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Ubuntu and Multimedia

In recent years, multimedia has become an essential part of computing. Watching DVDs and videos and listening to CDs and music have become part and parcel of the modern desktop computer experience. These multimedia capabilities have been further bolstered by the huge popularity of legal music downloading. With a range of online stores for a variety of different types of music, it is not uncommon to listen to most of your music without ever seeing a little shiny silver disk.

Installing Codecs

Multimedia files and disks come in a variety of different types, and each type uses a special codec to compress the content to a smaller size while retaining a particular level of quality. To play this media, you need to ensure that you have the relevant codecs installed. Ubuntu now makes this easier by suggesting packages that provide a suitable codec when you open a file that isn't supported by the ones that are currently installed. Simply double-click the file you want to open, and you should be provided with a list of packages that you can install to enable support for the file you have tried to open. Select the packages that seem appropriate, and click Install.

Codecs still remain a problem for open source software because of the legal restrictions placed upon them. Certain codecs (including MP3, Windows Media Format, QuickTime, and RealMedia) are proprietary and as such have restrictions placed on their use, distribution, and licensing.

Although developers in the open source community have gone away and created free implementations of some of these codecs, the licensing that surrounds them conflicts with the legal and philosophical position that Ubuntu has set. These codecs are not included not only because they are legally dubious but also because they disagree with Ubuntu's ethic of creating a distribution that is entirely comprised of free software in the freest sense of the word.

To work toward resolving these problems, a number of developers are working on free codecs such as Ogg Vorbis and Ogg Theora that provide high-quality results and open licensing. The Ogg Vorbis codec is used on audio and can provide better results than MP3 at a smaller file size. The Ogg Theora codec is used for video and competes with the MPEG-4 codec. Ubuntu includes the Ogg Vorbis and Ogg Theora codecs by default, and you can encode and play back any media that uses those codecs out of the box.

Although the world would be a better place if all codecs were free, the reality is different, and many Ubuntu users still want to play media compressed with proprietary codecs. Table 3-3 shows the most typical codecs used to encode and play back media and lists their support in Ubuntu.

Table 3-3. Codec Support


File Type











Windows Media Audio
















Raw DV








Windows Media Video




Listening to Audio Files

Ubuntu includes a powerful music player called Rhythmbox to organize and play your music file collection. By default, Ubuntu will look for music in the Music directory accessible in the Places menu.

Using Rhythmbox

Load Rhythmbox (Figure 3-38) by clicking on Applications > Sound & Video > Rhythmbox Music Player. The Rhythmbox window is split into a number of different panes, each displaying different details about your music collection. The left pane (Source) lets you select the source of the music, such as your media library, podcasts, and Internet radio. Each of these options has a browser pane available to display the source of the content. As an example, when you use the Library, one pane displays the artists and one displays the albums. You can use this to navigate your music.

Figure 3-38

Figure 3-38 Rhythmbox is a great place to look after your music collection.

Listening to Podcasts

Podcasts are audio shows that you can subscribe to, and they are increasingly becoming the new way to listen to audio and music. When you subscribe to a podcast, each new release is automatically downloaded for you. This makes it extremely convenient to regularly listen to audio shows.

If you are new to podcasting, you should grab yourself a podcast feed of something you like. A site such as www.podcast.net is a good place to start. Go to the site in Firefox, and when you see a link that indicates a podcast feed or RSS feed, right-click it and select Copy Link Location.

Rhythmbox has good support for Podcast feeds, and subscribing to a feed is simple. In the sidebar, right-click the Podcasts entry and click New Podcast Feed. Paste in the feed by right-clicking the box and selecting Paste. The files are automatically downloaded, and you can listen to them by double-clicking on them. Each time you start Rhythmbox, a check is made to see if any new episodes exist, and if so, they are downloaded.

Playing and Ripping CDs

When you pop a CD into your CD drive, Audio CD Extractor (Sound Juicer) automatically loads to play your CD. If you are connected to the Internet, the CD is looked up on the Internet, and the album details and song titles are displayed.

Ripping Songs as Oggs

Sound Juicer is not just a CD player but a ripper too. Using a ripper you can convert the songs on the CD into files that you can play on your computer. By default, Sound Juicer rips the files in the Ogg format, which provides better sound quality than MP3 at a smaller size. By default, the ripped files are stored in the format discussed earlier, with each artist as a folder and albums as subfolders.

To rip the songs, just select the checkboxes of the songs you want ripped (by default, all songs are selected), and then click Extract. Each song is then stored in your Music folder, and the song titles are used as the names of the files.

Ripping Songs as MP3s

Although the default Ogg support is recommended in most situations, you may prefer to rip MP3 files if you have a digital audio player that does not support Ogg files. To do this, you need to configure Sound Juicer to enable MP3 support.

You should first install the gstreamer0.10-plugins-ugly-multiverse package (see Chapter 4 for more details on installing packages). Next, in Sound Juicer, click Edit > Preferences and choose the CD Quality, MP3 (MP3 audio) profile from the Output Format options.

Watching Videos

To watch videos in Ubuntu, you need to ensure that you have the correct codecs installed. As discussed earlier, some of these codecs are available separately due to the legal implications of including them with the Ubuntu system. Although the new process for suggesting and installing codecs should cover most popular types of files, you should still refer to the Ubuntu wiki at http://wiki.ubuntu.com for details of how to install ones that are not recognized.

Using Totem

To watch videos in Ubuntu, you use the Totem media player (Figure 3-39). Load it by clicking Applications > Sound & Video > Movie Player.

Figure 3-39

Figure 3-39 Totem is a simple and flexible media player.

To watch a video on your hard disk, click Movie > Open, and select the file from the disk.

Totem also supports video streams. To watch a stream, click Movie > Open Location, and enter the Internet address for the stream. The video feed is then loaded and displayed.

Getting DVDs to Work

Ubuntu comes with DVD support for unencrypted DVDs. With the DVD industry being what it is, the majority of DVDs come encrypted, and if you want to watch them, you need to ensure that a library that can decrypt these DVDs is installed. Unfortunately, this library needs to be installed separately and is not included with Ubuntu. Refer to the Ubuntu wiki restricted formats page at https://wiki.ubuntu.com/RestrictedFormats for details.

With the library installed, insert a disk into your computer, and Ubuntu will automatically start Totem to view the disk. Alternatively, fire up Totem, and click Movie > Play Disk to play the DVD. Totem doesn't support DVD menus but you can still use it to play a DVD.

If you are settling down to watch a movie, you may want to configure a few other settings. First click View > Aspect Ratio to select the correct aspect ratio for your screen, and then select View > Fullscreen to switch to full screen mode. To exit full screen, just move your mouse, and some on-screen controls will appear.

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