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With Windows 8 casting a long shadow over the PC industry and Valve committing to create Linux-based gaming PCs, there's never been a better time to start using Linux. For many users, the Linux desktop is now there — so many applications have moved to the cloud, hardware support has improved, and the desktop has been polished. You can even watch Netflix and play a variety of games on Steam — two big holes that have been filled recently.
We'll be starting with Ubuntu 12.10 for this tutorial. Ubuntu 12.10 is a more complete desktop than Windows out-of-the-box, coming with the LibreOffice office suite, Firefox and Thunderbird for web browsing and email, Transmission for BitTorrent, and applications for everything from watching videos and playing music to instant messaging and tweeting.
While installing Ubuntu, you'll be asked whether you want to install some third-party software. This package includes Flash and codecs for listening and watching a variety of common music and video formats. Unless you have an ideological objection to installing closed-source software and patent-encumbered codecs, be sure to install this.
Once you've installed Ubuntu and rebooted into your new system, ensure you install the latest updates using the Software Updater application that appears.
Videos & DVDs
First we'll look at ways to play videos — either from your hard drive, DVDs, or the cloud.
- VLC: You may also want to install VLC, although the default Movie Player application (Totem) should work fine for most users. If you want VLC, open the Ubuntu Software Center after rebooting into your installed Ubuntu system, search for VLC, and install it.
- DVD Support: Ubuntu — and other Linux distributions – can't play DVDs out-of-the-box. All commercially produced DVDs are protected with CSS encryption, which only licensed DVD players can decode normally. However, the CSS encryption is incredibly weak, and it's trivial to break the encryption whenever you insert the DVD into your computer — breaking the encryption will allow you to watch the DVDs you legally own and have paid for. However, breaking the encryption — yes, even to watch DVDs you've paid for — is a crime in many countries. The Ubuntu wiki has instructions for installing DVD support, but you should check your local laws before installing it.
- Netflix: While most web apps will work normally in Linux, Netflix won't — it's using Microsoft's Silverlight for its video player. In spite of Microsoft's promises about Silverlight being cross-platform, they've refused to cooperate with the Moonlight project on this. If you're a Netflix subscriber, you'll want to install the Netflix Desktop app so you can play Netflix. Netflix Desktop contains a patched version of Wine that has Microsoft's Silverlight plug-in working properly — however, it's a very slick and easy-to-use solution.
To install Netflix Desktop, open a terminal and run the following commands:
sudo apt-add-repository ppa:ehoover/compholio
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install netflix-desktop
You can then open the Netflix Desktop app from your Dash and follow the instructions. Press the F11 key to toggle between full-screen and windowed modes.
You may also want to install the excellent XBMC media center, which you can grab from the Ubuntu Software Center.
Ubuntu's default Firefox browser is okay, but I've preferred Chrome for a long time. If you also prefer Chrome, visit Chrome's download page and download the DEB file for Ubuntu. Double-click it and install it — you can then open Chrome and log into Chrome sync with your Google account details. The Linux version of Chrome supports web apps, extensions, and all the other good stuff the Windows version supports.
If you're an Opera fan, you'll be happy to know that Opera also provides an official Linux version.
Instant Messaging and Voice Chat
Ubuntu supports a variety of instant messaging and voice chat applications, from Google Talk to Skype.
- Pidgin: Ubuntu's default Empathy instant messaging client is okay, too — but I've always preferred Pidgin. Like most open-source apps you might want, Pidgin is available from the Ubuntu Software Center. It's cross-platform, so you can easily move your Pidgin settings between Linux and Windows.
- Google Voice and Video Chat Plugin: The voice and video chat plugin allows you to participate in Hangouts, have voice calls, and call phones from within Gmail.
- Skype: You may also want to install the official Skype for Linux. However, Skype for Linux has always been a bit behind the times — even before Microsoft purchased them.
- Mumble: The Mumble voice chat program, often used by gamers, also has an official Linux version. You'll find it in Ubuntu's Software Center.
Steam for Linux was recently released, and it's now in open beta — you can head to the Steam website and download the installer package for Ubuntu. Steam for Linux currently offers about 62 supported games. If you've purchased Humble Indie Bundles, you should have quite a few games that already support Linux — although the Linux versions may not have been added to Steam yet. Even if you've never used Steam before, Team Fortress 2 is free to play and works on Linux.
Expect to see many more games come as Valve releases their own Linux-based console, porting all their own games over and giving third-party developers a good reason to support Linux.
These days, almost everyone has some sort of cloud storage service they use — if only to transfer files between a few computers or other devices. Many cloud storage services offer official Linux clients:
- Dropbox: Dropbox is the most mature cloud storage service in many ways, so of course it offers a Linux client. You'll want to install the Linux client if you use Dropbox.
- Ubuntu One: Don't count Ubuntu One out — it works great on Ubuntu, where it's preinstalled. However, Ubuntu One also offers Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS clients, so you can use it almost anywhere.
- Google Drive: This is a sore spot — Google promised the Linux version of Drive was "a priority" but it hasn't materialized in the nine months since. If you're a Google Drive user, your best option is probably the third-party Insync client for Google Drive.
Ubuntu and most other Linux distributions come with the LibreOffice office suite, which is based on OpenOffice, already installed. It's a great package of software that will be fine for most people. You can even use it on Windows to save money on Microsoft Office. However, its compatibility with Microsoft Office documents is not perfect. If you don't like LibreOffice, you have some other options:
- Office Web Apps: Microsoft provides free Office Web Apps. They run in your browser, so they can be used on Linux. If a Microsoft Office document isn't loading properly in LibreOffice, you may want to give the Office Web Apps a try.
- Google Docs: My personal solution of choice. If you don't care too much about compatibility with Microsoft Office documents, Google Docs works well on Linux, too.
- Microsoft Office on Linux: If you want the real Microsoft Office, you can use Wine to install it. Wine allows you to run Windows programs on Linux — however, it's also not perfect. If you have a more recent version of Microsoft Office, it won't work in Wine. All versions of Office will run perfectly in a virtual machine like VirtualBox, so that may be your best, most stable option. (See below for more information about VirtualBox).
Tools of the Trade
As a tech blogger, I need a few tools that you might be interested in, too:
- GIMP: It's no longer installed by default, but GIMP is the most powerful image manipulation program for Linux (short of running Photoshop in Wine). As a fan of Paint.NET on Windows, I gave the Paint.NET-inspired Pinta a try — but Pinta just isn't powerful enough for me yet. You'll find GIMP and Pinta in Ubuntu's Software Center.
- Shutter: Shutter is a powerful screenshot-taking tool that you can install from the Ubuntu Software Center. Most users will probably fine with the screenshot tool included in Ubuntu, though — press Print Screen or search for Screenshot in the dash to activate it.
- VirtualBox: Virtual machines allow you to run other operating systems in a window on your desktop. If you don't want to play any Windows games, this is a great solution for running the occasional Windows program on Linux. VirtualBox is in the Ubuntu Software Center
That's about it for my Linux desktop — between web apps like Rdio for playing music (there's a Spotify app for Linux if you're a Spotify user, however), and the default apps for everything else (Gedit can take the place of Notepad++ as a solid text editor), Linux is a better alternative to Windows than it's ever been. The one dark spot is still games, but there's Wine for installing Windows games if you want to get your hands dirty. We'll be seeing many more games with Valve's Linux-based Steam Box on the horizon, too.
For more great Linux applications you might be interested in installing, check out our list of the best Linux software. If you're interested in learning more about Ubuntu, download our free beginner's guide to Ubuntu.
Are there any other must-install applications you use on your Linux desktop? Leave a comment and share them!