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The Official Ubuntu Book, 5th Edition: Using Ubuntu on the Desktop

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This chapter helps you get started with GNOME, Ubuntu's default desktop, and shows how you can use it to do the normal things you face every day with your computer — and a few not-so-normal things.
This chapter is from the book
  • Taking Your Desktop for a Ride
  • Using Your Applications
  • The Ubuntu File Chooser and Bookmarks
  • Ubuntu in Your Language
  • Customizing Ubuntu's Look and Feel
  • Managing Your Files
  • Ubuntu and Multimedia
  • Moving to the Next Ubuntu Release
  • Summary

With ubuntu installed and ready to go, it's time to get started using your new desktop. The stock install of Ubuntu provides a very complete and flexible system. Unlike other operating systems, such as Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X, Ubuntu includes everything you need to get started: an office suite, media tools, a Web browser, an e-mail client, and more. Once the installation is complete, you are up and running right away without having to install any additional software. Different people use their computers in different ways, and every user has her own personal preference for look and feel. Recognizing this desire, Linux has the capability to use any one of a number of different graphical interfaces. This flexibility, combined with the ballooning popularity of Linux and open source, has resulted in literally hundreds of different graphical environments springing up, each covering these different types of users and ways of working.

Even though there is a huge range of different environments available, there are two clear leaders in KDE and GNOME. Each environment provides a good-looking, comprehensive, and easy-to-use desktop, but they differ in how that desktop is used as well as in how further personalization can take place. The KDE system aims for complete control and configurability of the desktop. Any desktop configuration options that exist are available to the user, who has easy access and can change the behavior and look of almost everything. The competing GNOME desktop takes inspiration from both Windows and Mac OS X and sets a priority on simplicity and ease of use. GNOME is also easy to customize, but the less common options are either eliminated or well hidden to prevent user overload. Luckily, Ubuntu users are blessed with the choice of either desktop, along with several others, some of which are mentioned in Chapter 10. The default desktop in Ubuntu is GNOME, and the Kubuntu distribution uses the KDE desktop. Kubuntu is covered in Chapter 8.

In this chapter, we help you get started with GNOME and show how you can use it to do the normal things you face every day with your computer and a few not-so-normal things. This includes opening and running applications, managing your files, adjusting the look and feel, using applications, managing your media, and more. Buckle up and get ready to take your shiny new desktop for a drive!

Taking Your Desktop for a Ride

When you start your Ubuntu system, you are presented with a list of users. Once you select your username from the list by clicking it, you are asked for a password to log in with. In the last chapter, you specified a user account when installing the system, so use that to log in. First type in your username and press Enter, then your password and press Enter.

After a few seconds you will see the Ubuntu desktop appear (Figure 3-1). The desktop has three main areas.

  1. At the top of the screen is the panel. This bar contains the desktop menu options and application shortcut icons on the left side as well as the notification area on the right side. You use this bar to load applications and to see the status of certain activities on your system. The panel is always visible when you use your desktop.
  2. The large middle part of the screen, located under the panel, is the desktop. This part of the screen is normally covered by the applications that you use, but you can also put icons and shortcuts on the desktop, too.
  3. The bottom part of the screen is called the taskbar. This area displays a rectangle for each open application, just like in Windows.

You may have noticed that, unlike other operating systems, there are no icons on the desktop. The reason for this is that desktop icons typically get covered by applications, and, as such, you can't get at them. If you need to start applications, you typically use the Applications menu or the shortcuts.

Figure 3-1

Figure 3-1 The Ubuntu desktop is simple, uncluttered, and . . . beautiful.

Starting Applications and Finding Things

Starting applications is simple. Just click on the Applications menu on the left side of the panel. Inside this menu are a number of submenus for different types of applications. Hover your mouse over each category, and then click the application you want to load. As an example, click on Applications > Games > Mahjongg.

When applications are loaded, the window border has three buttons on the top on the left-hand side:

  • Left button (red button with a black X): This button closes the application.
  • Middle button (white button with a gray arrow.jpg): This minimizes the application, taking it off of your screen, and puts it in the taskbar for easy access when you need it again.
  • Right button (white button with a gray ^): This is used to maximize the window to take up the full desktop area.

Every application that is in use has an entry in the taskbar at the bottom of the screen. You can click these entries to minimize or restore the application to or from the taskbar, and you can right-click to see some other options.

Finding Your Files and Folders

When using your computer, you often need to save and open files and folders, move them around, and perform other tasks. The Places menu contains a bunch of entries, including those listed here, to access different parts of your computer and the network.

  • Home Folder: Your home folder is used to store the files and work for each user who is logged in. This is the most important folder on the system, and you can think of it as the equivalent of My Documents in Windows—virtually everything you save lives here. Each user has a separate home folder.
  • Desktop: The Desktop folder is inside your home folder and contains files that visually appear on your desktop as icons. If you drag a file onto your desktop, it will appear in the Desktop folder. Similarly, moving a file out of this folder or deleting it will remove it from your desktop.
  • Computer: Clicking this item displays the different drives attached to your computer as floppy drives, CD/DVD drives, and USB keys or sticks. This is the equivalent of the My Computer icon in Windows.
  • Network: This option accesses all networked and shared devices, such as file servers or printers, that are available on your local network. This is the equivalent of the Network Neighborhood or Network Places in various versions of Windows.
  • Connect to Server: Click this to run a wizard to create a connection to a network server. You can use this to add an icon to the desktop that, when clicked, provides a list of remote files in the desktop file manager. You can then treat this window like any other file manager window and drag files back and forth. This is really useful for copying files to other computers.
  • Search for Files: Use this to search for files on your computer.
  • Recent Documents: Click this submenu to display the most recently used documents.

Configuring Your System

The third and final menu, System, is used to configure and customize your system, access help, and report problems. Inside the menu are a few options, including these:

  • Preferences: This submenu contains items for customizing the look and feel of your desktop. Each of these settings applies only to the desktop of a user who is logged in. If you log in as another user, the settings change to that user's preferences.
  • Administration: This submenu is used to configure systemwide settings such as networking, users, printing, and more. To use these menu items, your account must have system administrator privileges, and you must know and use your password.
  • Help and Support: With this you can access the Ubuntu Help Center, which provides documentation and guides for your Ubuntu desktop.
  • About GNOME: Here you have a simple, animated document with information and links about GNOME.
  • About Ubuntu: This brings up a detailed document, with links, that helps users learn more about Ubuntu.

Adding Additional Users

Many computers these days are used by more than one person. Rather than forcing everyone to use the same desktop settings or making the computer less secure by allowing everyone who uses it to have access to administrative functions, it is easy and recommended to create an account for every person who will use the computer. This allows each user to customize how the computer works and looks without interfering with anyone else's preferences, and it grants the administrator privileges that prevent others from accessing functions that may affect everyone or even damage the installation if used incorrectly.

Adding a new user is done by clicking System > Administration > Users and Groups. In the dialog box that appears, there is a list of current users. At the bottom of the list, select Add to create a new user account, as in Figure 3-2.

Figure 3-2

Figure 3-2 The User Settings dialog

A password is required to make changes to users and groups, and only those users with administrative access are able to do so. You must now provide a name for the new user as well as a short name that will be used by that user to log in. Click OK, and in the next dialog box, enter a password for that user, confirm the password by entering it a second time, and click OK again. Voila, our new user account is created. You may also have a password generated randomly or allow the user to log in without a password. This last option is not generally a good idea but can be useful. For example, if the users are small children who are not expected to perform administrative tasks, the children could have an account that automatically logs in at boot time, and the administrator would have an additional account, accessed by a password, to perform changes and updates when necessary.

Finally, now that the account is created, we may customize its settings. Highlight the username in the list, and click the Change button at the right next to Account Type for a speedy way to give the user administration privileges. The Advanced Settings button from the lower right corner of the dialog box may be used to set contact information for the user, change the account's user privileges (for example, giving access to administrative and several other functions that are not available through the quick change option), and even change the location of the account's home directory. Be careful when using this power because an account can be damaged or rendered inaccessible if things are not done properly.

Shortcut Icons

On the panel are a number of shortcut icons next to the menus. These small icons are always visible and can be single-clicked to gain immediate access to your favorite applications. Ubuntu comes with several stock shortcuts on the panel, but you are welcome to add your own or remove the defaults as you like.

Adding your own icon is as simple as finding the application you want to add in the menu and then dragging it to the panel. You can then right-click the new shortcut icon and select Move to move it to the desired spot on the panel. You can also do this in the menu by right-clicking on a specific program's entry and choosing the option to have a launcher for the program to be added to the panel. You may have to click to unlock the item from the panel first, which may be done from the same menu.


One simple yet powerful feature in Ubuntu is the ability to run small programs called applets on the panel. These small programs are useful for a variety of tasks and provide quick and easy access via the panel.

To add an applet, right-click the panel and select Add to Panel. The window shown in Figure 3-3 pops up. Select one of the many applets, and click Add. When the applet appears on the panel, you can press the middle mouse button (or the left and right buttons together) to move it around.

Figure 3-3

Figure 3-3 Ubuntu comes bundled with a selection of applets.

The Notification Area

In the right-hand part of the top panel is the notification area and the clock. The notification area is similar to the Windows system tray in that it provides a series of small icons that indicate something specific. A good example of this is Network Manager, which looks after your network connections—both wired and wireless—for you.

You can adjust the notification area items by right-clicking them to view a context menu. Some icons (such as the volume control) allow you to left-click on them to view them. As an example, try clicking the little speaker icon and adjusting the slider.

Three applets are installed by default: the previously mentioned sound applet, the indicator applet, and the network manager applet. The indicator applet tells the user when something needs attention on the desktop and provides quick access to communication options like Empathy, Evolution, and Gwibber with a left-click (more on these later in the chapter). The network manager applet (Figure 3-4) gives easy access to networking controls.

Figure 3-4

Figure 3-4 The network manager applet, left-clicked to show available wireless networks

Network Manager

Network Manager is a network interface created to help you manage your network devices and connections and is accessed using the network manager applet. The goal is to make networking "just work" easily and without requiring users to know how to hand-configure the settings (although that is still available for those who want to do so). A left-click of the mouse on the applet shows you the dialog box and enables quick changes between network types. It even provides an easy way to set up access through a virtual private network (VPN), such as many of us are required to use to access files from work or school securely. A right-click lets you enable or disable both wired and wireless networking, enable or disable notifications, see information about your current connection, and edit connections quickly and easily (Figure 3-5).

Figure 3-5

Figure 3-5 The network manager applet, right-clicked to show connections menu

The Clock

Next to the notification area is the clock. Click on the clock to view a calendar. Later, when you use Evolution, items that are added to your calendar appear in the clock applet too. Instead of opening up Evolution to find out when your dentist appointment is, just click on the clock to see it immediately. More information about Evolution is contained later in this chapter.

The Taskbar

The taskbar sits at the bottom of the screen. This small bar is always visible and indicates which applications are currently open. In addition to this, the taskbar also sneaks in a few other handy little features.

To the far left of the taskbar is the Hide/Show Desktop button. Clicking this button hides all of your open applications and shows the desktop. Clicking it again redisplays them. This button is useful when you need to quickly access something on your desktop.

Next to this button is the applications area, which shows each of the currently open applications. For each application, an entry is added, and you can right-click it to view a context menu. This menu can also be used to minimize, maximize, resize, close, and otherwise control applications.

To the right of the applications area are two small rectangles called the workspaces. Each of these rectangles represents another screen in which you can view an application. As an example, you may be using your Web browser and e-mail client while talking to your friends in a chat client on the first desktop and working on a document on the second desktop. You can then just click each virtual desktop to switch to it to access your different applications. Another useful tip applies when you're moving applications between virtual desktops—if you have an application on the first desktop, just right-click the charcoal-colored window or the taskbar entry, select Move to Another Workspace, and pick the relevant workspace number. The menu also has Move to Workspace Left and Move to Workspace Right options. This makes moving applications between your workspaces quite simple.

To the right of the workspaces is the trash. Files dragged onto this icon or right-clicked and "moved to trash" are destined to be deleted. To fully delete these files, right-click the trash and select Empty Trash.

Shutting Down Your Computer and Logging Out

Now that you're becoming acquainted with Ubuntu, you'll want to keep using it as long as possible, but there will always come a time when you have no choice but to leave your computer and go do something else. As you have already seen, Ubuntu is extremely flexible, and this area is no exception. Click the icon in the top right of the screen to see the various options (shown in Figure 3-6) for ending your current computing session.

Figure 3-6

Figure 3-6 Ahh, the possibilities. . . .

A number of options are available upon logout; however, the choices presented to you will depend on your installation (e.g., Suspend may not be available).

  • Lock Screen: This option locks the screen, which is useful when you need to use the bathroom or grab some lunch. It locks the computer and asks for your password to reenable the desktop.
  • Guest Session: This option lets you allow someone else to use your computer while keeping you logged in but your data and account secure by giving the guest a limited desktop to work with temporarily and requiring your password to return to your desktop.
  • Switch from . . .: Your username will be listed here. This option takes you to the login screen and lets you switch between logged in users without logging anyone out. It also requires each specific user's password to access his or her account.
  • Log Out: This option lets you log out of the current session and go back to the main login screen.
  • Sleep: If your computer supports it, this option will be included in the list, and you can click it to save the current state of your system in RAM. The next time your computer is turned on, the desktop will be resumed. This option continues to use battery power but only a minimal amount.
  • Restart: Click this to restart the computer.
  • Shut Down: Click this to shut down your computer.
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