Tweaking Ubuntu

Ubuntu is the best Linux distro out there. Here’s how to make it even better.

In the last two years, Ubuntu has very quickly become the most frequently downloaded Linux distribution, because it’s free, actively maintained and enhanced, easy to use, and available in enough different flavors to suit almost any user’s platform preference and hardware configuration.

Prior “Desktop” columns have shown how to acquire and install Ubuntu (http://www.linux-mag.com/content/view/2230), and how to best apply it to aging computer hardware. This month, let’s focus on tweaks and adding complimentary software that improves the Ubuntu desktop experience.

For the purposes of this article, I assume you’re using the “Dapper” 6.06 LTS (Long Term Support) version of Ubuntu, which was released in July of 2006.

Time to get cracking!

Enable the Root Account

I’m probably going to get yelled at by the Ubuntu faithful because the use of sudo to perform root activities is so integral to the operating system, but I’m a traditionalist — I like not having to preface with sudo before every administrative command. I find it to be a hindrance. So, before proceeding further, pull up a terminal prompt (located in the Applications& gt; Accessories menu, if you’re using the default GNOME version of Ubuntu) and enter the following command:

# sudo passwd root

At the prompt, provide the password for your main user account, and then provide a new password for the root account, twice. You should now be able to launch a terminal and type su and the root password to remain as root for the for the remainder of the session. No more annoying timeouts.

Next, from the Ubuntu menu, choose System& gt; Administration& gt; Login Window. From the “Security” tab, check on “Allow local system administrator login”. (See Figure One.) Enabling the latter option allows you to login directly as the root user from the graphical desktop.

FIGURE ONE: Enable root login

I don’t recommend using the root user as your regular desktop experience, but sometimes you must work in the GUI for an extended period of time with root privileges enabled.

Add Software Repositories and Run Automatix

By default, Ubuntu is configured to update applications installed in the default distribution. However, there are many nice applications that aren’t installed on the system that you can pull from extra repositories. In addition, many of the compatibility “plug-ins” that you might be accustomed to on Windows, such as the ability to play certain kinds of multimedia files, come from outside sources.

To pick up additional software, you must make some minor changes to the software repository configuration and install a third-party utility to automate the process of pulling down extra software from the Internet.

Open a terminal window, issue su to become the root user, and issue the following command:

# gedit /etc/apt/sources.list

(If you’re using Kubuntu, the KDE version of Ubuntu, use kwrite instead of gedit.)

In the sources.list file, make sure the following lines are not prefaced by # (which indicates a comment).

deb http://us.archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu/ dapper universe

deb-src http://us.archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu/ dapper universe

deb http://us.archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu/ dapper-backports main restricted universe multiverse

deb-src http://us.archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu/ dapper-backports main restricted universe multiverse

(Each entry above is one line in the file. Here, the entries wrap across multiple lines due to the width of the printed column.)

And you’ll want to add the following line:

deb http://www.getautomatix.com/apt dapper main

Save the file and then exit.

The first batch of lines enable the Ubuntu “universe” and “backports” repositories. Both are additional sources that contain applications ported over from the Debian project and other outlets, respectively, but that aren’t officially supported by Ubuntu. (Unofficial software packages aren’t vetted by the process that validates code in the base distribution. That said, unofficial packages are nevertheless useful and are nice to have access to.)

The final line enables Automatix (http://www.getautomatix.com/, pictured in Figure One), a graphical software installation utility developed by a dedicated group of third-party Ubuntu hackers that provides point and click access to the top several dozen multimedia enhancements for Linux, including video and audio players, compatibility codecs, and more.

FIGURE TWO: The Automatix point-and-click package manager

One word of caution: Some of the goodies that Automatix can install are illegal in the United States, such as the Windows DLLs to support Windows Media, the Quicktime codecs in the xine media player engine, as well as libdvdcss, the library that cracks the encryption needed to play DVD’s on Linux (see “I’m a DMCA Scofflaw” at http://www.linux-mag.com/content/view/2508/ for more information). If you choose to install those renegade packages, don’t blame us if the black helicopters land on your lawn or you find yourself the target of a end-user lawsuit launched by the RIAA, MPAA, or some other nasty, proprietary, clandestine organization. Boogah! Boogah!

Once you’ve saved sources.list, run the following command from the terminal:

# wget http://www.getautomatix.com/apt/key.gpg.asc
# gpg –import key.gpg.asc
# gpg –export –armor 521A9C7C | sudo apt-key add -

Then issue the following commands to install the Automatix software:

# sudo apt-get update
# sudo apt-get install automatix2

You should then be able to launch Automatix by typing automatix2 at the terminal prompt. Automatix can install a considerable amount of third-party software, including (among many others) Acrobat Reader, Azureus (a Bit Torrent client), Beagle (a Mono-based search program), NVU (an HTML editor), Google Earth, GnuCash (money management software for GNOME), the Sun Java 1.5 JRE, the Swiftfox Web browser (an optimized Firefox browser for your specific CPU), and a set of Swiftfox plug-ins (including Java, Flash, Acrobat, Mplayer, and Microsoft fonts).

Depending on what version of Ubuntu you’re running (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu) and what architecture your PC is (x86, x86_64, PowerPC), certain software packages may or may not be avaliable. Simply check on the ones you wish to install in the various different categories (File Sharing, Internet, Miscellaneous, Multimedia, Office, Utilities) and click on the Start button for Automatix to install them.

You can also uninstall packages that you no longer want on your system. Once Automatix finishes installing your software, it prompts you and asks if you want to restore your original sources.list configuration, since it makes changes to it every time you run the automatix2 script (it keeps archival copies of your sources.list in your /etc/apt/ directory for safe keeping, just in case you need to restore it manually).

Since you also enabled the universe and backports, there’s also a significant amount of software that can be installed with Ubuntu’s own software management tool, Synaptic, shown in Figure Three. Like Automatix, Synaptic is a GUI application written in GTK that allows you to install everything from the Ubuntu software repository, which includes games and all sorts of other useful programs that aren’t installed in the base distribution. Synaptic allows you to browse by category, or even search by description or package name.

FIGURE THREE: Ubuntu’s own Synaptic package manager

Some of the applications I like to install with Synaptic after installing basic Ubuntu and running Automatix are k3b (a great GUI CD-Burning program), deskbar-applet, the GNOME Deskbar Applet, vlc, the VLC media player, amarok (think iTunes for Linux), and checkgmail (an applet to show if you have new Gmail messages, shown in Figure Four).

FIGURE FOUR: checkgmail alerts you when new Gmail has arrived

Alternatively, you can also use the Add/Remove Applications program under the Applications menu, which looks more user-friendly than synaptic, but seems harder to navigate thru and use, because it’s easier to bulk install stuff with Synaptic.

Add the Flock Browser

I love Flock so much I’ve been mentioning it repeatedly in the last several columns, and I’ve been trying to get everyone I know to move to it. Why? It has everything you love about Firefox, which is the fast, secure browser engine that comes from the Mozilla guys, but it also has superior integration for Internet-based bookmark sharing, blogging, RSS feeds and photo sharing services like Flickr and Photobucket. (See Figure Five.)

FIGURE FIVE: The Flock Web browser integrates with Flickr

I personally don’t see what Firefox 2.0 has that Flock doesn’t already do better. Moreover, if you’re a blogger and use photo services like Flickr or store bookmarks remotely on Deli.ci.ous, I think its a no-brainer to switch to Flock.

Unfortunately, Flock doesn’t yet offer a .deb package feed for Ubuntu (although Ubuntu plans to integrate it into future releases of their official repository), so you have to install it manually from a tarball. However, the good guys over at the Ubuntu wiki have put together a short set of instructions to help you get it up and running in no time — see https://help.ubuntu.com/community/InstallingFlock.

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