Four weeks with Ubuntu Linux on the desktop. Part 3: Oh my God—it’s full of stars!
March 20th, 2007
I’ve heard that installing software on Linux is very difficult. That may have been true once but it is a myth today. The truth is, installing software in Ubuntu is a far better and easier process that it has ever been in Windows.
The installation and updating of software is an area where Ubuntu shines. The Windows Add/Remove programs dialog is a feeble shadow of Apt, Ubuntu’s package management system. There are several different ways to install software in Ubuntu including a familiar sounding “Add/Remove” programs choice, a utility called Synaptic, and a command-line utility called apt-get; but under the covers they are all accessing Apt.
Apt manages a tremendous catalog of free software that has been packaged by official Ubuntu representatives and the Ubuntu community. There are over 20,000 applications available to me right now. I prefer using Synaptic to access the catalog which lets me browse and search software by category and description. To install anything I need requires just two clicks. One to select the software and one click to actually start the install. Once it’s installed, Ubuntu will automatically let me know if any of my installed software has been updated and offer to upgrade it for me. As if that wasn’t enough, I never have to reboot after I install anything!
Anything not in the official repositories that has any kind of popularity is quickly packaged by the community and made available. The end result is that if you need it, it’s in there. It’s an understatement to call this an amazing resource.
Apt combined with Synaptic is Ubuntu’s killer app.
I was already using a variety of free and open source applications when I installed Ubuntu. This probably made the switch easier for me since most of those applications were already available on Ubuntu. In other words, switching was easier because I was able to keep using the same apps. If you’re considering switching, switch apps first. Find free and open source applications that run on Linux and your current operating system. Open Source Alternative is the definitive resource for this information. You may be surprised by the quality of alternative software available (I was) in every category.
Applications I was using regularly (daily, in most cases):
Firefox, iTunes, Skype, Gaim, Adobe Lightroom, Paint Shop Pro X, GVIM, Subversion, Launchy, Last.fm, Apache 2, MySql, MySql Query browser, Audacity, Terminal Server Client
(I use Gmail and Google Calendar exclusively for mail and scheduling so those were non-issues.)
All of these applications also run on Linux except for iTunes, LightRoom, Paint Shop Pro, and Launchy. As I wrote earlier, this makes switching easier. Because I was already using a lot of free and open source software like Firefox, I could keep on using those apps on Linux.
I just needed to find replacements for Launchy, iTunes, Lightroom, and Paint Shop Pro. Replacing Launchy, a keyboard-based application launcher, was easy. A free app called Katapult performs exactly the same function.
iTunes was a bit more problematic. I don’t mind not being able to access the iTunes music store any longer as I didn’t buy a whole lot of music from them anyway. The real problem was being able to play the DRM-protected music files on my Ubuntu system that I had already purchased. Fortunately, I’ve always burned newly purchased iTunes tracks to a CD and re-ripped them in mp3 format. If you haven’t been doing this all along, you may have some work ahead of you.
But what app to replace iTunes as a music library and player? amaroK stands head and shoulders above every other music player I’ve tried, iTunes included. The amaroK guys say version 2.0 (due out this year) will run on Linux, Windows, and OS X. Whether you’ve switched or not, give it a try when that day comes.
Replacing Lightroom and Paint Shop Pro, key components of my digital photography workflow, have been my biggest hurdles. I’m a photographer. I care more about my photographs than the average snapshot shooter. I don’t typically get prints at Target and send them to grandma (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I’ve pressed the shutter on my Nikon nearly 50,000 times (no joke) since 2004. I’ve spent a couple thousand dollars on equipment. I mention all this not to brag but just to show how important photography is to me.
Adobe Lightroom is, frankly, magnificent. Lightroom is a joy to use and is brilliantly designed both aesthetically and functionally. Lightroom only runs on Windows and Macs. I haven’t found anything on Linux (or Windows!) that even comes close to it. There are apps on Linux that perform roughly the same function. digiKam, for example, is a very fine photo management and editing suite similar in capability and use to Google’s Picasa (which also runs on Linux). But, I don’t even think you can make a fair comparison between digiKam and Lightroom since the intended audiences are drastically different (Joe Snapshooter vs. Pro Photographer). Lightroom is in a different league.
Recognizing that nothing can truly replace Lightroom, I hunted around for usable alternatives and came across an app called LightZone. LightZone is a professional, commercial photo processing application created by a company called Light Crafts. LightZone runs on Windows, OS X, and Linux and retails for $249. But wait! They give away the Linux version for free! It’s a very nice photo processing app with some very useful and unique capabilities. It’s not as polished or quite as capable as Lightroom; but for me—for now—it’ll do nicely.
Which leaves Paint Shop Pro. The GIMP image editor is the de facto Linux standard for image editing. It is a shining example of the open source community’s ability to create complex and highly functional software. It is a technological marvel and includes almost everything you’d expect including stuff like pressure-sensitive tablet support. That said, the learning curve is a steep. Everything is there but it can take a while to get used to its… idiosyncracies. Everything, that is, with the exception of adjustment layers.
Ah, adjustment layers. If you don’t know what adjustment layers are, I’ll just say that switching to an app without them is kind of like giving up your dual-core PC for a Commodore 64. The GIMP may have adjustment layers in version 3. That’s a long way off.
There are other alternatives. You can actually run Photoshop 7 and maybe 8 (CS) under Linux via an emulation app called Wine. I haven’t tried it personally but many others have reported success. There’s also a very promising looking and modestly-priced ($38) commercial (shareware) application called Pixel (which I haven’t tried). If your needs are more modest, open source Krita, Picasa, or digiKam may suit you better.
For now, I’m using a combination of digiKam, LightZone, and GIMP. It took a lot of getting used to as these apps are significantly different from what I was accustomed to, but I’m finally becoming proficient with these new tools.
There are several “desktops” you can use with Ubuntu. Ubuntu comes with the Gnome desktop but you can easily install others. I’m currently using KDE and I think I prefer it over Gnome but I haven’t been a Linux user for very long. KDE is more Windows-like than Gnome is so Windows switchers might feel more comfortable with it.
KDE and Gnome each include a lot of “little” things that make working with your computer more civilized. For example:
- In Windows XP, you can download an app (Tweak UI) that lets you configure Windows not to steal focus from the current app. Instead, it will make the app that needs your attention blink in the taskbar. In Gnome, that is the default behavior; and it is much less intrusive with a very soft, gradual pulse instead of harsh blinking.
- You can copy and paste text simply by highlighting the text you want to copy and then clicking the mouse wheel where you want to paste it.
- In KDE, when I highlight a URL, a small popup appears in the corner of the screen asking me what I’d like to do with it (like open it in a browser).
- You can paste the contents of the clipboard directly to your desktop or folder. KDE prompts you for a filename and saves the contents in a new file for you automatically.
And there are hundreds of these kinds of things that, if you use a computer a lot, make a big difference in the long run.
In part four, the last article in this series, I’ll conclude with my overall impressions of Ubuntu and talk a little about the kinds of users Ubuntu might be best suited for.