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Inside Ubuntu 9.04

Critics are calling 'Jaunty Jackalope' as slick and seamless as Mac OS X. We uncover the Linux distro's pitfalls and gotchas -- as well as its hidden delights.

Always run a full system update after installing Ubuntu.
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With each release to both the left and the right of the decimal point, Canonical's Ubuntu shapes up all the more as the Linux distribution for the end user. Critics are calling it as slick and seamless as the Mac's OS X, and it's come that much closer to being a one-for-one replacement for the Windows operating system as anything yet seen.

That said, Ubuntu isn't without its pitfalls and gotchas -- as well as its hidden delights -- and in this article we'll explore the installation and setup process, walk through some of the configuration and tweaking, and reveal a few pointers that you might not stumble across on your own.

How To Get Ubuntu 9.04

There's no shortage of ways to obtain a copy of Ubuntu. You can get it via one of the official download servers, a local download mirror, BitTorrent, a manufactured CD, or even a CD copied from a friend. This isn't commercial software, remember? No code cops will bust your door down for spreading the open source love. The official download server is here.

Whichever method you use, make sure that your copy is intact and genuine. If you've downloaded an .ISO, grab a program that generates MD5 or SHA1 hashes (such as HashMyFiles) and check to make sure the file you've downloaded has the right checksum . If you just have the CD, boot it and select the "Check disc for defects" option; the resulting test may take a while, but better to find out now if the copy you have is defective than to find out halfway through an install.

Be sure also to download the right edition and processor build. If you're in doubt, the stock x86 Ubuntu 9.04 desktop should cover most of the territory. The alternate install CD is for situations where the right drivers are not immediately available or where you need an unconventional level of customization.

Host add-ons under VirtualBox should be installed directly via the software repository.
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Aside from the desktop edition (which we all know) and the server edition (which probably deserves an article unto itself), add a new version: the "netbook remix," a variant of Ubuntu specifically for netbooks with small screens. Don't shy away from trying regular Ubuntu on such machines, though, or the scaled-down Xubuntu build -- especially since you can give 'em all a whirl from a CD or a USB stick with no installation required.

Give The Jackalope A Whirl

Before executing the actual install, boot Ubuntu in live-CD (or live-USB-stick) mode and try out a few things that way. Check that all your hardware can be seen by the system including printers, cameras, scanners, multifunction devices, etc. If something doesn't show up, make a note of it; there may be a relatively simple fix that you can apply later on down the line.

A system that doesn't boot Ubuntu at all is rare, but it does happen. If you try to boot and get dropped to the infamous BusyBox prompt, that's a sign that the boot process failed for some reason -- usually due to a flaky storage controller, system chipset, or video card. Try booting in safe video mode, or using the noacpi option at startup. Any errors before the BusyBox prompt should be written down. Keep in mind that not all builds of Ubuntu exhibit the same problems on the same hardware: if you have this issue with Netbook Remix, for instance, Xubuntu may work fine.

If you plan on running Ubuntu from inside a virtual machine, consider the VirtualBox virtual-machine app -- it's free, open source, runs well on all architectures, and Ubuntu has its own set of add-ons that let it run well within VirtualBox. These guest extensions as they're called, should be installed within Ubuntu itself; Ubuntu has them in the software repositories. Don't install the guest extensions provided with VirtualBox itself; as of this writing they don't work reliably with Ubuntu 9.04.

Since the final .ISO of 9.04 dropped, updates have been pushed for Firefox.
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If you've opted for the netbook remix edition of Ubuntu, don't be alarmed if it takes a long time for the netbook version to boot for the first time from your USB drive. It's unpacking quite a bit as it goes, so depending on the read speed of your flash drive, it could take a while. (Make some popcorn.)

Ubuntu 9.0.4's Migration Features

Anyone seeking not only to dual-boot with Windows, but to escape from it entirely, will be heartened to try out the migration features in Ubuntu.

During the installation process, Ubuntu scans your system for Windows installations, creates an inventory of files and options it can migrate to your new OS install, and lets you pick and choose. If you'd rather do everything by hand, you can do that too, but the migrator's a timesaver.

Note that the migration function doesn't just work with Windows -- it will migrate documents and settings from previous versions of Ubuntu as well. So if you've been looking for an excuse to do a clean install but don't want to lose anything, have no fear.

Get Updated

Ubuntu's gallery of software and roster of system components are updated regularly and meticulously. Since the final .ISO of 9.04 dropped, there have already been updates pushed out to the world (Firefox, for instance). And so, as with a Windows installation, one of the first things to do after an Ubuntu install is to run the Update Manager | (System | Administration | Update Manager and download everything that's been changed.

After that, you can let the system do the work. As with Windows, Ubuntu checks for updates automatically, and will notify you through an icon on the top panel if you have anything pending. Also, as with Windows, some of these updates will require a reboot -- for instance, a new kernel -- but you will be prompted ahead of time if that's the case.

The most reliable way to browse Windows shares is by IP address.
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Note that when Ubuntu updates the kernel, you may see choices for different kernels at boot time. That way, if a newer kernel breaks your system, you can select an older kernel iteration to get back up and running.

Go 64-Bit!

If you own a desktop system built within the last couple of years, odds are good-to-excellent it will run a 64-bit operating system -- including 64-bit editions of Ubuntu.

The advantages of 64-bitness don't really come into the picture until you have more than 3GB of RAM, since most of them revolve around memory management. But you can certainly test-boot a 64-bit build without making a commitment and see if your machine works. You might not see the kind of explosive, dramatic performance gains that go with, say, going from a single- to a multi-core processor, but there are few actual drawbacks.

The 64-bit builds of Ubuntu are identified with the marker amd64 in the image filename, including links to the BitTorrent downloads. Netbooks generally do not support 64-bit chipsets; you can give it a whirl, but odds are anything marked with i386 will be what works.

Coexist Gracefully With Windows

The most common ways to get Linux to coexist with Windows are a) dual-booting or b) booting Linux from temporary media like a USB drive or DVD.

Ubuntu throws a third variant into the mix: Wubi, an installer that allows you to place a copy of Ubuntu directly on an NTFS partition in a subdirectory. There's no reformatting and no messing with partition tables: You can boot between Windows and Ubuntu even more transparently than before.

A Wubi-mounted Ubuntu system may suffer a slight (and I do mean slight) performance hit, but it's nothing that would get in the way of daily use.

Some people dual-boot between Windows and Ubuntu by hibernating one OS and switching out to the other.

Caution: If you hibernate a Windows system and dual-boot to Ubuntu on the same machine, do not mount the Windows system partition for anything other than read-only operations. Any data written to such a partition will be mangled or lost when you next boot Windows. I know this because, well, I found out about it the hard way.

If you want to connect to an existing Windows machine that supports Remote Desktop, Ubuntu now ships with its own Remote Desktop client (listed as "Terminal Server Client"). Barring that, you can always run a VNC client on your Windows machine -- RealVNC comes highly recommended -- and use the Remote Desktop Viewer to connect.

File shares to Windows boxes can be flaky depending on how they're configured. Rather than browse to them by name, a highly reliable way to connect is by IP address. Open an instance of File Browser, press Ctrl-L to specify a location manually, and use smb:// to connect to the other machine.

Get Comfortable With Ubuntu

Many people coming to Ubuntu from Windows have trouble getting used to certain things -- where everything's organized, how the keys work, etc. Those of you coming from the Win32 side of things can take a few steps to keep from coming down with as hard a bump.

To make the Windows key activate the main menu, go to System | Preferences | Keyboard Shortcuts, go to Desktop | "Show the panel's main menu", and press the Windows key (it will l show up in the Shortcut column as , "Super L").

The numeric keypad normally doubles as the arrow keys, but in Ubuntu it's … well, a numeric keypad. To set things back to the way they were before, go to System | Keyboard | Layouts | Layout Options, and under "Miscellaneous compatibility options" select "Default numeric keypad keys" and "Shift with numeric keypad keys works as in MS Windows".

Build someone else a USB boot drive with Ubuntu 9.04 on it, right from your desktop.
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A Few Caveats

I mentioned earlier that you'll want to check and make sure power-management functions work as intended. I ran into this headlong when I tried both the release candidate and the final 9.04 release on my Sony notebook, and instantly ran into problems: the keyboard didn't work after a suspend-and-resume cycle. (Rather disappointing, since earlier versions of Ubuntu had worked perfectly.) Hibernate-and-resume, though, didn't have this issue. I've since opened a bug report about it .

If you have an existing collection of music files -- as in, MP3s -- be warned that MP3 playback is not installed by default in Ubuntu. It has to be added after the fact, since shipping the OS with MP3 codecs might run afoul of patent issues in some countries. The good news: if you try to play just such a file, Ubuntu will attempt to automatically detect what's being played and offer to install the components needed.

The same goes for Flash support -- nobody likes being stuck without their favorite YouTube videos! Click on a page that requires Flash in Firefox, and you'll get a prompt at the top to install the needed plug-ins. Use the "Gnash" plug-in to get Flash going (be sure to restart Firefox after you install it), and for certain Flash-embedded videos that require multimedia codecs, you'll be prompted to add the needed codecs in the same manner as when you try to play MP3s. Finally, you might need to restart any program that depends on such codecs after they're installed, or they may not recognize that anything's changed.

Spread The Open Source Love

Ubuntu was meant to be shared. Aside from making copies of the installation CD or DVD (via the CD/DVD Creator in Applications | Accessories), you can also build USB flash drives with a copy of the installer on board. For this you'll need either a copy of the disk image (the .ISO file) or the CD itself, but Ubuntu supplies a utility to create a bootable flash drive from either of those things. It's in System | Administration | USB Startup Disk Creator.

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