Ubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin
Most people reading this will probably not know what Ubuntu is, so perhaps the best place to start is to give some explanation. Ubuntu is one particular distribution of linux. Linux is an alternative to using Windows or Mac, and one can think of distributions as different ways of packaging linux. Linux is free, and open source (which means that if you want to you can get the code that makes it all work and change it to suit your needs). It’s presently thought that about 1% of desktop users use some kind of linux (it’s hard to measure when people aren’t paying for it). Outside of desktops, linux also powers your Android phone and the majority of the infrastructure that drives the internet.
So with that background out of the way, to Ubuntu 12.04. Just a couple of days ago Canonical (the company who package it all up for us) released the latest version to the world, hence this article. New versions of Ubuntu are released every 6 months, sporting the latest changes and updates within the open source community. However, Canonical have gone a different way to the rest of the linux community. While the rest of the community is primarily using desktop environments like KDE and Gnome, Canonical decided to make their own, Unity. Early iterations of Unity were known for being buggy, slow, and offering an inferior user experience to Gnome (which Ubuntu had used previously).
(The new and improved Unity desktop)
At this point, it may be relevant to explain what a Desktop Environment is (if you know already, skip this paragraph). A desktop environment is all the visual fluff, providing things like the Start menu (or equivalents), file manager, task bar, windows, mouse pointer and all the other things you expect to find when using your computer. If you don’t like the one that comes with your linux, you can usually swap to another very easily, with notable examples including KDE, Gnome, XFCE and for older computers LXDE. Want to check these out? Try searching those terms on Youtube.
The new Unity is actually much improved, and while it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which specific changes have made it so, the general feel is of a product given substantial spit and polish, with minor niggles all given some work to try to produce a more polished feel.
There’s nothing hugely revolutionary, apart from one feature which may sound like a small thing but is actually a wonderful idea which will hopefully be copied elsewhere (I’m looking at you Gnome, Microsoft and Apple). That feature is called the HUD. It’s an alternative to the traditional method of clicking through menus (we all know how tiresome it can be to navigate through Format > Table > Cells etc to find what you’re looking for). The alternative offered is to let you type what you’re looking to do, and it will hunt through menus for you, presenting suggestions. It actually does a very good job of determining what you want from a couple of keystrokes, and this could be a real boon for those who would rather type than use fiddly menus (and when one looks at it, menus are terrible user interface design due to the precision required to find submenus). For those giving tech support it could also be a real help, as trying to explain menus over the phone has always been a pain. Menus are still there if you want them, but with HUD I’m not sure why anyone would want to.
(The super clean Gnome-Shell)
With all that said, Unity is still not the best DE out there, and while we all have our own personal preferences, I strongly suggest users take a look at Gnome (which had something of a controversial makeover around the same time Unity came out). Gnome 3 is coming along wonderfully and has a real emphasis on getting out the way to let you do what you want to do (you can even turn notifications off so you don’t have to deal with annoying bubbles telling you that your system requires your attention when you’re trying to get things done).
How do you install gnome? Easy. Press your windows key to get the unity dash (it’s like the start menu) and look for Ubuntu software centre. One there, look for gnome-shell and choose to install. It’s that easy. There are additions you can make to make it nicer, and a full guide can be found at http://www.filiwiese.com/installing-gnome-on-ubuntu-12-04-precise-pangolin/ for the curious (it does suggest using the terminal but don’t be put off!).
Try It Out
You may be wondering how to get Ubuntu. Well, the first thing you’ll need is an iso file, which you can download from http://www.ubuntu.com/download free of charge. Once you have it, you have a couple of options.
1.Burn a CD using the ISO file
2.Use Unetbootin (http://unetbootin.sourceforge.net/) to turn a USB stick (1GB or more) into a bootable drive from which to install/try Ubuntu
3.Use Virtualbox (https://www.virtualbox.org/) to try Ubuntu on a virtual PC.
With the CD or USB stick, you can simply boot your computer (note that you may need to force your computer to boot from something other than your hard drive, find a techie if you don’t know how) with the CD in your drive or usb stick in a port and try Ubuntu straight away without installing (this is called a live session). If you like what you see, simply click install and you’ll be guided through the process, it will even make sure that Windows and linux are able to live happily side by side, by sharing the disk out so that each has enough to use.
Software to install
Once you have your linux installation working, I recommend taking a trip to the Ubuntu Software Center (windows key > type in ‘ubuntu software centre’) and adding some of the following items for absolutely no cost:
•Gimp (an alternative to Photoshop, it even opens PSD files)
•Inkscape (an alternative to Fireworks and Illustrator)
•Docky (a fairly blatant copy of the Apple Mac’s dock)
•Pidgin (a messaging client to enable Facebook chat, MSN, etc in one place)
•Scribus (a DTP package that leaves MS Publisher miles behind)
•Openshot (video editor, you may alternatively like Kino or Kdenlive)
That’s in addition to the already included software including the excellent LibreOffice (you may know it from its former incarnation as OpenOffice).
If you need software which only works on Windows, then absolutely stick to Windows (though you may find Wine [http://www.winehq.org/] can enable you to run what you need). If you want to play games, stick to windows. If you need to develop for an ipad/iphone stick to Apple. If you want to surf the web without worrying about viruses, or be productive in a free office suite, or develop web applications, or edit videos, or edit graphics, or any number of things, then Linux is an option. If you have a very old computer, I suggest looking at lighter-weight linuxes such as Puppy which are built for old computers.
For lots of people, a linux desktop is a serious option to help them get more done, more efficiently, and to get more out of hardware which may be old but can still do useful work. I suggest giving it a try, it won’t cost you anything but your time.