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Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks (Book Review)

by Alan German

This book by Rickford Grant promises a “pain-free, project-based, get-things-done guidebook” to Ubuntu Linux. In particular, it’s written for users who “are familiar with computers but unfamiliar with Linux, or somewhat familiar with Linux but unfamiliar with Ubuntu.” So, how does Rickford succeed in his quest to educate the uninformed of this ilk? Well, I may well be the archetypical user in this regard, knowing quite a bit about personal computers, not all that much about Linux in general, but having played around a little with Ubuntu. So, here are my two cents worth, as a review of the book.

Our author makes powerful arguments for Linux, as an alternative to that other operating system, and also for the associated open-source movement. One interesting thought is that users should tally up the overall cost of the operating system software and the individual applications programs that they currently own. They might then compare the astronomical resulting figure with the zero-cost option of obtaining and using Ubuntu and the included software packages. They might also note that the latter offer the same, if not greater range, power and flexibility as their Windows’ counterparts. Added food-for-thought comes with the consideration that Linux will run exceedingly well on less than state-of-the-art hardware. So, a change of operating systems may well be a very economical way to make further use of a user’s existing machine now that the resource-intensive Vista has finally hit the home market.

But is Linux, and Ubuntu Linux in particular, ready for the challenge, or as Rickford notes, is it “Ready for the Desktop”? His answer is of course positive, and the contents of the book are both to show you why, and to show you how. All the unbelievers out there should note Rickford’s comments that he started off in dual-boot mode where “I had expected to encounter numerous limitations in Linux that would force me to return to Windows often, I instead found that I had actually increased my productivity.” This was followed by a progression of greater and greater reliance on Linux to the point where: “I ceased to be a Windows user”.

Having personally had some of the same aspirations and, in particular, having tried the brute force and ignorance approach to installing and using Ubuntu Linux, leading to a number of brick walls and considerable time spent researching the solutions or finding workarounds, a simple how-to guide sounds very appealing. And this book certainly lives up to its promise in this regard.

We start with the fact that anyone can very easily try Ubuntu with no risk since the distribution (“distro” in Linux terminology) comes as a live-CD. (In fact, any purchaser of this book can try Ubuntu immediately since a copy of the distribution CD will be found inside the back cover.) Sticking the CD in the tray, and booting the machine, brings up a functional operating system that (a) demonstrates that your hardware is capable of running Linux, and (b) gives you the opportunity to actually use the operating system and many built-in applications. It’s no risk, because it doesn’t cost you anything, and the live CD doesn’t alter anything on your system. Once you power down the machine and remove the CD, rebooting takes your machine to its original state.

If you choose to install Ubuntu onto your hard drive, the book has a series of screen shots that take you step-by-step through the process. To my mind, there is insufficient attention paid to the various options for handling a hard drive with an existing version of Windows installed. If you really want to create a dual-boot system, be very careful to select the option to resize the existing partition – and avoid the option to erase the entire disk! Otherwise, the installation routine seems to be bullet proof – just sit back, relax, and watch the blinking lights.

The book has an entire chapter on using Ubuntu’s desktop environment, and customizing its look-and-feel by adding and modifying program icons, application launchers and drawers. And, if one Linux desktop isn’t enough, check out the section on working with the four available virtual desktops.

Access to the Internet is an indispensable part of today’s computing and various sections of the book show you how to set up high-speed (and even low-speed) connections, wireless systems, and discuss the default Firefox web browser and Evolution mail client. And, if the breadth of built-in applications isn’t enough for you, there are detailed instructions on how to easily access the extensive array of open-source software available on the Internet, by using APT, the Advanced Package Tool, via Synaptic and App Install, two programs that come with the Ubuntu distro.

If you feel lost without Windows Explorer, don’t despair. As with most Windows’ applications, Linux has an equivalent program. For example, the Firefox and Evolution packages noted above are similar to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Outlook. The Linux equivalent to Windows Explorer is a program called Nautilus; however, Nautilus has a few extra tricks up its sleeve – like acting as an FTP client – or a CD/DVD burner.

For those of you who pine for the old days of the DOS command window, and frequently use cmd in Windows, Ubuntu has Terminal – the Linux command window. A whole chapter of the book shows you how to use Terminal, provides details of some of the basic commands – and shows a neat trick – how to add a background image as wallpaper for the Terminal window. Similarly, if you want to delve deeply into the world of open source, and actually compile applications from available source code, the book with tell you all about downloading and extracting tarballs, and the use of configure and make to create executable files.

The project-based nature of the book is exemplified in explaining various ways of obtaining new software such as the series of instructions to download and build a version of the game Mahjongg. There is even a great tip on converting such downloads to Debian (DEB) packages since this makes it easier to uninstall the application should you wish to do so at some point in the future. And, there are other notes on methods to use both RPM (Red Hat) packages and Java-based applications. So, there shouldn’t be any excuse that you can’t run Linux because you need a particular piece of application software. It, or an excellent equivalent, is out there somewhere, in some form, and this book will tell you how to get it and use it.

If you really are a die-hard Windows Fan (what are you doing even considering Ubuntu?!), you probably know about WINE. “WINE is not an emulator” but it will allow you to run (some) Windows applications under Linux. In just a few pages, Rickford shows how to install and set up Wine, and how to then install and run Windows software. One really useful tip comes in the form of how to mount a Windows partition so that you can access its files directly from Ubuntu. However, take care when following these particular instructions (p.191). The command line provided – “sudo /dev/hda1” – together with a bunch of optional parameters, will produce an error message. There is a typographical error here in that the “mount” command is omitted. Use “sudo mount /dev/hda1” with the appropriate parameters for the format (FAT or NTFS) of your partition and all will be well.

The book indicates that setting up printers is a simple task in Linux since numerous printers are supported; however, the same level of support is not available for scanners. Suggestions on where to find information for hardware that isn’t directly supported by the distro are provided, as are handy tips on items such as settings for image size and resolution when using scanners. A really useful add-on discussed in detail is cups_PDF, a utility that allows any Linux application with a print option to create a PDF file.

If you are not familiar with mainstream Linux applications like OpenOffice, the book has a section on the use of its components – including word processing (Writer), spreadsheets (Calc), and presentations (Impress). Some other neat applications that you might not know about are mentioned – such as Sticky Notes (on-screen yellow post-its), GnuCash (Quicken-like), and Scribus (desktop publishing). In addition, should you need access to more fonts or foreign language tools, there are chapters on each of these topics.

Multi-media fans are not left out. If you have a digital camera, you will need to know about gPhoto2 and gThumb for downloading and organizing your photographs. If you then want to be able to edit them, you should check out the notes on GIMP, a powerful image editor along the lines of Adobe Photoshop. But, if this is too much of a good thing, the author offers XPaint as a simpler image editing program. In fact, one of the great features of this book is that several related applications are usually highlighted in each section, indicating the breadth of the available software for Linux, and also making you, as a new Linux user, aware of some neat programs that you might not otherwise easily find. For example, in the digital imaging section, Rickford provides notes on Sodipodi (vector drawing), Picasa (Google’s image manager), Blender (3-d modeling), QCad (computer aided design), and Tux Paint (just for kids – young or old!)

If music and video are more your thing, there are entire chapters of the book devoted to these topics. Various audio file formats, such as MP3, Ogg Vorbis and FLAC, are discussed, together with a whole host of associated software including Sound Juicer (a CD ripper) and Rhythmbox (a CD player). A separate chapter looks after the needs of iPod users. Yes, that’s right, Ubuntu has wide-ranging support for playing tunes on Apple’s iPod! Ubuntu also has a number of offerings for movie fans, including Totem, the default video player, and downloadable software such as Kino, a digital video editor.

The last chapter of the book is devoted to security issues. What? You have to be concerned about viruses, Trojans and worms in Linux? Well, perhaps yes, and perhaps no. One use for the ClamAV or Avast! anti-virus programs seems to be to keep malware in check on Windows partitions that are accessible by Linux! And, while a hardware firewall is recommended for Internet connectivity, Firestarter can be put in place as a software firewall system.

But, the book’s last chapter isn’t the final word. Three appendices provide information on disk image (ISO) files, especially for users running AMD64 or PowerPC hardware; checking the integrity of downloaded ISO files; and links to Ubuntu/Linux forums, reference guides, books and magazines, and many other useful resources.

Well, there you have it – 316 pages of text – plus a comprehensive index - and a CD-ROM with Ubuntu Desktop, Version 6.06 (Dapper Drake) – that will show you how simple it is to install and use Ubuntu Linux. Rickford Grant, the book’s author, has a clear writing style and an evident sense of humour – as exemplified in some of the chapter titles – such as “A Tidy Nest” (File and Disk Handling) and “Couch Penguins” (Video and DVD Playback). In addition to getting new users started with the basics of Ubuntu and the included applications, the other real benefits of this book are the detailed instructions for accessing file repositories for software updates, and the suggestions for a whole raft of useful applications.

So, if you have a hankering to try Ubuntu Linux; if you need a hand in making some particular aspect of the package work; or if you want to know how to move further down the road to becoming Linux self-sufficient, this just might be the book for you.

Editor’s note: O’Reilly Books has a 35% user group discount. Visit

Bottom Line:

Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks
Rickford Grant
No Starch Press, 2006
ISBN 1-59327-118-2
O'Reilly Media (US $34.95)

Originally published: March, 2007

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