We’ve all heard the hype about how making the switch to Ubuntu is suppose to be the ultimate desktop experience for Windows converts. Ask any Linux power user, however, and you’ll find this opinion tends to vary.
Regardless of your thoughts on Ubuntu vs. other distributions, the fact remains that – properly setup – an Ubuntu installation can perform as a highly effective desktop.
In this article, I’ll share some tips – including some apps – that I use myself to get the most out of my Ubuntu desktop. With any luck, you’ll enjoy these concepts as much as I have.
Getting more from your desktop experience:
Pithos – Hands down, using Pithos is the best way to do Pandora music on the Ubuntu desktop. Its simple yet effective user interface allows me to get to my music and enjoy it without dealing with Flash or annoying ads.
Mirroring the features found in the web page application, nearly all of Pandora’s music functionality is available with Pithos. For me this really helps the work day to glide by so I can tune out distractions. You can also love, ban or skip songs easily with Pithos.
Dropbox – Considered by and large to be a web service, the application for Linux integrates really well with the Ubuntu desktop. You can easily add, remove or create directories to be placed into your Dropbox account.
Best of all, you can use it in conjunction with UbuntuOne, if you wish. While it’s hardly a data backup solution, it does make a brain-dead simple way to share files from platform to platform.
Synapse – I live in a keyboard world. And to that end, I try to limit my use of the mouse as much as possible. Thanks to the Synapse launcher, I can find files that would otherwise be difficult to locate, I can launch applications, or even simply run various system tasks…all from my keyboard.
Parcelite – As clipboard managers go, Parcelite is winner as far as I’m concerned. Using the clipboard provided with Parcelite’s installation, I can copy anything I want to it and if need be, call it up again after copying other unrelated items. Unlike standard copy and paste, Parcelite allows its user to “store” multiple copied items to the clipboard. Going even further, Parcelite is even capable of syncing your clipboard copied content with other Ubuntu computers.
System Monitor applet – Back in my GNOME 2 days, I relied on a number of applets to keep my day on track. My most commonly used applet had to be the System Monitor applet. While one could arguably accomplish the same thing with top in the command line, I would counter with the fact that having a visual applet running allows one to “see” when something is eating your resources alive.
Jungle Disk – I have used a number of backup tools over the years. I remain a big fan of a dedicated home directory, but at the same time…there is something to be said for having an off-site backup as well. Based on my experience, JungleDisk has been bullet proof for years now. JungleDisk is cheap, relies on the elastic storage provided by Amazon S3, and has a natively supported backup client for the Linux desktop.
Synaptic – when it comes to the Ubuntu desktop, few GUI applications make installing, updating or migrating packages as easy as Synaptic. It offers you much of the same functionality as the Ubuntu Software Center, plus Synaptic also tosses in some extras, like allowing you to take full control over all that app has to offer.
VLC – This is the media player to beat all media players. What I love about VLC is that it not only plays everything known to man, it even allows me to stream content from the Web! Even better than that, I can also stream content and encode it locally, if I choose. Another cool option is the ability to use VLC for webcam video captures. Overall it’s a very versatile application.
Skype Call Recorder– Despite its closed source nature, Skype remains a key part of my unified desktop experience within Ubuntu. Other tools such as Google’s own video chat is good, but only Skype actively provides a popular software for video chatting with others.
Bundle Skype with Skype Call Recorder, and you’re all set for keeping a record of Skype audio meetings. Just make sure to check with local laws first, before using the recording software.
Y PPA Manager – As great as using Synaptic is for package handling, its backup functionality for PPAs isn’t flawless. That is why I prefer to use a true PPA management utility like Y PPA Manager. Add, remove and export your Ubuntu PPAs with the greatest of ease. As an added bonus, it also handles exporting PPA gpg keys as well.
Gufw – As “uncomplicated” as the Ubuntu ufw (firewall) happens to be, the fact remains that for newbies, the CLI-only option is a huge turn off. Thankfully, there is a solid GUI frontend to ufw called Gufw. This software allows the end user to setup firewall rules with all of the ease one would expect from a newbie-friendly distro. Even better, Gufw even supports firewall controls based on the application, in addition to port-specific rule settings.
OpenDNS – With parental controls, a faster DNS solution and safe web surfing, OpenDNS offers its users a lot of benefits. All one needs to do to enjoy the benefits of OpenDNS on their Ubuntu install is to register with the service, follow the directions and install ddclient.
For speeding up your computer:
Reduce GRUB delay – One of the most brain-dead simple methods of speeding up the boot time for your Ubuntu installation is to reduce the time that GRUB has to be toggled into. To make this adjustment, simply type Alt + F2, then paste in the following.
gksu gedit /etc/default/grub
With the text file open, look for GRUB_TIMEOUT and reduce the number to 0. If something should go wrong, you can always boot to a liveCD and change GRUB back to 5 if needed.
Preload – While performance will vary depending on application consistency, I’ve found that installing Preload can often speed up your system by “predicting” which applications you’re most likely to use during the day. Preload is an “adaptive readahead daemon,” which means it will add some overhead to your session. Generally, any overhead added is offset in speed gained due to its efforts.
zramswap – While zramswap may not be appropriate for every single PC out there, it does have something to offer for older systems – as it creates a RAM-based block device.
This block device then acts as a virtual swapdisk. It should be noted, however, that zramswap lacks value on SSD hard drives, as solid state devices don’t benefit from this type virtual swapdisk. But older PCs see a fair performance boost when running with zramswap fully engaged.
Optimized swap – All too often you may find that your swap partition is being called upon when, in reality, it’s unneeded. This is bad because swapping from the hard drive is much slower than utilizing the existing RAM available. Thankfully, this is easily corrected by adjusting a parameter known as swappiness. Adjusting the swappiness parameter is simply a matter of doing the following:
Open a terminal, paste in sudo sysctl vm.swappiness=10. Next, spend some time seeing if your performance improves any. If you’re happy with the change, you can make it permanent by simply pasting
gksudo gedit /etc/sysctl.conf into your terminal, then change
vm.swappiness=60 to vm.swappiness=10. If you happen to run a system without swap, then this tip is a moot issue for you.
For your notebook:
PowerTOP – Something I consider to be notebook specific, PowerTOP is a helpful command line tool that will allow you to see where your PCs resources are being spent. Designed for notebook users, with PowerTOP you can immediately see how your notebook is using power, items that can be disabled and why your notebook seems to be so power hungry.
laptop-mode-tools– Power consumption for notebooks has come a long way since last year. Back then, Ubuntu and most other distros, would eat right through your battery resources. These days however, the latest Linux kernel bundled with the CLI utility called laptop-mode-tools has managed to stop excessive battery drain.
With the mere act of making sure you’re running kernel 3.5.x and that you have laptop-mode-tools installed and activated, it’s not impossible to add two hours to your notebook battery. As an added bonus, special for Datamation readers…I’ve included a working laptop-mode-tools GUI called laptop-mode-setup.
Run this as gksudo, it will allow you to enable or disable laptop mode easily. My recommended settings are simple. Run the program as sudo, then make sure you ONLY select enable laptop-mode on battery. Leave all other settings alone, especially the option to run while on AC. Unless you know what you’re doing, it’s best to keep it simple.
Remember to hit apply and reboot when finished. You can see from my two powertop images how the utility can make a huge difference.
Jupiter Applet – The final recommendation I have for you is actually something I use to better control specific aspects of my notebook. The Jupiter applet provides me with easy access to CPU throttling, supports ASUS Eee Super Hybrid Engine, and remembers the settings you’ve selected after each reboot. Bundle this with #19 above and you will have a tremendous amount of control over how your notebook/netbook uses power.
As an added bonus, Jupiter also provides you easy access to toggling your WiFi, and bluetooth (if integrated) on or off.