Here I am, at long last, back to my Linux column - sorry, but I've been locked away in a dungeon with PC World's Applications Development team for the last few months.
While I was away, the Linux landscape changed. Ubuntu loosed its latest version of Dapper Drake (aka version 6.06 LTS) on the world, to widespread acclaim. Novell's SUSE Linux got a spiffy upgrade, as did Xandros Desktop Linux and Fedora Core. And the folks at Linspire announced their Freespire offering (which smells to me like a reaction to the success of Ubuntu - more on Freespire in a future column, perhaps). Also, there's been a curious (and encouraging) set of Linux adoptions among high-profile alpha-geeks like Tim Bray, Mark Pilgrim and Cory Doctorow, who are surprisingly leaving their Macs behind.
One thing that hasn't changed: people keep asking me, "Isn't Linux still hard to install?" Look, it's 2006 - can we please stop asking this question? Check out the new installer in the Dapper Drake edition of Ubuntu, and tell me if you've ever experienced an easier OS installation. The setup CD itself is a so-called live CD that boots to a fully-fledged Ubuntu desktop. This means that even before you actually install, you can test everything before you commit.
Begin by visiting www.ubuntu.com/download. Expect to spend an hour (or several, even on broadband) downloading the installation disc image and burn it to a CD. Better still, boot from the September 2006 issue's Cover Disc, which has 6.06 already on it.
The boot process is likely to take a good long while, as Ubuntu gets to know your hardware, your network connection, and all the intricacies of your particular PC. But within a few minutes, you'll see a clean, orangey-brown Ubuntu desktop - see Figure 1.
You can launch applications, surf the Web, and so forth. Take this opportunity to see that all your hardware works. Test the sound. Print a document. Plug in your camera or your iPod. Chances are very good that Ubuntu will happily talk to all of these devices and more. (Possible exceptions include MP3 players with Microsoft's "Plays For Sure" designation.)
If you're satisfied that Linux plays nicely on your PC, you can confidently double-click the Install icon on the desktop. Gone are the days when a Linux installer required you to have detailed notes about your hardware at the ready: the few questions Ubuntu will ask you are no more involved than what language you speak, what time zone you live in, and your name. The most technical question you'll be asked is how much you want to shrink any existing Windows partition on your hard drive. (You must do this to make room for Ubuntu, which needs to run in its own partitions.)
This brings up another frequently asked question: "How small should I make the Windows partition?" You'll have to answer that one for yourself, based on how you use Windows. Personally, there are only two reasons I ever boot Windows on my PC: to play a game, or to run tax software. Once you've answered Ubuntu's partitioning question, the installer does its work. While your new OS is being installed, the desktop environment that the CD booted remains at your disposal. Surf the Web, play solitaire - whatever. Ubuntu doesn't care. (Can your other operating system run while it's being installed? I didn't think so.) When the installation is complete, you'll be prompted to reboot. And there you are. Now it's time to tweak it to meet your immediate needs.
Back in the May issue, I explained that, for legal reasons, Ubuntu Linux comes with some "batteries not included": if you want to play a DVD or an MP3 file, enable your graphics card's 3-D capabilities, or watch streaming video in your Web browser, there's still some work left for you once you've booted into your fresh Ubuntu system.
I wrote about Automatix, a script that does 98 per cent of this work for you, and Scott covered how to get it working with 6.06 LTS last month, so I'll not cover it again here. Check out the May issue for my installation recommendations, though.
A friendlier - if less powerful - alternative to Automatix that is especially useful for Ubuntu newbies is EasyUbuntu - see Figure 2. This script isn't as feature-laden as Automatix, but if you're mainly looking to install multimedia and 3-D support, EasyUbuntu is an easier, friendlier ride than Automatix. You'll find instructions for downloading and running EasyUbuntu at http://easyubuntu.freecontrib.org/get.html. Use Programs-Accessories-Terminal to open a command line, and then paste in the listed commands, one at a time.
You'll find an enormous amount of free software available for automatic download and installation if you select Add/Remove from Dapper Drake's Applications menu. But the programs listed are actually only a subset of those available through the Synaptic Package Manager (under System-Administration), especially if you enable the "metaverse" and "universe" repositories on your system. Automatix and EasyUbuntu can do this for you, or you can do it yourself by editing the "/etc/apt/sources.list" file (instructions for doing so are embedded in the file).
A lot of folks new to Linux dive into this cornucopia of free software and start installing everything under the sun, trying out this and that, and then uninstalling the apps that disappoint. Here's a catch: when you uninstall an application package, you don't necessarily uninstall all the library packages that were installed to support your application. These so-called orphaned libraries cause no harm at all, but they do take up disk space.
Luckily, Debian-based systems such as Ubuntu can clean up these orphans using a tool called Orphaner - see Figure 3. To install Orphaner, enable the universe repository, then type
sudo apt-get install deborphan
in a Terminal window and press <Enter> (or use Synaptic to install the "deborphan" package). Now, in a Terminal window, enter
The text-based tool you'll see after entering your password responds to either key presses or mouse clicks. Select the libraries you want to remove, then select Simulate to let Orphaner test the removal of your libraries. No errors? Great, click OK to remove those suckers. (Note: avoid removing gstreamer libraries. The system often sees these as orphaned because nothing is depending on them per se, but many multimedia-related Gnome apps make use of them for critical functions.)
You may notice new items on Orphaner's list after you remove some libraries. This happens because libraries, like applications, can declare dependencies. What are dependencies? Imagine your system has libpurple and libgreen installed, both of which supported an application called Colours (now uninstalled). It just so happens that libgreen requires libpurple to be on the system; libpurple is installed solely to fulfill libgreen's dependency on it. Orphaner tells you that libgreen is orphaned because, with Colours gone, nothing depends on it anymore. But since libgreen still depends on libpurple, libpurple doesn't appear in the list - until libgreen vanishes, at which point libpurple is finally a true orphan. Remove it!
One more tip before I go. How do you make your Gnome desktop look pretty? Here's a one-site answer: http://art.gnome.org.
You'll want to begin by focusing on the themes for applications and window borders. To download and install a theme in one easy move, first open Gnome's Theme Preferences by selecting System-Preferences-Theme. Now, to install any theme on http://art.gnome.org, simply drag its download link from your browser to the Theme Preferences dialogue box. Click Install in the box that pops up. To recreate my preferred look and feel, click Theme Details and set the application theme to "Glassy-Shine". Then set the window border theme to "Glacier 3.x".