

Step one? Whether you've installed Linux yourself or bought a machine with Linux pre-installed, you should start with running updates. Go to the System menu and select Administration -> Update Manager. Click the Check button, and then select Install Updates. You'll need to enter your password and then just sit back and let it work its magic.

Most of the time, you'll be able to resume using your system without a reboot or logging in and out of X. However, if the system update requires a reboot (like a kernel update), you'll see a notice that directs you to reboot the system.

As a rule, Linux is immune to viruses and malware that might affect Windows machines. However it's always better to be safe than sorry — and some vulnerabilities in browsers or other applications are cross-platform. And, of course, not all updates are security related — so be sure to run updates at least once a week.

Note that Ubuntu will check for updates in the background every day. But you can change that to every two days, weekly, or every two weeks via the Settings dialog in the Update Manager.

While you're there, you might also want to enable pre-released updates. This will include "proposed" updates, which means that you'll get security and bug fixes faster. It also means that an update might be untested or not as thoroughly tested as released updates — so there's a tiny chance that a proposed update will have bugs. (In my experience, this is rarely an issue.)

Secure Your System

If your Linux machine is directly connected to the net, you might also want to have a firewall configured. By default, Ubuntu doesn't set up any firewall rules. You could set them by hand using iptables, but if you're familiar with iptables, you probably don't need any help setting up a Linux system! Rather than learning the CLI way of doing it, try out Firestarter.

Firestarter is a desktop Firewall tool. You can get this by going to Applications -> Ubuntu Software Center. Search for "Firestarter" and select Install. You'll need to enter your password and it will take a minute or so to download, depending on your connection speed. You'll need to run Firestarter with administrator (root) privileges. Go to System -> Administration and select Firestarter.

Firestarter is very easy to use, and should be relatively easy to configure if you're at all familiar with firewalls. If not, stay tuned — we have a Firestarter tutorial in the works.

Customize the Desktop

Now that you've run updates and set up a firewall, you can relax and customize your system to fit your preferences.

If you want to tweak the desktop wallpaper and such, all you need to do is right-click on the desktop and select Change Desktop Background. There you can change the background, as well as the desktop theme, visual effects, and fonts.

Ubuntu comes with a handful of attractive themes, but if you want a wider selection, you might want to revisit the Software Center and search for themes.

By default, Ubuntu starts a number of programs behind the scenes. You might want to pare down the startup apps or add something to the startup routine. For instance, you may not be using any of the Ubuntu One services. If not, you can go to System -> Preferences -> Startup Application Preferences and uncheck Ubuntu One. If you want to add an application, go to Add and give the name and command that you'd like to have started.

GNOME has a number of keyboard shortcuts that you can use to work with the desktop more efficiently. Some are fairly standard if you've been using Windows. For instance, Alt+Tab cycles through application windows, just like Windows. But others aren't obvious, and you can change them if you like as well. Go to System -> Preferences -> Keyboard Shortcuts and scroll through the shortcuts. Some are disabled by default, others are assigned to your keyboard's multimedia keys (if it has them).

You can even create your own Shortcuts. In the Keyboard Shortcuts window, click Add and give the shortcut a name and the command that you want to run. For instance, if you wanted to run the Dictionary applet using a Shortcut, click Add and enter gnome-dictionary in the command field, and Dictionary in the name field. Then you can assign it a shortcut (I use Ctrl-Alt-D and never need to touch the Applications menu to open the dictionary.

Poke around a bit in the Preferences menu. Linux is very flexible, so you will be able to tweak the system quite a bit to fit your needs.

New Applications and Top 5

We've already introduced you to the Software Center, so let's take a look at installing a few more applications that you're likely to find useful — but aren't installed by default in Ubuntu.

Ubuntu has a nice default set of applications, but there's only so much room on a CD. Over time, one of my favorite (and most useful) apps has been nudged off the Ubuntu CD. That's GIMP, short for the GNU Image Manipulation Program. It's similar in function, if not form, to Photoshop. Using GIMP, you can do all sorts of photo manipulation and editing. It's also useful just for cropping photos or converting images. GIMP is generally not regarded as the most user-friendly application compared to other things like Shotwell, but I think it's friendly enough for most users.

Still missing Windows applications? Don't reboot or use a second computer for your Windows apps — turn to virtualization. The most full-featured and cost-free virtualization option is VirtualBox. If you're on Ubuntu 10.10, the release of VirtualBox that's available in the repos is a bit behind. Check the VirtualBox site for downloads.

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