March 16, 2006

Automatix kicks Ubuntu into gear

Author: Tina Gasperson

There's been some discussion lately about whether Ubuntu is suitable for Linux beginners. If you raise this issue, someone is sure to tout a script called Automatix as the solution to any perceived notions of the user-unfriendliness of Ubuntu. Automatix automatically installs a laundry list of applications, plugins, and utilities that are supposed to turn a barebones Ubuntu install into desktop perfection. That sounded like something I should try.

I already thought Ubuntu was pretty easy to use. Although it doesn't come out of the box with everything I need, I quickly found out how to get just about everything I needed by pointing and clicking. The Synaptic Package Manager helped me set up extra repositories, and update-notifier made it easy to get the latest version of whatever it told me I needed.

Still, for a rank beginner, Ubuntu might take a little over-the-shoulder help getting plugins and other essential applications installed. Automatix sure sounds like an answer. It installs multimedia codecs that help you play sound and video files properly, all the usual Firefox plugins that you forget you need until you need them (Java, Flash, Adobe reader, MPlayer, etc.), archive support, Skype, an FTP client, several file-sharing programs, multimedia editors, a DVD ripper, RealPlayer, the Opera browser, and a lot more.

To test Automatix, I started with a fresh install of Ubuntu Breezy. Automatix supports all versions of Ubuntu up to Breezy, including Kubuntu and Edubuntu. It doesn't support Dapper, PPC, or AMD64 yet. Once the installation was complete, I logged in, opened Firefox, Googled for "automatix," and clicked on the first link, which happened to be to a complete Automatix tutorial on ubuntuforums.org. The tutorial was posted last year and makes reference to Ubuntu Hoary, but it works just fine for Breezy.

At first I was looking around for a place to download Automatix, but as I continued to read the tutorial, I learned that I'd need to open a terminal and type some things on the command line. It's an easy thing to do, but I wonder if it would be confusing to a new Linux user.

On the command line, I directed Ubuntu to download the Automatix package from a repository at beerorkid.com, and then to unpack and install the script. To start the script, I could click on Applications -> System Tools -> Automatix, or simply type "Automatix" in the terminal. Once running, Automatix got my permission to access Ubuntu repositories and check for some necessary packages in one window. Then, in another window, it showed me a list of all the packages it could install for me and what they contained. I selected the ones I wanted by clicking the check box next to them. I checked everything -- what the heck, Automatix was doing all the work for me, and if something gets messed up, it wasn't my fault!

Once I finally got them all selected and clicked "OK," Automatix went to work doing whatever it needed to do to get my computer to a state of configuration nirvana. Things slowed down a bit when the script paused to ask for my root password, and it took me a minute to figure that out, because the request came from the first window, which was partially obscured by the second window. After I typed in my password, the script progressed, but stopped two more times to ask again, which I thought was strange since sudo usually remembers my root password for at least a few minutes. After I entered the password the third time, the script and its two windows exited unexpectedly. I didn't get any kind of error message -- everything just disappeared. I wasn't sure if that was supposed to happen and Automatix had simply finished installing everything. But I read on the tutorial that some user input was required in order to install several of the applications. Not seeing any related troubleshooting information in the discussion thread, I decided to stop looking and just run the script again.

This time things went as they should; I entered my password once and the script went about downloading and installing all the packages I requested. At one point, the script halted because I had elected to install Nvidia drivers despite not having an Nvidia card on my laptop. I was able to circumvent that by canceling the operation. Automatix skipped the package and went on to the next without a hitch. Wine, the Windows compatibility application, was one of the largest packages to install, and it was the slowest, downloading from SourceForge at less than 1Kbps and taking more than half an hour to finish. I think Automatix should point to a repository with more bandwidth, such as ibiblio.org, where I was able to download Wine at 189Kbps.

After Wine was done, Automatix reminded me that I'd need to run a file called winecfg later on in order to setup and use Wine. Automatix still had more packages to install, though. Unfortunately, before it finished, another bug crawled out and threatened to ruin my fun. The script halted because it said I was running another instance of dpkg, the Debian package archive tool. Honestly, I wasn't!

What's a girl to do but start the script again? The problem was, I wasn't sure exactly which applications hadn't been installed yet -- apparently, Automatix hadn't been setting them up in the order listed on the selection screen. Rather than guess, I selected everything again -- except the Nvidia drivers. Luckily, the script zipped through everything it had already done and quickly returned to what it had been working on before.

As Automatix gets closer to its end, it needs more user input. You can't just walk away from it and come back when it's done. I was surprised at how long it took to run the script in its entirety. Not even counting the two times I had to restart Automatix, it took about an hour and a half to run. When it finally finished, I put Automatix to the test, and it passed with an "A."

This is when the payoff comes for having had the patience to make it through a time-consuming installation. Everything I needed worked just as it should with no further research, downloading, or tweaking. All the Firefox plugins worked; when I put a DVD in, Totem opened up and started playing it; I could share files using a Gnutella client or a BitTorrent client; Kino imported my digital video files directly through Firewire; and as a bonus, Automatix even installed OpenOffice.org and Thunderbird.

Automatix lives up to its reputation. It's worth any time and small frustration it might take to get through the script. And it's even worth that "over-the-shoulder" time you might spend with a new Linux user to walk them through it. I don't see any reason why a beginner would not be delighted with Ubuntu after a magic touch from Automatix.

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