20 Essential Tips Every Ubuntu User Should Know


So you've read our Complete Beginner's Guide to Linux and have decided to adopt an open-source operating system--congratulations! But diving right into a new OS is daunting, even if it is as polished and stable as Ubuntu. That's OK though, because we're here to help. We've compiled a list of the 20 most important skills that every Ubuntu user should have. These tips, ranging from basic GUI manipulation to advanced system recovery, are essential to your Windows-free computing experience. Whether you've just installed Ubuntu for the first time or have been a Linux acolyte for years, you'll want to read our refresher. And if you have any tips you can't live without, we'd love to hear about them in the comments section!

Turn Your Audio Up to 11

The sound dialog menu has been a staple in every version of Ubuntu (and GNOME in general) for many years, but in 9.10 it has received a significant overhaul and no longer resembles a traditional mixer. Previously, the maximum volume of a system was determined by hardware and other factors and could not be easily exceeded on a system-wide level. This was sometimes a problem, since the maximum volume of a system could be well below what the hardware could actually deliver. In 9.10, the volume slider has been modified to boost audio up to roughly 150%, so it is now possible to compensate for any discrepancy. However, you should be careful with this feature—you could potentially damage your speakers if you exceed their limits. (Generally, the volume is too loud if there is distortion.)

Ubuntu 9.10 also features a new ability to choose between several different sound themes for various system events. This feature was present in older versions, but is greatly refined in 9.10.

Create Custom Keyboard Shortcuts

Ubuntu offers extensive keyboard shortcut functionality, including support for some of the keys on multimedia keyboards. These are often detected and appropriately bound out of the box, so there is no need to assign them manually. Keyboard shortcuts are managed through the appropriately named entry in the Preferences sub-menu. To create a new keyboard shortcut combination, scroll down to the desired action in the list and click on the existing combination. When the current entry switches to “new shortcut...” press the new key combination you want to use for that action. To cancel the change, left-click on “new shortcut...”.

Control Your System Remotely with Nautilus

Ubuntu features a powerful file manager called Nautilus that is closely integrated into GNOME. This tool allows you to work with local files in an intuitive interface, but it also has remote-connection capabilities comparable to what can be found in an FTP client. In addition to regular FTP access, it provides a graphical interface for SSH-based remote access to other Linux/Unix systems and support for browsing shared folders on Windows systems on the network.

This functionality is accessed through the “Connect to Server” option in Ubuntu's Places menu. The dialog box allows you to select a protocol, location, user name, (and password, if necessary) and port number. Once you have established a connection, the remote server will be accessible through a folder and can be used and unmounted like any type of storage media.

Customize Your UI with Desktop Compositing

If you have a video card (or even an onboard video chipset) you can turn on various desktop effects with a utility called Compiz Fusion. (We covered Compiz Fusion in depth in a previous article .) Although it is possible to fine-tune the performance of these desktop effects with Compiz-Config Settings Manager (CCSM), Ubuntu also features a built-in interface with several preset functions. This is located on a tab called Visual effects in the Appearance dialog (reached through the Preferences sub-menu under System). There are three preset options: none, normal (a moderate level of effects), and Extra (massive levels of eye candy). If you use CCSM instead, none of the presets will be selected.

Boot and Install Ubuntu from a USB Stick

Most people have several old low-capacity USB sticks lying around that they no longer use in favor of higher-capacity sticks that have become increasingly affordable. An ideal use for an older stick with a capacity of 1 GB or less is as a boot medium for a Linux distro. (At least 700 MB capacity is required.) If your BIOS supports USB booting, it is possible to create an installation stick for Ubuntu instead of a more traditional CD. USB sticks have the advantage of being reusable with later versions, so you won't eventually end up with a big pile of obsolete installation discs. USB sticks can also be used to store data files from the live session, using extra space that has been set aside for that purpose. (Files created during a normal liveCD session are usually destroyed at shutdown because a temporary ramdisk is used to store them.) External hard drives may be used to boot from as well, but USB sticks are much more practical for the purpose.

To create your own USB stick, open the USB Startup disk Creator in the administration sub-menu. You will need to provide an Ubuntu ISO or CD as a source medium, so make sure you have that on hand before you begin. The Disk Creator tool will not accept other distros (and you can't fool it by renaming any other ISO image to “ubuntu-9.10-desktop-i386.iso” or something to that effect), so you will still have to use UNetbootin to create USB sticks for non-Ubuntu distros.

Sweep Away Old Files

Although Linux systems do not routinely accumulate obsolete files, it still happens on installations that have been upgraded a few times. Sometimes, old software packages may be left behind during the Ubuntu upgrade process (although the upgrade utility has a stage where obsolete packages are removed) and Ubuntu has a utility called Computer Janitor that allows you to deal with them. This tool keeps a tally of all old and/or deprecated packages on your system and makes recommendations for removal. This tool is located in the Administration sub-menu.

Find the Right Hardware Drivers

Unlike many other distros, Ubuntu has a special utility called Hardware Drivers (sometimes called Restricted Drivers). This utility will search your system for any hardware that needs proprietary drivers to function under Linux and will make these drivers available for download if possible. The Hardware Drivers manager can handle various types of hardware, including Nvidia video cards/chipsets, Broadcom wireless, and more. The Hardware Drivers tool is located in the Administration sub-menu.

To activate a driver, highlight its entry in the list and click the Activate button. If there is more than one driver available for a device, you should choose the recommended version. The Hardware Drivers manager will then acquire and enable the driver for you. In most instances, a reboot is necessary before a driver becomes fully active.

Get NTFS Compatibility

The NTFS-Config tool auto-detects NTFS-based partitions and sets a new mount point for them in /media. To enable support for a device, check the box next to it when it is detected. Once mount points for all devices have been set, you are able to enable or disable write support on internal and external NTFS devices with one click. To enable NTFFS write support on your system, install ntfs-config: “ sudo apt-get install ntfs-config ”. From that point on, you can access it through the Administration sub-menu.

Manually Run Programs

Many times, you will need to run a program and it may not be in the Applications menu. Normally, you would have to open a terminal and launch the program from there, but there is an easier way. By pressing ALT and F2 , you can initiate a Run dialog that allows you to launch a program (with any necessary switches/options) without having to bind it to a terminal.

By default, programs launched with this method run with your own account's permission levels, but it is possible to launch programs that need superuser permissions by running “ gksu $program ”. Gksu is a frontend for Sudo that allows temporary privilege escalation. You can also view a full list of programs (hidden by default) and populate the run dialog with them by clicking on the list entry. Both native and Wine programs will appear in the list.

Gksu has its own benefits as well. Although it defaults to root, running gksu by itself will produce a dialog that shows a list of ALL users and services. You may then launch a program from any account.

Handy Window Tricks

Ubuntu offers many options for working with open windows. Some require compositing to be enabled while others will still work on non-accelerated systems:

• To shade a window, (i.e. hide all but the title bar) ensure that compositing effects are enabled and move your pointer to the title bar. To hide a window, scroll up with your mouse wheel. To show the window again, scroll down.

• Sometimes, it is necessary to keep a window on top of the others even when it loses focus. To do this, right-click on the title bar and select the “Always On Top” checkbox. To restore normal behavior, clear the checkbox by clicking on it again.

• Since Ubuntu and most other distros have support for multiple desktops, (also called workspaces) it is convenient to allocate open programs between them to keep things from getting too crowded on your monitor. To move a program to a different desktop, right-click on the title bar and select either “Move to Workspace Left/Right” or “Move to Another Workspace”. Furthermore, it is possible to drag windows from one desktop to another using the mouse if certain compositing effects are enabled.

Import Documents from Windows

When you are setting up a dual-boot system with Ubuntu, it is possible to import your documents and settings (web browser favorites, etc.) During installation, Ubiquity (the Ubuntu installer) will detect any Windows partitions that exist on the system and will present you with an opportunity to migrate your settings to Ubuntu. By expanding the list, you are able to pick and choose which parts of the system to import (selecting the main checkbox will import all of them).

Encrypt Your Home Directory

Home directory encryption is a feature that was introduced in Ubuntu 9.04. During installation you have the option of checking a box in the setup utility that will cause your home directory to be encrypted automatically. This will help prevent your files from being compromised. Encryption/decryption is automatically handled behind the scenes, so you don't need to worry about securing your files manually. On the first boot after setting up an encrypted home directory, you will be prompted to learn the master password for your home directory. (To view it again, run the “ encryptfs-unwrap-passphrase ” command.) This master encryption password is automatically generated by Ubuntu and is NOT your login password. You will need this master password to recover your files if you are not able to boot normally, so store a hard copy of it in a safe place.

Dual Boot with Wubi

Although preparing a traditional dual-boot system is easier and safer than ever, Ubuntu has a completely zero-risk way of doing it, thanks to a tool called Wubi. Unlike a conventional tool that repartitions your system and replaces the bootloader (arguably the most dangerous parts of dual-booting), Wubu creates a virtual file-system that piggybacks on top of Windows. Wubi then reconfigures Windows' own bootloader to be able to boot into a normal Ubuntu environment. Unlike a LiveCD, a Wubi installation is fully functional apart from a few features such as hibernation. Furthermore, a Wubi installation can be completely uninstalled from within Windows like any other program, whereas a conventional dual-boot configuration cannot.

Modify Software Sources

Most software for Ubuntu is made available through online repositories. The available repositories are managed through a file in /etc/apt called sources.list. While it is possible to edit this file manually, (many experienced users prefer this method) newer users may be more comfortable with Ubuntu's Software Sources tool (located in the Administration sub-menu). This front end splits the various repositories listed in sources.list into categories to make them easier to identify and manage. The tool allows you to check/uncheck boxes for the official Ubuntu repositories and easily add GPG keys used for repository authentication.

Smooth Out Fonts

Ubuntu supports font anti-aliasing similar to Microsoft's ClearType. This feature (found as a tab on the appearance tool in the Preferences sub-menu) smoothes out screen fonts in Ubuntu, making them easier to read. There are several presets to choose from, each producing a different effect:

None/Monochrome : Quite unsightly. There is no conceivable reason to use this, but it does allow you to disable anti-aliasing altogether.

Best shapes : This focuses on presenting characters most accurately and with a moderate amount of anti-aliasing.

Best contrast : This attempts to provide the best character contrast with less anti-aliasing. This generally looks similar to Best Shapes except at very large font sizes.

Sub-Pixel Smoothing : This heavily anti-aliased mode is specifically designed for use with LCD displays. It produces the smoothest-looking type but tends to make fonts appear bolder than they would otherwise.

Install Packages Yourself

Ubuntu uses automated package management to handle most software installation and maintenance, so it is very seldom necessary to download and install packages yourself. If you ever have to do this, there is a front end that makes the process much easier than it would be otherwise. Once you have the package (deb) that you want to install, double-click on it from within Nautilus to bring up the Gdebi package installation tool. This tool will install the package for you and will also resolve dependencies.

Once a package has been installed, it can be further managed or removed with the regular package management system.

Restart the GUI

Although the GUI (Xorg) in Linux is quite resilient, there are still instances where it may crash (however, a crash will not bring the whole system down). In most cases if there is a problem, the GUI should restart by itself, but if all else fails it is possible to start it manually (assuming that your system is still configured correctly). To restart the GUI properly and return to the Ubuntu login screen, log into your account (if you have not already done so) and run “ sudo gdm ”.

Set Up Recovery Mode

Ubuntu's recovery mode (accessible through the GRUB menu) has several tools that are designed to help you recover from various problems. Each tool is presented in a list with a brief description of what it does. You can fix broken packages, get a root command prompt, attempt to repair a broken GUI system, etc.

Dual-boot systems will always show the GRUB menu to let you choose your operating system for that session, but single-boot systems will just load Ubuntu automatically. If the GRUB menu is not displayed on startup, press ESC quickly (and repeatedly, if necessary) immediately after power-on to force the GRUB list to display.

The Ubuntu GRUB menu also has the memtest86+ utility for RAM testing. If you often get random crashes or kernel panics, faulty memory may be the cause of the problem.

Turn on a Firewall

Even though Ubuntu does not need anti-virus and anti-malware utilities, a firewall is still beneficial because it allows you to fine-tune your network settings and limit which programs may communicate freely with the Internet. Linux has a firewall management tool called iptables, but it can be rather difficult to work with it directly. Fortunately, there is a tool called Firewall Builder that is capable of configuring iptables based on parameters you specify. The tool is far too complex to cover in a simple tip such as this, but it allows you to set firewall rules and manage device and service behavior. It is best used by network administrators who know what they are doing.

To install Firewall Builder, run “ sudo apt-get install fwbuilder ”.

Use Remote Desktop

Ubuntu offers extensive remote desktop functionality out of the box. Using the Vinagre tool, you can access other Linux boxes on your network through VNC. (Windows support is planned through RDP in future releases.) To launch Vinagre, run the Remote Desktop Viewer utility located in the Internet sub-menu of Applications. To configure how Vinagre can interact with your system, modify the Remote Desktop Preferences located in the Preferences sub-menu.

Play Windows Games in Ubuntu

Although the various Linux distributions have a wide variety of software available, you may have a few Windows programs that you may not be willing or able to part with. Although many people dual-boot or use virtual machines to get around this problem, there is yet another potential option that many people new to Linux may not have considered--- Wine. Wine stands out from the other options because it does not require a separate Windows license. Check out our Wine guide here !

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