SHIFTING to the Linux operating system can be pretty daunting for long-time Windows users who have grown accustomed to doing things a certain way.
Some months ago, we looked at the challenges that Windows users face when first using Mac OS X. The challenges are somewhat different on Linux, but can also lead to a fair amount of frustration for first-time users.
Unlike Windows or Mac OS X, there are many flavors of Linux. I use a distribution called Ubuntu Linux Version 6.06, but this is by no means the only one available. It is, however, one of the more user-friendly distributions around. Also unlike Windows and Mac OS X, you can get Linux free – without breaking any laws.
But free software also comes at a price. There's a lot less hand-holding and there are more things you'll have to figure out on your own. Most of the answers to questions that newbies ask are tucked away in forums and mailing lists, but these require some dogged Web searching to ferret out. If you've just started using Ubuntu, a good place to start is the Absolute Beginner Talk in the Ubuntu forums.
The tips in this column are by no means as comprehensive, but they answer some of the questions I had when I first moved from Windows to Linux. I've also included a list of software that I've found to be indispensable.
How do I install programs? As a Windows user, I was so used to downloading software from a Web site and running an EXE file to install it. Things are not that simple in Linux because programs are often dependent on other programs that also have to be installed. Package managers keep track of these dependencies to make sure the programs run properly. On Ubuntu Linux, there are two easy ways to install software. Use the Add / Remove from the Applications menu or the Synaptic Package Manager (System> Administration> Synaptic Package Manager), both of which will download an updated list of software available.
Why does Linux keep asking me for a password? One reason Linux (and Mac OS X, which is also based on Unix) is reliably safe from viruses and spyware is that the user needs to type in a password every time a new program is installed. This means it's much harder to accidently install malicious software from the Internet.
But where are my files? Linux uses the same directory structure as other Unix-based operating systems like OS X. The root is reserved for system files and contains folders with cryptic names such as bin, boot, dev, and etc. You generally do not want to touch these files, and every time you try to change something here, you will be asked for a password. On the other hand, you can write data files to your home folder (Places> Home Folder) without such restrictions. In the root, this folder is found in the "home" directory.
There are two powerful tools to help you find programs and files: Beagle Search and Gnome Deskbar.
Beagle Search indexes the contents of your hard disk so that you can find what you need quickly. To add the program, go to Add / Remove, click on Accessories and scroll down till you find Search. Check the box next to it and click on the Apply button. When Beagle is installed, you can find it in Places> Search.
Deskbar is a very efficient launcher. To make it available, right-click on any desktop panel, choose Add to Panel and choose Deskbar from the Accessories section. Click the Add button.
Deskbar works like Spotlight on the Mac. Just type in the first few letters of your search term and a menu will drop down showing possible choices. In this way, you can quickly launch a program without moving the mouse through nested menus.
A useful tool for organizing and finding scraps of information is Tomboy Notes, a notepad that allows you to create links to other notes that you create. You can think of it as a Wiki on your desktop.
Why will not my video files play? Out of the box, Ubuntu Linux will not play AVI and other proprietary multimedia formats. The easiest way to solve this problem is to install and run EasyUbuntu or Automatix (System> Administration> Synaptic Package Manager). After they are installed, you should be able to find these programs in Applications> System Tools.
The default multimedia player on Ubuntu is Totem, but I prefer VLC Media Player, which you can also install using Add / Remove. For music files, I like XMMS Music Player, which looks a lot like WinAmp. Others swear by Amarok, which also contains a database of your music.
Can I work with files created in Windows? Unlike Windows or Mac OS X, Linux comes with a complete office suite that's compatible with MS Office. OpenOffice.org will let you load files created in MS Word and MS Excel and save them back in that format so your collections who are still using Windows can read them back. Another useful tool is Wine, which lets you run some Windows programsI use it to run Adobe Photoshopin Linux. Setting up Wine is not easy, however, and it's usually better to simply find Linux compared to work like your favorite Windows programs.
Making the shift to Linux is not as easy as some people make it out to be. But there's a lot of helpand cool, free software available, if you know where to look.