Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Discovering Ubuntu as a Windows User

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Going through hard financial times—who isn’t? As you may already know, you can use free operating systems (OSs) and software applications, provided by the Linux open source community.

Instead of paying Microsoft for another copy of Windows, you can put that money in a savings account or toward your shrinking entertainment and vacation fund. Using the Ubuntu operating system, a popular Linux distribution (distro), is one way you can save money. It’s totally free, downloadable from their website. Put it on the old PC that you want to upgrade, or even your new machine. Since the Linux community offers all the usual software packages, such as office suites, money management programs, games, and graphics editors, for free, going open source is always beneficial.

If you haven’t used Linux yet, you’ll have some things to get used to. Linux distributions have a somewhat similar look and feel to Windows, however you’ll discover many differences. This tutorial takes you through some of these new features. We’ll also discuss why you don’t have to throw out Windows.

Let’s get started.

Dual-boot PC: Keeping Windows on the Same PC

Don’t want to give up Windows? Well you don’t have to; you can configure a dual-boot PC.

When done right, you’ll see a menu when you turn on your computer, where you can select the operating system you feel like booting into at the time. Multi-boot options are essentially endless. With patience you can install Ubuntu and other Linux distros along with Windows XP and/or Vista. You can even throw Mac OS X into the mix if you have an Intel-based Apple system.

Though there are many tutorials and testimonials out there on configuring dual and multi boot systems which, in some cases, don’t require you to reinstall the original OS, you always want to make sure you have everything backed up before attempting anything. Make sure any data you want to keep is off the hard drive you are installing the new OS(s) on.

Tip: Did you know you can run Ubuntu on your computer without installing a thing? It’s true, like other Linux distros, you can use the Live CD feature to load Ubuntu from the CD-ROM. This gives you a way to try out Ubuntu and see how it works before deciding to install.

To start the process, edit the partitions of your hard drive (possibly using a live CD of Gparted), creating empty spaces for each of the new OSs you want to install.

Next, pop in the disc for the OS and install onto the correct partition. For the boot menus, you can use GRUB for Linux/Windows systems or rEFIt if Mac is also in the mix.

That’s it in a nutshell. It’s common to knock out the boot information for an OS when installing another. You may find yourself having to use your Windows CD to repair the XP or Vista installation in order to fix Windows boot, reinstall GRUB to boot into Ubuntu, or refresh the partition info for rEFIt to correctly bring up OSs.

Discovering the Desktop

After you have installed and booted up Ubuntu, you can start getting familiar with the look, feel, and functionality of the OS. Just like in Windows, you can place files, folders, and shortcuts (Links or Launchers) on the desktop. As you can see in Figure 1, Ubuntu, by default, has two bars that run on the top and bottom of the desktop, called Panels.

ubuntu to windows

Figure 1

The top Panel has the Applications, Places, and System menus that drop down. The right end of the top Panel is similar to the system tray of Windows, where you can reference the time, access networking settings, and change the volume level. Additionally, you can click the Quit icon for shut down options or click your name to quickly switch to another user’s account.

The bottom Panel holds the title bars of opened windows or applications, just like in Windows. The icon on the left is a shortcut to minimize windows and show the desktop. The right end of the bottom Panel is where you can move between Workspaces.

What are Workspaces, you ask? They offer multiple virtual desktops where each can contain different opened applications and windows.

For example, if you use Ubuntu at work, you can play a game of Solitaire on Workspace 2, but for when the boss comes by you can have Workspace 1 filled with your work applications; the boss won’t even see Solitaire minimized, its only visible on Workspace 2.

A more productive use is to dedicate Workspaces for a specific function. For example, Workspace 1 could be where you do your writing and research, Workspace 2 for emailing, and Workspace 3 for editing graphics. This helps if you are a clutter freak, like me, where you tend to close applications you may bring up later just to reduce the clutter.

With multiple Workspaces you don’t have to waste time opening and closing applications repeatedly, just click between the Workspaces from the lower right corner of the screen. The Panels, desktop, and menus remain the same between Workspaces. You can add more spaces by right-clicking on the Workspace area and selecting Properties.

The items on the panels are actually small programs, called applets. You can right-click on an item to edit an applet’s properties, access its help, or remove it. You can also add other applets to Panels by right-clicking a panel and selecting Add to Panel.

You’ll see a variety of applets, ranging from an Address Book Search applet to a Weather Report applet. This applet approach to adding functionality to the panels is similar to the Sidebar and Gadgets features in Windows Vista.

Working with Files

Ubuntu offers a file browser, called Computer, which is similar to My Computer and Computer of Windows XP and Vista. However, when you open Computer in Ubuntu you’ll see an icon for each of the mounted locations, for instance any removable media storage devices, Ubuntu’s partition (labeled Filesystem), and any other partitions on the hard drive. Like in Windows, each user in Ubuntu gets their own set of personal folders, all under the /home directory of Filesystem. Each user’s root directory is called their Home Folder (accessible from the Places menu), which includes folders such as Desktop, Documents, Music, and Pictures.

Figure 2 shows an example of the Computer window with multiple partitions and a USB drive. You can click drives and folders to browse through files.

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Figure 2

Right-clicking items gives you similar options as in Windows; such as copying, cutting, renaming, and changing properties. However, Ubuntu offers an emblem feature (see Figure 3), configurable from an items Properties window, where you can tag items with what you could call a sub-icon.

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Figure 3

These emblems can help you visually identify certain categories of folders and files when browsing through your data. For example, you can tag documents you need to get done ASAP with the urgent emblem or tag your favorite photos with the star emblem.

Tip: When browsing with Computer, you can easily apply emblems to folders and items by dragging the icons from the emblem menu to the item. To bring up the menu, select the Emblems view of the sidebar as Figure 4 shows.

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Figure 4

Another feature that’s probably new to you is Bookmarks. You can bookmark folders and other locations (such as network shares and FTP servers) you access often. The list of bookmarks is displayed in many areas, including on the Places menu, a menu on the Computer window, and on Save and Open dialog boxes. To add a location you’re currently viewing in Computer, select the Bookmarks menu and click Add Bookmark.

When you try to create shortcuts in Ubuntu, you’ll discover the process differs a bit from what you’re used to with Windows. Shortcuts even have a different name; they’re called Links in Ubuntu.

Say you frequently add shortcuts of folders and documents to your desktop in Windows; you would simply right-click the item in Computer and drag it to the desktop to pick what you want to do, create a shortcut.

In Ubuntu, however, you’ll find you can’t right-click an item and drag it. You can (left) click the item, drag it to the desired spot, but before you let go, press the Alt key. As Figure 5 shows, you’ll see a menu where you can choose to move, copy, or link the item.

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Figure 5

Getting Further Acquainted

We touched on the dual and multi boot options when using Ubuntu, discovered the desktop, and discussed working with files. I promise, we didn’t cover all the differences between Ubuntu and Windows. You’ll probably come by many more differences in the appearance of Ubuntu and features you don’t know how to use.

The Ubuntu Help Center is a great place to start for information. You can also take advantage of the community of volunteers, enthusiasts, and paid support options; a quick Google search on will return numerous places.

Eric Geier is an author of many computing and networking books, including Home Networking All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies (Wiley 2008) and 100 Things You Need to Know about Microsoft® Windows Vista (Que 2007).

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