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Ubuntu is likely the biggest desktop Linus distribution now, but its got some quirks that can make it a little frustrating for the newer Linux user. In 2006 Mint forked Ubuntu to make a distribution to focused on user friendliness and elegance. In the last couple years they’ve come close, if not overtaken their parent fork to become if not the, then a, dominate distribution.
While its reasonably easy for a user with some comfort to install a new desktop manager on any distribution, for the novice, what it looks like, and how easy it is to use is often the starting point.
Mint comes in several variations, but the two most popular are the Cinnamon Desktop and the Mate Desktop versions. While they have some differences as you can see in the galleries below, its immediately obvious that’d they’d be quite familiar to a Windows user.
Installation is pretty much identical to the Ubuntu install, so I won’t add anything to that. Once installed though, the interface is much more intuitive to a Windows user, and in my opinion much more comfortable. It is also a little more light weight and as such more suited to older hardware.
Though Ubuntu has recently started to add more third party and proprietary software, Mint’s goal of making a Linux desktop that is user friendly and elegant has always allowed said software. As such, some of the software installed is under different licenses than the stricter distributions such as Debian would allow. For the average user, especially one looking for an alternative to Windows this is unlikely to matter. It comes with the standard Firefox and Libre Office applications, capable text editors and file explorer and a nice graphical software manager.
One thing to note is that Mint holds back some security updates. The reasons behind this are to ensure that an update is entirely compatible and won’t break the system as has happened in some distros in the past. Browser updates are however installed, and for the average user, the security risk is negligible if non existent. If this is a concern to you, this article has much more information.
For me, Mint is a fresh exciting distribution, easy for a novice to start with, and still allows them to learn and become an experienced user if they so wish. I used it as my main distro for a couple years and likely will switch back. Currently I like to switch things up and try new ones, so my distro of choice is kind of unsettled.
If you are looking to switch from Windows to Linux, or just want to refresh some old hardware with a free OS, I highly encourage you to give Mint a try.
As discussed previously, Ubuntu has done a lot to popularize Linux on the desktop, but its not for everyone. A lot of that has to do with the look and feed. One of the nice thing about Linux is that there are many different front ends, or windowing managers. You don’t have to use the one Ubuntu comes with, you can install others. Of course this is, for a lot of users, outside their comfort zone.
Whats nice then is that there are even pre-built installs based upon Ubuntu using different windowing managers. Ubuntu by default uses one called Unity, but you can also download Kubuntu and Xubuntu which use Kde and XFCE respectively. Xfce is especially nice for older hardware as its much lighter weight than some of the alternatives. technically KDE is more than the windowing manager, it includes the Plasma windowing manager and its own suite of tools, as do some others, but for the sake of this discussion, I’ll refer to them as so.
The install process is pretty much identical for all 3 versions, so won’t demo that, however I will show you a few screenshots of them running and point out some differences in the installed defaults.
Kububtu installs with a very nice (in my opinion anyway) light blue color scheme. It has a more traditional Window’s like start button and taskbar. Some of the preloaded software is the same, for example Firefox and Libre office. But KDE has its own suite of K applications, Kontact, KOrganizer, and KMail (notice a theme?). It uses the dolphin file browser and the amarok music player. For the most part these are just names, the tools do the same things as on windows, they may be slightly different in terms of look and feel, but they do the same tasks.
One thing that you’ll spot right off is the little “desktop” menu in the top right. Its a very nice tool, that can be both simple and advanced to add widgets, panels, etc to your desktop. I’ve added a moon phase and weather widget in one of the screen shots in the gallery below.
The start menu is also more compact and window’s like, however with the addition of favorites, recently used and categorization which makes your apps easier to find. The software center, while different, is still clean and user friendly, offering categorized choices of software to search for.
For the most part, for me at least, Kubuntu offers a “fresher” cleaner looking install than Ubuntu and will be more comfortable for the user transitioning from Windows.
Xubuntu’s desktop seems to have a little less Oomph, but that’s understandable as its designed to run on lesser hardware. The desktop does look nice, with the taskbar at the top of the screen, with a traditional start button type menu. Similar to Kubuntu’s menu, with categories of apps. Xubuntu does not come pre-installed with Libre Office, but of course this is still a free download. It uses the Ubuntu software center, so no differences there. The music player is more scaled down and is less a media manager and more of just a player.
These two options provide a way to get the Ubuntu experience with a different interface. Some of the apps aren’t quite the same, but you are also free to install other free alternatives of your choice. The lighter weight Xfce interface of Xubuntu is especially good if you want to repurpose some old hardware, while the Kde/Plasma interface offers a highly customizeable slick interface, with the downside that the included apps aren’t the ones people are generally familiar with.Lights of Different Colors As discussed previously, Ubuntu has done a lot to popularize Linux on the desktop, but its not for everyone.
Linux has been around for a long time now, in many flavors, but for the most part its had a small (but devoted) following on the desktop. Many old timers who are/were used to the command line took to it, and like it for its power and its simplicity.
But for the non tech, or for even some who are, a nice gui still is a defining point of a nice desktop install. I worked on UNIX back in the day, and of course in DOS, but I still could not bring myself to like desktop Linux till relatively recently. I tried Corel Linux back in the day, it was probably the most user friendly I had seen at that point, but it still didn’t cut it.
But when Canonical released the first Ubuntu in 2004, they did so with the goal, or at least one of them, of making Linux user friendly and simple for the novice user to use. Whether you like Ubuntu or not, there is no denying that they have popularized Linux in unprecedented ways, and likely still remain the top, or near the top of the Linux distributions.
Ubuntu is based upon Debian, has a regular 6 month release cycle, with package updates regularly. While Ubuntu is based upon Debian, it strays in that Debian is strict in making sure that its apps are open source, where as Ubuntu does allow and sells proprietary software. Debian is based upon stable releases of packages as well, and in many cases the packages are quite old when compared to Ubuntu.
For my first exploration then, its no surprise that I’ve chosen Ubuntu. A gallery of screen shots of the installation and running is below.
Warning: iTines and Netflix are currently not working on Ubuntu without some hacks. Netflix should be supported very soon (article link), but there are no plans to support iTunes. There are alternatives, but if these are game stoppers for you, do not install without research.
Like most Linux flavors these days, when you put the CD in, and boot into it, Ubuntu doesn’t actually start installing. It runs what’s called a “Live” CD which allows you to try it out, and learn about it without actually committing to it. If you have interest, this is a no risk way of trying Ubuntu and many others without replacing your current operating system. If you do choose to install, you will first be presented with a screen of recommendations, and a couple options. To me, updating while installing over the internet is a no brainer, but the other is a little more cryptic. It asks you about installing a third-party MP3 decoder. Why you’d not want to is beyond me, but Ubuntu wants you to know that this software isn’t built nor maintained by their community, hence the option.
The next step is the “scariest”. You are given the option to erase the whole disk and install, or do some custom work. If you already had Windows on your machine, it will have the additional option to install side by side. I’ve included a screen shot of the scary “partitioning”menu, but for the purpose of this walk through we are going to assume you are either replacing Windows or starting on a clean machine. I will try to write a guide to partitioning at a later point.
WARNING: Proceeding as I have done will mean you no longer have Windows, you are now committed!
You will get prompted with a couple screens of questions (your location, language, keyboard type, etc) and then from there, we just wait and read about the features.
Once the installation has finished, and you’ve rebooted you’ll be at the desktop. Its similar to what you are used to, but not quite the same. Across the top is a status/menu bar (more on that in a bit) and on the left is a dock of applications and options. At the very top of this is your “Start” menu.
When you click the start button, you get a menu filling the full screen. By default it shows recent apps and a search option which is really nice for finding apps, but if you are looking for the more traditional menu, its a little un-obvious that there are option buttons at the bottom of the screen. Clicking the 2nd will show you an applications menu.
Out of the box, Ubuntu comes with a full suite of free applications, such as Firefox web browser, Libre Office for spreadsheets, documents and presentations, Rhythmbox for music management and much much more. Clicking the Software Center in the dock will load up a window of many many more free, yes free applications you can add to your system. Note however that not all the applications here are free. Ubuntu, unlike some other distros, also sells proprietary software through their software center. When you are running apps in Ubuntu, there is no menu bar in the app itself, rather, the menu stays fixed to the top of the desktop. This can be a little disconcerting at first as often its not even visible to you mouse over it. It can take some getting used to.
Files and Settings
Next to the Start Button, there is a menu option for a file explorer, very similar to the Window’s My Computer. One thing to remember though is that the old lettered drives you may be familiar with don’t exist in Linux, rather the base of your file system is at / with everything else being folders off / eg: /home/username. The home folder is essentially what you would have known as your “My Documents” folder on Windows. A location where you put all your items, whereas other folders are generally for apps and system things. For the non tech user, these others will be of limited interest, but I may write a post about the Linux structure at another date.
Lastly, at the bottom of the dock is a Settings menu option. This would correspond to the Window’s Control Panel, and allows you to maintain system settings for mice, displays, printers, sound, etc.
For the most part, these applications and settings menus live in some way, shape or form in all Linux desktops, so in future articles, I’ll likely link back here a lot while pointing out differences.
There is no doubt that Ubuntu has popularized Linux on the desktop, and brought its name into the main stream. However, some of their decisions in the past few years have moved some former proponents away from it. Technical decisions that for the most part, only geeks care about, but some of them have changed the look and feel. Personally, while its superficial and can be changed, the brown color scheme has always bothered me. I also personally dislike the menu along the top rather than within the app. But these are just personal preferences.
All in all Ubuntu is a great system, with a regular 6 month release cycle of new versions and a nice built in check for updates. Recently though there have been tie ins to Amazon and and other proprietary things. Not inherently bad in and of itself, but its started to feel like I am being advertised to on my OS, not just in my browser, and I dislike that. Also, it seems to have become bloated lately and one of the things I liked about Linux, the speed on older hardware, has started to deteriorate in Ubuntu.
For me at least, some of the other distros have more Windows like settings, and have less of the features I dislike, that I think are much better for the new Linux user, I’ll talk more about these in future posts.
If there are any questions, or items I missed, I’d love to hear about them and will edit and try to keep those in mind for future.http://wp.me/p54M8p-m Linux has been around for a long time now, in many flavors, but for the most part its had a small (but devoted) following on the desktop.