The Complete Beginner's Guide to Ubuntu Linux

Get started with Ubuntu the right way

Ubuntu (pronounced "oo-boon-too") is one of the most popular desktop Linux operating systems. The term Ubuntu derives from South Africa and roughly translates to "humanity toward others." The name is a nod to the Ubuntu project's commitment to the principles of open-source software development. It is free to install and free to modify, although donations to the project are welcome.

About Ubuntu

Ubuntu first burst onto the scene in 2004 and quickly shot to the top of the Distrowatch rankings, mostly because it's easy to install and use.

The default desktop environment in Ubuntu is GNOME, a modern desktop environment with a powerful search tool for finding all your applications and documents. It integrates well with common applications such as audio players, video players, and social media.

Other desktop environments are available in the package manager, including Cinnamon, LXDE, XFCE, KDE, and MATE. In addition, specific versions of Ubuntu are designed to work and integrate well with desktop environments such as Lubuntu, Xubuntu, Kubuntu, and Ubuntu MATE.

The large company Canonical employs the core Ubuntu developers, who earn money in various ways that include providing support services.

How to Get Ubuntu

You can download Ubuntu free of charge. For desktop computers, two versions of Ubuntu are available, a long-term support (LTS) release that stays supported for five years and a regular release that arrives every six months and is only supported for around nine months.

Ubuntu download page

The LTS version of Ubuntu is better for people who don't like to upgrade an operating system regularly. On LTS systems, everything stays the same as long as possible. The system receives updates for security and bug fixes only. You can download older LTS versions from the alternative downloads page if that's your preference.

The regular Ubuntu release provides up-to-date software and a recently developed Linux kernel, which means you get better hardware support. Not only that, but you also get the latest versions of the applications you use every day. Because the regular release refreshes quickly, you'll have the newest version of your favorite programs.

How to Try Ubuntu

Before you install Ubuntu on top of your current operating system, it's a good idea to try it out first. There are various ways to try Ubuntu, and the following guides will help:

Live Ubuntu Desktop

How to Install Ubuntu

The following guides will help you install Ubuntu on a hard drive:

Create Ubuntu Partition

How to Navigate the Ubuntu Desktop

A quick glance at the Ubuntu desktop shows a panel at the top of the screen and a quick launch bar on the left side.

Ubuntu GNOME desktop

Ubuntu offers many keyboard shortcuts that save time and effort, so these shortcuts are worth learning. To display a list of shortcuts, press Super key+Esc. The Super key varies with the type of computer:

  • On a Windows keyboard, the Super key is denoted by the Windows logo and is located next to the left ALT key.
  • On a Mac keyboard, look for the Command key.
  • On a Chromebook, the Super key has a magnifying glass logo on it.

The other way to navigate Ubuntu is to use the mouse. Each icon on the launch bar points to an application such as the file manager, web browser, office suite, or software center. Like on mobile devices, use the Applications icon in the lower-left corner of the desktop to display a list of installed apps. Then, select the icon of the app you want to open.

Like anything, using the Ubuntu desktop is the best way to familiarize yourself with it. The layout is different from both Windows and macOS, despite the similar appearance to the current Mac design. That said, everything is designed to be intuitive to navigate with a mouse or a touch screen. And, the chance of breaking something is slim. Once you dive in and see what everything does, you'll realize just how simple it is.

The Ubuntu GNOME Shell

The GNOME Shell is the graphical display belonging to the GNOME desktop environment, but this section covers the GNOME overview screens, both the activities and the applications. These are the closest equivalent to the old Ubuntu Unity Dash and are also the method used to find applications and keep running windows organized.

Start by pressing Activities in the upper-left corner of the Ubuntu desktop. When you do, the screen darkens and displays a new set of controls:

  • In the middle of the screen, open windows are arranged in a convenient way to show what's running, select what you want, or close something you're done with.
  • To the right, you can switch workspaces. Ubuntu, and Linux in general, have multiple virtual desktops that you can switch between at any time, giving you more screen space.
  • At the top, you'll find a search that looks through the applications, files, and apps available for download.
Activities button in Ubuntu

To launch the GNOME Applications Overview, select the Applications icon at the lower-left corner of the screen. This looks similar to the previous overview screen. This time, though, there is a listing of all the applications in icon form.

The same search option as before appears at the top of the screen. At the bottom, you can switch between all apps and the ones you commonly use.

Applications icon in Ubuntu

Connect to the Internet

To connect to the internet, press the network icon on the top panel. This displays a list of wireless networks. Select the network to which you wish to connect, then enter its security key. If you are connected to a router using an Ethernet cable, you are connected to the internet automatically. You can browse the web using Firefox (the default browser that ships with Ubuntu) or whatever browser you prefer.

Ubuntu WiFi settings menu

How to Keep Ubuntu up to Date

Ubuntu notifies you when updates are available for installation. You can change the settings so that the updates work the way you want. Unlike the process that Windows uses, you have full control as to when the updates are applied so you won't suddenly turn on your computer to find that update 1 of 465 is installing.

Ubuntu update

You can also manually update the system by running the graphical Software Updater application. If you prefer the command line, which is an option on Ubuntu, open a terminal window, then enter the command below to update the system.

sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade -y

How to Browse the Web With Ubuntu

Launch Firefox by selecting its icon on the launcher or by going to the Applications Overview and searching for Firefox. If you prefer, you can install Google Chrome by downloading it from the Google website.

Firefox on Ubuntu

How to Set up the Thunderbird Email Client

The default email client for Ubuntu is Thunderbird. It has most of the features found in a home desktop operating system. You can set up Gmail to work with Thunderbird easily. To run Thunderbird, either press the Super key and search for it using the Dash, or press ALT+F2 and type Thunderbird.

Thunderbird on Ubuntu

How to Create Documents, Spreadsheets, and Presentations

The default office suite for Ubuntu is LibreOffice. LibreOffice is the standard for Linux-based office software. Icons reside in the quick launch bar for the word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation packages. For everything else, the product offers a help guide.

LibreOffice on Ubuntu

How to Manage Photos or View Images

Ubuntu has a number of packages for managing photos and viewing and editing images. For example:

  • Shotwell is a dedicated photo manager. This guide by OMGUbuntu has a good overview of its features.
  • A basic image viewer, Eye Of Gnome, allows you to view photos in a folder, zoom in and out, and rotate images.
  • The LibreOffice draw package is part of the full office suite.

You can launch each of these programs from the Dash by searching for them.

How To Listen To Music Within Ubuntu

The default audio package for Ubuntu is called Rhythmbox. It provides all of the features expected of an audio player: the ability to import music from various folders, create and edit playlists, connect with external media devices, and listen to online radio stations. You also can set up Rhythmbox as a Digital Audio Access Protocol (DAAP) server, and play music on a computer from a phone and other devices.

Ubuntu with Rhythmbox open

To run Rhythmbox, press ALT+F2, then enter Rhythmbox or search for it.

How to Watch Videos in Ubuntu

GNOME Videos is the default movie player for Ubuntu. It's a great basic option, but video players like VLC and Kodi are available on Ubuntu. Both can be found in GNOME Software, or you can install these apps from the command line.

VLC on Ubuntu

If you want a good, all-around video player on Ubuntu, VLC is the recommended option.

Get Audio and Video Codecs and Watch Flash Video Using Ubuntu

By default, additional codecs required to play some audio and video formats and watch Flash video aren't installed with Ubuntu for licensing reasons. However, you are able to install the items you need quite easily.

How to Install Software Using Ubuntu

The main graphical tool to use when installing the software in Ubuntu is Ubuntu Software. It is fairly clunky, but it is functional. One of the first tools you should install using Ubuntu Software is Synaptic, which provides a powerful base for installing other software.

Ubuntu Software

Linux software is available from repositories—servers that hold software that can be installed for a particular distribution. A repository is stored on one or more servers known as mirrors. Each item of software within a repository is called a package. There are many package formats, but Ubuntu uses the Debian package format. You'll find most of the things you need in the default repositories, but you can add and enable some extra repositories to acquire additional software.

Using graphical packages such as Ubuntu Software and Synaptic aren't the only ways to install software using Ubuntu. You also can install packages from the command line using apt-get. While the command line may seem daunting, you will come to appreciate the power of apt-get after using it for a bit.

How to Customize Ubuntu

The GNOME Desktop isn't as customizable as other Linux desktop environments. However, you can do basic things such as change the wallpaper and choose whether menus appear as part of the application or in the top panel. There are also tons of GNOME extensions and themes to help make your desktop your own.

Other Major Software Packages

There are some widely used packages that you probably will want to use. For example:

  • Skype: Skype is now owned by Microsoft, so it's understandable if you were thinking it wouldn't work with Linux. But you can install Skype on Linux.
  • Dropbox: Dropbox is an online file storage facility, which you can use as an online backup or as a collaborative tool for sharing files among colleagues or friends. You can install Dropbox in Ubuntu.
  • Steam: Steam is a popular platform for multiplayer gaming, video streaming, and social networking. Either install Synaptic and search for it from there or follow the apt-get tutorial and install Steam via apt-get. The package requires a 250 MB update, but once this is installed, Steam works perfectly in Ubuntu.
  • Minecraft: Microsoft also bought Minecraft, a popular video game. You can now install Minecraft using Ubuntu.
  • Wine and Lutris: Wine is not an emulator. That's what the name stands for, but it sure acts like one. If you want to play your Windows games on Ubuntu, you'll need Wine. Lutris is a game organizer and installer that makes getting games to run with Wine nearly as simple as installing those games on Windows.
  • NVIDIA Drivers: Graphics drivers work differently on Linux. If you have a card from NVIDIA, you'll need the latest drivers. There's an excellent PPA repository to help get you what you need for your graphics card.
  • Spotify: Streaming music on Ubuntu is easy too. You're free to stream from Spotify in a browser or integrate it with one of the media players that support it. You also have the option to install the official Spotify client on an Ubuntu PC.