Free Agent: Ubuntu's missing batteries

I haven't talked much about Ubuntu Linux since last fall, but Ubuntu-related e-mail keeps pouring in. Apparently quite a few Free Agent readers have taken my advice and given Ubuntu a shot. And a whole lot of folks seem to get themselves about 90 percent of the way to where they want to be, and then hit a wall. "Why can't I play a DVD?" "Why can't I listen to MP3s?" "How can I watch streaming video in my browser?" These are the sort of questions I keep reading.

The problem, as I've detailed in previous columns, is that Ubuntu Linux does not come with all its batteries included. For example, the library that makes it possible for an Ubuntu machine to play DVDs is missing when the Ubuntu installation process completes. Ditto for the library that decodes MP3 files. The same deal also applies to video codecs that turn a data stream into a movie trailer in your Web browser. It's up to you to add these capabilities to the system.

Ubuntu is not the only flavor of Linux that requires the user to do a bit of legwork; Fedora Core, Red Hat's cost-free (and 100 percent Free) distribution, is another alternative that works the same way. On these sorts of systems, it has been a real chore for users to round up all the various bits and pieces they need to make to their systems as worldly wise as a Mac or a Windows PC.

Automatix to the Rescue

But Ubuntu users now have a automated helper of sorts that can solve all these issues. It's called Automatix, and after your PC has had a taste of it, there's little it can't do. However, as Automatix's installer will tell you, some components use technology that Automatix has not licensed and therefore may allow you to do things that are illegal, so proceed with caution.

To install Automatix, visit the main Automatix thread at Ubuntu Forums. The first "Code" block on that page provides you with two commands that you should enter into a terminal window. (To open a terminal window, select Accessories, Terminal from Ubuntu's Applications menu.) As I write this column, the commands are as follows, but you should check to see if they have changed to reflect a newer edition of Automatix or a new location for the package: here.

The first command downloads the package file from the specified location. The second command installs the package. (Once you've fired off both commands, you can delete the downloaded package file.)

What's on the Menu?

Now, from Ubuntu's Applications menu, select System Tools, Automatix. A few message dialog boxes will appear (including the previously mentioned warning about the legality of certain actions Automatix can take), and then you'll see a new terminal window asking you for your password. After you've entered it, you'll see the main Automatix window, which lists all the components it can install.

Here are the highlights:

Multimedia Codecs: Installs support for MP3s and several other audio and video formats.

AUD-DVD Codecs: Installs the libdvdcss2 library (enabling DVD playback) as well as the w32codecs package, which will make QuickTime, Windows Media, and many other video formats playable. Be aware, however, that Automatix has not licensed this technology, and using it may put you in murky legal water.

Firefox Plugins: Installs several plug-ins for Mozilla Firefox.

MS TTF Fonts: Installs the Web-friendly font set that Microsoft once made freely available online, which includes the well-known Verdana font. Many Web sites specify these fonts for their display, so you'll get better results if you have these fonts on hand.

Gnomebaker: Sets up a fantastic CD and DVD burning application.

Ctrl-Alt-Del: Remaps this keystroke to call up the Gnome System Monitor. Longtime Windows users who are used to seeing the Task Manager when they hit Ctrl-Alt-Del tend to like this one.

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