Book Excerpt: The Official Ubuntu Book

Read an adapted version of chapter 3 from the book The Official Ubuntu Book By Benjamin Mako Hill, Matthew Helmke, Corey Burger.

This article is an adapted excerpt of Chp 3 from the "The Official Ubuntu Book", just released in its 4th Ed., and co-authored by Benjamin Mako Hill, Matthew Helmke and Corey Burger, ISBN 0137021208, Copyright 2009 Canonical, Ltd. For more info, please visit the publisher site, or Safari Books Online subscribers can access the book here. The 4th Ed. also has available a Barnes & Noble Special Edition which includes a Bonus DVD with Ubuntu Netbook Remix, available at B&N stores or on

Chapter 3: Using Ubuntu on the Desktop

With Ubuntu installed and ready to go, it’s time to get started using your new desktop. The stock install of Ubuntu provides a very complete and flexible system. Different people use their computers in different ways, and every user has her own personal preference for look and feel.

Tip - The Ubuntu Desktop Is GNOME When reading about Ubuntu, you often see the terms Ubuntu desktop and GNOME used interchangeably. Both of these terms refer to the same thing—the default Ubuntu desktop is a version of GNOME itself. Of course, Ubuntu provides several other desktops, including KDE (in Kubuntu), Xfce (in Xubuntu), and a variety of others.

Taking Your Desktop for a Ride

When you start your Ubuntu system, you are asked for a username and password to log in with.

After a few seconds you will see the Ubuntu desktop appear (Figure 3-1). The desktop has three main areas.

Figure 3-1
The Ubuntu desktop is simple, uncluttered, and . . . brown.

  1. At the top of the screen is the panel. This bar contains the desktop menu options and application shortcut icons on the left side as well as the notification area on the right side.

  2. The large middle part of the screen is the desktop.

  3. The bottom part of the screen is called the taskbar. This area displays a rectangle for each open application.

Tip - Device Icons Although there are no application icons on the desktop, when you plug in USB devices such as portable music players, keyring drives, or digital cameras, a device icon will appear on the desktop.

Starting Applications and Finding Things

Starting applications is simple. Just click on the Applications menu on the left side of the panel. Inside this menu are a number of submenus for different types of applications. Hover your mouse over each category, and then click the application you want to load.

Every application has an entry in the taskbar at the bottom of the screen. You can click these entries to minimize or maximize the application and right-click to see some other options.

Although the main Applications, Places, and System menus are logical by default, you may want to further customize them by moving entries into different submenus, not displaying certain items, and making other tweaks. All of this is easily done with the built-in menu editor.

To edit the menus, open the option at System > Preferences > Main Menu. The menu editor will appear, as shown in Figure 3-2.

Figure 3-2
The menu editor lets you easily change the Ubuntu menus.

Finding Your Files and Folders

When using your computer, you often need to save and open files and folders, move them around, and perform other tasks. The Places menu contains entries, including those listed here, to access different parts of your computer and the network.

  • Home Folder: Your home folder is used to store the files and work for each user. Virtually everything you save lives here. Each user has a separate home folder.

  • Desktop: The Desktop folder is inside your home folder and contains files that appear on your desktop as icons.

  • Computer: Clicking this item displays the different drives attached to your computer as floppy drives, CD/DVD drives, and USB keys or sticks.

  • Network: This option accesses servers that are available on your local network.

  • Connect to Server: Click this to run a wizard to create a connection to a network server. This is really useful for copying files to other computers.

  • Search for Files: Use this to search for files on your computer.

  • Recent Documents: Click this submenu to display the most recently used documents.

Configuring Your System

The third and final menu, System, is used to configure and customize your system, access help, and report problems. Inside the menu are a few options, including these:

  • Preferences: This submenu contains items for customizing the look and feel of your desktop. Each of these settings applies only to the desktop of the user who is logged in.

  • Administration: This submenu is used to configure system wide settings such as networking, users, printing, and more. To use these menu items, you need to know the system administrator password.

  • Help and Support: With this you can access the Ubuntu Help Center, which provides documentation and guides for your Ubuntu desktop.

Shortcut Icons

On the panel are a number of shortcut icons next to the menus. These small icons can be single-clicked to gain access to your favorite applications. Ubuntu comes with several stock shortcuts on the panel, but you are welcome to add your own.


One simple yet powerful feature in Ubuntu is the ability to run small programs called applets on the panel. These small programs are useful for a variety of tasks and provide quick and easy access via the panel.

To add an applet, right-click the panel and select Add to Panel. The window shown in Figure 3-3 pops up. Select one of the many applets, and click Add. When the applet appears on the panel, you can press the middle mouse button (or the left and right buttons together) to move it around.

Figure 3-3
Ubuntu comes bundled with a selection of applets.

The Notification Area

In the right-hand part of the top panel is the notification area and the clock. A good example of this is Network Manager, which looks after your network connections—both wired and wireless—for you.

You can fiddle with the notification area items by right-clicking them to view a context menu. Some icons (such as the volume control) allow you to left-click on them to view them. As an example, try clicking the little speaker icon and adjusting the slider.

Using Your Applications

By default, Ubuntu comes with applications to listen to music, watch videos, create documents, browse the Web, manage your appointments, read your e-mail, create images, and much more.

Although Ubuntu includes a range of software applications, it is likely you will want to install extra applications and explore other available software. Fortunately, the Ubuntu system is built on a powerful foundation that makes software installation simple. Click Applications > Add/Remove, and a dialog box appears that you can use to install new applications.

Browsing the Web with Firefox

Firefox is the default Ubuntu Web browser and provides you with a simple, safe, and powerful browsing experience.

Fire up Firefox by clicking its icon (the first one next to the System menu) on the panel or by selecting Applications > Internet > Firefox Web Browser. Before long, you’ll be presented with the main Firefox window (Figure 3-4).

Figure 3-4
The Firefox interface is sleek but extensible.

Creating Documents with

Included with Ubuntu is a full office suite called This comprehensive collection contains applications for creating word processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, drawings, and mathematical equations. The suite provides an extensive range of functionality, including reading and writing Microsoft Office file formats, and can also export documents as Web pages, PDF files, and even animations.

The default file format used by is the OpenDocument Format. This file format is an official open standard and is used across the world. The file format is slightly different for different types of applications (.odt for word processor files, .ods for spreadsheets, and so on), but each format provides an open standard free from vendor lock-in. You can also save in a variety of other formats, including the default formats for Microsoft Office.

Tip - Vendor Lock-In? In the proprietary software world, it is common for each application to have its own closed file format that only the vendor knows how to implement. When a person uses the software to create documents, the closed format means that only that specific tool can read and write the format. As long as you want to access your documents, you need that tool. This is known as vendor lock-in.

To combat this problem, the suite (and the vast majority of other open source applications) uses an open file format that is publicly documented. In fact, the format is a published standard under ISO/IEC 26300:3006. This means that other applications can implement the OpenDocument file format, and you can be safe in the knowledge that your documents will always be available and you are not locked in to any specific tool.

Another useful feature wedged into is the capability to save your documents in the Adobe PDF format. PDF files have been increasingly used in the last few years and are useful for sending people documents that they should not change (such as invoices). PDF files provide a high-quality copy of the document and are well supported across all operating systems. This makes PDFs ideal for creating catalogs, leaflets, and flyers. To save a document as a PDF file, click the PDF button on the main toolbar (next to the printer icon). Click the button, enter a filename, and you are done. Simple.

Managing Your E-mail and Calendars with Evolution

Evolution has been modeled around the all-in-one personal information management tool. Within Evolution you can read your e-mail, manage your schedule, store contact details, organize to-do lists, and more in a single place. This makes Evolution useful for both businesspeople and regular users who want easy access to this information.

Load Evolution by clicking the envelope and clock shortcut icon from the panel (hover your mouse over the shortcuts to see what they are) or by clicking Applications > Internet > Evolution Mail. When the application loads, you are taken through a wizard to set up your e-mail server (as shown in Figure 3-5).

Figure 3-5
Setting up Evolution is simple as long as you know the details for your mail server.

With the wizard completed, the main Evolution interface will appear, as shown in Figure 3-6.

Figure 3-6
Those of you who have used Microsoft Outlook should find the interface very similar.

On the left sidebar you can see a number of buttons to access the mail, contacts, calendars, memos, and tasks components in Evolution. When you click each button, the interface adjusts to show you the relevant information about that component.

Inside the e-mail component you can see the e-mail folders in the left panel and the list of messages in the top pane. When you click on a message, it is displayed in the bottom pane, where you can read it.

Inside calendar mode, Evolution provides a convenient way to manage your schedule, add new events, and view your calendar in different ways. When you click the Calendars button to switch to this mode, you can see the timetable for today as well as the month view. The month view shows a couple of months in which the bold dates have events.

You can add two types of events to your calendar.

  • Meetings: These are events with a specific group of people.

  • Appointments: These are general events.

Tip - Multiple Calendars Evolution supports multiple calendars. This is useful if you want different calendars for different types of events such as personal and work-related activities. To create a new calendar, right-click the calendar list in the left sidebar and select New Calendar.

You can view your calendar in lots of different ways by clicking the different toolbar buttons such as Week, Month, and List. Play with them and see which ones are most useful to you.

QUICK TIP - Remember, you can access your appointments without opening Evolution by clicking on the clock in the panel.

Creating Graphics with GIMP

The GNU Image Manipulation Program, affectionately known as GIMP, is a powerful graphics package.

Start GIMP by clicking Applications > Graphics > GNU Image Manipulation Program.

When GIMP loads, you will see a collection of different windows, as shown in Figure 3-7.

Figure 3-7
GIMP does not put everything in one window like Adobe Photoshop.

Communicating with Pidgin

Included with Ubuntu is Pidgin, for instantly messaging your friends from within a single program. Instead of having to install a separate client application to talk to your friends on MSN, AIM, ICQ, and Jabber, Pidgin can do it all in one place. Pidgin is available by clicking Applications > Internet > Pidgin Instant Messenger.

Cutting-Edge Voice Over IP with Ekiga

Included with Ubuntu is a simple-to-use yet powerful Internet phone called Ekiga. Formally known as GNOME Meeting, Ekiga lets you make voice and video calls with other people across the Internet. In addition to the traditional Microsoft Netmeeting support, Ekiga now supports SIP, an industry standard that many hardware phones, software phones, services, and providers support.

You can access Ekiga by clicking Applications > Internet > Ekiga Softphone.

Exploring the Ubuntu Landscape

Unlike many other operating systems, Ubuntu includes a comprehensive suite of applications.

Here is a quick summary of many of the applications included on the Applications menu in Ubuntu, including how to find the applications and a brief description.

  • Text Editor

  • Applications > Accessories > Text Editor

    This simple, yet powerful, text editor is ideal for editing documents, making quick notes, and programming. Included is a range of plug-ins for spell checking, statistics, file listings, and more.

  • Calculator

  • Applications > Accessories > Calculator

    This provides a range of functionality for simple and scientific calculations.

  • Terminal

  • Applications > Accessories > Terminal

    This application puts a window around a command-line interface. Essential for the command-line junkies among you.

  • FreeCell Solitaire

  • Applications > Games > FreeCell Solitaire

    Possibly responsible for untold hours of lost productivity.

  • Movie Player

  • Applications > Sound & Video > Movie Player

    Although listed as a movie player, this application actually plays a range of different types of media, including both video and audio.

  • Sound Recorder

  • Applications > Sound & Video > Sound Recorder

    If you need to record something, you can use this simple tool.

  • System Monitor

  • System > Administration > System Monitor

    The System Monitor lets you know which applications are running and how much memory/processing power they are using, and it also allows you to kill or restart processes.

  • Sudoku

  • Applications > Games > Sudoku

    The increasingly popular logic game arrives on Ubuntu.

  • Disk Usage Analyzer

  • Applications > Accessories > Disk Usage Analyzer

    In case you were wondering exactly where all your disk space had gone, this will help solve the mystery.

  • F-Spot Photo Manager

  • Applications > Graphics > F-Spot Photo Manager

    Manage your photos, download off your camera, and send them up to Flickr and other online photo sites.

There are literally thousands of available packages that can be installed on your Ubuntu computer. These packages span a range of different areas, and this section covers some of the popular ones.

  • Blender

  • Package to install: blender

    Blender (Figure 3-8) is powerful 3D modeling, animation, rendering, and production studio.

    Figure 3-8

  • Inkscape

  • Package to install: inkscape

    Inkscape (Figure 3-9) is a drawing package for creating Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG).

    Figure 3-9

  • Beagle

  • Package to install: beagle

    Beagle (Figure 3-10) is a search system that indexes virtually everything.

    Figure 3-10

  • Bluefish

  • Package to install: bluefish

    Bluefish (Figure 3-11) is a lightweight but feature-rich editor with support for a range of languages as well as HTML and CSS.

    Figure 3-11

  • Audio CD Extractor

  • Package to install: sound-juicer

    Audio CD Extractor (Figure 3-12) will help you record compact disks to your hard drive.

    Figure 3-12
    Sound Juicer: An Audio CD Extractor

The Ubuntu File Chooser and Bookmarks

Finding files is one of the most frustrating aspects of using computers and often involves digging through folder after folder to find what you need. Luckily, the GNOME file chooser (Figure 3-13) helps cut down much of this file hunting significantly.

Figure 3-13
The file chooser has a number of subtle features such as bookmarks.

Aside from enabling you to manually pick files, the chooser also supports bookmarks. On the left side of the chooser is a list of devices and bookmarks labeled Places. These include your home directory (shown as your username), Desktop (the files on your desktop), and File System (the entire hard drive), as well as devices such as CD drives, floppy drives, and USB sticks.

Ubuntu in Your Language

When you installed Ubuntu, you were asked which language the system should use. Although this sets the initial language for the system, you may want to change the language at a later date. To do this, click System > Administration > Language Support.

Ubuntu supports a huge range of languages, and many applications include a Translate This Application menu option in the Help menu so that all Ubuntu users can contribute translations in their language(s).

Customizing Ubuntu’s Look and Feel

It can be fun tweaking our desktops so they look just right, and Ubuntu has great support for all kinds of adjustments.

Changing the Background

To change the background of your desktop, right-click it and select Change Desktop Background. Inside the dialog box that appears, choose your wallpaper by clicking on an image, and the desktop background will automatically change.

Changing the Theme

When you are using your applications, the visual appearance of the buttons, scroll bars, widgets, and other bits and pieces are controlled by the theme. The built-in theming system can make your applications look radically different, and Ubuntu ships with a number of themes that you can try.

To choose a new theme, click System > Preferences > Appearance and then click on the Theme tab. Inside the tab that pops up are a number of themes that you can choose. Just click on a theme, and the desktop will be adjusted automatically. You can further customize your theme by clicking the Customize button.

To install a new theme, head over to http:// You need to look for Application Themes when browsing the site. When you find a theme that you like, download it to your computer. Now Click System > Preferences > Appearance, and click the Install button in the Theme tab. Using the file chooser, find the theme that you just downloaded, and it will install automatically. Now select your new theme from the list.
Configuring a Screensaver

To choose a different screensaver, click System > Preferences > Screensaver. The screensaver configuration tool then loads (Figure 3-14).

Figure 3-14
A number of screensavers are bundled with Ubuntu.

On the left side of the window is a list of available screensavers. Click on a screensaver and you will see a preview appear in the space to the right of the list. You can then use the slider to select how long the computer needs to be idle before the screensaver kicks in.

The Lock Screen When Screensaver Is Active checkbox can be selected to lock the screen when the screensaver starts and, as such, requires a user to enter the password to reactivate the desktop.

Managing Your Files

Included with Ubuntu is a powerful yet simple file manager called Nautilus that integrates tightly into your desktop.

Nautilus makes extensive use of drag and drop. Nautilus displays files in a series of windows in which you can drag files around easily. Nautilus also includes a number of useful features such as video and image previews, emblems, bookmarks, permissions management, and more.

How Linux Stores and Organizes Files

Before we use Nautilus, it is worthwhile to have a crash course in how files and folders are organized on a Linux system.

Tip - Folders and Directories When reading about file management, don’t get confused by the terms folders and directories—both words describe the same thing.

In the Linux world, everything is part of the same filesystem organization. As such, if you have two or three hard disks, a CD drive, and a USB stick all plugged in, they will all be part of the same folder structure.

The diagram shown in Figure 3-15 should give you an idea of how everything hangs together.

Figure 3-15
Linux filesystem organization

Right at the top of the tree is the root folder, referred to as /. Inside this folder are a number of special system folders, each with a specific use.

The folder structure in a modern Linux distribution such as Ubuntu was largely inspired by the original UNIX foundations that were created by men with large beards. Some of you may be interested in the more important folders. For your pleasure, we present the Linux folder hit list in Table 3-1.

Table 3-1 Linux Folders




This folder contains important files to boot the computer, including the bootloader configuration and the kernel.


Each device on your system (such as sound cards, Webcams, etc.) has an entry in this folder. Each application accesses the device by using the relevant items inside /dev.


Systemwide configuration files for the software installed on your system are stored here.


Each user account on the system has a home directory that is stored here.-


Important system software libraries are stored here. You should never need to delve into this world -of the unknown.


Media devices such as CD drives and USB sticks are referenced here when they are plugged in.


Other devices can be mounted, too.


Optional software can be installed here. This folder is usually used when you want to build your own software.


Information about the current running status of the system is stored here.


This is the home directory for the main superuser.


Software that should be run only by the superuser is stored here.


General software is installed here.


This folder contains log files about the software on your computer.

In Table 3-1, /etc is described as storing systemwide configuration files for your computer. Aside from these files that affect everyone, there are also configuration files for each specific user.

Inside your home directory are a number of folders that begin with a dot (.), such as .gnome2 and .openoffice2. These folders contain the configuration settings for specific applications for that specific user. By default, these dot folders are hidden in Nautilus because you rarely need to access them. For future reference, you can view these hidden files and folders by clicking View > Show Hidden Files.

You can start Nautilus from a number of different places, but the easiest way to launch Nautilus is from the Places menu. Click on Places > Home Folder to load your home folder. When the folder loads, you should see something similar to what Figure 3-16 shows.

Figure 3-16
Accessing your home folder files is as simple as clicking Places > Home Folder.

Ubuntu and Multimedia

In recent years, multimedia has become an essential part of computing. Watching DVDs and videos and listening to CDs and music have become part and parcel of the modern desktop computer experience. These multimedia capabilities have been further bolstered by the huge popularity of legal music downloading.

Installing Codecs

Multimedia files and disks come in a variety of different types, and each type uses a special codec to compress the content to a smaller size while retaining a particular level of quality. To play this media, you need to ensure that you have the relevant codecs installed. Ubuntu now makes this easier by suggesting packages that provide a suitable codec when you open a file that isn’t supported by the ones that are currently installed.

QUICK TIP - If you double-click a file but no packages are suggested, you may need to change the package filter in the top right-hand corner to All Available Applications.

Codecs still remain a problem for open source software because of the legal restrictions placed upon them. Certain codecs (including MP3, Windows Media Format, QuickTime, and RealMedia) are proprietary and as such have restrictions placed on their use, distribution, and licensing.

Although developers in the open source community have created free implementations of some of these codecs, the licensing that surrounds them conflicts with the legal and philosophical position that Ubuntu has set. These codecs are not included not only because they are legally dubious but also because they disagree with Ubuntu’s ethic of creating a distribution that is entirely comprised of free software in the freest sense of the word.

QUICK TIP - If you want to find out more about installing these codecs, see

Listening to Audio Files

Ubuntu includes a powerful music player called Rhythmbox to organize and play your music file collection. By default, Ubuntu will look for music in the Music directory accessible in the Places menu.

Using Rhythmbox 

Load Rhythmbox (Figure 3-17) by clicking on Applications > Sound & Video > Rhythmbox Music Player.

Figure 3-17
Rhythmbox is a great place to look after your music collection.

Listening to Podcasts  Podcasts are audio shows that you can subscribe to, and they are increasingly becoming the new way to listen to audio and music. When you subscribe to a podcast, each new release is automatically downloaded for you. This makes it extremely convenient to regularly listen to audio shows.

Note - Rhythmbox and iPods Rhythmbox can also read songs from your iPod—just plug it in and it will display in Rhythmbox.

Rhythmbox can read from the iPod but may not be able to write to all iPods..

Playing and Ripping CDs

When you pop a CD into your CD drive, Audio CD Extractor (Sound Juicer) automatically loads to play your CD. If you are connected to the Internet, the CD is looked up on the Internet, and the album details and song titles are displayed.

Ripping Songs as Oggs 

Sound Juicer is not just a CD player but a ripper too. Using a ripper you can convert the songs on the CD into files that you can play on your computer. By default, Sound Juicer rips the files in the Ogg format, which provides better sound quality than MP3 at a smaller size.

To rip the songs, just select the checkboxes of the songs you want ripped (by default, all songs are selected), and then click Extract. Each song is then stored in your Music folder, and the song titles are used as the names of the files.

Although the default Ogg support is recommended in most situations, you may prefer to rip MP3 files if you have a digital audio player that does not support Ogg files. To do this, you need to configure Sound Juicer to enable MP3 support.

You should first install the gstreamer0.10-plugins-ugly-multiverse package (see Chapter 4 for more details on installing packages). Next, in Sound Juicer, click Edit > Preferences and choose the CD Quality, MP3 (MP3 audio) profile from the Output Format options.

Watching Videos

To watch videos in Ubuntu, you need to ensure that you have the correct codecs installed. Although the new process for suggesting and installing codecs should cover most popular types of files, you should still refer to the Ubuntu wiki at for details of how to install ones that are not recognized.

Using Totem

To watch videos in Ubuntu, you use the Totem media player (Figure 3-18). Load it by clicking Applications > Sound & Video > Movie Player.

Figure 3-18
Totem is a simple and flexible media player.

To watch a video on your hard disk, click Movie > Open, and select the file from the disk.

Tip - Another Way to Load Files into Totem You can also load multimedia files into Totem by double-clicking them on your desktop or in the file manager.

Totem also supports video streams. To watch a stream, click Movie > Open Location, and enter the Internet address for the stream. The video feed is then loaded and displayed.

Getting DVDs to Work  Ubuntu comes with DVD support for unencrypted DVDs. With the DVD industry being what it is, the majority of DVDs come encrypted, and if you want to watch them, you need to ensure that a library that can decrypt these DVDs is installed. Unfortunately, this library needs to be installed separately and is not included with Ubuntu. Refer to the Ubuntu wiki restricted formats page at for details.

If you are settling down to watch a movie, you may want to configure a few other settings. First click View > Aspect Ratio to select the correct aspect ratio for your screen, and then select View > Fullscreen to switch to full screen mode. To exit full screen, just move your mouse, and some on-screen controls will appear.


In this chapter you’ve learned how to start using the core features of your new desktop. These concepts should allow you to perform most of the day-to-day tasks when using your computer and provide a base from which to explore the other applications installed on your system.

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