Desktop Must-Haves

This article is an introductory piece to get you thinking about the Linux Desktop and all it can do.
Entertainment

Between Google video, podcasting, video podcasting, integrated DVD players and USB-powered...well, let's call them “personal exhilaration devices”, the computer now is an entertainment center. Projects like MythTV let you literally build an entertainment appliance out of your PC, but even your desktop has to have a good multimedia backbone in it, or you might get frustrated and bored. We can't have that, now, can we?

So, let's start with home videos. You shoot them, and then what? Are you really going to spend months of your twilight years rewatching ancient DV tapes in real time? Of course not. But, you can edit them and export them to DVD or YouTube to share with your family if you install Kino on your system. Small, fast, feature-loaded and stable, it's the Linux answer to Windows Movie Maker and iMovie.

Figure 8. Kino's Main Editing Window

Of course, playing those movies you make and the DVDs already on your shelf, is another matter. You need a good, all-purpose media player. In Windows-land, you need QuickTime, RealPlayer, Windows Media Player, Flash Player and WinDVD to cover everything. In Linux, you need only one program, though you have a choice of three that are quite excellent: MPlayer, Xine and VLC. They all use FFmpeg as a back end, which is both highly robust and versatile. All three also can call upon Windows-native codecs to decode proprietary file formats. The choice between them primarily is one of taste. MPlayer can be run from the command line as well as with a GUI, it has a very stable Firefox plugin, and it contains an excellent set of command-line encoding and stream-ripping tools. Xine (and its front ends, like Kaffeine) tends to have the friendliest interface. VLC is equipped to broadcast Net streams as well as rip them and transcode them natively in the GUI. I personally keep all three around, but any one of them will do you well, depending on what you're looking for. In practice, you'll wind up using one for your viewing pleasure.

Figure 9. Kaffeine plays a video.

Figure 10. Kaffeine's playlist building interface, with a file browser on the left, a preview window under it, and the playlist on the right. Kaffeine is a Xine front-end.

You'll also need a podcatcher and media library organizer and player similar to iTunes. In this field, Amarok stands alone. It also allows you to select the back-end engine you prefer (GStreamer, Xine and so on) and will play pretty much any audio format under the sun. It includes integrated id3 tag editing, a very intuitive database index, a MusicBrains store interface and lots of fun little extras for dealing with iPods and other portable media devices.

Figure 11. Amarok is the ultimate podcatcher/portable media player/sync manager/music library manager/player.

Finally, you're going to need something to burn all the CD compilations, DVDs from videos you've edited, and backups of your data. The best and most fully featured solution you can get for this is K3b. It supports data CDs and DVDs to a variety of formats and standards, rewritable media, video CDs and DVDs, burning from a variety of ISO types, and even self-booting media CDs and DVDs with micro-operating systems (eMovix discs).

Wrap-up

The good news about Desktop Linux isn't merely limited to the fact that you can do everything—or nearly everything—on Linux that you need to do on a desktop system. The really good news is that most of these programs—Pidgin, OpenOffice.org, Evolution, MPlayer, THE GIMP, Firefox, GnuCash and VLC—work on Windows, so you can ease yourself into the Linux/Open Source world in stages.

Is this the Year of the Desktop for Linux? That's something history will decide, if it even cares. But, one thing is without doubt: Desktop Linux has arrived.

Dan Sawyer is the founder of ArtisticWhispers Productions (www.artisticwhispers.com), a small audio/video studio in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has been an enthusiastic advocate for free and open-source software since the late 1990s, when he founded the Blenderwars filmmaking community (www.blenderwars.com). He currently is the host of “The Polyschizmatic Reprobates Hour”, a cultural commentary podcast, and “Sculpting God”, a science-fiction anthology podcast. Author contact information is available at www.jdsawyer.net.

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