Ubuntu thoughts tips and tricks


Back in February, right after I realized that Windows Vista was a complete hunk of crap and was more or less incompatible with about every piece of hardware I owned, I decided to move full time to Linux on all my computers - desktop and laptop. My server has been Debian for about 3 or four years now, and I'll never use another distrib as long as I live, and of course the obvious choice for my local machines was Ubuntu, which is just insanely great. If you've tried Linux in the past, ever, even a few months ago, you need to re-try again with Ubuntu. You will be amazed at how good it is, and how fast any problems you do have get resolved. I've never been happier with my daily OS than I am now. Mac OSX may be Unix, but Ubuntu is LINUX, and that's awesome.

Here's some thoughts about moving to Ubuntu that I thought I'd share for those who want to try it as well.

* If you're moving from Windows, just get rid of the standard top menu bar, and create a new one at the bottom that looks more like you're used to. I tried to adapt to something completely new and different just to be that way, but after, oh, 12 years or so of using a Windows 95 interface, it's just too frustrating to work in another way. Save yourself the hassle, and customize the desktop how you like.

* Remember: Gnome is your friend. (KDE is a nightmare of usability and every time I'm tempted to try a Qt-based app, I end up uninstalling it almost immediately. Only an obsessively anal uber-geek could love that mess of a UI.)

* Here's a great tip for anyone moving over from Windows, if there's a common key command that you miss, simply go to the menu in *any* Gnome app, highlight the menu option you want to change the key command for with your mouse and press the new key, and bam you have your new shortcut.

* I was always tweaking when I first moved over, and constantly looking for a different app that may do something slightly different... it turns out that 90% of the applications that come with the standard Ubuntu distrib are the best of their kind. You'll probably have one or two apps that you've decided that you must have, but if you're not totally in love with one app or another, just give the pre-installed ones a try. For example, there's at least 10 different music management apps out there. I've played with them all and Rhythmbox that comes with Ubuntu does just about everything I want. Same for gEdit, Nautilus, etc. Another example, Evince works fine for PDFs, you don't need to install Adobe Reader, but I did decide that I preferred Azureus to the integrated BitTorrent client, but that's one app out of dozens I use.

* That said, Evolution is a steaming pile of crap. If I could uninstall it, I would, but it's somehow embedded into the desktop so I can't. I use Thunderbird and it's great - not only have I been using it for years, but it actually integrates better with Gnome: There's an extension out there that adds an icon to the task tray for you (better than the Mail Notifier thing that Evolution needs) which makes it much nicer.

* I used to think that Nautilus was bad too, I ranted about it to my friends for months - it was so slow, and so buggy - I tried some other window managers like Thunar and some Windows Explorer clone, and they weren't great, or very well integrated. Finally, I went into Nautilus' preferences one day and simply turned off the File Previews and Folder Item Count and the effect not only on Nautilus, but the entire desktop was dramatic - quick, responsive and uber-usable!! Now I love Nautilus, and use it's integrated virtual file system stuff constantly to seamlessly connect to my Windows shares (using smb) and my web server (using ssh). The only thing it's missing is an explorer like "file view", but once I got used to the list manager, I now don't miss it nearly as much.

* Options for images: F-Spot is the photo manager of Gnome and it works really well - and amazingly, it's written in Mono too. I've also learned to love the GIMP... It's not the most friendly app in the world, but it ends up being very useful once you mess with it for a while. The next version is supposed to clean up the crufty GUI, so it's definitely something to look for. XaraXL is a vector graphics program on par with Macromedia Fireworks - I use it for all my logos, etc. and it works great.

* Plugins are everywhere - in gEdit, Nautilus, Thunderbird, Rhythmbox, Pidgin, etc. find them and tweak. I've been super-happy with the gEdit plugins and have made it my primary text editor. And again, the integration with Gnomes virtual file systems makes it a great thing to have to work on stuff remotely.

* Multimedia is great. I honestly can't tell you how hard or not it is now to get video and audio working perfectly - but I can tell you that after installing just about everything I could find out there, just about every piece of media you can image plays on my box now: WMV, AVI, Quicktime, Flash, DivX, etc. More times than not, I send a clip to a friend on a Mac box, and they have more trouble viewing the movies than I do. I'm pretty sure this is pretty easy now as well, but apps like VLC, and ffmpeg are good to have handy just in case.

* I don't use Beagle or desktop search as much as I thought I would. Something about how it works just isn't right yet - I think this goes for all the desktop search products, actually whether on Windows, Mac or Linux... there's some sort of disconnect in how I really use my files, and how the interface works. But that's just my opinion, maybe it'll be super useful for you.

* Another tip, but one I didn't learn until I started moving between my desktop and laptop: Keep *everything* in your personal home directory. If you want to install a new theme, font, plugin, etc. etc. there's *always* a spot in your home directory for it. If you have to sudo into a directory to install something then you're doing it wrong. Leave the rest of the OS alone for the most part (except the odd program that you can throw into /opt/) and just use your home directory. This makes backing up really easy, and transferring your whole working environment to your laptop is as easy as doing rsync, or hell, just copy/paste.

* As for the rest of the stuff I use regularly: Pidgin has been super flaky for me lately, so I'm glad I moved to Gajim for my IM, but in general Pidgin is pretty nice. Skype for Linux works well, but is missing video, sadly (this is probably the #1 reason I have my Windows box still around - to let my kid video conference with his grandparetns). Oh, and Google Earth now works on Linux and it's very nice.

* I've tried to use Wine, but it just doesn't ever seem to work for anything I've tried it with. I got IE7 running for testing, sorta, but even that wasn't great. Now that I hacked the Windows Vista box sitting in the corner, anything I need to do or want to try on Windows (new software, testing, etc.) I just use the Terminal Services client to remote into it and it's essentially like being on that machine. If I had a more powerful box (I'm just using Ubuntu on a P4), I might think about doing some sort of virtual machine, but for now i'll just use the dedicated machine instead. Think of it as a "poor man's multi-core" system. :-)

* Oh, the one app I've yet to find to fit my needs is a money manager. I've tried every one I can get my hands on, both online and off, and none do what I need. I mean, you can "track" your money for the most part, but that's it... You upload your expenses and your income, and then, what? Look at them? Do some people get a jazz out of that or something? To me, I need a scheduler that says, "Pay this bill by this date, or Big Louie is coming for you," and shows me a pretty graph of how much I'll have and when. In other words it needs to tell me, "If you try to pay your rent on the first and not the third, your check will bounce higher than a superball." Anything that doesn't do that sort of thing is completely fucking useless, and yet there's tons of "finance" apps out there that don't do this in any realistic way. Seriously, what kind of hyper-uptight rich assholes would think that something like Wesabe is useful, for example? Ahem. But I digress...

* The final note is the joy of apt-get. It's just SOOO easy to grab new things and try them out, and if they don't work, just as easily get rid of them. For example, I had the Games stuff that usually comes with Ubuntu uninstalled as I don't need the temptation and honestly don't use them much, but the other day my boy and I wanted to play Connect Four against the computer and it took all of 60 seconds to re-install the games when I needed them - so nice. The example isn't the games, it's the level of confidence I have in the system that I don't have to have apps installed "just in case" - I can keep things clean and neat and manageable and get the apps I want when I need them, without worry.

Definitely give Ubuntu a try. It *kicks ass*.


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