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The Reg guide to Linux, part 3

Media playback and the no.1 thing to remember

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Linux has changed almost beyond recognition since version 1.0 in 1994 and Ubuntu is about as polished and professional as it gets. It's approaching the level of polish of Mac OS X, is faster and easier to install than Windows, includes a whole suite of apps and offers tens of thousands more, runs on cheap commodity hardware and costs nothing.

Nobody knows quite how many Ubuntu users there are - it's not sold or licensed, there's no registration process and it doesn't "phone home" and identify itself, so it's hard to tell. Its creators reckon around 12 million, but then, the number-two distro on Distrowatch, Fedora, claims about twice as many.

So with over a billion PCs in the world, why are only about 0.01 per cent using the best-known Linux desktop?

Two related pitfalls mean that most people who try it may well find that certain things don't work. Firstly, because Ubuntu is entirely built around free, open source software that is legal to use anywhere in the world, when first installed, it doesn't include some more or less indispensable but proprietary tools, such as Adobe's Flash player; nor is there support for ubiquitous formats such as MP3, Windows Media, Quicktime and so on.

Secondly, when people try to fix this, they attempt to use the methods they know from Windows or the Mac – go to a web page, download a program, run it to start the installer – and it doesn't work. Result: they give up and never come back.

How to avoid pitfall Number 1

Let go of your expectations and existing know-how. The Windows way to do things is often not the Linux way. Whenever you need to do a bit of admin or housekeeping, such as installing, removing or updating a program or device driver - don't try the way you know from Windows. Google it first. Usually you'll find simple instructions online and in a lot of cases it's quicker and easier on Ubuntu than the familiar Windows way.

The biggie is installing software.

Windows is just an OS, developed by one big team. The apps come separately, from third parties, so you have to go to them to get the software and future updates.

Linux is different: you get the OS, apps, drivers, media codecs and so on all from your distributor, who has assembled them all into a single, more-or-less integrated whole. So to add more software, and to get updates, you go to the distro-maintainer, not to the original source.

Because everything comes from one place, there's a single central package-management tool which you use for just about everything: installing, removing and upgrading the whole system. The main reason we're recommending Ubuntu is because its tool, APT, is the best, and stomps all over the rival RPM system used by Red Hat, Fedora, Mandriva, openSUSE and their relatives. It makes Control Panel | Add and Remove Programs look like a sharpened rock tied to a stick.

What you don't do is get program executables from unknown sources (such as downloading them from the web) and run them, like on Windows. Unix isn't trusting like that. So if you download a file off a website – even a special Linux program – you can't run it by double-clicking it, nor even from the command line. This is intentional, to keep you safe. From the Unix perspective of Ubuntu's creators, this is not a problem or a bug or a drawback, it's how it should be, so it's not going to go away or change.

Most of the time, you'll never see APT itself - it has various friendly graphical front ends, such as Synaptic (under System | Administration) and the dead-easy Ubuntu Software Centre. Either way, whenever you want to install or upgrade a program, APT fetches it for you, over the internet, from a local mirror of one of Ubuntu's continually-updated repositories, which contain the latest versions of well over 10,000 programs, including pretty much all the most popular open source applications. It's rare to have to download and install anything manually and it's best avoided until you're familiar with the system.

How to install

All right, enough preaching, so how do you do it, then?

Even if you never see it again and only use the graphical tools, for getting your shiny new Ubuntu box ready to actually use, you can't beat doing it the original way, from the command line.

But first, a word about installation. It's very straightforward – it's pretty much a case of putting in the CD, booting up, and clicking the "Install" button. Before you begin, connect your PC to the internet, using a cable, not wireless. Wireless LANs are one of the worst remaining driver problems for Linux, but sorting this out is vastly easier if you're already online. In fact, a lot of initial driver niggles will go away if you just update and reboot. If you've already created your partitions as described in part two, choose a manual installation and tell it which ones to use for "root" (the system disk), "/home" (your data) and swap. Just use the default disk format, ext4.

Once it's done, reboot, remove the CD and watch Ubuntu come to life.

So long as it can reach the internet, a couple of minutes after you boot an Ubuntu PC for the first time, it will go online and check for updates on its own. It may also prompt you that drivers are available for some of your hardware, but do the updates and reboot first.

If you can't wait, you can update it manually from the command line. To get to a command prompt, go to the Programs menu at top left and move down to Accessories, then click Terminal.

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