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," 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 so easy to install and use.

Ubuntu GNOME desktop

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

Other desktop environments are available within the package manager, including Cinnamon, LXDE, XFCE, KDE, and MATE. In addition, specific versions of Ubuntu are designed to work and integrate well with these 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 completely free of charge. For desktop computers, there are always two versions of Ubuntu 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 their operating systems regularly. On LTS systems, everything stays the same as long as possible, only receiving updates for security and bug fixes. You can still download older LTS versions from the alternative downloads page if that's your preference.

Then, there's the regular Ubuntu release. It provides more up-to-date software and a more recently developed Linux kernel, which means you get better hardware support. Not only that, you'll get the latest versions of the applications you use every day. Because the regular release refreshes so quickly, you'll almost always have the newest version of your favorite program.

How to Try Ubuntu

Live Ubuntu Desktop

Before going all in and installing Ubuntu over the 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:

How to Install Ubuntu

Create Ubuntu Partition

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

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 down the left side.

Ubuntu offers many keyboard shortcuts that save you time and effort, so they're worth learning. You can display a list of them by pressing Super key+Esc. The key itself varies with the type of computer you have:

  • On a Windows keyboard, the Super key is denoted by the Windows logo and sits 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 using the mouse. Each of the icons on the launch bar points at an application such as the file manager, web browser, office suite, and software center.

The best way to approach the Ubuntu desktop is to not think too much about 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 as intuitive as possible for navigation with a mouse or even a touch screen.

Like on mobile devices, use the Applications icon in he lower left corner of the desktop to bring up a list of your installed apps. Select the icon of the app you want to open. The next section will give you a more detailed overview of the tool you just opened.

Like anything, using the Ubuntu desktop is the best way to familiarize yourself. Experiment. The chance of you breaking something is very, very slim. Once you dive in and see what everything does, you'll realize just how simple it all is.

The Ubuntu GNOME Shell

The GNOME Shell is actually the entire graphical display belonging to the GNOME desktop environment, but this section will specifically cover the GNOME overview screens, both the activities one and the applications. These are the closest equivalent to the old Ubuntu Unity Dash, and they're also the method you'll use to find your applications and keep your running windows organized.

Ubuntu activities overview

Start by pressing Activities in the top left corner of your Ubuntu desktop. When you do, your screen will darken and display a new set of controls. At the middle of your screen, your open windows will be arranged in a convenient way to see what's running, select what you want, or close something you're done with. To the right, you can switch workspaces. With Ubuntu, and Linux in general, you have multiple virtual desktops that you can switch between at any time, giving you tons more screen space. Finally, at the top, you'l find a search that looks through your applications, files, and apps available for download.

Ubuntu GNOME applications

Launch the GNOME Applications Overview by selecting the Applications icon at the bottom left of your screen. This should look similar to the previous overview screen. This time, though, there will be a listing of all your applications in icon form. It's apparent that the design draws more than a little inspiration from mobile devices, and that's alright. It's something familiar to nearly everyone. The same search option as before appears at the top of the screen, and at the bottom, you can switch between all of your apps and the ones you most commonly use.

Connecting to the Internet

You can connect to the internet by pressing the network icon on the top panel. This brings up a list of wireless networks. Select the network to which you wish to connect, and enter its security key. If you are connected to a router using an ethernet cable, you will be 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 will notify you when updates are available for installation. You can tweak the settings so that the updates work the way you want them to. 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 update 1 of 465 installing.

Ubuntu update

You can also manually update your system by running the graphical Software Updater application. If you prefer the command line, which is always an option on Ubuntu, open a terminal window and run the command below to update your 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 bringing up the Applications Overview and searching for Firefox. If you prefer, you can install Google Chrome by downloading it from Google's 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 you're accustomed to with 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 pretty much the standard when it comes to Linux-based office software. Icons reside in the quick launch bar for the word processing, spreadsheet and presentation packages. For everything else, the product itself 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 very good overview of its features.
  • A more basic image viewer, Eye Of Gnome, allows you to view photos within a particular folder, zoom in and out, and rotate them.
  • Finally, the LibreOffice draw package is part of the full office suite.

You can launch each of these programs via 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 you would expect 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, which allows you to play music on your computer from your phone and other devices.

Ubuntu with Rhythmbox open

To run Rhythmbox, press ALT + F2 and type 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 you also have fantastic video players like VLC and Kodi available on Ubuntu. Both of them can be found in GNOME Software, or you can install them via the command line.

VLC on Ubuntu

If you're looking for 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 by and large functional. One of the first tools you should install via Ubuntu Software is Synaptic, which provides a much more powerful base for installing other software.

Ubuntu Software

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

Using graphical packages such as the Ubuntu Software and Synaptic aren't the only ways to install software using Ubuntu. You also can install packages via 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 just a bit.

How to Customize Ubuntu

The GNOME Desktop isn't as customizable as many other Linux desktop environments, but you can do basic things such as changing the wallpaper and choosing whether the menus appear as part of the application or in the top panel. There are also tons of GNOME extensions and themes out there to help make your desktop your own. We've put together a guide that tells you everything you need to know about customizing the Ubuntu desktop.

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.
  • 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 will require a 250MB update, but once this is installed, Steam will work 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're going to need Wine. Lutris is a game organizer/installer that makes getting your games running with Wine nearly as simple as installing them on Windows.
  • NVIDIA Drivers: Graphics drivers work a little differently on Linux. If you have a card from NVIDIA, you're going to want the latest drivers. There's an excellent PPA repository to help get you what you need for you graphics card.
  • Spotify: Streaming music on Ubuntu is easy too. You're absolutely free to stream from Spotify in your browser or even integrate it with one of the media players that support it, but you also have the option of installing the official Spotify client on your Ubuntu PC.