November 10, 2009

I Installed Linux. Now What?

The first time I installed Linux was about 9 years ago. CD burners not being nearly as easy to come by as they are these days, I spent two weeks’ allowance on a copy of Red Hat and set about figuring out what the hell a swap partition was. 14 hours later, I got a welcome screen, did the Hokey Pokey FTW … and then switched back to Windows and forgot all about it.

I must have repeated that process at least once every two years. Someone would sell me on the joys of the command line, or I’d decide I was gonna give up web design and be a super haxor, or I’d get geek envy, and out came the Linux distro CD. I made a little more progress with each install, until about two years ago, Ubuntu finally stuck, and I’m writing this blog post on Intrepid Ibex (that’s Ubuntu version 8.10). Go me.

Anyway, my biggest issue has always been figuring out what there was to do with Linux after I got it installed. I mean, I went through all that trouble, I want my machine to rock. I want it to turn me into a power user just by dint of typing on it. I want its USB cables to go up my nose, plug into my brain, and install an assembly language babelfish. Seriously.

But since those things only happen to cartoon Japanese people, I’ll give you a quick rundown on a few different programs you can look into, sorted by purpose and need (audio, security, etc.). Depending on what distribution you have, the instructions may be a bit different, but the idea is the same.

This is not a troubleshooting tutorial. It assumes your installation of Linux went successfully, and you’re sitting there staring at your keyboard, quickly running out of cool ideas. It also assumes you’re generally a Linux beginner, but that you know a few basics.

Things You Really, Really, Really Need to Know Before Diving In

1) Get familiar with the applications manager and package managers for your distribution. Google “[your distribution] package manager” and “[your distribution] add and remove programs”.

What’s a package / applications manager? Imagine if all of the established updates, programs, and plug-ins that anyone had ever made for Windows were all in one easily accessible place, and all you had to do was click “install”, and Bob’s your scary, unemployed uncle. Well, most versions of Linux have that functionality.

Windows is so big and bulky because it comes with tons of programs, extras, features, and extensions, many of which you’ll never need or use. Linux takes the opposite tack: it comes equipped with some lightweight basics, definitely enough to get you started, but it leaves the real add-ons up to you. You get to pick and choose which programs get added to your system, meaning you can customize Linux to be anything you want it to be.

The drawback is that many times, when you first get Linux running, there’s a whole lot of extra installing to do as you forge your perfect setup.

In Ubuntu 8.10 with Gnome installed, you can find your Applications Manager by clicking Applications > Add / Remove…. This’ll bring up a list of all of the established programs easily available to you. There are quite a few 3rd party programs out there that aren’t on this list. If they’re not on the list, however, they take a little bit of command line fu to install, and you should know how to do that.

2) Know how to at least open the terminal and run a couple commands, such as:

apt-get / apt-get install: You need to know this. You also need to know how to unpack a couple of different types of .tar file from the command line (the .tar file is the Linux equivalent of .zip). You need to know this because not all programs are available from that applications manager thingie, and when they’re not, you should be able to install programs manually. Read about it here.

wget : Lets you download pretty much anything from online, providing you know its URL… even stuff you’re not really supposed to have. For example, want to grab an embedded video, embedded mp3, or picture that doesn’t allow right-clicking? Just use the wget command in your terminal, and Linux will pluck your prize for you.

There’s a great wget tutorial on

su or sudo: You probably already know what this is, but do go read about it.

Okay, on to the good stuff.

Using Linux as a Plain-Jane, All-Purpose Machine

Better get the basics working, then, huh?

Set up your Email: If you used to use a Mac, you’re probably already familiar with Thunderbird. It’s kind of like Microsoft Outlook – an email client, RSS feed reader, address book, etc. With it, you can consolidate all of your email accounts into one location, and perform communicative tasks. Most newish Linux platforms either already come with Thunderbird, or it’s easily accessible from the command line. Ubuntu 8.10 comes with Evolution Mail, which I personally don’t like, but Thunderbird was an easy install.

Poke around in the OpenOffice tools, and start moving your doc over to your new OS: Most Linux distros now come with the OpenOffice suite, which is the Linux equivalent of Microsoft Word. Except OpenOffice is free. There’s a PowerPoint equivalent, a word processing program, an something similar to Excel. And yes, they can all read Microsoft Office files.

Making Linux Look Shiny

Install Compiz, which does wicked cool things to your desktop. This should be available in your applications manager.

Most of the “shiny” in Linux is built on top of your desktop environment. There are two standard desktop environments for Linux: one is KDE, the other is Gnome. You typically choose which desktop environment you’ll be using during installation. Depending on which one you picked, you’ve got a different set of options for pimping your Linux desktop.

If you’re running KDE, check out for the latest themes, wallpapers, color schemes, icon sets, mouse states and more.

For Gnome, go to Gnome Art.

Here’s an interesting blog post on switching themes and icon sets in Linux.

Using Linux for Graphic / Web Design

Though this is slowly changing, almost no one migrates to Linux for the sole purpose of graphic design. But whereas the entire Adobe design suite (Windows / Mac) costs several thousand dollars, the Linux graphic design programs are, amazingly, free. And so two things are happening: an increasing number of people are coming to rely on open source graphic design software, and FOSS design software is getting better. There really is some great stuff available, so why not try it out?

Install Inkscape: This is hands-down the best vector graphics editor for Linux. It also runs on Windows and Mac, but not quite as well. This should be available from you Add / Remove programs application manager, so remember, you don’t have to download and install this from the Inskcape project website. In fact, it’s probably best that you don’t if you don’t have to – a manual install is harder.

Install GIMP Image Editor: This may already be installed, so check your programs. This is the open source version of Photoshop, and should also be available in your application manager.

Install Blender: This one equates to Maya 3D. It’s an open source application that lets you create 3D applications and animation.

Install Scribus: Scribus is a bit like InDesign – it’s a great page layout program for magazines and print graphics.

Install XAMPP: You may have heard of WAMP, the Apache server environment for Windows that comes bundled with all that cool stuff. XAMPP (the AMP stands for Apache MySQL PHP) has a Linux version. This lets web designers and PHP coders basically run a webserver, either locally or live. I personally use one to practice PHP, install Drupal, Joomla and WordPress to test my theme designs locally, and a whole bunch of other great stuff.

Unfortunately, I can’t see a XAMPP package in my applications manager, and this is a bit of a complicated install, so tackle it when you’ve got some time. Read up on how to get these running here.

Install Cssed Editor: While I think that Cssed Editor still needs some work, it’s a pretty good CSS and HTML editing platform. Some people love it. Give it a go.

Using Linux as a Sooper Dooper Secret Haxor Base Station

I would totally laugh at you if I hadn’t done this like, six times.

Install Metasploit.

If you’re moving this way, you might want to read up on shell scripting and the terminal.

And if you’re feeling up to a challenge, consider switching from whatever Linux distribution you’re running right now over to Backtrack Linux, a distro made exclusively for penetration testing and hacking. It’s a great way to learn. And it’s also a great to way totally screw up the partitioning on your computer, so really, unless you’re in the mood to, um, “learn a lot”, you might want to wait until the Backtrack guys release an easy GUI installer, which is rumored to be up for release soon.

You could also consider…

Using Linux as a Programming Environment

Linux is a programmer’s wet dream, and no matter where you are on the programming skillz spectrum, Linux can do something for you. Start off by installing your favorite language(s) development environment:

Open your application manager, go to the “Programming” section, and start installing. Python programmers will be thrilled with the 1-click IDLE install (IDLE is the Python programming environment), the easy Ruby install, quick access to compilers, Eclipse, MySQL tools, RapidSVN (which is a GUI client for subversion), hex editors, debug programs, GUI designers, and on and on and on.

Using Linux as a Gaming Machine

Look, I’m all for this, but I’ll be honest, a) I don’t have much experience here, and b) every time I ask a Linux gamer where the FOSS gaming community is, they kind of chuckle, say there isn’t a big one, and then point me to So that site is probably your best bet.

Using Linux as an Audio Center

Likewise, Linux Audio has a great little community around it, though you kinda have to know where to look. There are DJ mixing programs and audio effects galore, as well as plenty of plain ol’ CD ripping and burning programs.

You can find a list of Linux audio applications on this wiki.

If you have KDE, download Amarok to manage your music (applications manager) and organize your music library. And if you’re running Gnome, there’s a fairly new project called Listen, which is marketing itself as the Amarok of Gnome.

Hope that gives you somewhere to start. Enjoy!

american tech writer living in beijing. chinese user interface consultant. crafter of pretty digital things. haver of nebulous ideas.
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