The Complete Beginner's Guide to Ubuntu Linux

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 Launcher screenshot

The default desktop environment within Ubuntu is Unity, 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 GNOME, 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, Ubuntu GNOME, 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. As of July 2018, the latest LTS (long-term support) release is 18.04.01, which will be supported until April 2023. This version is better for people who don't like to upgrade their operating systems regularly. It provides more up-to-date software and a more recently developed Linux kernel, which means you get better hardware support. You can still download older versions 16.04 and 14.04.5 from the alternative downloads page if that's your preference.

How to Try Ubuntu

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

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 holding down the Super key. 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 Ubuntu Dash

The Dash is a powerful tool that makes finding applications and documents easy. When you click the top icon, the Ubuntu Dash displays. You also can bring up the Dash by pressing the Super key.

The easiest way to find anything is simply by typing into the search box as soon as the Dash appears. Results will start to appear straight away, and you can simply click on the icon of the file or application you wish to run.

Connecting to the Internet

You can connect to the internet by clicking on the network icon on the top panel. This brings up a list of wireless networks. Click on 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.

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.

How to Browse the Web With Ubuntu

Launch Firefox by clicking on its icon on the launcher or by bringing up the Dash and searching for Firefox. If you prefer, you can install Google Chrome by downloading it from Google's website.

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.

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.

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.

To run Rhythmbox, press ALT + F2 and type Rhythmbox or search for it using the Dash.

How to Watch Videos in Ubuntu

Totem is a movie player for Ubuntu. To watch videos, press F2 and type Totem or search for Totem using the Dash.

How to Play MP3 Audio and Watch Flash Video Using Ubuntu

By default, the proprietary codecs required to listen to MP3 audio 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 the Ubuntu Software Centre. It is fairly clunky, but it is by and large functional. One of the first tools you should install via the Software Centre is Synaptic, which provides a much more powerful base for installing other 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 Software Centre 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 Unity 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. 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.